What Is the Benedict Option?

The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher is about creating intentional Christian communities in a post-Christian world.

And this website is about putting that into practice. So, when we say “living the Benedict Option,” or, “BenOpping,” we mean trying to purposefully live a Christian life in a culture that is no longer as Christian as it used to be.

Now, you may be thinking:

Aren’t Christians already purposefully living a Christian life?

Well, yes. Or, hopefully, at least. But BenOpping means taking those efforts to the next level. BenOpping means looking at how our culture is inhospitable to Christian belief and making concerted efforts to counteract that.

Before looking closer at what the BenOp is, let’s first get something out of the way.
People have a lot of ideas about what the Benedict Option is. A lot of those ideas are really wrong.

One popular but incorrect idea is that the Benedict Option advocates for Christians to “head for the hills” and abandon non-Christians and sinful culture for the sake of our own purity.

Most of these people who think this probably never read the book. If they had, they would have read passages like this:

“How do we take Benedictine wisdom out of the monastery and apply it to the challenges of worldly life in the twenty-first century? … The way of Saint Benedict is not an escape from the real world but a way to see that world and dwell in it as it truly is. Benedictine spirituality teaches us to bear with the world in love and to transform it as the Holy Spirit transforms us. The Benedict Option draws on the virtues in the Rule to change the way Christians approach politics, church, family, community, education, our jobs, sexuality, and technology. And it does so with urgency.”

So, to be very clear – the Benedict Option is not advocating retreatism. 

What, then, is the Benedict Option advocating?

Let’s look a little more in depth:

The Benedict Option is about: 
Christians using monastic wisdom 
to build intentional communities of counter-cultural witness 
in a post-Christian culture.

There is a lot packed into that one sentence. I’m going to break it down, working from the end of the sentence to the beginning.

…in a post-Christian culture.

A “post-Christian” culture simply means a culture that was once widely Christian and now isn’t. Most of the West – Europe, Canada, United States – is post-Christian. I wrote an in depth article about post-Christianity and won’t rehash everything here. The main point is that our culture is less hospitable to Christianity than it used to be. Take, for example, this partial list of changes going on in society that work against the Christian faith:

  • Sexualization of culture
  • Breakdown of the natural family
  • Post-modern moral relativism
  • Anti-Christian media bias
  • Rampant consumerism and materialism
  • Social shaming of orthodox Christians
  • Laws and judicial decisions against orthodox Christianity

All of these factors, and many others, make following Christianity more difficult. Basically, Christians are drawn away from their faith by culture, pushed to the margins by social norms, and rotted away from within by anemic spiritual formation, weakened families, and hollow communities.

So yes, America used to be a “Christian nation” (more or less…). We are now “post” that phase in our country. The question is, how should Christians live in a country that is no longer substantially Christian?

…to build intentional communities of counter-cultural witness…

In generations past, before America was post-Christian, Christians didn’t have to intentionally seek out other Christians since nearly everyone was at least nominally a Christian (as in, over 90% of the country). Anywhere you lived, you would be surrounded by other Christians. Your kids’ teachers would be Christians, your bosses would be Christians, the people in your bowling league were Christians. While many of these people might not have exactly lived out their faith very well, it is indisputable that the entire background culture was Christian.

That is no longer the case.

Intentional communities

Now, Christians are going to have to purposefully seek out similarly committed Christians. We need to live near each other, educate our children together, employ each other, and support each other. We will make thousands of little choices that put our faith before expediency. That is what it means to be an intentional community. We must be a community by choice, not by accident.

Counter-culture

The further culture drifts from Christian values and morals, the more our lives will go against the majority culture. Thus, we will be acting as a counter-culture. Here are some of the ways we will start to stand out:

  • Turning off the tv and the smartphone and not mindlessly soaking in social media and popular culture that do not support Christian values.
  • Refusing to yield to our distorted sexual impulses through premarital sex, pornography, and other culturally acceptable practices.
  • Helping to minimize wasteful, consumerist culture.
  • Possibly losing our jobs when we refuse to bow to anti-Christian beliefs in the office. (For example, doctors or lawyers who are pressured to participate in or defend abortions and gender transitions.)
  • Holding to the orthodox Christian understanding of the gender complementarity of marriage.

