The Benedict Option: A Conversation with Rod Dreher
February 13, 2017
This Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Rod Dreher is Senior Editor at the American Conservative where writes on social issues and religion in the public square. Dreher has written or served as an editor for the New York Post, National Review, the Washington Times and other newspapers, including the Dallas Morning News. He has written for a variety of other publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and First Things. He has appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and many other media programs. He is the author of several books, including The Little Way of Ruthie Leming and How Dante Can Save Your Life. His most recent book is The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Rod Dreher, welcome to Thinking in Public.
MOHLER: Rod, the entire thesis of your book is that we’re now in a changed situation as Christians in the context of North America, of the United States of America. And you point to several historical developments of which we are all acutely aware in making that point. But just state your thesis as clearly as you might to someone who has no idea, actually, why you wrote this book.
DREHER: I believe that we are on the edge of and in fact within the collapse of Western civilization. It’s a very comfortable collapse because we’re rich; but it is collapsing, nonetheless, in the same way that the Roman civilization collapsed in the West in the 5th century. I believe that Christians now have got to realize that we’re living in a post-Christian civilization and take measures to build a kind of ark for ourselves with which to ride out the dark ages, to hold onto our faith, and tender the faith for such a time as light returns and civilization wants to hear the gospel again.
MOHLER: You know, I think when you look at this in terms of speaking of a post-Christian culture, there’s a sense in which that conversation goes back even to at least the early decades of the 20th century.
DREHER: Right. T.S. Eliot said we were living in a post-Christian culture.
MOHLER: Absolutely. And there were other intellectuals at the time, who both thought it was a good and a horrible development on both sides. Nietzsche famously—most famously, you might say—announced the beginning of a post-Christian age. But the metaphor that I sometimes see used economically is that of an iceberg; and that is that icebergs that melt tend to melt very slowly. It seems that we are now on the other, rather acute side of that melt right.
DREHER: Right. The ice crack, the crack in the iceberg is becoming acute. I think that for me personally—and I know this is something that meant a lot to you—it was in 2005, Christian Smith’s book about moralistic therapeutic deism, that really showed the shallowness of American Christianity. And I had to realize—I was raised in the 70s, sort of a go along to get along Christian, and I realized this is what I was raised with. And it’s okay when you everybody’s a Christian around you, but when suddenly people are walking away from the faith, you realize you have no roots. And that’s where we are now; that’s why so many millennials are, greater than any in anything recorded history, walking away from the faith.
MOHLER: You know in thinking about a post-Christian culture, many Christians, or for that matter even secular folk, misunderstand what we mean by that. We don’t mean that Christianity’s illegal; we don’t mean that there are no gospel preaching churches; we don’t mean that Christianity has been expunged, some kind of intellectual cleansing. What we do mean is that it now lacks binding authority in a culture where it once had that binding authority, where once it was the primary superstructure of moral accountability and even of meaning and being. And it’s now relegated to—you know I remember what Stephen Carter of Yale said years ago when he said, “God’s now a hobby,” you know, it’s now a personal preoccupation; there’s no binding cultural traction.
DREHER: God is not the center of American culture or of Western civilization anymore. But it’s easy to think that this is alarmist when you look around you, especially if you live in the South as I do and see churches everywhere. But go inside those churches. Talk to the people about what they know about the historic Christian faith. You’ll often find it’s very very thin and it. And I think that the loss of faith among the elites in society is huge. Christianity is now a minority position and in many places at the highest levels of our society, it’s considered bigotry, orthodox Christianity is considered bigotry. This is not going to get any better.
MOHLER: No, it’s gonna get any better, and I think—go back to the metaphor of the melting iceberg; the last part melts a lot quicker than the first part, in that there’s not much place to stand. And when I think about this in terms of the binding authority of Christianity evaporating from the culture, and then you mention the elites, of course, you could go back to the 18th century and find evidence of some artistic and literary figures, philosophical figures who held to such a view, accelerated even during the Victorian age in the English-speaking world. But what we now have is the fact that it turns out that the revolutions of the 60s and the 70s were a lot bigger than we knew at the time.
DREHER: That’s right. A lot of Christians think that this all started in the 60s, if we could just get back to the 50s, that was the golden age. But the 60s could not have happened if not for the 50s, if everything had been solid in the 50s. My argument in the book is this has been going on for centuries. We’ve been building this increasing secularization for centuries, and we’re just now living out the fruits of things that happened in this culture in the enlightenment, especially in in the Industrial Revolution. This is not a time for panic, but it is a time for Christians to take seriously the times we’re in, to read the signs of the times and to respond in a responsible way, in a clear way, in a patient way. And I use Saint Benedict of Nursia, the 6th century saint, who was a Christian who lived through the fall of the Roman Empire; he was born four years after the Empire officially fell. And he went down to Rome to get his education and saw it was completely corrupt, it was falling apart. He went out to the woods to pray; he lived in cave for three years, and asked God to show him what to do with his life. He ended up coming out and founding a monastic order. That monastic order he founded ended up over the next few centuries spreading like wildfire throughout Western Europe. And what they did was prepare the way for civilization to return to Western Europe. They tendered within those monasteries the Scriptures, the prayers, the liturgies, and the old ways of doing things. So they became a sort of ark that traveled over the dark sea of time until it found dry land, and there was light after the darkness.
MOHLER: I want to get to the Benedict Option, the title of your book and really the thematic proposal that you bring, but first I want to go back a bit because I think part of the brilliance of your book is the beginning of it with the analysis that sets the stage, and that’s the way any good book should be written, any good thesis should be introduced. And in terms of the secular turn and how we end up in a situation where Christianity that had once been the predominant, if not the solitary frame of reference, then became one frame of reference among others, and is now a frame of reference, a truth claim, a comprehensive view of life that is repudiated by the elites—we have both written a great deal about the fact that it was the Obergefell decision in 2015 by the Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage that really is kind of the absolute declaration of this secular domination.
