February 13, 2011 / Praxis
An interview between TOJ Editor-in-Chief Chris Keller and the author of GENERATION EX-CHRISTIAN, Drew Dyck.
November 5, 2015
The Benedict Option is currently under discussion as the lodestone of conservative Christian hope for its own future in America. The term—coined by Rod Dreher, a senior editor for the American Conservative—has taken the Christian blogosphere by storm, appearing in a deluge of posts by Dreher, his acolytes, and his detractors. Ever since SCOTUS handed down the Obergefell decision in 2015 and legalized same-sex marriage, Christian conservatives have been listening to Dreher with bated breath. So just what is this Benedict Option?
The concept has its origins in a passage of Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s seminal work, After Virtue. At the end of the book, MacIntyre warns that the current historical moment, characterized as it is by “interminable and unsettlable” moral disputes, bears an eerie resemblance to that period in Roman history wherein the empire plunged precipitously into the Dark Ages. For the Roman church, the means of survival was “the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained”—in other words, the establishment of the Benedictine monastery. Now, for our own survival, we look for “another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
Dreher, reading deeply into this solitary passage from MacIntyre’s corpus, has raised the Benedict Option as a banner for Christians to turn away from the direct politicking of the recent Christian past (e.g., the Religious Right) and toward more grassroots forms of organization, character formation, and political influence—what Dreher calls thick communities. One of Dreher’s hopes for these communities—whether they be monasteries or neomonastic communities, communes or intentional communities—is that they might resist the rampant individualism that “modernity has degenerated into” and which Dreher blames for the shifted consensuses on human sexuality and other moral debates.
So, what might the Benedict Option look like in action? Unfortunately, Dreher has been hesitant to give any definitive answer to this crucial question. In May he wrote, “aside from Anabaptists and some failed utopian experiments, I don’t know that we have a clear model to follow, because I don’t think we have had to live under conditions that we are now living under—conditions that will only grow more difficult for small-o orthodox Christians.”
In his attempts to apply the Benedict Option to our cultural context, Dreher has only seriously engaged with a small part of a single chapter in MacIntyre’s several-hundred page book. While concepts and terms are allowed lives of their own apart from their origins—here I think of James Joyce’s reworking of The Odyssey or Barth’s inversion of Calvinist predestination—MacIntyre’s additional insights point to a helpful model for the Benedict Option that would provide munitions for resisting the increasing individualism that is infecting the church and broader society. To this end, I seek to press Dreher on two points in particular: (1) Dreher’s belief that there is no historical precedent in America upon which to model the Benedict Option, and (2) MacIntyre’s diagnosis of the modern economy. Should Benedict Option proponents heed these insights, the movement will stand on far surer ground.
What Should the Benedict Option Look Like?
Dreher denies that there is a clear model to follow because he does not “think we have had to live under conditions that we are now living under.” If I have understood Dreher correctly, he is saying that American Christians have not had to live under such severe conditions as they do now. This comes across as rather shortsighted. What about the civil rights movement? The minority of white Christians in the South who spoke out in support of integration and black suffrage were considered anathema by their Klansmen and White Citizens Council neighbors. Even white neighbors who had no affiliation with these groups often disparaged such civil rights-oriented Christians as political agitators. Would this not be fertile ground for thinking through the Benedict Option? Pace Dreher, the stakes for being a pro–civil rights Christian in the South were much higher than those traditionalist Christians now face in a post-Obergefell America.
Charles Marsh’s The Beloved Community tells the story of one such group of southern Christians in Americus, Georgia. Koinonia Farm was founded in 1942 by Clarence Jordan as a “demonstration plot for the kingdom of God.” As a Southern Baptist, Jordan grew up hearing worship songs—“red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world”—that clashed with what he was told by adults: “a nigger was a nigger and must be kept in his place—the place of servitude and inferiority.” When Jordan was twelve he attended a revival; the white warden and several black inmates from the local jailhouse joined together to sing “when nothing else could help, love lifted me.” Evidently moved by the music and the message, Jordan responded to the altar call and became a Christian. The following night, Jordan was awakened by screams coming from the jail. Upon investigation, he discovered that the warden was torturing one of those inmates on a device called “the stretcher.” Thereafter the “dissonant strands” of the gospel of Jesus and the principles of the Jim Crow South were untangled forever for Jordan.