For any number of these reasons, society will see us as nonconformists. But nonconformity is part of our witness. We will show others the gospel by living like Jesus as much as possible, especially when it makes life more difficult for ourselves.

And make no mistake, it will be difficult. Living for Jesus in a culture that does not pay him any heed means walking into a headwind daily. That is why we need to live near and support each other – not to avoid non-Christians, but to have the strength and support of other Christians so we can continue to be salt and light to non-Christians.

We live near each other so that we can be in the world without the world wearing us down and making us of the world.

Christians using monastic wisdom…

Lastly, the namesake of the Benedict Option. The Benedict Option is inspired by Benedict of Nursia, a sixth-century Italian monk. Benedict lived in the era shortly after the fall of Rome, a time when Rome was full of corruption and low morals. Disgusted by the state of the city, Benedict set up monasteries where monks could follow in his lifestyle of prayer and fasting.

It was for these communities of monks that he wrote (what is now known as) The Rule of Saint Benedict. A “rule” is a practical guidebook for communal living – how to work, how to pray, how to eat, etc. The Benedict Option is about adapting and applying the accumulated wisdom of the monastic Christians to our everyday lives. Here are some ways we can learn from monastic wisdom:

Order

We must discipline ourselves and align our lives to God’s transcendent ordering of Creation. Ordering our lives towards God means we are not living for false idols and selfish pleasures. Ordering our lives to God means looking closely at how we use our bodies, our time, and our resources to best honor God.

Prayer

We must learn to “pray without ceasing” in all aspects of our daily life. We need to learn that prayer is not just about asking God for things, but for being constantly in His presence. And we pray not out of duty, but from the desire to build our relationship with our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer.

Work

Christianity understands that there is a higher calling for work than merely financing our pleasures. We work to partner with God in the ordering of His Creation. We work to help support our families. We work to help those who are destitute. Above all, we work to bring glory to His name.

Asceticism

Asceticism means purposefully avoiding indulgences. We periodically fast and practice abstention to help rightly order our loves and desires. Asceticism helps us realize what we are addicted to and what we have turned into an idol. It helps us replace our addictions and idols with Christ at the center of our lives.

Community

Community helps us understand that our faith as Christians is not just “me and Jesus.” Our faith is lived together, as the body of Christ, and with hospitality and love for the stranger. Community can be challenging, but it is not optional. We are called to be the body of Christ, and we need to take that call seriously.

To be clear, the Benedict Option is not about living behind the walls of a monastery. It is about bringing the wisdom of the monastery to daily living. We learn to live purposefully like Benedictine monks (and other groups of intentional Christians!) so that we can retain a faithful witness within the world.

What about politics?

A quick point on a critical message of the Benedict Option: politics will not save us.

For much of the past fifty years, many Christians believed if we just won a few more elections and placed a few more judges, we could turn back the cultural tide in our direction. Here is the harsh reality: the culture war is over. Whether or not you can see it in your particular corner of America, Christians have been trounced in the culture war. The culture war waged for 50 years, and we’ve lost nearly every single major battle. You might hold out hope for a victory here and there still, but in the main, culture has moved on. That is why America is now post-Christian.

However, we cannot just blame politics for turning the country post-Christian. We need to point the finger of blame inward. Christians had our shot as the dominant political force for a long time. And yet we still wound up here. Likewise, for several generations now, we have not raised the kind of disciples that could withstand the realities and allure of post-modern, consumerist Western life. If the country and our children move away from Christianity, we better not blame everything in sight except ourselves.

