How Christianity can stay strong in the West
Read our exclusive interview with the author of the book that all US church leaders are reading: ‘The Benedict Option’
In his first years as a Christian, American writer and journalist Rod Dreher received an invitation from a Catholic colleague to volunteer at a local soup kitchen. Dreher took her up, spending the day prepping food and cleaning the kitchen. But at the end of the day he concluded that the project wasn’t for him — and that his time was likely better spent reading theology books. Over the next dozen years, Dreher left the Catholic Church, his cynicism over covering the sex abuse trials the primary driver.
“I realised upon reflection, that if I had spent as much time working with my hands in the soup kitchen as I did reading, my faith might have been stronger,” said Dreher. “Instead, my faith had remained something that was mostly cerebral and it did not have the strength to withstand being put to the test.”
Dreher’s latest book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, shares a similar fascination with what constitutes a robust faith. The now-Orthodox Christian argues that that decline of religiosity and the rise of secularism are threatening the faith’s vitality in the West. What can rescue the church? Perhaps, “strategic withdrawal,” as modelled by the life of the Fifth-Century monk Benedict of Nursia, who pondered these questions during the fall of the Roman Empire. “Benedict asked God what he should do amongst the decadence and chaos of the empire’s collapse,” said Dreher. “He founded a monastic order that over the next few centuries proved vital to preserving the faith in the West and laying the groundwork for the rebirth of Western civilisation.”
Dreher recently spoke with Eternity about what he blames for the erosion of the Western church, whether Christians should attempt to change culture from the highest echelons of power, and what will catalyse the next revival.
What do you believe is currently threatening the strength of the Western Church?
The outside culture is becoming more hostile to Christians but the response of the churches has been wholly inadequate to the challenge. We have satisfied ourselves for two or three generations with “happy clappy” cultural Christianity and we’re being hollowed out by that.
…we will have to make serious sacrifices for the sake of holding onto the faith and passing the faith onto our children. – Rod Dreher
We can follow the outside institutions of Christianity all we want, but if the heart itself is not being converted, informed and discipled in an authentically Christian way, when these winds of a post-Christian culture begin to blow more strongly, we’re going to collapse. In fact, that collapse is already happening. It’s not a time to panic, but it is a time to read the signs of the times and see why young people are falling away from the church and do something different.
What do people misunderstand about your argument?
People say to me “You’re talking about withdrawal.” That’s not true. I’m all for Jeremiah 29 where God told the Israelites in Babylon to settle down, take wives and pray for the peace and prosperity of the city. However, God did not intend for the Israelites to accept the false gods of the Babylonians. When we look at Daniel and the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, we see that they were serving the king. They weren’t hiding in the hills. But they knew where the line was to be drawn and they were going to their death before apostasy.
I don’t expect that we will see a choice that stark in the West, but we will have to make serious sacrifices for the sake of holding on to the faith and passing the faith on to our children. If we have not formed the consciousness of our children, and our communities, strongly in the gospel, then we’re not going to make it.
You’re American. To what extent is the Benedict Option an argument specifically written for people in your country?
It’s written for Christians in the West, which is to say North America, Europe and Australia. The faith seems to be doing pretty well in the Global South, which doesn’t seem to be suffering from the crisis that I address: post-Christianity, secularism, the decline of Christian faith in the West, and the decline of religiosity in general.
What makes the message of the Benedict Option harder to accept is that we still see churches everywhere and most people say they believe in Christ. But a lot of us Christians are living in a bubble. – Rod Dreher
Countries such as Australia and many Western European countries are already far more secular than the US. Are there places where we are already “past the point of no return,” so to speak?
I don’t know much about Christianity in Australia, but in Europe we are past the point of no return in that, while I think there will always be believers, it’s very hard to see how Christianity is going to come back in any serious way. Of course it can; God can do anything he wants to, but if it comes back, it’s going to come back because small communities of really convinced believers passed it on to their kids, allowing societies in the future to have something to turn to once they seek the light of the gospel.
