The Benedict Option: Sam Rocha’s Critical Review and Robert Webber’s Secular Saint

There’s been quite the discussion about Rod Dreher’s recently released book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. It seems to me there’s a lot of hype surrounding its content and applications. It reminds me of what we saw in the “emerging ministry movement” of 20 years ago, with leaders looking for The Next Big Idea that would supposedly change the playing field for relevant ministry. However, such answers often ended up being lists of glib tips and methods and models that supposedly worked anywhere — a nice bypass for the painstaking local work of cultural exegesis and careful contextualization.

I’m not a fan of hypeful answers to complex questions. I prefer figuring out the broader context as a better way to give a more reflective response instead of universal principles that easily slip into quick-fix programs. And, since I have been writing about many things post-modern, post-Christian, and post-Christendom for 20-plus years, I thought it might be helpful to post several resources and thoughts to contribute to the discussion.

Full disclosure: No, I have not read The Benedict Option yet, and may or may not. However, as is usual for me before I get into reading something, I’m developing questions to explore, based on what I hear others saying about the book. I’m looking for angles into the material to relate it to concept frameworks I’m already familiar with. It’s just the way my brain operates.

ADD-ON INFORMATION 04-03-2017. Those new to my futuristguy blog may appreciate some background as to why I am interested in this issue. I have been reflecting on the church/state relationship issue since the late 1970s, and got copies of The Secular Saint: The Case for Evangelical Social Responsibility and The Orthodox Evangelicals: Who They Are and What They Are Saying by Robert Webber early on after they were published. I have also participated in 10 church plants and several non-profit start-ups since the late 1970s, was a Level 1 church planter candidate assessor with the Southern Baptists in the early 2000 decade, and completed the self-study course for Level 2. I have also been a member in two year-long intentional live-in communities, one in the early 1990s and the other in the early 2000s. I have written extensively on the “GenX-postmodern-emerging ministry movement” that began in the mid-1990s, including case studies of toxic ministries in several streams that diverged from that movement. And, for the last 10 years, I have specialized in research writing on authoritarian organizational systems, indicators of relative health/toxicity, and on start-up enterprises that include preventions against abuse of power and prestige. So, considerations about The Benedict Option are in the Venn overlap zone for these various aspects of my background.

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Here’s a critical review I recommend, by Sam Rocha, and here’s how I framed it when posting the link on Facebook.

Critiques don’t give all the answers, but should broaden our perspectives and sharpen our questions. Sam Rocha’s critical review of *The Benedict Option* by Rod Dreher serves these purposes well.

Mr. Rocha comes from a liturgical tradition in which he can find commonality with Mr. Dreher’s background. And he also uses his own training and practice as a philosopher of education for an “intellectual MRI” to deal with theological, historical, philosophical, and educational deficiencies of this book.

I know that many readers are enthused by The Benedict Option. Perhaps they’re enthralled with it because they hope for some new practice that provides a strategy for effective ministry in the post-Christendom era. That’s understandable — I’ve witnessed that and been part of that with the “emerging ministry movement” 20 years ago. But many reviewers haven’t seemed to identify and dismantle the numerous internal discrepancies with Mr. Dreher’s approach. Mr. Rocha’s review would help them sift through it to see what *elements* may be useful, as it seems the underlying *paradigm* as a whole clearly has too many holes to use as an infrastructure for the future.

This review is intellectually challenging, but I believe worth the effort. Mr. Rocha asks questions that need to be answered by Mr. Dreher and his advocates, if his Benedict Option is truly a possible and practical response to post-Christendom. Otherwise, this strategy needs to go the wayside, like so many of the supposedly practical methodologies of the emerging ministry movement.

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Here is a series of unedited blog comments I posted at The Wartburg Watch, on The Benedict Option — An Overview. There are several videos in the post that I refer to in my comments, and sometimes I’m responding to comments by others, so I include those.

My overall sense is that we would do better in our discussions if we had more background on the range of perspectives for theology and practices in church/state relations through Christian history — and from there, figure out what is the most comprehensive and context response we can come up with, given the current culture. In my opinion, Robert Webber’s book, The Secular Saint: The Case for Evangelical Social Responsibility is the best source to compare and contrast views on church/state relates in ancient, reformation, and modern eras. His framework helps evaluate inherent weaknesses of three historical views.

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I watched the short Fox News video and will plan to get to the other ones later. Part of what Rod Dreher calls for makes sense — refocus on local involvement and (re)building local church through practicing faith together. That overlaps with some of the main messages of the missional movement.

However, what strikes me as a key disconnect is the notion that we withdraw, improve ourselves, then (re)engage with the world/culture/political state. Ironically, he’s suggesting we go back to a premodern era for input, but it sort of smacks of modernist assumptions that “right information” leads to enlightened choices. Perhaps how we see our flaws in order to improve is *BY* engaging in the culture and experiences consequences of actions. I’m not convinced that going into a silo of mirrors will help us see our weaknesses. At least, that’s what I’m getting from this video and the general background to Mr. Dreher’s Benedict Option.