But don’t overcorrect

All that said, the Benedict Option does not believe Christians should abandon politics. We overly relied on politics to save us in the past, and that was wrong. Still, we also cannot fall into the opposite error by over correcting and abandoning politics altogether.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to be good citizens, which means being engaged with politics. We should advocate for our vision of human flourishing. We should offer a prophetic witness to those in power. Some Christians will be called to run for office and work in the government, and that is good! We just have to make sure we do not fall back into the trap of idolizing politics.

Conclusion

The Benedict Option is about the practical realities of living our Christian faith in a post-Christian culture. It is about having a radically different option to offer people once they realize how secular, individualistic modernity has failed them. That something we offer is truth and grace and everlasting life. That something is following Jesus Christ. We choose to practice the Benedict Option not because we hate and fear non-Christians, but so that we can love them the way Christ loves us.

Post Christian America & the Benedict Option

Post-Christian America

We live in an unprecedented time in America. Churches are shrinking faster by the year. American society increasingly marginalizes Christians. You might be looking around America these days and find yourself asking: What happened?

Post-Christianity happened.

  • What is post-Christianity, and how did we get here?
  • What does it mean for you?
  • What does this have to do with the Benedict Option? (Don’t know what the Benedict Option is? Read this.)

What is Post-Christian?

Let’s start with a quick definition:

At its most basic, post-Christian describes a culture that was once Christian and no longer is.

Post-Christian is different than pre-Christian, which is a culture that has not thoroughly heard the Christian gospel.

A post-Christian culture heard the gospel, became Christian, and then stopped being Christian at some point. Prime example: America.

Before America Became Post-Christian

Of course, before America could be considered post-Christian, America had to be considered Christian. And for most of American history, Christianity was the foundation of American society.

As recently as the middle decades of the 20th century, over 90% of America’s population considered themselves Christian. Along with the overwhelming number of self-identified Christians, American’s laws, cultural norms, and morality were based on Christian thinking. Furthermore, institutions – such as schools, businesses, and the government – widely supported a Christian identity.

There was also a social benefit to being a Christian. In essence, everyone in town knew each other from church, which created a mutual trust and shared social capital. You could rely on people in your time of need, and they could depend on you. There was likewise a social expectation of being Christian. Not identifying as a Christian carried a negative social cost.

So our laws, our morality, our businesses, our education, and our social expectations all supported the Christian faith. For much of American history, it was more difficult NOT to be a Christian than it was to be a Christian.

Obviously, there were dissenters. There have always been atheists, agnostics, and followers of other religions in America. But until recently, these groups were incredibly small minorities. The relevant fact here is that people dissented from society’s Christian moral foundation. The default religion to opt-out from was Christianity.

Becoming Post-Christian

America slowly moved from its Christian foundation over a long period. The full switch to a post-Christian society, however, was rather recent. There have been many, many attempts to answer precisely how and exactly when America became post-Christian. The short answer: it is still up for debate.

And that debate is another article for another time. But what is not up for debate is that America has officially become post-Christian. Look at how far society has moved away from a Christian worldview:

  • The collapse of the American church
  • Sexualization of culture
  • Anti-Christian bias in media
  • Businesses and laws that favor anti-Christian morality
  • Consumerism and materialistic greed
  • Breakdown of the American family
  • End of biblical anthropology (the dissolution of male and female)
  • An education system that pushes an alternate morality
  • Omnipresent internet with its advertisements, pornography, and addictive content
  • Laws and judicial decisions decoupled from Christian moral thinking

Christianity and American culture also disagree on some fundamental philosophical questions. We disagree about the sources of ultimate truth, the meaning of essential words like “love” and “justice”, and whether human nature is fallen or fundamentally good. These are not superficial disagreements.

We must recognize just how post-Christian America is. It is very different to interact with society from a position of cultural strength than it is from a position of weakness. Yes, there are parts of America where Christianity is still the main cultural force. But Christians in large swaths of the country – not to mention many professions – are operating from a position of profound weakness.