DREHER: That’s true. It was the Waterloo of the culture war for our side. And even before Obergefell we had the Indiana RFRA debacle with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, which Governor Pence and the Republicans tried to pass to extend this nominal protection to Christians and others in case they got sued for discrimination. And the whole world came down on their head, especially big business. And this is the first time in the culture war that big business had taken a side, and they sided thoroughly and completely and decisively against Christians, and the Republican Party did not know what to do with itself. That right there was when I started hearing from Christians all over the country saying, “Wow, all the stuff you’ve been saying about a post-Christian country; I think it’s really true.”
MOHLER: I think the way I see it, much of corporate America had already taken sides in the culture war, but they had done so very carefully and self-protectively in terms of their own policies and even some of their lobbying. But after Obergefell, they felt a license to be openly hostile to Christianity. And it’s not just, when you talk about post-Christian culture, we’re not talking about people coming and using force of law to put padlocks on our churches; we’re talking about the NCAA saying to a state like North Carolina, “We’re just going to completely repudiate you and your entire state morally because you’re on the wrong side of this cultural and moral divide.
DREHER: Right. And we’re talking about places like Gordon College not being allowed to send their education students into the Lynn, Massachusetts public schools to help out this poor school system because they’re on the wrong side of LGBT as far as the city government of Lynn is concerned. This is a thing that a lot of Christians don’t appreciate really, that even if we maintain our religious liberty in law—and please God, let us do that—that still gives big business license to discriminate against us in many ways. For example, if a Christian college holds the line on orthodox Christian teaching on sexuality, their degrees may not be worth much; no company will want to hire those graduates, perhaps. This is the way that even outside of law, but in custom and culture, Christians become more and more marginalized and pushed out of the public square. And I’ll tell you, it’s coming. A lot of us, you and me, we follow this stuff; we see what’s happening; we see the gathering storm. And it’s time for us to wake up the people.
MOHLER: Yeah, it sometimes amazes me to just ask question, “What will it take to wake up people?” Because it’s thing if these kinds of the developments are coming in Scandinavia; it’s another thing when they’re coming in the United States, and perhaps even more ominously, right across the northern border where, for instance, Canada only has one major evangelical higher education institution, Trinity Western University, and they have a law school, but there are entire provinces of Canada where the law degree is not recognized simply because the University has a Christian hiring policy. And so the law degree is worthless.
DREHER: Yeah, and things like in my own city, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a friend of mine who’s a pastor there said that one of his parishioners came to him and said, “You’ve got help me. My seventh grader came home from public school and said, ‘Mom, I’m a boy.’” And the mom was shocked and went to see the guidance counselor and said, “What’s happening to my daughter?” And the guidance counselor said, “Hey, you’ve got to get with the times and respect your son for who he is.” This is not San Francisco. This is not New York City. This is Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And we have got to pull our heads out of the sand.
MOHLER: Just in recent days I brought attention to the fact that the New York Times ran an article celebrating the transgender policy change of Boy Scouts of America, and in the final paragraph, the editors of the New York Times said this just means the Boy Scouts are going to be recognizing transgender boys for what they are: boys. And you look at that and you go, I honestly believe that very few people in Baton Rouge, Louisiana are buying that. But they have the moral power of everything behind the New York Times now, not to mention the moral authority invested in the Boy Scouts of America. It’s going to be the same in Baton Rouge as anywhere else, including Berkeley.
DREHER: Well and local standards don’t mean nearly as much as they did when you and I were younger. I remember when I was growing up in the 70s, the only place that I heard in my small town in the South about anything remotely related to the gospel in terms of racial bigotry and in terms of standing against racism was on television. And that undermined the teaching that was just general in my culture, and that was a good thing but now I realize that there so many ways, so many avenues, through social media to the internet, for all kinds of teaching to come into the imaginations of kids, teachings that Christian parents don’t want their kids to have access to and parents are ignorant about it, just letting it happen.
MOHLER: In your opening chapter, indeed just getting ready to make your thesis, you indict American Christianity before Obergefell, let’s just say in the generations before Obergefell, and you look back at the movement known as the Religious Right, and you make the statement that the Religious Right seemed to have a great deal of moral energy, but the people in the pews didn’t have a great deal of moral energy beyond just some affirmative positions on abortion and sexuality.
DREHER: Right, right. And I consider myself a member of the Religious Right insofar as I am a religious and political conservative. But when I think of the religious right, I think of pastors and activists who got congregations wound up to be values voters and to get out there and pull the lever for Republican candidates—if we just capture politics, if we capture the courts, we’ll capture culture. Meanwhile, the liberals and the cultural left were capturing the imaginations of our children and the American people, and we didn’t have anything, the religious conservatives of an earlier generation, didn’t have anything to push back against them with except politics. Well, you know, politics is downstream from culture, and I think we see now the fruit of having ignored church history, having ignored doctrine, having ignored strict catechesis in favor of politics and pop culture.
MOHLER: Yeah, I think this could easily go both ways, and I appreciate the balance by the time you get to the end of your book on this, because I just have to say, I was very much involved in what would now be called the Religious Right, and I push back on many of the critiques of the Religious Right that act as if it were merely political, somehow power-hungry and, for that matter, foolhardy. I can just say that there appeared to be the opportunity in the late 1970s and especially the 1980s to bring about the kind of changes you and I would both want to see take place by means of politics. But it is the culture that determines the politics, not the politics that determines the culture, in terms of the major dynamic and trajectory. And what we did not realize is that American culture had shifted far beyond the presuppositions that would make the kind of moral recovery we hoped for sensible; and furthermore, it made it impossible. But furthermore, just in terms of the understanding of these moral principles held by many Christians who held the right position on abortion and same-sex marriage and other things, was so thin that it actually couldn’t withstand the messaging that comes from a consumerist, materialistic culture that was already giving itself to personal autonomy more than anything else, the worship of the individual.
