Rod Dreher is a journalist whose thought-provoking daily ruminations can be found at The American Conservative. Dreher is an Orthodox Christian (formerly Roman Catholic), and a socially conservative Louisianan. His most popular book to date is called The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017), which warns of the need to create intentional Christian communities in a figurative cultural desert increasingly inhospitable to faith and family.

Since then, Dreher has observed that the cultural desert of our nation is not merely inhospitable to family and faith, but has morphed into an animated force actively and intentionally seeking to destroy these, and celebrating when it is successful. According to Dreher, the noxious weed of totalitarianism has taken root among the elite of our nation, and is coming for each and every one of us, aided by unimaginably invasive technological surveillance capabilities never before at the disposal of human beings.

Some, perhaps many, would cry, “alarmism!” Dreher is nothing if not an alarmist, but a strikingly consistent pattern in the scriptures is that (little “p”) prophets are considered so over-the-top and alarmist that they are often killed. I’d prefer to listen to what Dreher has to say and make my own judgments—which is why I was excited to review Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, his new book, before its publication date of September 2020 and share that review with SquareTwo readers. If you’re not up for reading the review, then here’s my bottom line up front: pre-order the book. If you are like me, you’ll find yourself underlining something on every page. (And it blessedly clocks in at only about 165 pages, meaning it’s easily digestible and eminently portable. I’m thinking about giving it as a Christmas gift to each of my adult children.)

I was immediately attracted to the book’s title because it is from a very famous essay of the same name by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, one of the USSR’s most celebrated dissidents, who wrote this piece right before he was exiled. I came of age during the Cold War, and studying international relations, found myself not only learning Russian and analyzing Soviet nuclear force structure, but also reading Solzhenitsyn. I started off with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, as we all did in those days, but then wound up reading the entirety of The Gulag Archipelago (no mean feat for an undergraduate, since it’s about 800 pages of unrelenting atrocity). Noteworthy to me was the fact that even in exile, Solzhenitsyn was quick to see the clay feet of the West, with its soulless consumerism (see his 1978 speech at Harvard entitled “A World Apart”). Because he condemned both East and West [1]—though his harshest critiques were certainly of the totalitarian East—he became a controversial figure in the West, and the intelligentsia and press stopped covering him. Many of my current students have never even heard his name. He returned to Russia in 1994, and died there in 2008.

It is fitting and proper, then, that Dreher’s book is entitled Live Not By Lies, because the thrust of that essay was to explain how even completely powerless human beings caught in a totalitarian system of great power and brutality can nevertheless resist and weaken that system—even if not all of them could or would want to play the role of heroic martyr. Dreher does not believe the US version of totalitarianism will look like the Soviet one; he uses the term “soft totalitarianism” to suggest that “hard totalitarianism,” such as we saw in the Soviet Union, may not now be necessary in order to achieve ostensibly the same goals of control, compliance, and self-censorship, even self-censorship of thought. Instead, this new, softer totalitarianism is “therapeutic,” disguising its real intentions behind a façade of attempting to help and heal social relations. Instead of being beaten and shot, you will be healed from deviance into submission.

If that premise is true, and we will explore that assertion in a moment, then it would be vitally important to learn how to preserve that which our nascent 21st century totalitarianism is attempting to stamp out or erase. Our possible best teachers in this task? According to Dreher, our best teachers would be those who succeeded in that same preservative mission under the old Soviet Union and its satellites, some of whom lived to see the spectacular downfall of that entire system at the end of the 20th century.

This is a stunningly creative frame for Dreher’s argument, and Dreher travelled to former Iron Curtain countries to interview those who had been active in the dissident movements during the Cold War, focusing on dissidents motivated by religious belief. Dreher is serious about his subtitle: this is meant to be a how-to manual for Christian dissidents who will be living under soft totalitarianism in the near future.

His alarmism is catalyzed in part by the fact that nearly all these mostly elderly former citizens of the Soviet bloc are shocked to see a creeping totalitarianism in the West, especially in the United States. These survivors see friends uncomfortable, scanning the room for listening ears, when they express even the mildest of conservative views. They see redefinition of basic language resulting in a Newspeak that means the opposite of standard usage. They see open de-platforming, cancelling, and firing of those whose views are considered deviant from “acceptable” speech. In sum, this is what these people saw while they were growing up under Soviet totalitarianism, and they are gobsmacked to see it here in the country to which they fled for freedom. As one of Dreher’s interviewees commented, “We know how this works” (12).