Jordan was convinced that the only way to combat white supremacy in the South was “by raising up a generation of young people ‘courageously and fearlessly’ on authentic Christianity. . . . [This] meant changing the South from the inside out.” Jordan’s plan for this transformation was to create a community, Koinonia, that would witness to another, truer way of living. “Never did Paul or Peter or Stephen point to an empty tomb as evidence of the resurrection. . . . The evidence was the spirit-filled fellowship,” said Jordan.
The evidence was also in the fruit of that fellowship. Koinonia Farm was strangely influential despite its small size: the White Citizens Council boycotted it, the Ku Klux Klan deemed it sufficiently threatening to shoot up and bomb, it birthed Habitat for Humanity, and it was a resting stop for many civil rights activists. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. had a strong kinship with the Koinonians. He was so impressed with the “the noble work that is being done there” that he asked Jordan to come and lecture in Montgomery on the church and the kingdom of God. Marsh even suggests that Koinonia inspired parts of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
Ever fearful of accusations that the Benedict Option is advocating for Christian withdrawal from American politics, Dreher has scapegoated “neo-Amish” and “agrarian Christian communit[ies].” He insists that it is these groups, and not his Benedict Option, that are guilty of withdrawal. Yet Koinonia Farm stands as a powerful rejoinder to that false caricature. Though Dreher has failed to recognize it, such communities can be profoundly and effectively political, even influencing something so significant as the civil rights movement.
The Theology of Koinonia
Every countercultural community needs a countercultural way of seeing the world and making sense of it. One technical term for this way of seeing and understanding is social imaginary. The Koinonians received and strengthened their social imaginary through Jordan’s peculiar translation of the New Testament, The Cotton Patch Gospels. There, unfamiliar characters and locations are replaced by contemporary analogs. Jordan swapped Washington, DC, for Rome, Atlanta, Georgia, for Jerusalem, Christian ministers for the Pharisees, and African Americans for the Samaritans. Jordan’s account of the Good Samaritan was about a white man who was beaten up and left for dead by his white colleagues and friends but saved and cared for by an African American man. In the Jim Crow South, this was a society-dismantling translation of the Bible.
One question facing proponents of the Benedict Option is how to read the Bible for this day and age. For instance, who are our Samaritans? Though we cannot forget that there is still real violence being waged against black bodies that keeps Jordan’s translation painfully fresh, perhaps conservative Christians could also read celibate Christians into this role (albeit in a much lighter tone). After all, it is single Christians who are eating alone, living alone, and considered suspicious in ministerial roles when compared to their married counterparts. Even still, to focus only on the church’s sexual ethics, as some proponents of the Dreher’s Benedict Option have done, would be shortsighted. Proponents of the Benedict Option must learn to see everything in light of the gospel—not just celibacy but capitalism; not just family values but the prison system. What does the gospel mean for these things?
But social imaginaries are not constructed merely by studying the word of God. According to the work of philosophers like James K. A. Smith, our social imaginaries emerge out of practices, habits, and rituals. What we believe must take root in practice and ritual if we are to embody that belief. And although the community at Koinonia had many everyday rituals, their practice of a common purse touches on one of the most overlooked elements of the current conversation surrounding the Benedict Option.
The fourth chapter of Acts presents the early church as a community in which the followers of Christ have everything in common, even to the point of selling their property and sharing the proceeds with those in need. Such a passage is a challenge to any individual or community that claims to be committed to the teachings of Scripture. Communities must ask whether they too are called to such a lifestyle. Clarence Jordan and the other Koinonians ultimately decided that, yes, faithfulness to the New Testament witness meant living in accordance with it. So the Koinonians pooled their money together into a common purse “from which members drew according to their needs and into which they deposited personal funds not required for living expenses.”
