Book Review: Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher

[1] In 1989, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon published Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, arguing that the end of Christendom in the West arrived in Greenville, South Carolina, the night the Fox Theatre opened on a Sunday evening. “The Fox Theatre went head to head with the church over who would provide the worldview for the young. That night in 1963, the Fox Theatre won the opening skirmish.” Resident Aliens was a wakeup call—a bracing message that the church had competition and needed to step up to meet it. Bracing or not, since then, the church has lost skirmish after skirmish and the culture’s worldview has moved from being competitive to being increasingly adversarial. Enter Rod Dreher of The American Conservative. In his influential The Benedict Option (2018), Dreher argued that traditional Christians lost the culture wars, and urged them to learn from St. Benedict about how to create intentional communities that will sustain them in the uncertain times ahead. Live Not by Lies develops Dreher’s position by sharing the insights and strategies of Christians who survived persecution in Eastern Europe with their faith intact and often strengthened by the ordeal.

[2] Dreher’s book begins with the story of an elderly Czechoslovak immigrant who spent six years as a political prisoner on account of her Catholic anti-communist resistance. Then in her nineties, she was troubled by events in the United States that reminded her of the days when communism first came to her homeland.  Her eyes were opened by the frenzied and threatening reactions to an Indiana pizzeria owner who refused to cater a same-sex wedding. The woman’s son asked Dreher if it was possible that his mother saw things that they did not see.  “What if we really are witnessing a turn toward totalitarianism in the Western liberal democracies, and can’t see it because it takes a form different from the old kind?”  As Dreher pursued the answer, he found other survivors of communist oppression making the same observation and asking the same question: “Don’t they know it can happen in America too?” That America remains prosperous and relatively free blinds most Americans to the threats of this new totalitarianism. The denial of free speech, the rewriting of history, changes in the meaning of words, and the embrace of surveillance technologies seem to be increasingly accepted if they promote the right outcomes. (Live Not by Lies was published before recent discussions about digital passports holding vaccine records and other personal information.) Dreher uses stories of resistance to totalitarianism in Eastern Europe to show the differences and similarities between Soviet-style totalitarianism and what he calls the “new” or “soft” totalitarianism. With soft-totalitarianism, people voluntarily give up more and more freedoms and control, less out of fear, and more in exchange for the rewards of pleasure, possessions, convenience, and peace.  (This is the primary strategy of the Chinese Communist Party to deal with its 1.4 billion people. Of course, the gulags there are a secondary strategy.)

[3] Live Not by Lies has two parts: 1. Understanding soft-totalitarianism and 2. How to live in truth. Dreher used Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966) to chart the decline of “Religious Man,” who lived according to transcendent principles that ordered human life around communal purposes, and the emergence of “Psychological Man” whose pursuit of his own pleasures and managing his anxieties became his highest good. Clearly in the therapeutic age, and unmoored from religion, people today seek meaning in experiences that cannot bear the weight of their desires. Undaunted, many, particularly the young, turn to a religion of social justice that seeks purpose fighting for victims of oppression. Others, who still attend religious services, struggle to see through the fog of the “Moral Therapeutic Deism” that surrounds them. They are in no position to resist anything, especially if resistance involves suffering.

[4] Live Not by Lies offers readers a brief history lesson to show why communism appealed to so many Russians in the early twentieth century. In a nutshell, society was broken and there was nothing on the horizon to offer hope and meaning. Intellectuals, and increasingly the young of the privileged classes, were captivated by the appeal of revolution and the idea of a fresh start. By embracing communism, they would put Russia on the road to a just society. It did not take long for the mass executions to start and the gulags to be built. Dreher sees parallels between the rise of Bolshevism and communism, now more than a century ago, and the present day. The parallels are not exact, but they are close enough to cause him concern. He argues that the signs are the same: social atomization; loss of faith in hierarchies and institutions, especially organized religion; viewing base acts as acts of liberation; the desire to see everything as political; and loyalty to the group or tribe as the highest virtue. Then as now, most Russians practiced ketman, a Persian word for maintaining an outward appearance of fealty to Islamic law—and in this case fealty to the increasingly totalitarian state—without internalizing that belief. Dreher is concerned that this form of mental self-defense, while understandable, corrupted people’s characters and ultimately their societies, and threatens to do so again today.  As an alternative, Dreher points to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who admitted that people were not ready to shout out the truth. They were too weak and unprepared. Instead, he urged, let us “at least refuse to say what we do not think!” Let us not live by lies. It turns out that most people are not ready for that either.

[5] The book’s second part, “How to Live in Truth,” seeks to cultivate virtues and values for what Dreher sees as the impending struggle.  He derived six lessons from interviews with the children of deceased dissidents as well as the aging survivors of Soviet-style oppression.  1. Christians should value nothing more than truth even if being truthful leads to suffering. 2. Christians should nurture cultural memory for the times when their histories and literature are forgotten. 3. Parents need to raise their children as though families are the basic cells of resistance. 4. Christianity is the bedrock of resistance, and the new post-Christian religion will try to destroy it. 5. Christians must stand in solidarity with each other and with anyone who will stand with them. “The individual standing alone against the machine will be crushed.” 6. Accepting the inevitability of suffering without any promise of relief is the beginning of true resistance and liberation.  The gift of suffering is the hardest lesson to learn. Dreher urges readers to take these lessons to heart now, arguing that it takes time to build the character and skills necessary to survive and there is no time to lose.

[6] Live Not by Lies is a dark book. It is a hopeful book too—but not because the way forward is easy. Rather, the book is hopeful because in recent memory legions of Christians demonstrated a faithful way forward, though that way was a path of suffering. Of course, Dreher’s book begs many questions: are unfolding events as dangerous to Christians and others with traditional values as he imagines? How plausible is his argument about the extent and nature of the threat of “soft totalitarianism?” Are his efforts to avoid making Live Not by Lies a partisan political book successful?  Progressive Christians will downplay many of his concerns, some to the point of valuing the very things he condemns. Why should harmful ideas be given cover under the banner of free speech? Why shouldn’t we change language to reflect the experience of transgender individuals?[1] Why not give communism a chance? Dreher would draw on a bloody history for answers. Others, who have observed or experienced extremes in social justice movements, and who find themselves practicing ketman to survive at work, will find Live Not by Lies to be provocative and strangely assuring.

[1] Dreher wrote a forward for Carl R. Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Crossway, 2020), a book that in Dreher’s words, “explains modernity to the church” and argues that transgenderism is the “ultimate expression of the spirit of modernity.”  Interested readers will find it a useful theoretical companion piece to Live Not by Lies.

Stephen Crocco

Stephen Crocco is the Director of the Library at Yale Divinity School. He has a PhD in Religious Ethics from Princeton University.