In the US, we have been a counter example to European secularism for a long time because the practice of the faith and religious identification was so much stronger here. In the last 10 years, sociologists have found that with the rapid secularisation of millennials, the US is now on the same downward slope that Europe has been on. In many ways, what makes the message of the Benedict Option harder to accept is that we still see churches everywhere and most people say they believe in Christ. But a lot of us Christians are living in a bubble and we’re not seeing broader trends.
A lot of Christians who don’t work in the world don’t understand how powerful the anti-Christian currents are. – Rod Dreher
When I go speak at Christian colleges and universities, whether Catholic or evangelical, I hear the same things from professors. These kids are coming to us knowing nothing about basic Christianity. These are the product of youth group culture that teaches that experience of Christ is an emotional one, Jesus is my best friend, and that’s pretty much where it ends.
This type of faith is not going to withstand the powerful currents of secularism.
Which Christians will sacrifice the most in our post-Christian world?
The predominant cost will fall on middle-class and upper-middle-class Christians who have to give up a lot of our comfort and social status to be faithful. People have gone from being somewhat suspicious and antagonistic to not even understanding what Christianity claims and feeling really hostile to it. It’s so strong that a lot of Christians who don’t work in the world don’t understand how powerful the anti-Christian currents are.
We’re going to see people who are faithful, small orthodox Christians, not be able to get law or medical licences unless they’re willing to perform transgender surgeries or do abortions. In academia, we will see Christian colleges lose their accreditation if they don’t conform to changing mores on LGBT issues.
Part of the reason the [American] church is in the fix that it is because we have thought of our mission as something that can be achieved through political power. – Rod Dreher
This will be a real test for Christian believers. Will they be willing to sacrifice what they believe in for the sake of saving social status or economic viability? I don’t think this will happen suddenly, but it will be happening more and more. I don’t believe that churches have given the laity the strong formation we need to make a sacrificial choice when it’s put to us.
Some would say that Christians should instead ascend to the highest reaches of power and affect culture from that vantage point.
This can be a dangerous game to play because once you get inside the institution and start to get a taste of the power it gives you, you face certain temptations. Certainly, people will continue to be called to do missionary work within those fields. That said, part of the reason the [American] church is in the fix that it is, is because we have thought of our mission as something that can be achieved through political power. If we vote for the “right people” – enough Republicans into office, and the judges on the bench – then America will take care of itself. That’s not true and that has never been true, although it’s what American Christians thought for so long, while the culture at large was being lost to us.
The calling for most Christians is to build up the local community and local church and their own families. From that will come the renewal that we all want to see.
When Saint Benedict left Rome to go to the forest, he didn’t pray “God show me how we can make Rome great again.” He just sought the will of God. He came out determined only to build monastic communities. He founded 12 to 13 before he died. He had no way of knowing what their place would be in history, but two or three centuries later we saw that these monastic communities as they grew were instrumental in the Christianisation of Western Europe. But it was all a follow-on effect of their main purpose, which was to bring men and women in the community closer to Christ. Everything else followed from that.
I have three children. I want them to hold on to the faith when they become adults and want their children to hold on to the faith too, because I believe the faith is true. – Rod Dreher
I think it will be the same with us too. Over the next century, if the culture becomes re-christianised or if there’s a revival, it’s not going to come from people sitting down and plotting out how to make America Christian again. Rather, it will come from ordinary Christian believers and the local church and local Christian organisations slowly, slowly rebuilding from the ground up, building the faith from our families and spreading outward.
Your book has generated a lot of response. What is one of the best critiques that you’ve encountered?
That I’m calling for something that is unrealistic. The Benedictines do live lives that are [more] physically separated from the world than most of us are capable of or willing to do. I’m getting people’s hopes up for something to work out. But what I would say in response, “OK, fine. So what do we do then?” We cannot continue as we are. We can see that not only do younger generations not know much of anything about the faith but they’re falling away from it. The pressure coming from the post-Christian outside culture is growing ever stronger. I don’t have all the answers, but I hope I’m asking all the right questions. If somebody has a better answer, I want to hear it. This is not a theoretical issue for me. I have three children. I want them to hold on to the faith when they become adults and want their children to hold on to the faith too because I believe the faith is true.
Morgan Lee is an assistant editor at Christianity Today.