Rod Dreher, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, (Sentinel: New York, 2020), 256 pages.
reviewed by Karl Dahlfred
Rod Dreher’s latest book has a compelling origin: people who lived under communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe told Dreher that some trends in the West remind them of the practices of the totalitarian regimes under which they suffered. Dreher sees a type of “soft” totalitarianism emerging in the West and believes that Western Christians would do well to learn from those lived through the evils of Soviet-style communism.
Western countries claim to value freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, but they are becoming increasingly unliberal as people who disagree with progressive ideologies of race, sexuality, etc. are finding themselves losing jobs, de-platformed, censored, and having to hide their religious and political views lest they be branded as bigots, racists, homophobes and so forth. Conservative objections that such actions represent a danger to democracy fall on deaf ears. However, those who actually lived under totalitarian regimes think differently and it is to them that Dreher turns the microphone in order to learn how Christians can prepare themselves to live in an increasingly hostile environment.
Dreher’s book is divided into two parts. In part one, Dreher emphasizes the importance of recognizing and preparing for increasing totalitarianism in the West. The first chapter illustrates this point through the story of a Jesuit priest name Kolakovic who studied in the Soviet Union and subsequentially dedicated himself to warning and preparing the Catholic community of post-World War II Czechoslovakia for the coming Soviet puppet regime that would take over the country. Kolakovic founded a lay movement among Catholics, establishing cells of believers for prayer, bible study, and fellowship. His motto was “See, Judge, Act”, meaning one must observe the realities around you, judge those realities in light of what you know to be true, and then act in order to resist evil. Kolakovic’s warnings turned out to be prophetic when a harsh communist regime came to power, and many believers were enabled to endure persecution because of how Kolakovic had prepared them. With this story about the importance of preparation in mind, Dreher spends the remainder of part one in a brisk analysis of Western culture, especially American culture, with chapter titles like “Our Pre-Totalitarian Culture”, “Progressivism as Religion”, and “Capitalism, Woke and Watchful.” His analysis is insightful but not overly academic as he combines warnings about what’s happening in America with stories of what actually happened under Soviet regimes. Dreher wants to make sure his readers recognize that hard times are coming. The “soft totalitarianism” that is coming to the U.S. won’t look the same as the “hard totalitarianism” of Soviet Russia, but there will be a severe testing of our faith all the same. We must be ready. Dreher thinks that the emerging soft totalitarianism in the West will bear more resemblance to Huxley’s Brave New World, where people’s desire for truth was smothered by worldly pleasures, than Orwell’s 1984, where a Big Brother police state kept people from truth by the threat of force.
Having raised the alarm in part one, Dreher spends the remainder of the book telling readers how to prepare themselves for the hard times ahead. One of the great strengths of the book is that Dreher gives practical guidance for how to build resiliency in the face of a hostile culture. As he did in his previous book, The Benedict Option, Dreher commends the importance of creating Christian communities and relationships rather than seeking political solutions or fighting “the culture war.” Although dissent and contrary viewpoints are still possible in Western contexts, Dreher believes that the time may come when they are not. When that happens, how can we hang on to truth and faith when there are real world ramifications for not going along with ideologies that we know to be false? Because Christians will need to discern how to be faithful and stand for truth in their particular circumstances, Dreher emphasizes a handful of key emphases that helped Christian dissidents under Communism survive under incredible pressure. The stories and examples of these faithful believers fill the pages of the book and provide inspiration for Western Christians who wonder how to stand for Gospel truth in the midst of a culture that increasingly sees them as the problem. The foundational principle that we are to stand on is to value nothing more than truth (chapter 5). If we are not committed to believing and forming our life around what is true, then we are bound to succumb to the pressure to go along with falsehoods for the sake of avoiding difficulty. A bullet-point summary of how we are to steel ourselves to stand for truth is found in the chapter titles in part two: “Value Nothing More Than Truth” (ch. 5), “Cultivate Cultural Memory” (ch. 6), “Families are Resistance Cells” (ch. 7), “Religion, the Bedrock of Resistance” (ch. 8), “Standing in Solidarity” (ch. 9), and “The Gift of Suffering” (ch. 10). Each of these chapters is illustrated by detailed stories based on personal interviews that Dreher conducted with Christians (Catholic, Orthodox, and Baptist) in former Soviet bloc countries. The stories are rich in detail and motivational in urging the reader to be more intentional in creating strong relationships in the family, in church, and in the broader community. Despite the prevalence of social media that “connects” people like never before, American culture can be very atomized and people become lonely even in the midst of a crowd, both offline and online. As such, now is the time for Western Christians to intentionally build relationships with people upon whom they can mutually depend. This must be done before more difficult times come and we find ourselves unprepared.
Although most Western Christians would find themselves nodding in agreement with Dreher that community and relationships are important, his final chapter the less popular thesis that suffering is a gift. Though we should not seek suffering, we should be prepared to trust God’s purposes for it when it comes. Greater joy and sanctification often come in the time of greatest hardship. That said, Western readers may find it hard to relate to the stories Dreher shares about Christians who were separated from their family, imprisoned, and tortured for their faith. Even in the current cultural climate, such an experience is so far outside of what people can imagine happening in a Western country, that it is easy to dismiss such tales as inspirational and moving, but not very relevant. “That could never happen here! Our country is a democracy!” Dreher’s message is that it could happen here. Thankfully, he does not presume to predict the details of what that will look like, but he is convinced that those who refuse to conform to the progressive ideologies of the left need to prepare themselves. The message that Christians need to be prepared to suffer for their faith is a timely one that runs counter to much of Western culture today, both inside and outside the church.
Although some readers might question whether Dreher mixes the concerns of conservative Christianity with conservative politics, this is not a political book. Dreher doesn’t tell you who to vote for, and he does not advocate overtly political solutions to society’s problems. Throughout, Dreher assumes that ideologies hostile to the Christian faith are in the ascendancy in the West, and Christians should prepare themselves to survive the times ahead by embracing truth, one another, and God’s redemptive purposes in suffering that may come. This is a book about faithful Christian living and the instructional value of the stories of Christians who lived under communism make this book an engaging and worthwhile read.