At the root of totalitarianism is a hunger for transcendence without moral restraint—the hunger for a just society, but without any desire to keep the commandments of God that are the prerequisite for such a society, or as Solzhenitsyn put it, the quest for human rights without human obligations. Human beings are merely so many eggs needed for the omelet of the just society, and if they must be broken or eliminated socially or physically to achieve that end, so be it. In fact, according to Dreher, a superb hedonism will be the payoff for compliance to the totalitarian order. We see this already in China, where if you try to make a flight reservation, you will receive a first class plane ticket if your social credit rating is high, and no ticket at all if your social credit rating is low. In order to get even the worst plane ticket, you must at least be “adequately compliant,” and the right to define “adequacy” is above your pay grade at all times.

Insidiously, we have already been prepared for this jerking of our collective chain by our technology. To “get the most out of our apps,” we “agree” to their invasive surveillance—which simply means we cannot use the app if we object. The “agreement” is not sincere, but entirely manufactured, since you cannot even access your own bank account online if you do not “agree.” A few months ago I finished Shoshana Zuboff’s magisterial book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (which is not portable by any means), and discovered that whether with our “agreement” or without, we are being painted into a plush corner. Our car insurance is lower if we give our insurance company access to the surveillance mechanisms on our car. We have the services of a submissive, female-voiced virtual assistant if we agree to have a surveillance device right in our homes, listening to everything we say. We can be “monetized” if our views are popular, and socially erased if they are not. We can tap to pay, but only if we give up the currency that gave our purchases a smidgen of anonymity. All the hedonism of a high tech society is ours if we give our bodies, thoughts, and any vestige of privacy to that society whose masters are our parasites. With an eye on the ever-present camera of social media, we live our daily life as actors and so we’ve already acclimated ourselves to living untruthfully and without privacy. Furthermore, we have been lulled into becoming accustomed to the pleasures of being the prey of parasites, and it will be a tough slog indeed to become unaccustomed once again—even if that were possible. Huxley, not Orwell, as Dreher puts it.

There is no force in the world that can stand before this totalizing power—except a sincere love for that which transcends the system’s power. Religion and family are the only possible sanctuaries from this new beast that both feeds on us and simultaneously keeps us alive and compliant so that it may continue to feed.

As Dreher points out, many of the religions of the 21st century no longer have the power to withstand totalitarianism because they have been watered down in the name of social harmony. They preach, Dreher explains, that God exists, but that all He wants is for us to be happy and to be nice to other people: the only sin in this type of religion is to stand in the way of someone finding their happiness by suggesting that some things are actual sins in the eyes of God and you shouldn’t do those things. So, true to Newspeak form, to think that there is such a thing as sin is the only sin. Furthermore, the notion that one would have to “take up the cross” in order to “follow Him” is viewed as heretical in this form of religion. There can be no spiritual meaning to suffering in this coopted form of religion. Of course, such a religion is a harmonious bedfellow with unfettered capitalism where “you can buy anything in this world with money.” In this cockeyed view, it is choice itself, and not “Choose the Right” that comprises the sum total of our freedom.

Dreher rightly explains that such a cultural context produces people who are literally unable to suffer for the sake of truth (or for the sake of anything). In fact, the whole idea that suffering might have meaning and even power seems “ridiculous” (22). Thus even the religious become so weak that they are incapable of resisting. Even a family-oriented person will rationalize capitulation by believing that resistance will hurt their family.

If a person cannot imagine resisting, then they will conform. Unfortunately, many will be conscious of the fact that they are conforming; that is, they know they would not say and do the things they in fact say and do if they did not face pressure to conform to the totalizing system. Yes, there are times such conformity can be trivial and of no consequence. But at some point, the willingness to conform and to self-censor leads into a dark fog where you assert things you do not at all believe are true, and you do things that you actually think are wrong. This is the territory where you lose your soul and any hoped-for personal happiness, regardless of your lack of socially-imposed suffering and regardless of the superb hedonism offered you.

