Retreating from battle can be a failure of nerve, a sign of defeat, or a tactical move. In any case, it’s one of the most difficult military maneuvers to pull off with minimum loss of life.
Rod Dreher argues that Christians have lost not merely a cultural battle but the war itself. In skirmish after skirmish—abortion, divorce law, public piety, and human sexuality—the nation has adopted sub-Christian and anti-Christian ways. Add to that the legal assault on our ability to freely express and live our faith—well, it feels to Dreher and others that while the war is over, the battle is more fierce than ever.
But it’s not as if “secular America” is the bad guy and “the church” is the good guy. Dreher recognizes that much of the church has been co-opted by the secular, and much of the secular has taken on the aura of religion. In the chaos of battle, it is sometimes hard to tell who is on whose side. Dreher calls for a Christian retreat in part to admit how badly the culture war has gone. But this retreat is not a failure of nerve nor a sign of defeat (Jesus is still Lord), but a tactical withdrawal to regroup the church for the days ahead.
We think his Benedict Option is an intriguing idea well worth pondering precisely because it isn’t cowardly or defeatist, but active and energetic. It is a decidedly different approach than that of, let’s say, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, who ably argued in these pages that things aren’t as bad as they seem, and have repudiated the Benedict Option as “taking a sabbatical.” The careful reader might wonder which view we endorse.
While I am personally sympathetic to the Benedict Option, one has to acknowledge that some of the faithful are still called to wage battles for cultural and political righteousness in the nation. At the same time, the Christian church is deeply confused about what constitutes faithfulness and righteousness today. We might recall that as Benedict was founding an order that would help transform pagan Europe, popes and Christian princes were trying to do the same from the top down. It’s a both/and world. The Benedict Option is, in our view, a viable one.
G. K. Chesterton famously said that America was a nation with the soul of a church. How inapt that description seems today. It may not be our job to revive America’s soul, but it is certainly appropriate to retreat together to ask Jesus to revive ours.
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