This reversal of fortune provides the unexpected backdrop for several new books from conservative Christian writers, all written back when liberalism’s cultural-political progress seemed more inevitable (that is, last year). They include Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World” and the Providence College English professor Anthony Esolen’s “Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture.” The most talked-about title is Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option” (blurbed, the alert reader will note, by Russell Moore), whose arresting title references the founder of Western monasticism, St. Benedict of Nursia, and whose countercultural themes have been percolating for some time in Dreher’s prolific blogging.
Each book has its own tone. Chaput’s is ruminative and strains for optimism; Esolen waxes poetic in the service of a cultural jeremiad. Dreher’s is an interesting mixture. It begins in sweeping pessimism, describing a Western Christianity foredestined to all but disappear, collapsing from within even as its institutions are regulated and taxed to death by secular inquisitors. Then it pivots to a more practical how-to guide for believers trying to build religious communities — churches, schools, families, social networks — that are more resilient, more rigorous and more capable of passing on the faith than much of Christianity today.
If I were giving “The Benedict Option” to religious readers, whether conservative or progressive, I would almost urge them to save the opening for later and just approach the how-to guide with an open mind.