DREHER: Sure. Individualism is the religion, the real religion of all Americans. I tell my friends, my Christian friends who can’t believe that we have same-sex marriage, I say, “Look; we have same-sex marriage because we have free divorce and because promiscuity became rampant even among Christians,” and so when gays came out and said, “Hey, we just want the same thing you have,” we didn’t know what to say to them because we had based our own idea of marriage and courtship on individual expression. And we were a paper tiger. That’s simply what happened. We were a paper tiger. And we can’t reason with people who think that emotivism, the idea that the way I feel about something means it’s true or false, well that took place, that took hold in American culture after the 60s. Alasdair MacIntyre, the Notre Dame philosopher, he was a Marxist when he wrote this in 1981 or ‘82, but he wrote this book After Virtue—later he became a Christian—in After Virtue he said that we are in a position in the West now where we have no basis, no common authority with which to decide right and wrong. No society that is in that condition will be able to cohere, and so politics is can become ever more angry and irresolvable because we don’t have a common basis with which to reason. I wouldn’t have understood that back then. This was the beginning of the Reagan years, it looked like we were on a roll, but boy was he prophetic.
MOHLER: I was assigned Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue when I was a graduate student, and I think it’s probably one of the two or three books to which I return most often. And I can go back and look at how I read it when it was new, what I highlighted and marked, and I look back and think, “You read that in the early 1980s. How can you now be shocked about what you’re seeing?” But it did not seem possible that the world where, for instance, most Southern Baptists and most evangelicals lived, could possibly yet be there.
DREHER: Well, because MacIntyre saw the view from 30,000 feet. We couldn’t see over the horizon, but he could. And now we’re just living out the the fruit of what he saw back then.
MOHLER: Absolutely. I want to go back to that statement that I mentioned that I appreciated so much in the beginning, because your exact wording is very important here, a part of the power of your argument is the lucidity of your prose. You wrote, “Even though conservative Christians were said to be fighting a culture war, with the exception of the abortion and gay marriage issues, it was hard to see my people putting up much of a fight. We seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian.” I think that’s really an important indictment. I think that’s largely true. I think it’s irrefutable, as a matter fact.
DREHER: Well, Christian Smith, in some of his later work after the moralistic therapeutic deism research, he found that interviewing Christian kids alone, young adults 18 to 23, 61% of them had no problem with materialism and consumerism, an additional 31% of them said they do have some problem with it, but not much of one. That leaves 9% of confessing Christians saying that, “Yeah, materialism and consumerism, that’s a problem for me as a Christian.” Nine percent; this is the people of God that has been conquered by the culture.
MOHLER: You know, we’ve both given so much attention to that, to the Christian Smith research over the years, and it’s just brilliant, partly because he’s dealing with the same group of young people over a long period of time. And this moralistic therapeutic deism becomes so important to us because that MTD, the idea of the faith of these Christian young people being reduced to moralism, the therapeutic, and a form of practical deism, what is the great indictment there is not the young people, but the fact that they got it from their parents and they got it from their churches.
DREHER: Sure, sure. I heard a few years ago from a reader of my blog who wrote me and said when Christian Smith’s book came out in 2005, he read about moralistic therapeutic deism and a lightbulb went off over his head. He said, “This is our church. This is our Sunday school.” So he was involved in his church, he sat down and wrote a new program for Sunday school much deeper in doctrine, much deeper in church history, to give the kids some meat, some red meat to hold onto. He took it to the Sunday school board, five parents there, and they chewed him up. They threw out what he proposed and said, “We don’t need this.” These weren’t liberals; these were all conservatives. But they did not think that doctrine and all this was necessary, that everything seems fine now, let’s just continue as we are. Well, now we see where that leads.
MOHLER: You use the language of Michael Walzer that I also have to use over and over again. And of course he was talking about moral theory, but you apply it, as do I, to theology and church life, the distinction between thick and thin forms of belief. And I think we all knew that nominal, cultural Christianity represents a very thin Christianity. I think our hope was that somewhere that there was a fairly large number of believers who held to a thick Christianity, a deeply informed, deeply thoughtful, doctrinal, biblically enriched, well, Christianity. And it turns out, like that iceberg shrinking so fast it, it turns out that that number is evidently a lot smaller than what we at least hoped it might have been.
DREHER: I came to Christ as an adult through the Roman Catholic Church in my mid-20s, and I in large part read my way into the Roman Catholic Church from being an agnostic, atheist teenager. And I remember when I entered the Roman Catholic Church, I had all these ideas from my books and from reading Richard John Neuhaus and First Things about what the Roman Catholic Church was—it was the church of John Paul II. You get into the actual parishes, you realize that this is mainline Protestantism, you know. And I don’t mean to disparage Catholicism. I’m no longer Catholic; I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian, and our churches are not necessarily any better. But I think it’s a temptation for intellectuals who love to talk about ideas and read books of theology and philosophy to think that this is what we’re going to encounter at the local church, and it’s just not so. That’s not to say that everybody needs to sit around and, you know, be at the Diet of Worms, you know, talking about theology and arguing about heresy and things like that. That’s not real life. But our pastors and teachers and we ourselves have starved ourselves for generations, and now we have given our kids stones when they need bread.
