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Rod Dreher’s ‘Live Not By Lies’ Warns Of The New Totalitarianism


“The culture war is largely over, and we lost,” writes Rod Dreher in his new book, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents. The book, which takes its name from a 1974 essay by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, picks up, in many ways, where Dreher’s 2017 book, The Benedict Option, left off.

If The Benedict Option was about how to preserve and pass down a way of life that is in direct opposition to the prevailing culture, Live Not By Lies addresses what to do when that culture doesn’t merely ignore or marginalize you, but comes for you—with the goal of either making you conform or, in today’s parlance, canceling you.

“The Western world has become post-Christian,” Dreher writes, “with large numbers of those born after 1980 rejecting religious faith. This means that they will not only oppose Christians when we stand up for our principles—in particular, in defense of the traditional family, of male and female gender roles, and of the sanctity of human life—but also they will not even understand why they should tolerate dissent based in religious belief.”

Dreher believes that such intolerance is already well advanced, and it is hard to disagree. Those who, like Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, do not try to hide their religious faith but make it the linchpin of their lives, are viewed with mistrust for allowing their “dogma” to live too “loudly” within them.

Whether Barack Obama’s “clingers,” Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables,” or Joe Biden’s “dregs,” those who don’t fall in line with the cultural and political elite’s prescription for acceptable thought are deemed backward-thinking, unenlightened barbarians, opposed to the politically correct god of science. Live Not By Lies is Dreher’s prescription for how Christian, and even non-Christian, dissenters should respond in a world that is increasingly antagonistic and oppressive toward them.

Soft Totalitarianism

It’s important to note that such antagonism and oppression come not merely, or even primarily, from the state but from what Dreher calls “intellectual, cultural, academic, and corporate elites … under the sway of a left-wing political cult built around social justice.” Add to that what former Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff has termed “surveillance capitalism,” and Dreher says that many Western liberal democracies are swiftly sliding down a slippery slope into a “soft totalitarianism” by which “data harvesting and manipulation can and will be used by woke capitalists and social justice ideologues in institutional authority to impose control.”

One need only look to recent headlines to see evidence of what Dreher is talking about. The examples of those canceled or de-platformed for not toeing the leftist party line continue to pile up. A recent story about vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden by The New York Post—the fifth-largest newspaper in the United States, as well as one of the oldest—was initially blocked or limited by social media giants Twitter and Facebook for obviously political reasons.

Amazon recently refused to make respected historian Shelby Steele’s documentary on Michael Brown available on its Prime video platform. (Amazon later reversed its decision.) Google and YouTube have designated themselves the world’s gatekeepers for COVID-19 information, removing anything that dares to question the need for or efficacy of lockdowns and masks. College campuses, which were once seen as the go-to for free and open debate, are increasingly intolerant of anything but the narrowest perspectives.

This pervasive censorship of thought and opinion should deeply concern citizens of a supposedly free country. Concern about such censorship is, in fact, what Dreher says provided the impetus for his book when, in 2015, he was contacted by “an anxious stranger” worried about suppression of free speech in the United States.

“The caller was an eminent American physician,” Dreher writes. “He told me that his elderly mother, a Czechoslovak immigrant to the United States, had spent six years of her youth as a political prisoner in her homeland …. Now in her nineties … the old woman had recently told her American son that events in the United States today reminded her of when communism first came to Czechoslovakia.”

Dreher embarked on a several-year odyssey of talking to people who had once lived under Soviet communism — many of those interviews are included in the book — and found himself “unnerved” by the similarities that began to emerge between 20th-century totalitarianism and the “soft totalitarianism” that seems to be on the march today. He is careful to acknowledge that “we should not conflate being socially or professionally marginalized with prison camps and the executioner’s bullet,” but still sounds the alarm about a trend he worries we may not be seeing clearly because of its insidiousness.

