Strong Review Of ‘Live Not By Lies’
Well, after hearing me bang on forever in this space about Live Not By Lies, I can finally start telling you what other people are saying about it. The book will be published on September 29; you can pre-order it now by clicking the link.
John Ehrett has a long, terrific review at Conciliar Post. The review is everything a writer could hope for: it’s quite positive (the most important thing!), but also deeply thoughtful, engaging substantively with the book, and critical at times, but in a helpful way. I’m really grateful to John.
He begins by saying that he read The Benedict Option three years ago as he was finishing Yale law school, and wasn’t quite convinced of its claims.
I thought the book’s dire depictions of creeping post-Christian orthodoxies were premature—and I had no interest whatsoever in (what I understood to be) a call to public disengagement. At the end of the day, I was relatively sanguine about the future of “liberal” discourse (in the best sense) in the academic world, coupled with an influential Christian witness in the public sphere. I was, in short, fully “Team French.”
But three years of working in the federal court system, for a DC law firm, and on Capitol Hill, Ehrett is no longer a skeptic:
But despite my best efforts, I’ve come to see that Dreher was right: there needs to be a “Plan B” for the future of American Christianity. What Matthew Arnold called the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith continues to echo across the American landscape, and the shapes of thoroughly post-Christian ideologies are now coming into view. Revival has indeed come to America, as so many Christians prayed—but not a Christian revival.
Dreher’s latest book, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, is something of a manifesto for this moment. At once both darker and more hopeful than its predecessor, it is ruthlessly clear-eyed about the precise threats it identifies, and yet equally clear-eyed about the ways in which ordinary Christians ought to respond to them. Perhaps most significantly, the book feels uncommonly personal, thanks to its heavy reliance on the stories of Eastern European Christians who lived through the Soviet Union’s totalitarianism—an analogy to the status quo that, as Dreher repeatedly points out, is admittedly imperfect, but that nevertheless provides a foundation for important reflections.
Much of The Benedict Option outlined an extended genealogy of the Western predicament (in the style of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, and Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed), but Live Not By Lies takes a different tack. This time around, Dreher sees danger ahead as a result of the confluence of three specific intersecting elements: cultural decadence and stagnation, a neo-religious progressive ideology, and the rise of “surveillance capitalism.”
You can see for yourself how Ehrett handles the book’s claims about soft totalitarianism. More:
But, like the “hard totalitarianism” of the Soviet Union, even this kind of social control can be resisted. The second half of Live Not By Lies is a sustained discussion of the ways in which Christians living under Soviet control preserved their religious, national, and familial identities in the face of the Politburo’s efforts to mold perfect communist subjects—and how those ways may be repurposed in the current moment.
It is here that the book is at its strongest, reflecting a remarkable depth of original research and reporting—I’m sure this is the first and last time that some of Dreher’s subjects’ stories will ever be told in the West. I’m doing no justice to the book by distilling its insights into a single list, but in a nutshell, Dreher recommends the following steps: (1) have a clear concept of the truth and do not knowingly perpetuate falsehoods; (2) cultivate cultural memory; (3) understand the centrality of the family as an independent community; (4) remain faithful in religious observance; (5) build small groups and alliances across old divides; and (6) if necessary, suffer in a spirit of forgiveness. All of this ought to be undertaken in accordance with the practical rhythm of see, judge, act: understand the nature of the challenge, think deeply about how to respond, and then proceed with conviction.
To my mind, Live Not By Lies reflects a clear understanding of the coming threat and—far more effectively than its predecessor—outlines practical countermoves in detail. But I would reach a different conclusion than Dreher about the exact nature of the coming crisis—specifically, I do not think that any coming illiberalism will be a form of totalitarianism directed against Christians as such. That is because I am not convinced that the social justice movement, such as it is, really understands Christianity to be its greatest enemy.
More on that in a second. Here’s something from the last section:
So when all’s said and done, is Live Not By Lies worth reading?
I don’t think the words “Benedict Option” ever appear in Live Not By Lies, but the new book nonetheless casts the essence of Dreher’s larger project into far clearer relief. It seems to me, having followed the evolution of Dreher’s thought over the years, that the Benedict Option—rightly understood—is about cultivating a kind of “monastery in the heart” that the Christian will not, under any circumstances, be bullied into violating. The walls of that monastery are built out of liturgy, catechesis, sacraments, memories, and family ties, among other things—and the process of constructing those walls, now and always, must be a fundamentally communal endeavor. This is the project that Live Not By Lies points toward, and on that front the new book is a great success. Add this one to your reading list.
Now, what I found most interesting in Ehrett’s review, and definitely something I want to think about, is his argument that Christianity is really going to be a bystander in the coming clash between Progressivism and Atavism. You really need to read his review discussion of the idea, because I can’t do it justice by summing it up, and I want to think about it more deeply before I commit to a comment. Basically, he says that in our post-Christian civilization, the Alt-Right’s ideas, including of racial separatism, are going to mount the true challenge to Progressivism, and that the best the faithful church can do is stand on the sidelines and serve as a field hospital to care for the wounded. I hasten to add that this is not what Ehrett, a Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) Christian, wants to happen; it’s what he sees as likely to happen. The churches cannot accept either “alien ideologies” of Left or Right, Ehrett correctly says, but it has to be prepared to be a “wartime church” to attend to the casualties to come.
Reading Ehrett’s review made me think about how much has changed since I finished the Live Not By Lies manuscript and today. The final version of it — as in, the version that could not be altered — was completed sometime in March or early April, can’t remember exactly when. Covid was new, and George Floyd’s killing was still weeks into the future. Everything that has happened since then has vindicated, and vindicated strongly, most of what I write about in the book. What I didn’t see coming as hard and as fast as it has is the racial militancy of the Left. It has swept away a number of conservative (or conservative-ish) Christian intellectuals, and have no doubt that it will call up and legitimize and equal and opposite reaction among whites.
I’ve been very clear that Critical Race Theory and its various expressions are alien to Christianity. This is also true of whatever white-identity versions of the same the alt-right comes up with. Racism, whether it goes under a left-wing cover or a right-wing cover, has no place in the church. I believe, though, that the fact that left-radicals have seized all the institutions, and are pushing their ideology very hard, even violently — this is going to legitimize the same identity-politics evil in the eyes of many whites on the right.
Going back to Ehrett’s point, I think that the soft totalitarianism will be exercised not so much on Christians exclusively, nor on Christians as Christians, but rather against Christians as bearers of hated ideas — about sex and sexuality, about the sanctity of life, about gender identity, about race (that is, if you don’t affirm CRT, then you will be no safer from the pink police state than someone who affirms white identitarianism), and so forth. I don’t think there’s as much distance between my vision and Ehrett’s vision as his review makes it seem, but even if I’m wrong, we both affirm that the church of the present and the future must be a wartime church.
The days of peace are over, whether you want them to be or not. Prepare.