MOHLER: Rod Dreher enjoys a privileged position in terms of cultural observation, but he also has a hard-earned reputation for his candor and for his insight in writing about some of the most important cultural, political, and ethical issues of the day. His book, Crunchy Conservatism caught the particular moment in American conservatism as a movement now some years ago, and now on the other side of what appears to be at least the precipice of a great cultural divide, he’s written a new book with one of the most provocative titles and an even more provocative thesis, rightly understood. That’s why we need to talk to him about The Benedict Option.
MOHLER: You’ve raised a host of issues we need to talk about, but I want to get to the thesis of your book, The Benedict Option, and I want you to talk about the argument as you make it in the book. You’re calling for following the example of Benedict—by the way, you point back to MacIntyre saying that perhaps hope would come out of a rising of a new Benedict—and that you’re calling for a new mode of Christian monasticism. But I think that can be misunderstood, so I want you to explain.
DREHER: Thanks for that opportunity, because the first thing people say is, “Are you saying we ought all head for the hills and build bunkers?” No, I’m not saying that. Where the idea of the Benedict Option comes from is a famous last paragraph of MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue, in which he talks about the times we’re in now are like the fall of the Roman Empire. He says if we look back to that time, we can see that there were men and women of good will who quit trying to shore up the Empire and instead sought to find new ways of continuing life in community where they can live out the virtues. MacIntyre says we need to do that today. He said the world is waiting for a new and doubtless quite different St. Benedict. Well I recognize the validity of MacIntyre’s critique, and as a Christian I’m thinking, well, what would a Benedict today look like? The historical Benedict, as I said earlier, left Rome, the city of Rome, and moved out to the woods to pray and seek God’s will, founded the monastic movement that was tremendously important in preserving and spreading Christianity through the Dark Ages, through barbarian Western Europe. Of course, it became corrupted later. This happens with every human institution, but every Christian today—Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox—who lives in the West owes an incalculable debt to those Benedictine monks. But today we lay Christians are not called to be monks, we’re called to live in the world. How can we live in the world in such a way that is sufficiently countercultural, that enables us to hold on to the faith and not only to survive, but to thrive in a time of great chaos and hostility to the faith? What I call the Benedict Option is sort of a blanket term referring to Christians, the choice that we all have to make now to be countercultural, to quit trying to shore up the imperium and instead focus on building new forms of local community, churches, Christian schools, things like that that will thicken our relationship to each other and make our roots go deeper in the gospel, in the Christian tradition, so we can survive these dark ages to come. It’s important to add, too, to say Benedict did not go out to the forest seeking the Lord because he wanted to save Western civilization. He went out to seek the Lord because he wanted to seek the Lord, because he wanted to figure out, how can I live faithful to him in community? His answer for himself and others who felt the call to monasticism was a monastic movement. What I hope happens with the publication of this book is that serious Christians who can read the signs of the times, again Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, will come together within their own communities and even across denominational lines and say, “Hey, we’re in a bad situation. How can we build the structures now that will enable us to live out the faith even under persecution and not lose it, keep it alive until such time as the dark age we’re entering now is over?”
MOHLER: And you do such a good job of describing the dark age without appearing to be merely a declinist, as was the case of some in the 20th century who acted as if salvation can only come by Western civilization and if that civilization is lost, then humanity has no hope. That’s profoundly unchristian. On the other hand, there are those who say, well, if Western civilization goes, then what’s the loss? Well, the loss is massive in terms of human flourishing and human goods; it’s massive in terms of the ability of any civilization to recognize human dignity and the structures of creation, including the family. In other words, it is not clear that there is any post-Christian alternative civilization that can be hospitable to human values.
DREHER: Well you know, some of the smarter liberals are figuring this out, and they see that we in the West have been parasitic on the Christian faith for centuries. And now that the Christian faith is waning—it’s almost dead in Western Europe and it’s starting to wane significantly here in America—they don’t know what to do. The Enlightenment, as MacIntyre said, tried to found a binding ethic for society on human reason alone. Can’t be done. So what do we do? I happen to believe that over time, there’s going to be a great shaking out, a great reckoning, and people will eventually come back to the Lord. I don’t know that that’s going to happen in my lifetime or the lifetime of my children or their children, but when the day comes when the world is ready to hear the gospel again in the West, we have got to be there to offer it to them, and we’ve got to be there to offer it to people who are refugees from this post-Christian culture who are being chewed up by the sexual revolution, who’ll be chewed up by this economy, who’ll be chewed up by trans-humanism and all the things that are coming. The church has to be a light in the darkness to these people, and what I’m all about in this book is figuring out how we can do that.
MOHLER: In a very similar line, my current big project of writing, The Secular Moment, I’m trying to trace what I see is four stages of secularism, the kind of imposition of a secular worldview on the entire society. And I’m looking at that in terms of first, the secular ascendance, and we’ve seen that; and then secular triumphalism, and we’ve been already seeing that very clearly as well; then secular aggression, the third stage, and this is where they feel fully validated, the elites and those driven by these secular impulses, to basically silence Christians as a human good, and to silence certainly the influence of Christianity. But I am arguing that the fourth stage I think we can already see coming, secular exhaustion, because they cannot perpetuate their own project and it cannot deliver, by definition, on its promises.
DREHER: But the collapse of that project is and will be very painful for a lot of people, and we’re already seeing this now playing out in many ways. A friend of mine was discussing with her neighbor—the neighbor had gone to a baby shower, six baby showers in the past year for all her nieces. None of them have husbands; some of them have multiple babies by different fathers. These are white, working class people who a generation ago were in church. They’re not in church now and their family systems have blown up. How did this happen so quickly? Well, the seeds were planted in the 50s and the 60s and the 70s and now they’re bearing bitter fruit. But somehow this has got to play itself out, and we have got to be able to offer reason and light and love and structure to these people.