The question of Christianity’s relationship with culture is one I’ve been considering for nearly 40 years, so my opinions of this version of the Benedict Option aren’t being made in a vacuum. In my opinion, to understand and analyze Mr. Dreher’s position better, it will help to have the bigger picture of the range of interpretations of Christians, culture, and contextualization. He wants us to explore and reconnect with our ancient roots, but one problem is, there have always been at least three different approaches to the Christian-Christianity-culture connection (or control, or isolation).

Here’s a copy-and-paste of a comment I posted a couple weeks ago. I think it’s especially relevant here, so I hope this will help as a big-picture resource for a “spiritual MRI” of the Benedict Option’s theological assumptions and practices.

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Also, I was thinking about this whole issue of politics and Christianity earlier this morning, and thought about what book I could recommend. Really, there is just one author who lays out a framework that I believe works best for understanding the possibilities, and guides us to the fullest biblical approach. And it’s been around for nearly 40 years.

It’s *The Secular Saint: The Case for Evangelical Social Responsibility* by Robert Webber (first published in 1979, and reprinted by Wipf & Stock).

The problem of evangelism “versus” social change involvement was a big theological issue in the 1970s. Robert Webber was known for his biblical orthodoxy and also for having a paradoxical point of view — that not everything has to be either/or, black-or-white, this or that. So, what he did in this book was to lay out the three main approaches to church and state in Western Christianity:

1. separate from political involvement and focus on the Church,

2. the Church work with/identify with the state where appropriate, and

3. the Church controls/transforms the state.

Webber presents a biblical theology for each point of view. Then he gives sets of examples for all three from the early church, from the reformation era (Calvinism, Lutheranism, Anabaptist), and from contemporary times. He critiques the inherent problems found in each approach, and then seeks to provide an alternative that has what he sees as the most comprehensive biblical base and that integrates the appropriate parts of each of the three views.

It is his fourth, Kingdom way that I believe is what we need today. It keeps in dynamic tension that we can have active influence as citizens, instead of passive outsiders, without being co-opted by endorsing people or policies that are immoral and unethical, and can integrate personal morality with social justice without demanding others conform to us through “behavior modification” if there is no internal transformation.

I read the first-edition hardcover copy of this book and have used Webber’s framework for 35+ years. This is far more manageable, I think, than the 5-part framework of H. Richard Niebuhr in *Christ and Culture*. And Webber also looks at church-as-state with Catholicism, but that isn’t in the main part of his framework. So, to step back from current confusion and get a fresh perspective, I’d suggest we go back — so we can go forward …

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brad/futuristguy wrote:

However, what strikes me as a key disconnect is the notion that we withdraw, improve ourselves, then (re)engage with the world/culture/political state.

This is interesting and I must admit I need to read more on this subject. So, you are saying his idea is a strategic withdrawal to shore up our troops and the reengage on the political front once again?


dee wrote:

So, you are saying his idea is a strategic withdrawal to shore up our troops and the reengage on the political front once again?

I may have been concluding too much from just this article and one video (and haven’t read the book, likely won’t), but that’s *somewhat* the impression I got from the 4-minute video on Fox News. Sort of “requalify” ourselves to be in the public square but more local than not. Stay involved at the national level at least to keep religious liberty intact. But Mr. Dreher is *not* using a Moral Majority – Dominionist – “Culture Warrior” metaphor. Instead, it’s more almost an agricultural metaphor he could be advocating: Go back, plow, plant, water, wait, and present the produce we harvest to the world around us.

In terms of what Robert Webber would say, Mr. Dreher is not advocating a control-transform-Calvinist approach to cultural takeover and domination; it’s more the separate-Anabaptist version of church/state relations — which has the inherent tendency to turn into isolation and repulsion. If you overfocus on piety and staying unstained BY the world, you end up not really offering anything of the good news embodied IN the world.

Anyway, in the Fox News video, Mr. Dreher says (around the 3:45 mark) that we need withdraw from mainstream society somewhat in order to rebuild our identity through our roots and the Bible and traditional practices, “but we have to withdraw so we can continue to go out into the world and present the face of Christ as He really is. If we don’t withdraw and study and pray and build our practices up, we can’t bring the world the gospel. We have to withdraw from the world so we can be for the world who Christ wants us to be.”

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Christiane wrote:


What is truly scary is how authoritarian leaders can take *any* system which seems to have freedom, and turn it into a system of control without freedom. I could see Neo-Calvinists twisting the definition and theology of Benedict Option to make it yet another angle on the same-old same-old Shepherding Movement. With “spiritual directors” who are actually spiritual *dictators*. Would it really be all that much different from the toxic forms of Neo-Calvinist so-called leadership that we’ve been witnessing the past decade and more?

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So, I watched the 19-minute video and had some thoughts.

