Rod Dreher’s “Live Not by Lies” is based on the testimonies of dissidents in Eastern Europe and Russia as to how they survived the hard totalitarianism of communism. Mr. Dreher attempts to apply their lessons to what he claims is our growing American soft totalitarianism.
Live Not By Lies, by Rod Dreher (Sentinel, 2020, 256 pages)
In his renowned book, The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher analyzed the rise of a “corrosive” American anti-Christian philosophy and concluded that Christians, having lost the “culture wars,” needed another option in order to preserve their way of life. His new book, Live Not by Lies (the title comes from a quotation by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn) is based on the testimonies of dissidents in Eastern Europe and Russia as to how they survived—and in a perhaps uniquely Christian way overcame—the hard totalitarianism of communism. Mr. Dreher attempts to apply their lessons to what he claims is our growing American soft totalitarianism.
Live Not by Lies is further titled A Manual for Christian Dissidents and is divided into two parts. Mr. Dreher first makes his case that “soft totalitarianism” is here, now, in the United States. From conversations with Russians, he concludes from their testimony that Marxism was presented “as a secular religion for the post-religion” modern age. And—does this ring a bell regarding our own current elites?—as he says, “most of the [communist] revolutionaries came from the privileged classes” whose parents aided and abetted them at home. Mr. Dreher alleges that the sources of soft totalitarianism, present and future, have been the decline of religion, personal loneliness, the rise of the intellectuals and social-justice warriors, corporations, pornography, and the decline of marriage and the family. He could have brought up the fact that the French Revolution was a revolt of the rising bourgeois elites, not an uprising of the peasants. Robespierre, after all, began simply as a practicing local lawyer in Arras, 180 kilometers from Paris.
Emphasizing the importance of “woke capitalism,” Mr. Dreher asserts that in a country that now “runs on the internet,” the technology companies—Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google—“have an almost incalculable influence over public and private life.” Thus, for instance, “when the LGBT cause was adopted by corporate America as part of its branding strategy, its ultimate victory was assured,” for that strategy combined ideology with “the most potent force in American life: consumerism and making money.” And, like others, Mr. Dreher delves into the issue of political and corporate surveillance of private life.
After that social analysis, Mr. Dreher offers the Manual, together with proposed maxims, for Christian Dissidents. He focuses on two sources of resistance under hard totalitarianism: religion and family. Importantly, he concedes that “not every anti-communist dissident was a Christian,” but it is the example of the resisting Christians that is the foundation of the book. He urges the reader to go beyond those dissidents’ courage to what is a Christian conclusion about suffering. He notes that all the Christians he interviewed for the book actually had a “deep inner peace” when relating their experiences of the terrors against themselves, their families, their churches, and their countries. By means of the Christian virtue of hope, they maintained a belief in and a goal of goodness; they did not despair.
The Christian difference. The underground church had a “spiritual power” that was sustained by prayer and Scripture reading, both individually, and, in a key and repeated pattern, in groups. A Russian Orthodox priest who gave sermons and spoke publicly even after having served eight years in the Gulag was regarded as “a mouthful of water” to thirsty Christians of all denominations and to others as well. A Russian who endured a prison sentence and years of harassment by the KGB found that his full and complete embracing of Christian faith was “like falling in love.” It gave him the conviction not only to endure but to go beyond and be “ready to die.” “I don’t see any other way,” he said.
Indeed, Mr. Dreher has an entire chapter about “the gift of suffering.” A leader of the anti-communist resistance in Slovakia testified that torture and imprisonment set him on a life of gratitude to God for being allowed “to profess faith in Him.” An imprisoned Romanian dissident left a legacy of the inspiration he and others had derived from a fellow prisoner afflicted with tuberculosis whose devotion to prayer by itself represented “the justification of… life in [our] cell” and gave them “moments of happiness that we never reached in freedom.” And Mr. Dreher refers to Solzhenitsyn’s famous Gulag exclamation regarding his own years of imprisonment: “Bless you prison, for having been in my life.”
Then there is the family. In The Benedict Option, Mr. Dreher presented the story of Vaclav Benda who was not only a singular public dissident in communist Czechoslovakia but also a man who organized and fostered dissidence in a “parallel polis” of his invention. In Live Not by Lies, he presents the large Benda family right down to the grandkids as his model of a “resistance cell” in the old communist days and in today’s capitalist, secular Czech Republic as well. As inspiration, the family watched and knew the American movie High Noon! The children came to identify their father with Gary Cooper, the sheriff who did not flee but stayed to resist the coming gang of killers.
The Benda family, whose children have maintained the family’s principles even today, was kept together by its own decisions about religion and about family education and culture. Indeed, the family may be a model for all families anywhere. Mother Benda read aloud to their six children for two to three hours every day. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was central to the family’s “collective imagination” because, as a Benda son related to Mr. Dreher, “Mordor was real.” As the author has it, that same son made the point to him that “the key is to expose children to stories that help them know the difference between truth and falsehood, and teach them how to discern this in real life.” The reader may be put in mind of Aristotle’s prescription for the training of the moral imagination in the Ethics, where, agreeing with Plato, he holds that children must be trained from infancy to feel pleasure and pain at the right things, for in education the beginning is more than half the job. (2, iii; 1, vii).
The book has other personal testimonies and stories. Mr. Dreher’s overall message is that every Christian needs to understand that suffering in this world is inevitable but can be the transcendent and even necessary basis for a deeper faith and communion with God. We might add that Christians should not expect to have an easier worldly life than Jesus.
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