MOHLER: You mention Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court Justice in the Casey decision; I was actually at the Court and heard the oral arguments for that case and was still not prepared for the decision that was handed down, the majority opinion by Anthony Kennedy, in which he offers this absolute sine qua non of personal autonomy and individual self-determination as the only great moral good. And looking back at that, it’s very clear to me—and, by the way, appointed by a Republican president and considered by many to be conservative, but it’s a very thin understanding, rather than thick—what I keep thinking is, even what he said, even what he promised, it can’t possibly be delivered. And I think about the LGBTQ revolution and all that is coming, the transgender issue in particular, and Paul McCue’s research—and by the way he’s just drawing from the research done by those who are even the proponents of sex reassignment surgery—just demonstrating it does not lead to greater human happiness. The rates of depression after that surgery are absolutely massive, and that’s heartbreaking. But this is a revolution that cannot deliver on its promises.
DREHER: No, and you think about the history of the 20th century, what happened to Russia. They threw out autocracy, they threw out the the church and tried to found a new utopia on completely secular values. And it was bound to fail, the Soviet Union was. But look at all the human destruction that took place until it finally did fail. And now we’re just starting to see a resurgence of religion in the ruins in the human wasteland that was the Soviet Union, and that’s a blessing from God. But the destruction. If you ever talk to Soviet refugees, and I know you must have, it’s unbelievable.
MOHLER: Well it’s unbelievable to look at that even a city like Moscow right now. It’s not just the gangsterism and all the rest, but rates of alcoholism that are beyond anything we could imagine, and of course abortion and just perhaps even the regular form of what they would call birth control. The legacy of that kind of worldview and the totalitarian claims of the Soviet Union, they didn’t die with the Soviet Union.
DREHER: Pope John Paul II—raised in Poland under Nazi occupation and then under communism—after communism fell, he warned the West, “We’ve be done away with one form of totalitarian materialism, but don’t think that you in the West, we in the West, are free of it.” We’re also living in a kind of softer materialism, a materialism with a human face. It’s just as godless, except it’s perhaps even more seductive because the Soviet communist style was more George Orwell, but ours is more Aldous Huxley. We’re amusing ourselves to death.
MOHLER: Neil Postman from the grave speaks. And of course there are so many prophets who saw this in their own way, and many of them only were speaking to a part of it, like Neil Postman, but a very profoundly true part of it. And at the beginning you mentioned the fact that when Benedict was witnessing the Roman Empire after it fell, so to speak, life was still relatively comfortable, certainly by contrast with other places at the time, and I think this is where we are now. We’re still amusing ourselves to death. I think most American Christians, they still put gas in the car, they still have air conditioning, their kids can right now still become doctors and lawyers, and they think, “Hey, what’s the problem?”
DREHER: That’s right. They just don’t see. One of the stories I tell in the book is about going to the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, a small town in the mountains of central Italy, that was where say Benedict was born. He was a son of the Roman governor. Well, there’s still a monastery there today. Napoleon closed it down in 1810, but in the year 2000 some American monks went there and reopened it. And they wanted to sing the traditional Latin mass, and it’s become a real oasis of Christian peace and beauty. Well, it’s the sort of place where you go there up in the mountains, and you really envy these men, their peace, where they can worship and meet visitors. Well they had an earthquake there last year; the first one that came made their monastery and their medieval basilica unstable. The government said, “You need to get out of here; it’s not safe for you.” So they lived just outside the city, they lived on a hill overlooking the city so they could still go down and minister to the people. But they didn’t have to worry about the church falling on their head. Well, another earthquake came, leveled the basilica, leveled every church in town. But the monks survived, and they survived because they read the signs of the first earthquake. They could tell that this wasn’t going to be the last one, and so they moved to the hills just far enough out so they could be safe. And now, because of that, they’re there for the rebuilding. And not a single person in Norcia, when the most powerful earthquake to hit Italy in 30 years, not a single person in Norcia died because they could read the signs and got out of there. Father Cassian, the retired prior of that monastery, says, “You look at the rubble of our basilica, and that is Christianity in the West right now. Don’t let this happen to you. Get out of the city, so to speak, establish your place, your shelter, your monastery in a safe place so you can be there for the rebuilding.” Here’s the thing. They did not run off to the woods and and go away from people entirely. They still were there to serve the people, but they were serving them from a place where the roof was not going to fall on their head and take them down with it.
MOHLER: I read the articles that you wrote in the beginning, frankly I follow your column very closely at the American Conservative, and we’ve been watching you make this argument out loud for some time. And reading the book, it seems to me it’s significantly different than what I might have expected in terms of some your early articles on the Benedict Option, so let me just spell that out. You began by saying you’re not calling for us to head for the hills—you just used an illustration of heading for the hills—and as I look at those early articles in the American Conservative, it did appear you were calling, more or less—and those are of course partial arguments, just a few hundred words—but it appears you were calling to head for the hills. Nuance that a bit in terms of where you are in the book.
