Benedict Optioning, Protestant-Style
I’ve been thinking a lot about Rod Dreher’s much-hyped (and bestselling) book The Benedict Option in the weeks since its publication. While I had many critiques of the book’s lament-oriented aspects, I agreed with a great deal of it—particularly Dreher’s call to focus on developing doctrine among the youth of the church. However, Dreher’s book focused primarily on Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communities’ approaches to fostering such catechesis, and largely left unanswered the question of how Protestants might do likewise.
Dreher isn’t wrong to think that Protestants have a tougher time of this, given our lack of institutional structures that allow for authoritative resolution of doctrinal disputes (a topic Conciliar Post has probed at great length for years). Nonetheless, I’m convinced that Dreher’s argument is important, and also that there are certain “Benedict Option” elements that Protestant congregations could realistically adopt without losing their individual identities.
The Lutheran church (or at least my synod) employs a Rite of Confirmation—a process by which those baptized in the church, upon attaining young adulthood, are familiarized with core Lutheran teachings and eventually become full communicant members of their congregation. In practice, this took the form of three years (sixth/seventh/eighth grade) of Sunday morning classes: the first year was a general overview of the Bible, Lutheran worship distinctives, and the ecclesiastical calendar, while the second and third years concentrated on Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Memory work—most notably, propositions of the Catechism and their formal explanations—was a major part of this process.
At the time, I didn’t much like the fact that confirmation classes required homework and study (I recently ran across one of my old test papers, splattered with red ink). Left to my own devices, I would’ve gone home after church each Sunday and eaten donuts in lieu of studying the Catechism. But over a decade later, it’s amazing how much I’ve retained from those classes: I still know what the Office of the Keys is, remember that the chalice and ciborium are Eucharistic vessels, and recognize the colors of the church year.
This was an eminently effective process: a sustained effort by the church to pass down the core elements of our tradition. And the lessons stuck. But in hindsight, there are elements—most notably, the study of church history—that I wish had been taken further. (As it were, I co-taught a youth class on “worldviews” a few years later, and if I had to do things over again, I’d probe the heritage of the faith more deeply before trying to comment on contemporary debates.)
For a lot of Protestants (and I say this as one) church history essentially started with Martin Luther nailing the Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door. It’s a great visual, after all, and a compelling man-against-the-odds story. The typical Protestant narrative of good guys and bad guys is so powerful that, when I encountered statements like “Luther wasn’t trying to start his own church; he was trying to reform the one that already existed,” I largely dismissed them out of hand. The story, for me, was pretty black and white.
Needless to say, it was a bit of a shock when I first flipped through an Anglican Book of Common Prayer (and later a volume of Catholic Masses) and realized that the liturgy was virtually identical to the one I knew. Clearly there had been far less of a clean break with Rome than I’d thought growing up. But as a young catechumen, everything between the Apostle John’s exile to Patmos and the start of the Reformation was a haze (and that’s saying nothing of the fact that I’d never even heard of Eastern Orthodoxy).
The Benedict Option’s call to instruction recognizes the need for more interaction across denominational lines—collaboration in the service of a shared faith, despite areas of persistent theological disagreement. Understanding is the precursor to such cooperation, but in many Protestant spaces I’ve encountered, non-Protestant traditions are virtually invisible (or are unfairly maligned based on stereotypes).
Given this need, here is one tentative model (starting in junior high and continuing on through high school) for how Protestant congregations might seek to implement a Benedict Option sensibility into their theological instruction of youth:
Stage One: Catechesis: Learn foundational principles of the Bible and the Catechism (non-Lutherans might substitute other materials, like the Westminster Confession of Faith).
Stage Two: Contextualization: Explore the broad contours of church history and the evolution of major ideas over time, from the Day of Pentecost forward. Learn to appreciate the heritage of one’s own denomination while simultaneously respecting members of other traditions as fellow Christians (one might also term this the “Catholics Aren’t the Bad Guys” phase).
Stage Three: Challenges: Articulate why the beliefs one holds are true, using relevant sources of evidence. Explain how ideas in church history intersect and influence one another, and how past debates play out in new forms today.
Some readers will note that I’m patterning this model on the Trivium, the classical education framework that concentrates on “grammar” (concept retention” before proceeding to “logic” (concept analysis and evaluation) and finally “rhetoric” (concept synthesis and expression). That’s because, as Dreher points out at length, classical education works.
I’m not a trained youth minister by any means, and I recognize that this type of approach wouldn’t be as “fun” as many other forms of outreach. But wholly apart from the merits of this model in a Dreherian sense (that is, its effectiveness in cultivating core values that will be retained over time), I’d venture that this kind of program would prove surprisingly successful and popular. In my experience, young people are more attracted to rigor and high expectations than they’re likely to let on publicly (the Harris brothers’ popular book Do Hard Things is a fuller exposition of this idea).
Obviously this type of paradigm leaves many details to be hashed out—and assuredly, many points would vary between denominations. An approach like this, though, would probably go a long way toward reinforcing the habits and values that “The Benedict Option” stresses.