A Warning From Outside The Walls
I just received this remarkable letter from a reader, and have to share it with you:
I have never written to someone I have not met in person, so this email marks a first for me. I found your writing at TAC this past summer, and I’ve read your work daily ever since. I’ve subscribed to your Substack newsletter, too, and will become a paid subscriber once that goes into effect.
While reading Live Not By Lies and then The Benedict Option(I heard of LNBL first but then ordered TBO right away), I found myself continuously nodding and thinking, “Yep. He gets it. This is so spot on.”
I was quite surprised, then, to read the reviews by Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition (TGC) and Samuel D. James at Christianity Today (CT) because I read their blogs regularly and have generally felt them both to be rather astute cultural observers and solid writers. For the most part, I have agreed with whatever they write, probably because my theology closely aligns with theirs. Thus, their take on LNBL was a curveball of sorts for me.
How could they see your thesis as alarmist? How could they disbelieve the reality of soft totalitarianism taking over American life? How could they be so naïve about this when they are so insightful in their other writing?
I have pondered this quandary ever since reading each of their reviews, and I can only come to this conclusion. While we (the two reviewers and I) hold the same theological beliefs, we live and work and fellowship in very different cultural contexts. Trevin lives in the Nashville area and works as a Vice President at LifeWay, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. He writes regularly for TGC and obviously has many connections with high profile Christian leaders, pastors, and authors. The same is true for Samuel D. James who lives in the Chicago area (where Wheaton College is a Christian institutional behemoth and where CT also happens to be located) and is an editor at Crossway, a publishing house committed to Reformed Theology. In sum, they live and work and attend church in key hubs of Christian thinkers in Christian institutions.
Me? I’m a GenX woman who lives in Los Angeles County. I don’t run in the inner circles of conservative Christian publishing. I don’t live and work in a conservative Christian bubble. Far from it. I have lived in California my entire life, and I have raised my family here in LA (my kids are now 25, 18, 16), and they all attend public schools. The churches here, both large and small, should be a sanctuary from the insanity pressing in around us. Instead, the churches here do their level best to imitate the Seeker Sensitive model that came out of Willow Creek. The teaching is weak at best, outright apostasy at worst. (The adamance of these churches to remain Seeker Sensitive — given what we now know to be true of Willow Creek’s founding leadership, and given the fact that it has not resulted in the much-hoped-for-wooing of Millennials and Gen Zers — remains a mystery to me, but that is another topic. I realize, of course, that this is a sweeping generalization. I know of some exceptions, but the Seeker Sensitive model, along with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, remains the overall spiritual tenor of the churches in my area.) Basically, I live and work and go to church in Babylon.
Why have Trevin Wax and Samuel D. James viewed LNBL as alarmist? My only answer is that they must be too much encased in a conservative Christian bubble. If everyone they live with and work with and interact with are just like them, then why would they believe anything different is coming or is, in fact, already here? It’s not a part of their world. At least not yet.
Here in LA, though, soft totalitarianism is already everywhere. My kids’ high school teachers tried to fill my kids with ideas of Critical Race Theory and LGBTQ ideology. You should see the things my kids’ friends post on social media. They have completely adopted Socialism as the only viable option for “compassionate and thinking adults.” And if you dare breathe a word that counters any of this, you are vilified and canceled and labeled a hater. Facebook and Instagram are already removing posts that are deemed “hateful,” when in fact they are posts about God and the Bible. The algorithm-driven life is the foundation upon which this Brave New World of high tech is already indoctrinating public opinion.
Christians, churches, and Christian publishers must stop thinking these platforms will allow them to continue advertising their books and their messages indefinitely. It is only a matter of time before these algorithms completely remove all Christian content from their platforms (which is another reason why everything you say in TBO is so important).
And the legal precedents that have been established because of COVID-19 are scarier than the disease itself. For the record, I believe the disease is real, and I wear my mask whenever I go to the store (which is the only place I go anymore), but here in California, the extremely Democratic governor has issued executive orders (EOs) almost daily which have drastically altered the landscape of how the state can operate. These EOs continue to give more and more power to the executive branch of the state government. There is little power left to the people. We’ve been on lock-down more or less since March. The recent surges in hospitalizations we’re seeing now is due to the winter season coupled with extreme quarantine fatigue. If people visited their families during Thanksgiving, it’s because they hadn’t been allowed to see them all year.