DREHER: I appreciate the chance to clarify this, and in fact my own thinking has been clarified through exchanges with my readers, through talking with Catholics and evangelical friends, and sort of working through these ideas. When people hear, “Head for the hills,” they think, you know, to light out for the mountains and build a compound and sit there and wait for the end. I don’t think we’re called to that. I know I’m not called to that; most people aren’t called to that. But it does mean doing what these monks in Norcia did initially. They were living right there in the town, but they were behind monastery walls. What does that mean for us? It means as lay Christians, we have to build some kind of walls to separate ourselves from the world so that we can continue to go out into the world and minister to people and be who Christ asked us to be. The culture itself is so toxic and so anti-Christian that we’re just not going to be able to make it if we let anybody and anything come into our hearts, into our imaginations. The monks in Norcia say, “We’re called to be monks, but we cannot be for the pilgrims who come to this monastery what Christ asked us to be if we don’t have that time away behind our walls for prayer and study and work.” I want to take that ethic and take it to lay Christian life. We need to have, for example, Christian schools. Not to shelter our kids from any bad idea that comes from the outside, but in order for them to be nurtured and to build that resilience within so when they do get out into the world, they know who they are, they know what they believe and why they believe it. And more importantly, they have participated and built practices necessary to live out this faith and to get the faith in their bones. Because if the faith is only in your head, if it’s only a series of arguments, you’re not going to make it.
MOHLER: You talk about a conversation, rather haunting actually, at a Christian university or college campus where the professors were telling you that so many Christian young people come, and even though they basically hold to some knowledge, genuine knowledge, of Christianity, it’s so superficial that it tends not even to last very long inside what’s defined as a Christian college and university.
DREHER: That’s true. I mean, the situation is horrible with Catholics, but this conversation you’re recalling was on an evangelical campus and the professors were saying, “We try our best; we can only have these kids for four years.” And these are all kids who came out of evangelical schools and evangelical churches. But this is the youth group culture. All it gave them was emotion and having fun. And one of these professors even said to me, “You know, I doubt that most of our kids are going to be able to form stable families.” That shocked me. I said, “Why’s that?” He said, “Because they’ve never seen it.”
MOHLER: I thought in reading that, once again, place still matters a great deal—and I mean place not just in terms of geography, but that and social context and social placement—because I think of the students at our school and I think the vast majority of them did see an intact family It was still close enough to them, if they didn’t come from it, then they saw it. But even in talking with students, you realize in concentric rings of their relationships, you get just one ring out, and then not to mention two or three rings out, and it’s very hard to find. And I think that’s so well documented in something like J.D. Vance’s work now. Where once you would have thought that respect for family and a traditional Christian morality and sexuality and all of that would’ve been taken for granted, it’s now hard to find on the ground.
DREHER: It really is. And I think this is why so many millennials have trouble accepting the traditional Christian view of homosexuality, because they look at the way their heterosexual parents and aunts and uncles and everybody around have completely messed this thing up, and they may be on the third or fourth marriage. And yet they’re going to look at the gay couple and say, “No, sorry, you can’t marry”? That doesn’t make sense to millennials because we older Christians have not been walking the walk. And that’s why I believe, and I agree with Pope Benedict on this, that now in this day and age, the best apologetics for the Christian faith are not arguments, but the beauty that comes through the art the church makes, and goodness as comes through the lives of the saints. So when you go to a millennial, they may not be able to hear your argument and deal with it in terms of reason, but if you show them beauty that points to Christ, that points to the reality of God, or you show them someone who is serving the poor are doing heroic work serving unwed mothers, they can see the light of Christ through that goodness and it may lead them ultimately to the truth. And I think that’s the sort of thing that we need to recover as the church, is being able to speak to young Christians in an embodied way, to young people who don’t know the Lord in an embodied way, to show them that this faith is incarnate. It’s not just something in our head. It’s not just a bunch of moral rules or just ideas. It is a way of life. The monks do that, and it’s amazing. They live incredibly regimented lives because they’re monks. Were not, again, called to be monks. But we need to have more order in our lives so that we can offer a coherent, not only argument to the world, but a way of life that is fruitful and joyful.
MOHLER: I can track your mind through time as I think others can track with an author’s mind, and so I make a trajectory from your work, including the Crunchy Cons book and then through the very moving book you wrote about your sister and lessons from her life right to The Benedict Option. And, by the way, most of what you suggest in The Benedict Option in terms of what you call this kind of new monastic type of understanding of Christianity and embeddedness, most of it is stuff we already know we’re supposed to be doing.
DREHER: It’s just the church being the church. But as Leah Labresco Sergent, one of my friends, is quoted in the book, she says that: “This is just the church being the church. But if you don’t call it the Benedict Option, people aren’t going to do it.” So this is nothing new. We’re just rediscovering an old tradition, things that our ancestors knew. And look, I think that whether we’re evangelical, Catholic, or Orthodox, we need to go back to the early church to see how our ancestors did it, see what they did, see how they embodied the faith and culture and practices. You’re seeing on the evangelical side James K.A. Smith, for example, the Calvin College philosopher who’s written a really good book about the importance of practices, You Are What You Love. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. Evangelicals may use slightly different language than Catholics or Orthodox, but ultimately it’s the same thing.
MOHLER: Well here we are having a conversation of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, that is in the year 2017, and I’m, as an evangelical, speaking to someone who is Eastern Orthodox and had been Catholic, and we can have just about every theological conversation and controversy in the history the Christian church right in this room and in this conversation right now. But I want to turn the tables just a little bit, and I want to ask you a question from your vantage point, and I know you’ll be honest. Does evangelical Christianity, as you understand it, have adequate resources to be sufficiently thick?
DREHER: I don’t know. And I’m being completely honest with you, because I evangelicalism is one thing I haven’t been. I was raised mainline Protestant in a very lukewarm church, came to Christ as a Roman Catholic and now Eastern Orthodox, but I really don’t know. I look at evangelicals from the outside, evangelical friends who are living the life, and I think, “Well, they can do it. Why can’t all evangelicals do it?” But then in my own case, my life is shaped around liturgy that’s been in our church for 1500 years. My life is shaped around the chanting of Psalms and on all kinds of sensual ways that embody the faith. Of course you can have smells and bells and go straight to hell, that doesn’t change you and lead to greater conversion. But for me as an Orthodox Christian and me as a Catholic, the faith had more traction and it drew me in closer and closer. I don’t know if evangelicals can do that, because as I look at evangelicalism I see people who are zealous for the Lord, no doubt about it, but also susceptible to every trend that comes along.
