Purpose-Driven Premodernism

I’ve finished reading Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option.” In my view, it’s a fine book, one that articulates a theologically faithful response to the West’s cultural moment. I’ll have more thoughts on it later (and a brief review in a forthcoming issue of the ERLC’s Light Magazine) , but for now I want to share a couple quick thoughts about what I found most surprising about the book.

When I started reading, I expected this book to be mostly about how Christians can outsmart the Left. And while Rod does employ some of that culture war language, I was pleased to be proven wrong. The Benedict Option is not, at least in how Rod has laid it out in the book, primarily between Christians and secularists. It is between Christians and Christ. What surprised me about the book was how overwhelmingly concerned Rod is with Christian sanctification. This is not really a battle plan to be used against progressives. It’s an instruction manual in basic Christian faithfulness. What refreshed me about “The Benedict Option” was not how much of it seemed innovative and timely, but how much of it felt familiar and old.

At one point while reading, I wrote this in the margins: “Purpose-driven premodernism.” Here’s what I mean. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven-Life” was a massive bestseller when it was released more than 10 years ago. Now, regardless whether you think “The Purpose-Driven Life” was mostly good, mostly bad, or a mixed bag, one thing remains true: The PDL was a book that assumed the life of a Christian was structured around spiritual habits. Warren argued that a life with purpose was one that is built around faithful spiritual practices, not a life that merely tolerated them.

That’s precisely what Rod is getting at in the Benedict Option. For all the intense debate surrounding the book, its core thesis seems absurdly simple to me: An obedient, meaningful Christian life is structured around truths and practices of the faith. Trying to remain a faithful, committed, orthodox Christian while living life outside this orbit is, for Rod, a fool’s game. It’s not going to happen. The Christianity that will survive the West’s emerging secular authoritarianism is going to be a Christianity embodied in habits of mind and heart that don’t flex for the demands of modern life.

That’s why I call the Benedict Option “purpose-driven premodernism.” The main difference, I think, between Rod’s book and Warren’s book is that while the PDL assumes that a life structured around Christian disciplines is possible without conscious retreat from culture, the BenOp assumes it’s impossible. In that, I think, Rod’s book has the benefit of hindsight. Will faithfulness to the gospel require not just a collection of spiritual disciplines but an actual physical reorientation of our lives and communities? Perhaps. And if so, I think purpose-driven premodernism might be what we need.

Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.