Not only was such a radical practice faithful to the New Testament witness, it was also a means of resisting the siren song of mammon. Whereas the loudest proponents of the Benedict Option have been most concerned with preserving the traditional Christian teachings on sexuality, MacIntyre is concerned about “the corrosive effects of capitalism.” MacIntyre names capitalism as a chief contributor to the myth of the isolated individual, free from community, free from tradition, and free to make decisions for himself. He writes that “the tradition of the virtues [which the Benedict Option seeks to preserve] is at variance with central features of the modern economic order and more especially its individualism, its acquisitiveness and its elevation of the values of the market to a central social place.” If MacIntyre is correct, Dreher, who blames liberal individualism for changing views on sexuality, cannot resist these changing views in any kind of meaningful way without at the same time resisting the distortive effects of capitalism. The Benedict Option must incorporate practices of economic resistance; a common purse is surely a sound beginning.
From the Desert to the Monastery
Two hundred years before there was St. Benedict, there was St. Antony the Great—also known as St. Anthony, Father of Monks. In a passage that parallels MacIntyre’s own, Marsh makes the connection between Antony and the preservation of the faith: “In time, a moment emerged from the desert experiments [of Antony] that challenged the official Christian religion of the emperor, giving birth to the first monasteries, where beloved community took ritual form, its practices codified in the Rules of Benedict.” Without Antony and the legacy of the desert monasteries he inspired, there would be no Benedict or Benedictine monasteries. Later in the same passage, Marsh projects Antony onto Koinonia in what could be a perfect description of the Benedict Option:
Christian discipleship amidst the conformist demands of the Constantinian or the southern way of life required the rekindling of that certain abrasive quality that the apostle Paul had described as the willingness to appear freakish and peculiar. Like the early monastic community, it would not be Koinonia’s mission to change the culture through campaigns of organized action or political force, but rather to embody an alternative social order shaped by countercultural habits and practices.
Though Rod Dreher may be right that not everyone can move to the “desert” of an agrarian Christian community like Koinonia, these communities and their practices should nevertheless be models for his own. If Benedict found inspiration in the desert, so can Dreher.
 MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 226 and 263.
 Dreher, “Benedict and the Omnibus of Options,” American Conservative, July 29, 2015, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/benedict-the-omnibus-of-options/.
 Dreher, “Noah and the Benedict Option,” American Conservative, May 21, 2015, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/noah-the-benedict-option/.
 Marsh, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2005), 67; Dallas Lee, The Cotton Patch Evidence (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1971), 8; and Marsh, Beloved Community, 59.
 Ibid., 64–65 and 65.
 Ibid., 53.
 Dreher, “Critics of the Benedict Option,” American Conservative, July 8, 2015, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/critics-of-the-benedict-option/.
 See Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004). Another helpful place to find such a social imaginary is in a strong theology of the kingdom of God. See Marsh, Beloved Community, 54: “[Walter] Rauschenbusch believed that without a vital conception of the kingdom of God, Christians were forever inclined to retreat into private virtuousness and otherworldly piety.”
 See Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).
 Marsh, Beloved Community, 65.
 MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity (London, UK: Duckworth, 1995), xxvi; MacIntyre, After Virtue, 254.
 Depending on how seriously MacIntyre’s economic critiques are taken, a community of virtue may need to have an alternative mode of production to that offered by the capitalist system, exactly the kind of alternative to be found in an agrarian community like Koinonia.
 Marsh, Beloved Community, 72.
John Schweiker Shelton
John Schweiker Shelton is a graduate of Duke Divinity School. He works in Congress, which, as a Baptist, causes him to obsess over philosophical accounts of complicity during his daily three-hour commute. When not busy shoring up the imperium, he likes to hammock, read fantasy lit, and assist with musical worship at his church.