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Live Not By Lies: A Review

Live Not By Lies: A Review

Rod Dreher's most recent book, Live Not by Lies, is valuable in part because it shows that at least one person able to secure a publishing contract in the United States understands the state and stakes of contemporary discourse. Radical actors, both on the so-called Right (Boogaloo Trumpers, QAnon) and on the Left (academia, critical theorists, LGBTQIA++ activists, media, etc.) pose an existential threat to the uneasy truce between competing visions of the good that is classical liberalism.

In his book, Dreher focuses on the Left, for (I assume) three primary reasons: 1) January 6 hadn't happened yet, 2) the Left has organized, consolidated power, and 3) the Left is directly and actively totalitarian in its aims and methods (the Right is more authoritarian than totalitarian). To quote Dreher on the difference: "Authoritarianism is what you have when the state monopolizes political control...A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality" (7–8).

But the far greater value of the book is the time Dreher spends recalling stories of resistance, martyrdom, and triumph from his time speaking with Soviet dissidents and their families. I do not plan to reprint that material here; indeed, much of it is difficult to read. However, the joy and community experienced in the face of suffering by those who, as the world reckons, stood to lose everything—who were beaten, killed, or separated from their families—that joy should be the signal fire for those of us who wish to resist the creeping curse of soft totalitarianism today.

I actually would have liked the book to be a bit longer in order for Dreher to tease out more of the connections between hard communist totalitarianism and the technological Marxism so in fashion today. Of course, he does that on a daily basis in his column at The American Conservative, so there's an extent to which that complementary material is present.

Still, I fear that people might be reluctant to accept the notion that the soft totalitarianism ascendant in the United States and elsewhere could really have that much connection to the horrors of Soviet Russia. Evangelicals—the Christian grouping with which I am most familiar, though I do not consider myself to be one—seem to struggle with the concept that something real and sinister animates the critical theories to which they lend an ear.

I would like to substantiate evangelical ignorance (willful or otherwise) and the totalizing tendency of the Left with a couple of personal anecdotes.

I had attended a church with my family for a while which, like many small churches outside the Bible Belt, chose to merge with another church in order to financially survive. This other church did not share the values of the congregants of our church. One notable example was the elevation of a woman to the role of elder at their church; the power struggle involved in opening the eldership to women, as I understand, caused the church to hemorrhage members. I allowed our minister to believe I departed because of the female elder, to which I expressed opposition on biblical grounds (the other church had their "dialogue" about the issue, so now my side was supposed to shut up and go along with the decision).

Really, though, the main issue animating my departure was the fact that one of the ministers at the other church was enamored with liberation theology and critical race theory. Because, at the time, all the ministers wrote sermons together and modified them minimally to suit each speaker's voice, that meant the heresy of liberation theology was being proclaimed from the pulpit.

Why did I care so much about liberation theology? Well, my wife and I took a course in it in college. I read the primary authors—violent, heretical, and racist, on the whole—from which I gained my academic understanding of the enemy. But my wife and I did not complete the course; my (extremely liberal) college allowed us to withdraw without penalty because of the extreme, inappropriate, totalizing behavior of the professor and the leftist students. My wife was considered a non-person because she was a Christian female and must therefore have been domineered and repressed. Christian sexuality was spoken of in disgusting terms that, in and of themselves, constituted sexual harassment. I was tokenized as the conservative Christian and subjected to, in one case, three hours of consecutive personal attacks against my character to my face; when I left, half an hour after class was supposed to end, without defending myself, the leftists accused me of exercising my "white privilege" in leaving. The professor conversed with multiple students about how my wife (then girlfriend) needed to be "liberated" from me, and he even called students not in the class who knew me to try to find dirt.

Needless to say, I recognize critical theory for what it is: it is a dangerous lie, Marxism abstracted from the economic critique in which lay its only real value (and now weaponized against the poor). It has exactly nothing in common with Christianity because it rejects the possibility of forgiveness for those guilty of the original sin of whiteness (or maleness, or straightness). It poses as liberator (when the true liberator is Christ), separating those in the pews into oppressed and oppressor, pinning identity in anything but Christ. Critical theory has no room for a truce; no quarter can be given to those who reject claims of totalized systemic racism, of transgenderism, or of abortion on demand. "Dialogue" is the means of entry, but no dialogue will be permitted once critical theorists have gained power.

Dreher makes the notable (and necessary) connection between leftists/critical theorists and "surveillance capitalism" (75ff). We choose to hand over data about our thoughts, beliefs, family, location, and more to companies who exist to exploit our desires for profit. These companies are, by and large, liberal; but, more notably, they have no real issue with soft totalitarianism. Why? Because companies who pay lip service to critical theory can still profit just as much in that soft-totalitarian world. They have every incentive to play along, to use our data against us, because we continue to give them our data and our money.

One key of soft totalitarianism is that it can be very materially comfortable. It need not be difficult, as long as you go along to get along. The problem for a Christian is that you can go along with either your God or the totalitarian ideology. Even mounting, minimal inconveniences would drive many away from a true faith. Souls will perish not knowing they were even in a fight—in hard totalitarianism, the oppression and torment are orders of magnitude worse, but the battle lines are clearly drawn.

The section in which Dreher explains Hannah Arendt's pre-totalitarian conditions merits a final mention (30ff). Social atomization is maybe the key factor in the upheaval of the last few years; people with families don't storm the Capitol, people enmeshed in their locales don't set businesses in their community on fire. Atomization is also a problem in evangelicalism, with the "local church" becoming the be-all, end-all, often to the explicit exclusion of interactions with other Christians in the community.

Dreher's previous book, The Benedict Option, provided ideas to address, in part, Christian atomization. We can't survive alone; we can't form culture alone. And we can't trust secular society to form a Christian culture for us. I'll likely write more on this later, but I believe the Church, writ large, must construct parallel cultural institutions in every arena—biotechnology, art, education, and so forth—in order to resist sin and create an attractive, distinctive witness to the world around us as it marches further into postmodernism.

The Benedict Option is often misunderstood (frequently intentionally) as calling for all Christians to cloister and bolt the doors. No, it simply offers that Christians must choose to be in the world without being of the world. Opponents of that idea seem to want Christians to just be in the world and hope for the best. No, emphatically no. We need places of rest, places of  truth, places of love within which to be challenged and renewed. Christians ought to cultivate specifically Christian communities and refuges, from which they can interact with the broader society and provide a compelling witness to the joy and truth of their faith. This is necessary both to resist the pressure to conform to totalizing society—to offer the pinch of incense to Caesar—and to transmit the faith to future generations.

Christians ought to take seriously the powers and principalities against which we struggle. Each age has its own temptations and traps; ours might take the form against which Dreher warns in Live Not by Lies. Regardless, we ought to make ourselves ready by cultivating a faith worth suffering for. I struggle to have that kind of faith at times; I suppose many others do, as well. But until we perceive the goodness of God as superior to all the riches of our technological age, we will not be equipped to stand firm in the face of trials. Let us pray the trials are soft, not hard; but either way, let us prepare to endure.