DREHER: I don’t want to be insulting, but…
MOHLER: I asked you the question, you’re not being insulting.
DREHER: In my book, I talked to an evangelical friend, Lance Kenser, he is lives in suburban Kansas City, Kansas, was a state legislator, is a PCA Presbyterian, and he tells me that he didn’t realize until the last couple years that the church was supposed to be about more than just going on Sunday to get a pep talk to help you go out and live real life. This has completely changed his life. He had this realization, and he works for religious liberty and religious liberty activism and has come to see the enormous threat facing the Christian church in America. He’s gotten more and deeply involved in his own congregation. He’s leading a class on St. Augustine’s City of God, which St. Augustine wrote to explain to the Romans, Roman Christians, “Hey, what happened? The Empire’s gone, what happened?” And Lance says that working at the local church to thicken their ties to each other and put the roots down more deeply in their own Reformed tradition is what’s consuming him now.
MOHLER: But that’s going to make the point where I would have to answer my own question. I do not believe evangelicalism has sufficient resources for a thick enough Christianity to survive either this epoch or much beyond.
DREHER: So what we do then? What do you do?
MOHLER: Well it’s because I think evangelical-ism as an-ism, is a particular moment in history. The identity has to be, as I see it, in the best way to describe the conversation between us, as historic Protestant. In other words, it takes historic Protestantism, in other words, I am deeply, unashamedly rooted in that which we mark in terms of a 500th anniversary right now. I do believe in the necessary reformation of the church and what the Reformers taught. But modern evangelicalism lacks the theological substance either of the Reformation or the Reformers because the Reformers themselves, Luther and Calvin amongst them, were not at all hesitant, even as they affirmed sola scriptura and did so with full heart and soul, to go back and cite Augustine. They knew they were standing on the shoulders of those who had come before, and they sought to make that very clear. They stood on the creedal consensus of historic Christianity and thus confessional Protestantism, I would argue, is and must be—can be—sufficiently thick. But evangelicalism? Well, not so much.
DREHER: I tell you, it gives me hope to hear you say that, because I don’t know evangelicalism well enough to make a solid critique of it. I know what I see as an Orthodox Christian, but I also know that the Benedict Option is not going to worker if I stand there and tell evangelicals, “Hey, leave the evangelical church; become Orthodox or become Catholic.” Because I actually don’t believe that that’s possible or feasible. That’s why I say that there’s got to be resources in the Reformation tradition for Protestants to go back to. And to hear you say that really encourages me. What do you tell your students and those you lead where they can find these resources within historical Protestantism? Where should they go?
MOHLER: Well the beginning point is looking at the Reformation backwards and forwards. And so going back, there’s a reason why this anniversary is really important as it was especially beginning with the 200th anniversary and the 300th. That’s where Protestants remember that what was rooted in 1517 was not the establishment of a new church. It was the belief, as Calvin said, that Christ has never been without his church, but that that church must be distinguished by several marks and by the preaching of a gospel that they defined under context of fire in terms of the solas and justification by faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone. On what authority? On the authority of Christ through Scripture alone. And yet as I said in a lecture I gave at another seminary last week and it’s quoting Calvin that the faith that justifies is faith alone; faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone. That is to say, it comes accompanied by sanctification, it comes with the fullness of the Christian faith and looking at the Reformation backwards we come to understand its continuity with classical Christianity and we would make the claim all the way back to Christ and the apostles, without apostolic or Episcopal continuity. But the resources are there; the resources that enabled the magisterial reformers to do what they did, and to set in motion what they did in 1517 are, I believe, rightly understood the adequate resources for Christians to be faithful in 2017.
DREHER: You know what’s so interesting about this conversation, these kinds of conversations, is even though I know why I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I know what I believe and how it differs from what you believe and what Catholics believe, I feel like I have so much more in common with men and women like you who stand on a firm confession of truth. You know truth is one we, I don’t want to be mushy about it. I think that’s a false ecumenism, but it’s also the case that because we believe the truth is objective I call people like us small “o” orthodox Christians. I don’t want to use the word “conservative” if that’s what we are because I don’t want to make this just a political thing, but I believe that we have so much more to offer each other, and we can learn from each other while being faithful to our denominational distinctives. We can still help each other out and we’re going to need each other because even within our own churches you know you’re going to see apostasy.
MOHLER: Well, indeed. And this is a sensitive issue for an evangelical or classical Protestant in this conversation because we believe that in the historic arguments between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church, all the way down to the anathemas of Trent and beyond and even that the great schism in terms of the division between the East and the West, which would include orthodoxy, that the gospel itself is at stake. That does not mean that we do not learn from one another and do not greatly benefit from friendships in conversation with one another, but the historic Protestant has to be always very careful to say our accountability is first and foremost to the gospel, and make that very clear. I’m in a lot of conversations with Roman Catholics and have sought deeply to understand Roman Catholicism, including studying in a Roman Catholic institution as part of my graduate work because I wanted to understand Catholic theological method in the Catholic tradition. It did not make me Catholic; it did make me learn, respectfully, how the Catholic churches has struggled with many of these issues over time and there’s ongoing conversation because we are now on the iceberg melting together, and we should not be embarrassed to be together and to be in conversation to learn from one another and I felt that way very much reading your book The Benedict Option and certainly in every conversation I’ve ever had with you.
