Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents reads as a peculiar book in that its most important passage occurs in the acknowledgments. “I am not at liberty to thank some of those who helped me research this book, because it would put them at risk of retaliation in the workplace,” author Rod Dreher writes. “None of these anonymous helpers live in the former Soviet bloc; all are Americans.”
“Christians today must understand that, fundamentally, they aren’t resisting a different politics,” Dreher reasons, “but rather what is effectively a rival religion.”
The book, as its title (taken from advice from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) indicates, looks to the Eastern past for guidance toward the Western future. It does this through extensive author conversations with Eastern Bloc Christians oppressed by Communists. More than three decades after the end of the Cold War, Dreher sees the totalitarian spirit largely extinguished in Eastern Europe upon the fall of the Berlin Wall blazing within Western elites. He looks to the past example of Christians living under totalitarianism to light the way forward for people of faith living in benighted times.
“In the West today, we are living under decadent, pre-totalitarian conditions,” Dreher asserts. “Social atomization, widespread loneliness, the rise of ideology, widespread loss of faith in institutions, and other factors leave society vulnerable to the totalitarian temptation to which both Russia and Germany succumbed in the previous century.”
But Dreher sees key differences in the totalitarianism that engulfed Eastern Europe and the one that currently threatens much of Western civilization. The former relied on the state as its wellspring of power; the latter, perhaps because of pretensions regarding rights and democratic governance, looks to culture, corporations, and much else outside of government to mold society in its desired image. The methods differ, too. “Unlike the Bolsheviks, who were hardened revolutionaries, SJWs [Social Justice Warriors] get their way not by shedding blood but by shedding tears,” he argues.
When Dreher documents 1930s Soviet commissars explicitly calling for the politicization of chess, the reader’s mind immediately wanders toward woke messages on NBA tank tops, awards shows ostensibly dedicated to excellence in entertainment that quickly devolve into a competition between stars to most loudly denounce ideological enemies, businesses pressured into displaying slogans in their windows as though they sell social justice inside, and other non sequiturs highlighting the corrosive nature of total politics. “One of contemporary progressivism’s commonly used phrases — the personal is the political — captures the totalitarian spirit, which seeks to infuse all aspects of life with political consciousness,” Dreher writes. “Indeed, the Left pushes its ideology ever deeper into the personal realm, leaving fewer and fewer areas of daily life uncontested.”
Dreher points to the preservation of the past, the acceptance of suffering, and the individual living as an example to others as bulwarks against the unhealthy political encroachments. But a familiar argument dwarfs the others. Live Not by Lies extends a thread from Dreher’s past books Crunchy Cons and The Benedict Option that envisions communities embarking on a soft separatism from mainstream society as the best defense against its bullying. “Christians today must understand that, fundamentally, they aren’t resisting a different politics,” Dreher reasons, “but rather what is effectively a rival religion.”
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Rod Dreher writes the right book at the right time. And its appearance in non-samizdat form suggests that time remains to change the European past from becoming the American future. Live Not by Lies is an easy read about hard issues.
Chick-fil-A rather suddenly becoming the most popular fast food restaurant in America not named McDonald’s, Fox News beating traditional broadcast networks to strangely reign atop the Nielsen ratings in 2020, the mere fact of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the wild popularity among viewers (but not critics) of Dave Chappelle mocking wokery in his “Sticks and Stones” comedy special all serve to show that that the emperor, though wielding hairshirts, has no clothes. The success of Live Not by Lies, which occupied the top-seller spot on Amazon.com during the composition of this review, demonstrates this, too.