So what is to be done? With Solzhenitsyn, Dreher believes that individuals, by themselves or in families or in small cells, can effectively resist. When we say “effectively”, Dreher is not saying that this resistance will automatically lead to the overthrow of the system, but rather that resistance will rescue one’s own soul and possibly the souls of others, keeping the seeds of renewal alive until the “kingdom of lies” inevitably falls (26; consider Isaiah 26:20 in this light). We can refuse to be “loyal subjects” (26). Dreher quotes Solzhenitsyn: “We are not called upon to step out onto the square and shout out the truth, to say out loud what we think—this is scary, we are not ready. But let us at least refuse to say what we do not think!” (26), and he continued, “Though lies conceal everything, though lies embrace everything, it will not be with any help from me.” [2] Even that small step will take courage in an age when silence is considered a form of violence. What is being resisted is not so much a political system, but, as Dreher puts it, “a rival religion” (51) whose theologically interpreted view of reality is so fragile and so obviously unreal that it must be defended with the utmost ferocity and puritanical zealotry for it to persist. [3]

This rival religion need not have a large following to be victorious. Dreher asks us to consider the Bolsheviks, who were greatly outnumbered in the lead-up to 1917. For Dreher, “their victory proved that under certain conditions, a clever, dedicated minority can gain absolute power over a disorganized, leaderless, and indifferent mass” (31). [4] And that victory can be far swifter than anyone could possibly imagine. That’s the frightening part. At the same time, their defeat can be just as swift: none of the dissidents Dreher interviewed had thought communism would be overthrown in their lifetime. That’s the hopeful part, reinforced by Christian eschatology pre-ordaining the vanquishment of all secular powers and principalities—which puts robust (as versus coopted) Christianity squarely in the crosshairs of this new religion.

Also in the crosshairs is the ultimate sanctuary for (nearly) every human being: the family. I have written elsewhere,

Rosen perceptively notes, “To be ‘born of woman’ is not merely to be born using a certain technique, a means that is suitable today but perhaps will be superseded in the future by our own ingenuity,” and then quotes Charles Krauthammer: “It [ectogenesis] may be severing the connection between the child and the mother, which is a way of protecting that child by giving him a belonginghood to someone who will care. Once you put him in an animal, which is a thing for these purposes, or a machine, which might happen in the future, you create a completely atomized and defenseless creature, and that opens the way to all kinds of tyrannies, social control, and lack of autonomy, which we would not want” (Rosen, 2003). As we have discussed, the mother-child bond is one of the most powerfully subversive forces opposing Satan’s plan for just such absolute tyranny. Erasing or severing that bond puts the adversary’s end game in view. In a very real way, you are free because you were born to a mother who loved you more than she loved the state or an ideology or a social system, and who would thus fight to the death to protect you from the predations of all these. Even knowing such love can exist, even in cases where your mother has already passed on to her eternal reward, gives you the courage to resist the large and impersonal forces that would squash you. Take her away, erase her, replace her, and the individual is truly defenseless. Motherhood lays the foundation stone of all freedom.

Anything, then, that undermines the bond between mother and child, and between father and child, undermines our freedom and leaves us naked before the totalizing system. We can understand how the increasing absence of, for example, fathers in their children’s lives helps lay the groundwork for totalitarianism to become victorious. Defenseless children seek the psychological security of totalitarian ideology, and the sense of control that violence and compliance make possible.

Aside from refusing to say what you do not believe, there are several other important strategies used by the dissidents of the Soviet era. I will not list them all here, for you really do need to read Dreher’s book instead of this review. But there are a few I’d like to discuss, as a parent who has been trying for years to prepare her children for a future that looks grim for Christians—at least in the shorter term. These are my own exhortations, though they echo many of the points raised by Dreher’s interviewees, and are all predicated on the first foundational steps of becoming a believer oneself, and seeking to create the type of family that will provide a sanctuary for those who will renew the future:

1. Your children need to learn to do hard things and make sacrifices, things that make them groan with effort and even weep with disappointment, and they need to understand that this is part of a normal, even desirable Christian life. Teach them that suffering can bring great power and great wisdom that cannot be gotten any other way. Help them see that they, too, are soldiers in the Great Battle spoken of in the scriptures, and that suffering should be borne without bitterness of soul and as if it were a gift designed to help one see more clearly (149).