Post-Christianity and You

So, what does a post-Christian America mean for you and your family? At the very least, it means that it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a strong Christian faith and public walk.

Secular society sees us as backward

As this article and this article have made clear, America has entered into a new phase. A large and growing percentage of the population does not hold to or even know core Christian beliefs and morality. Alarmingly, many are becoming downright hostile towards the Christian faith.

In short, our faith has become offensive to the modern secular mind in post-Christian America.

In post-Christian America, we Christians are pressured to conform to the patterns of the world. There is a steady drumbeat to “update” the faith to better fit with modern society, to make our faith so private that it only exists behind closed doors, or to just leave the faith behind altogether.

And so, when Christians try to live our faith in public, we stand out as a counter-culture. Unfortunately, we are a counter-culture that secular American society views with increasing suspicion, or even with growing hostility.

Living our faith now comes with actual costs

Given the growing animosity to Christian beliefs and practices in America, living a public Christian faith in many parts of the country now comes with actual costs: the possibility of losing jobs, losing friends, facing public scrutiny, and social shaming.

This, of course, does not even come close to rising to the level of the persecution many Christians experience in other countries. Thousands of Christians are killed for their faith every year. Countless more are harassed, jailed, or otherwise have their lives and livelihoods jeopardized for their faith in Christ. But the idea of Christian faith causing difficulty in your life is a new concept for most Americans. Our costs might not be as high, but they are legitimate.

Post-Christian America is an Opportunity

Despite all that I just said, I want to be optimistic. There is a real opportunity that comes from the displacement of Christianity from its position of cultural preeminence. Here’s why:

When Christianity was the default option of nearly all Americans, many people were called Christian who did not actively choose to become Christian; they were just born into a Christian family. Consequently, their faith often meant less to them since they never meaningfully chose faith. Their lives didn’t reflect the values Jesus taught his followers to demonstrate.

However, in post-Christian America, that is no longer the case. There is no social pressure to be a Christian. In reality, there is more pressure not to be a Christian! So, fewer and fewer Americans will casually stumble into faith. Being Christian will not be the default option, but the opt-in option. Those who choose to pick up their cross and follow Christ will do so with the full knowledge of the costs. The upshot is that while there may be fewer Christians, those who call themselves Christians will mean it more than ever.

The Benedict Option for Practical Daily Living

So, what does this have to do with the Benedict Option?

The Benedict Option is a strategy for Christians to survive and thrive in a society that no longer supports Christian beliefs. Christians must be intentional about living our faith in a post-Christian America. It is too difficult to do battle with a post-Christian society alone.

The Benedict Option is about living intentionally near other Christians and mutually encouraging and supporting each other to be disciples of Christ. In practical terms, this looks like raising and educating your children together, employing each other, and lending support in hard times.

In most of American history, Christians did not have to go out of their way to live among other Christians; nearly all your neighbors were Christians no matter where you lived. That is no longer the case. We must now decide to live and work and raise our families among other committed Christians.

Jesus never promised us an easy life

We always knew faith could be difficult. Jesus teaches us that the world may hate us because of him, but that there is joy in the struggle:

“Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.”

Luke 6:22-23a NIV

In post-Christian America, everyone who chooses to be a Christian in public will have to count the cost and be willing to pick up our cross daily. Our faith will have to mean enough to us that we are ready to sacrifice status and ease of life when we proclaim the One we follow. That is the witness of a vibrant, living faith that shines far brighter than vague, default Christianity.

Our next step

We have the opportunity in post-Christian America to witness to a faith we choose daily in the face of opposition. And the Benedict Option can help us think strategically about practical, day-to-day living in the opposition posed by post-Christian America. Let’s get going. Let’s start intentionally creating communities that can form Christians into disciples of Christ who can daily witness in the world and yet not conform to that same world.

Resources