All this is to say nothing of the anti-business laws that have been put into effect over the years. The California exodus is for real. My husband and I and our kids are next. We’ve just sold our house. The thought of living in a mostly Christian community in another part of the country actually sounds pretty nice. I don’t fault Trevin Wax or Samuel D. James for it.
There is so much I could say about the exodus happening here, but this email has gotten too long already. Just know that a regular reader of Trevin Wax and Samuel D. James thought their reviews of Live Not By Lies were way off the mark. Perhaps if they lived in Los Angeles County and raised their kids here they’d realize it too.
Keep writing. What you’re saying is so important.
I am so grateful for this letter. I agree that Trevin and Samuel are good guys, usually on top of things, but their takes on Live Not By Lies were mystifying to me. Someone else earlier this week said the same thing to me: that the world looks a lot less alarming from inside a bubble where you are guaranteed employment even though you might hold views the world sees as deplorable. But traditional Christians who are living outside the walls of the city, so to speak, know how vulnerable they and their kids are.
I dedicated the book to the memory of Father Tomislav Kolakovic who, over the objections of some of the Catholic bishops of Slovakia, who called him alarmist, prepared the Catholic people for the coming persecution. From Live Not By Lies:
In 1943, a Jesuit priest and anti-fascist activist named Tomislav Poglajen fled his native Croatia one step ahead of the Gestapo and settled in Czechoslovakia. To conceal himself from the Nazis, he assumed his Slovak mother’s name—Kolaković—and took up a teaching position in Bratislava, the capital of the Slovak region. The priest, thirty-seven years old and with a thick shock of prematurely white hair, had spent some his priestly training studying the Soviet Union. He believed that the defeat of Nazi totalitarianism would occasion a great conflict between Soviet totalitarianism and the liberal democratic West. Though Father Kolaković worried about the threats to Christian life and witness from the rich, materialistic West, he was far more concerned about the dangers of communism, which he correctly saw as an imperialistic ideology.
By the time Father Kolaković reached Bratislava, it was clear that Czechoslovakia would eventually be liberated by the Red Army. In fact, in 1944, the Czech government in exile made a formal agreement with Stalin, guaranteeing that after driving the Nazis out, the Soviets would give the nation its freedom.
Because he knows how the Soviets thought, Father Kolaković knew this was a lie. He warned Slovak Catholics that when the war ended, Czechoslovakia would fall to the rule of a Soviet puppet government. He dedicated himself to preparing them for persecution.
Father Kolaković knew that the clericalism and passivity of traditional Slovak Catholicism would be no match for communism. For one thing, he correctly foresaw that the communists would try to control the church by subduing the clergy. For another, he understood that the spiritual trials awaiting believers under communism would put them to an extreme test. The charismatic pastor preached that only a total life commitment to Christ would enable them to withstand the coming trial.
The passivity and conformity of contemporary Christianity is no match for what is here, and is coming even stronger at us. Believing, as Samuel James does, in the fact that Americans have historically been religious, and in the power of the First Amendment to defend us, is a dangerous fallacy. Christians (and other traditional religious believers) had better resist more directly when we can, and, like Father Kolakovic’s followers, prepare networks of support now, while we still retain the freedom to do so.
The California reader mentioned my Substack newsletter. I invite you to read what I’ve been writing there by clicking here.I’ve been writing it nightly since late October, publishing every weekday. The newsletter is more intimate than this blog, and focuses more on reasons to hope — that is, not merely reasons to be optimistic and happy (though I’m pleased to write about them when I find them), but on reasons to be confident in life’s ultimate meaning — that even if we suffer, we are not suffering in vain. I’m more overtly religious writing in that mode. I’ve been doing it for free so far, but after the first of the year, I’m going to a paid model. I’ll be charging five dollars per month, which amounts to about 25 cents per day. I hope you’ll take a look at what I’ve been doing there, and will decide to sign up, even if it costs you. But if you just want to read the archives, and read the things I’ll be writing over Christmastide, you can do so for free.