2. Your children need to learn to live stubbornly in non-conformity, to experience and be content with being different and never being part of an in-crowd. Give them a chance to stand out as odd, either because of dress, or because they don’t have a smart phone, or some other obvious social marker that they are different. Purposefully construct a counter-cultural lifestyle in your home, picking and choosing the best parts of the culture to preserve and eschewing the rest. In the spirit of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, commit good words and lyrics and scriptures to memory to accompany you in times of affliction (especially in the case where these might become “cancelled” in the future).

3. Your children need to understand that as Christians in a post-Christian nation, they should not harbor high expectations of worldly success, but should still believe they could be happy and make a positive contribution to their world nonetheless. [5]

4. Your children need to hear from you about the boundary between right and wrong, good and evil, and to develop their own capabilities of discerning that boundary.

5. Your children should be very cautious about adopting any technology or lifestyle that strips them of their privacy or opens them to surveillance and manipulation, and teach them to actively seek out measures to mitigate their vulnerability.

6. Your children should hear the truth from you in plain language where the real meaning of words is preserved, and they should be taught that reality is not subjective. Teach them there is a Truth that stands apart independent from them and what they think of it.

7. While they are young, you should protect your children and strengthen them in the skill of discernment. Refuse to allow the totalizing system to reach and teach your children, insofar as you are able to resist.

8. You and your spouse should strive to have the type of relationships with each other and with God and with your neighbors that you would want your children to emulate in their own lives and marriages when they grow up. Teach them how to serve others and serve God, and how to form small communities of trust and belief.

9. Your children (and your neighbors) need models and stories of all these things to feed their souls, as well as the story of who they are, and stories about their ancestors and their homeland. Dreher calls this, “cultivating cultural memory” (92), and for a generation that faces the threat of soft totalitarianism without having been given any remembrance or knowledge of Solzhenitsyn’s gulags, cultivating memory is an act of immense charity. Help your children learn how to identify popular or promoted stories in their culture that are false and manipulative—and how to refuse to allow these stories to change their emotions or attitudes. Instead, in Dreher’s words, “fill their imaginations with the good” (109). It’s important to teach them to be able to read more than a paragraph for this to happen.

Dreher suggests that we not fear the darkness that is coming, but rather meet it with fortitude. The light will eventually win, and win for eternity. In the meantime, against the background of darkness, the light shines much more brightly than it otherwise would (123). Maria Wittner, a Hungarian dissident during the Cold War whom Dreher interviewed, perhaps sums it all up the best: “Someone who is afraid is going to be made to do the most evil things. If someone is not afraid to say no, if your soul is free, there is nothing they can do to you. In the end, those who are afraid always end up worse than the courageous” (146). Amen to that.

For those with whom this vision resonates, consider buying Live Not By Lies as part of your preparation for what is surely coming. I predict it will be of great value to you as you seek inspiration for your own situation.


[1] Here’s an example from that speech: “The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations. Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counter-balanced by the young people's right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.”
[Back to manuscript].

[2] It really is amazing to read Solzehnitsyn’s essay “Live Not by Lies” in 2020. Consider this quote: “We can see that the young and presumptuous people who thought they would make our country just and happy through terror, bloody rebellion and civil war were themselves misled. No thanks, fathers of education!” and “Violence quickly grows old . . . in order to maintain a respectable face it summons falsehood as its ally . . . It demands from us only obedience to lies and daily participation in lies.” [Back to manuscript].

[3] As Dreher pithily puts it, “Arguments with these zealots are about as productive as theological disputation with a synod of Taliban divines” (55). [Back to manuscript].

[4] I’d add “distracted” to that list of adjectives. In the age of smartphones, everyone is so distracted by their social media feeds, online games and porn, and endless YouTube videos that no one has any time left to actually focus and concentrate on things of importance. Some have even lost the ability to read more than a paragraph of text, or see any nuance or complexity at all in any given situation. [Back to manuscript].

[5] Learning a “non-cancellable” trade such as plumbing may offer more resilience than becoming a white collar worker who is far more easily pressured. [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Cassler, V.H. (2020) "Book Review: Live Not By Lies, by Rod Dreher," SquareTwo, Vol. 13 No. 2 (Summer 2020), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCasslerReviewLiveNotByLies.html, accessed <give access date>.

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