DREHER: Thank you so much. This is vital, as I said, we’re going to need each other and I think too—one more thing I’d like to make, point I’d like to make before we go—I fell out of the Catholic faith in a very hard way and God used it to chastise me. When I converted to Catholicism, I was an adult. It was a very intellectual conversation. I was extremely prideful intellectually. I thought as long as I had the syllogism straight my head, my faith could withstand any trial. As a journalist, years later, I began to write about the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and learned a lot. It was like staring into the Palantir and having my mind fried. Eventually after five years of that extremely painful process, I no longer could believe in Roman Catholicism. I was shipwrecked and the Lord saved me from that shipwreck and brought me into Eastern Orthodoxy, but he brought me in as a much humbler Christian, someone who is not willing to be so arrogant, and to think that reason alone within the confines of the church was going to make everything okay. He taught me practices. He taught me that fasting was important. He taught me that prayer was important; there’s no substitute for doing it. You can sit there and read all the books of theology in the world, but if you’re not doing it, if you’re not living it out, if you’re not making it incarnate, your conversion is probably more shaky than you thought. I remember when I was reading my way into the Catholic Church in my early 20s, a woman I worked with at the Baton Rouge Advocate was a Catholic and worked with Mother Teresa’s nuns. She said, “Hey would you like to come to the soup kitchen and work with me.” I said “okay”–that sounds like a very Catholic thing to do, so I went one Saturday afternoon and I peeled potatoes, I washed pans, and I thought at the end of that will that was really nice, but really I’m an intellectual, and I should spend all this time reading theology and apologetics. Well 15-17 years later when my Catholic faith was in ruins, and I was wondering is God even there, I realized that if I’d spent as much time peeling potatoes and scrubbing pots and pans at the soup kitchen that I did with my books, maybe my roots would have gone a lot deeper and maybe I would have had the resilience. I’m not going to make that mistake as an Orthodox Christian. The Lord gave me a second chance, and I would have all your listeners realize that if they’ve got their heads buried in books–I love books, I write books–but it’s no substitute for the life of prayer and service.
MOHLER: Well, a classical historic Protestant can only say amen to that. Thank you, Rod, for this conversation; I’m deeply indebted to you.
DREHER: Thanks so much.
MOHLER: One of the great gifts of a conversation is that it often takes off in an unexpected direction. You can plan what you expect to talk about and how you might think that a conversation might proceed. But you’re likely to find out that in the engagement between two people and two minds, the conversation’s going to take some unexpected directions. Now when I began the conversation with Rod Dreher, I wanted him to define the “Benedict Option” in his own terms, and that he did. But it also afforded us an opportunity to talk about the issues behind the Benedict Option and we also got to talk about his own mind in motion as he developed the thesis and in conversation with many others brought himself to the point of the release of the book. Now the book is very important I want to commend it to every thinking Christian, we ought to read this book and we ought also to read far beyond the title. One of my concerns is that many people will misread the project and misread the proposal as being something of a license for merely exiting the cultural conversation, for forfeiting cultural responsibility. Instead, in a far more sophisticated and faithful way, Rod Dreher actually points to our responsibility for a different mode of monasticism, you might say, a very different kind of Benedict Option. He is not calling for Christians to enter in the monasteries; he is calling for Christians and in particular lay Christians to take up the challenge that comes at the conclusion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s important book, After Virtue, now written decades ago, in which McIntyre says that the only hope for the existence of civilization, of the continuation of any kind of Western civilization and its values in the future might be the rise of a new and very different Benedict. By the time you reach the end of The Benedict Option, you’ll come to understand the Rod Dreher has been very carefully valuing Western civilization and its inheritance, its foundation, and its moral affirmations and lamenting what it would mean for that civilization to collapse and disappear, but his concern is far more basic and fundamental than Western civilization.
I think one of the most heartwarming aspects of this book is his absolute concrete concern for marriage and families and for living out that kind of life together in a way that is truly Christian I appreciated every part of this conversation with Rod Dreher, but particularly the closing section of this conversation and that’s because we do need without apology to talk openly about what it means to learn from one another without affirming one another theologically. This is an issue of our evangelical responsibility, of our credibility in faithfulness; that is to say, that the issues that have separated historic Protestantism from Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are not ephemeral, they are not minimal, and they have not gone away. But that’s also to say that we have a great deal to learn from one another without apology. There is no theological compromise in learning what can rightfully be learned from one another and from the entire history of the Christian church. This is where Christians need to think carefully about the fact that we can learn a great deal from non-Christians; that is to say, in terms of our understanding of the world, in terms of grappling with many contemporary issues, we can learn a great deal from those who make no claim to Christianity whatsoever. Furthermore, the great apologist of the Christian faith learned how to learn from those who were not only non-Christians, but often antagonistic to the Christian faith. Our doctrinal affirmations, our Christian identity, is often forged just as much in conversation with those who are outside of our tribe as those who are inside. And if it’s true that we can learn from those who identify themselves as non-Christians, we can certainly also learn from those who are Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic without any compromise of our own theological convictions. At the same time, we have to be warned that one of the signs that we might be compromising those convictions is that if we fail to openly acknowledge them. It might be said by some that in a conversation like this what we might hope for is that an evangelical classical Protestant in conversation with someone who’s Eastern Orthodox might be even more Protestant. I don’t think that’s enough. I think the goal of a conversation like this is that as a result of this kind of conversation—and that’s not only a conversation in voice, but the conversation that takes place between a reader and a book—we might end up not only more committed to historical Protestantism, not only more Protestant, but more importantly, more faithful. And perhaps the best sign that a conversation has been fruitful and can lead you into being faithful is that you want the conversation to continue. I certainly what this conversation to continue.
Thanks again to my guest, Rod Dreher, for thinking with me today. For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to SBTS.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to BoyceCollege.com.
Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.