Equip Book Review: "The Benedict Option, A Strategy for Christians in a Post Christian Nation"

Christianity in Culture or Christian Culture?

A review of Rod Dreher, "The Benedictine Option" by Bruce McCallum

In times of political and personal turmoil, religious communities can provide a sense of membership in a caring community with a meaningful mission. Rod Dreher, editor for the American Conservative magazine and author of several books, has written "The Benedictine Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation" (New York : Sentinel, 2017, page references to Kindle Edition) to document models of communities with a sustainable Christian culture.  The New Your Times called it, “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade” (David Brooks, review of the Benedictine Option, March 14, 2017).  The title calls to mind monks in cloistered mountaintops like Luke Skywalker after the Jedi revolt.  But it is not a call to retreat from culture.  It is a call to rebuild Christian culture from within through practices drawn from the Benedictine tradition to save our own souls. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (KJV)”

His premise is that religious conservatives have lost the culture wars in America. The crusher for Dreher was Obergefell, the June 26, 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage throughout the United States.  Since then, “Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists. The culture war that began with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives (p. 3).” Dreher has written this book to alert Christians to the fact that they face a choice between religious persecution or compromise with surrounding culture.  His book is worth reading to explore the survival strategies religious communities have employed to prosper as a minority groups, whether as monasteries, Jewish ghettos or counter-cultural Christian churches, schools or businesses.

Dreher’s prophetic judgment on the status of conservative Christians raises the question of where to draw the line between healthy and compromised communities.  To be sure, he laments the slimmed-down version of Christianity studied by sociologists like Christian Smith, who documented a ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ in the generation of Christians coming into adulthood for whom God is a cosmic therapist who helps good people become happy with themselves and nice to others. These views represent a departure from the pattern of belief in traditional Christianity centered on repentance from sin, faith in the representative death and resurrection of Jesus and a life of service to the glory of God.  However, by the time sociologists detect widespread trends, they are second nature. Dreher argues that the only way to return to healthy communities with active engagement in the life of Jesus is through a changed lifestyle.

Sexuality is the lifestyle area most in need of formation. Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is “the linchpin of Christian cultural order (p. 198),” asserts Dreher citing Philip Rieff.  “Gay marriage and gender ideology signify the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because they deny Christian anthropology at its core and shatter the authority of the Bible (p. 203).” Since Dreher places sexual practice at the center of Christian culture, a few summary comments on his views of human sexuality are necessary.  Dreher argues that Christian anthropology regards men and women created in their gender specificity toward specific ends, and those ends are procreation and enculturation.  Marriage is part of the cosmic order meant to channel the generative powers of nature into cultural and social good.  Sex is something to be discovered through the practice of chastity and fidelity and not something to be used to express personal desires.  “Everything in this debate…turns on how we answer the question: Is the natural world and its limits a given, or are we free to do with it whatever we desire (p. 201)?” Of course, Dreher asserts nature is favorably inclined to human prosperity as shown by God’s incarnation in a human body.  Bodily incarnation validates human community and institutions like marriage that sustain it. Gay marriage challenges this view at the very core by equating sexuality with the struggle for human rights.  If gay sex is a natural, then gay marriage should be enshrined in law as a human right. Any viewpoint-religious or otherwise-that limits sexuality to heterosexual sex is a violation of basic human rights. No accommodation between these views of human nature is possible, according to Dreher, so the solution is to strengthen the practice of Christian marriage in families and in communities with the understanding that Christian marriage is a minority view in modern culture, with all that entails.

I agree with Dreher that sex is central to Christian and non-Christian culture, along with money, power and religion.  Deviations in sexual practice introduce all manner of disruption to social order.  Dreher’s contention that Christian sexual practice was the primary change factor in the original confrontation between Christianity and  Greek and Roman pagan culture finds support from an important study of romance and sexuality in Rome and early Christianity by Kyle Harper, "From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity." (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).  Dreher’s recommendations for enriching sexual practices through the discipline of chastity(no fortification), stronger families, and parish sodalities are helpful. Where I disagree with Dreher is his limitation of sexuality to anthropology and the natural embeddedness of male and female gender specificity.  Two creation accounts in Genesis separate sex and sexuality.  The second creation account in Genesis 2:23-25 characterizes sexuality as an expression of personal identity.  Adam’s cry of recognition, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…” is very much an expression of identity, although it is an identity between man and woman who constitute one flesh with different sexual desires.  Paul’s exhortation to husbands in Ephesus to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” places marriage in the context of soteriology, not anthropology.  Paul’s insight extrapolates from Christ’s teaching on divorce, which revealed the hidden identity in human sexuality, namely God unites men and women in one flesh (Matthew 19:6).  For Paul, this mystery is grounded in membership in the resurrected body of Christ.  Paul’s vision here is soteriological and eschatological, a horizon in which marriage will ultimately be replaced with the eternal presence of God.  Indeed, since the Kingdom of God is already inaugurated, marriage is optional for Jesus and Paul.  Jesus and Paul (and Benedictines) practiced celibacy because the strong erotic drive towards sexual fulfillment can be elevated to the sublime love of God—the source of resurrected, eternal life. For Paul, a single man with deep jewish ethnic roots, the elevation of eros can be experienced in marriage and singleness through the ultimate satisfaction of these desires in the realm of soteriology and eschatology.