Suffering For the Truth

The first half of Live Not By Lies is devoted to documenting that trend, the second half to providing strategies for combatting it. Dreher’s prescriptions echo those found in The Benedict Option, similarly emphasizing the importance of working to preserve and pass on a culture that is different from the world’s.

There is good, practical advice here: cherish truth, but choose your battles; do your part to preserve cultural memory; don’t let the world rear your children for you; network with those who share your values; and make the family unit a starting point for accomplishing all these things. The Benedict Option has often been criticized as a call for Christians to withdraw into a monastic existence that shuns engagement with the world; I never saw that, and I don’t see it in Live Not By Lies, either. The message here is not to run away and hide but to stand up, and, if necessary, suffer for the sake of the truth.

The likelihood of such suffering is the book’s final topic. It is not for the faint of heart, as Dreher shares several stories of dissidents who, under Communist oppression, suffered in ways that are almost impossible for our soft, 21st-century selves to comprehend. Dreher’s Orthodox faith is displayed here in a way that may not resonate with all readers, but the core message is one that all Christians should readily embrace: If we accept the “great lie of our therapeutic culture, which tells us that personal happiness is the greatest good of all,” we will have lost the battle before it ever begins.

That, Dreher concludes, is why the greatest danger to modern Christians is not ultimately from the forces of soft totalitarianism but from ourselves and our desire, above all else, for comfort: “Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the novel that previews what’s coming; it’s rather Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World … [one] in which people will surrender political rights in exchange for guarantees of personal pleasure.”

In his overall positive review for The Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax describes Live Not By Lies as “joyless,” “pessimistic,” and suffused with a “sense of hopelessness.” I disagree. Certainly, all confessing Christians know that the person who looks to the world for his hope will be left feeling hopeless. Our hope is not of this world, but of another. The believer who directs his faith rightly, however, has much to hope in, and much to hope for, and that confidence emanates strongly from Dreher’s writing.

I do think Dreher, who is not known as a fan of Donald Trump, goes a bit far afield in drawing a comparison between the U.S. government’s response to COVID-19 and imperial Russia’s handling of the 1890s famines: “Both natural disasters caused mass suffering and revealed systemic decay in the habits and institutions of governing authority.” But you don’t have to buy into Dreher’s entire argument to find much that rings true along with explanations that are not only well stated but, in quite a few instances, eloquently succinct and quotable.

A Time For Choosing

A few weeks ago, I listened to J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, interview Dreher about Live Not By Lies. Vance and Dreher are acknowledged friends who have discussed one another’s work before. Listening to their conversation, I was reminded of something I first observed when I reviewed The Benedict Option shortly after reading both it and Hillbilly Elegy in 2017 – the importance both books place on personal responsibility.

I recently read ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ by J. D. Vance. It was a profoundly affecting experience, as my husband and I could relate to a staggering number of things in the book. It was also sad. Vance unflinchingly and honestly catalogs both the circumstances and personal behaviors that can make it difficult to impossible for people to chart a different path from the one in which they have been brought up. Yet the only way out is to wrest what control one can: to take responsibility for one’s actions and to make choices instead of letting others make those choices for you.

That is what the Benedict Option is all about: choosing. Do you send your children to public school because that’s what people do, or do you consider alternatives? Do you take the culture as it comes, or do you discriminate, saying no to music, books, movies, fashion, and other societal trends that conflict with your values? Do you let every latest piece of technology into your family’s hands simply because it’s available, or do you draw some boundaries?

Do you resign yourself to compromising your beliefs in performing your job because that’s just what one has to do these days, or do you refuse and accept the consequences? Do you make church a priority and seek out one that is serious about confessing Christ, or do you look for one that is comfortable and easy to fit it in around the edges? Do you actually read the Bible and pray as a family, or do you just call yourself a Christian and hope this and the occasional prayer born of urgency is good enough to get you into heaven some day?”

That emphasis on choosing is, in Dreher’s latest work, the crux of the matter once again. How do people who seek to live in truth make good choices in a world that runs on lies? If that’s a question you care about, this book is worth your time.