Mr. Dreher states overtly that he is not advocating isolationism. He talked about Christians being among the people in their communities, but also living out their faith together.

He does use some language that raised warning flags that I’d suggest require more research to understand more specifically what he means.

* He talked about Christians as choosing “voluntary exile” from the culture, and not doing so from anger or merely withdrawing from the bad, but in order to move forward toward the good — which includes figuring out the practice of faith in community while in a country that is anti-Christian. While this may *sound* like what I understand to be missional theology and practice, I don’t think it is. Missional theology tends to talk about being “sojourners” in the culture, so it is an emphasis of being among. “Exile” has more the sense of being away from. Maybe I’m trying to be too nuanced, but language matters, and it is just a point to consider.

* In his presentation, he talked several times in terms that I’d characterize as the theme of looking for continuity with our past, refinding and refining our identity. But I have this warning sense about how this relates with culture. He may overtly decry isolation from culture, and promote our creating “Christian culture,” but I have this feeling that it’s almost detached from current culture. And yet he wants us to be/become countercultural.

When the parameters of what it means to “withdraw” from one thing and toward another are vague, and when he advocates “experimenting” with creation of Christian culture, I suspect it will be very easy for people who try this approach to fall into the inherent weakness of it (as I mentioned in an earlier comment) — that withdrawal from becomes isolation.

* Also, the term “Christian civilization” that he used set of warning bells — sounds like another term for Christendom. It’s one thing to continue developing Christian culture — which I’d describe as the application of theology to all domains of life — but we have to beware that we don’t become new dominionists. He talks about the Benedictines preserving Christian tradition and culture through the dark ages … but what are his views of about Christendom?

* Finally, I was struck by how much this sounded like what we heard 20 years ago in the emerging movement. Revising structures, developing culture, deconstructing problems of the past, forging new/renewed identity, embodying the gospel and transferring it to next generations, experimenting (which often leads to looking for “tips” on “what’s working where you’re living?”). As with what happened with the emerging ministry movement, I can easily see this becoming The Next Big Thing, and instead of adherents figuring things out in their own culture, they just try to synthesize tips from elsewhere and become simulacras — copies of copies of copies, to the point where you can’t even tell any longer where/what the original was or is.

So — he has some important analysis to consider, but from the history of the emerging movement and from studies of other ANCIENT Christian approaches to Church/state and empire, this needs some substantial critique. It could just as easily lead to a new wave of authoritarian and legalistic forms of Christian communities as it could to those that could be appropriately protective and productive.

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As an add-on that I meant to put into my previous comment but posted too soon:

As a potential indicator of different theological systems, ask Benedict Option promoters what they think of working with non-Christians in community development projects. That might be a way to differentiate missional from Benedictine assumptions.

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dainca wrote:

He really doesn’t know much about the Evangelical world; he was never a part of it. I think most Evangelicals will reject his ideas regarding how monastic values can be of help – “too Catholic.”

Where he may find certain streams of Evangelicals giving him a hearing is among those who ARE “missional,” or present themselves as missional, as there is some overlap in interest in developing local church.

And I can see Neo-Calvinists connecting with his work as a potential new way of imposing control, even if he seems to be connecting with them more about issues of religious freedom.

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@ mot:

There is a concept framework in missions theology, developed by Ralph Winter of the U.S. Center for World Mission in about the 1970s, and that may be of help in considering questions about withdrawal/engagement. It is that of “modality” and “sodality.” He defines these:

[B]riefly, a modality is a structured fellowship in which there is no distinction of sex or age, while a sodality is a structured fellowship in which membership involves an adult second decision beyond modality membership, and is limited by either age or sex or marital status. In this use of these terms, both the denomination and the local congregation are modalities, while a mission agency or a local men’s club are sodalities.

He sets up some distinctions in dynamics between the local church — and groups such as the band of disciples who traveled with Jesus in the Gospels, the apostolic teams in Acts, and monastic orders. So, this could be a relevant resource.

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Another concept from missions theology relevant to considering the Benedict Option is the work of Roland Allen. He was an Anglican missionary in China in the early 20th century, and became a critic of the “mission compound” methodology. Instead of evangelizing people of China and equipping them to minister in their own culture in their own ways, the British missionaries taught them to withdraw from their culture. So, the only places these Chinese Christians could work would be in the mission compound. They’d converted not just to Christ, but to British Anglican cultural Christianity as well.

So, Roland Allen’s insights from over 100 years ago could help illuminate what I believe is one of the inherent tendencies for systems implosion where theologies of church/state talk about “withdrawal” from culture. They often result in isolation, insular thinking, and authoritarianism. The tendency seems inherent, but the results are not inevitable. But if people are going to embrace and develop the Benedict Option, they’ll have to deal with the meaning and limitations of “withdrawal,” and from looking at social media the past few days, that seems to be a key term people are fussing over (for good reason).

A main resource is *The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church*, and another main book he wrote is *Missionary Methods: Saint Paul’s or Ours?*

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