by Phillip E. Johnson
Chapter One of Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, starts with a gripping description of a super storm, much like Hurricane Katrina, which inundated New Orleans while George W. Bush was president. The storm he describes is metaphorical. The storm that concerns Dreher is a cultural one that has brought ever more irresistible waves of secularism to the West, meaning Europe and North America.
Dreher pessimistically thinks that this storm is so all encompassing that it will bring about the end of Christianity in the West within our lifetimes. He sees the situation as similar to that faced by the early church after the end of the Roman Empire, at the beginning of the sixth century A.D.
People had to face the fact that the world as they had known it was gone, and disorder and persecution would continue indefinitely.
What was needed was a strategy that would allow the Christian faith to survive and even grow during the years of chaos, so that the faith would be ready to participate in the recovery of society, once civilization was re-established. What Benedict provided was a rule of life for monasteries that would shelter believers while they spent their lives in prayer and preparation for the return of civilization.
In our current crisis situation, what we need is not the sort of institutions that Benedict founded, but other institutions that provide the space for survival and preparation for the future. Education has to be the first priority, but the educational programs must exist within Christian communities that provide support for the academic and moral instruction that the schools are providing.
Dreher mentions specifically the thriving classical Christian schools that are providing education superior to that available in wholly secular schools. As one example, Dreher cites St. Constantine School in Houston, Texas, founded by philosopher and educational visionary Dr. John Mark Reynolds.
At this point, the story becomes highly personal for me. I first met John Mark Reynolds in the early 1990’s, when he sent mean email commenting on a debate I had on Wisconsin Public Radio with a woman who had made a career for herself as the police chief of Darwinism, gathering her forces to confine and extinguish any popular eruptions of dissent from the faith of scientific materialism.
That initial email led to a long series of messages between us which marked a growing intellectual and personal compatibility. I learned that John was being delayed in completing his PhD in philosophy, because he was selling insurance to support his family. I wanted to help John get out of that situation and into college teaching. Just in time, I learned that a position was available at Biola University in Los Angeles and recommended John for it.
In his first year at Biola, he not only finished his PhD thesis, but also conceived and began to administer what they called the Torrey Honors Program, a superb liberal arts program that rejuvenated Biola. [R. A. Torrey, an influential preacher and educator, served as dean of Biola from 1912 to 1924.]
After many years as director of the Torrey program, John accepted the job of provost at Houston Baptist University. Everything went well for several years, but it then became clear that John’s true calling lay in another kind of institution. He met with representatives of Houston’s Eastern Orthodox community (John is Orthodox).
Many of these people had left the Middle East because of the constant threat of violence against Christians and had come to Houston, where they prospered. In need of developing their own job of educating their children, they invited John to become founder and president of The Saint Constantine School, which combines primary and secondary school education with undergraduate college teaching, all under the same roof.
One purpose of this innovation is to reduce the notoriously staggering cost of a college education. This is just the sort of educational model that should prosper if Dreher is right about what is coming. Maybe even if he isn’t.
Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone and his articles are available here.