The generative power of sex is embedded by the first creation account in the cultural sphere as a moral duty to rule over nature.  The Hebrew words for male and female in Genesis 1:27 (zākār, nᵉqēbâ) signify non-cognate, gender specific human beings, each bearing the image of God.  While gender is common to all sexual reproduction, it is only with male and female human beings that gender is ascribed as a unique creation of God.  Sexual reproduction has a cultural function insofar as the divine mandate directs human beings to reproduce and rule over nature. It’s not simply being male or female; it’s how one behaves as male or female.  Recent research in human biology has shown that gender has a cultural dimension (William R. Rice, Urban Friberg and Sergey Gavrilets, “Sexually antagonistic epigenetic marks that canalize sexually dimorphic development,” Molecular Ecology [2016], 25: 1812-22). Gonadal sex is fixed at conception, but secondary male/female traits are molded during fetal growth by exposure to the enzyme testosterone.  Epigenetic factors modify sensitivity to testosterone such that secondary traits like body hair and sexual attraction can be differentially expressed in early childhood and puberty.  Epigenetic traits are usually erased at conception, but sometimes male traits can imprint on female embryos and female traits on males.  Although precise epigenetic markers have not yet been found, this model could explain gonad-trait discordances like body hair and same sex attraction. No “gay gene” exists.  But same sex attraction or gender dissatisfaction can be manifested within the basic sex differences between male and female human beings.  The question is what can be done to resolve discordances between sex and sexuality to achieve cultural good?  Medical culture offers surgery, hormone therapy and gay marriage. Christian culture offers spiritual healing to all men and women with abused or discordant human sexuality, while lifelong, heterosexual bonding is the norm for reproduction.  Christian culture does so to increase human flourishing, not to deny human aspirations.  

It may be that we are in a period of hyper pluralism where surrounding culture is no longer merely indifferent but outright hostile, as Dreher envisions.  Christians have spent too much energy trying to change American culture and not enough building up Christian culture. The results are fun youth groups and awesome worship experiences but very little understanding of the foundations of Christian life. It may also be true that it is too late to correct this imbalance with better messaging.  The path to renewal is through practice.  The area of practice most in need of formation is sexuality, according to Dreher.  Parents and church leaders need to confront sexual abuse, childhood exposure to pornography, teenage sexuality, and marital breakdown with fearless honesty.  More needs to be done to support and encourage chaste, single lifestyles.  Christians must prioritize social interaction with other Christians to give and receive spiritual encouragement at a personal level where sexuality is experienced. Cultural formation is not an accidental product of Christian conversion.  Adherence to a biblical Christian sexual ethic must be enforced through example, pastoral leadership and church discipline.  We can be thankful for people like Dreher who have recovered links to examples from Christian tradition in the past and present. Those who want prescriptive help solving problems with sexuality will have to look elsewhere than Dreher.  Some may wish Dreher spent more energy on Christian approaches to money, power or religious reformation.  My remarks have been directed at his explanation of Christian sexual ethics. I believe we can do more to recover traditional Christian teaching on sex and sexuality within a modern culture that seeks companionship in marriage and knows more about human biology than our ancestors.  We need to celebrate what G.K. Chesterton calls ‘the romance of orthodoxy.’ Christianity has enriched marriage and health in every culture where it is practiced.  Dreher believes we live in an age where no choice is left to us but to practice Christian culture first and not Christianity in American culture.  We can do no less if we want to save our own souls.

After this blog was prepared, I became aware of the Nashville Statement on human sexuality signed by Evangelical leaders. Their leadership is a hopeful sign that Evangelicals will not accommodate to the new transgender cultural agenda.

"The Benedict Option" is a recommended reading for Equip’s September focus on the Theology of Community.  The book can be purchased here.

Equip is the adult education ministry of Mercy Hill Church.  Equip takes place every Wednesday night at 6PM.  Equip informs the body of Christ about the Nature of God through Classes and writings such as this one, in order to transform who we are by this knowledge of Him.

Bruce McCallumEquipComment