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Jeremiah Was A Bourgeois

Theologian Hans Boersma on the prophetic qualities of 'Live Not By Lies'
Jeremia seated in the ruins of Jerusalem, published in 1881

Close readers of my work know that I’m an admirer of theologian Hans Boersma, and also his friend. When I was told that he had reviewed Live Not By Lies for Touchstone, I was nervous about reading it. I really don’t want to disappoint Hans! Fortunately Hans’s review was really good, which both relieves me and fills me with gratitude. He calls me a “contemporary Jeremiah” — middle-class hobbit that I am! — and says it may be hard to see things as so bad for Christians when practicing Christians like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, US Attorney General Bill Barr, and new Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett hold senior leadership roles in public life. More:

Notwithstanding such counterevidence, when I read Dreher’s latest missive, I cannot shake the conviction that he is a true prophet and that the all-too-common pooh-poohing of his warnings and the ridiculing of the advice contained in his latest “manual” are grounded in a serious miscalculation. In fact, the cold shoulder that Dreher regularly experiences, including from top-notch Evangelical and Catholic scholars, may be among the most telling signals that he is correct in observing that Western culture (including many Christians) no longer has the inner resilience or fortitude to resist the barbarians who—as Alasdair MacIntyre has rightly insisted—have made their way inside the gates and are ready to impose their totalitarian regime upon us all.

When it was announced last week by St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary that I was going to be giving a prestigious lecture there next month, via Zoom (register for it here), there was a general wailing and gnashing of teeth among some Orthodox theologians, steamed that a mere journalist (and a scuzzy right-wing one at that!) was invited to give this lecture. David Bentley Hart’s valve slammed shut with the clamor of a sewer cover plate, and with a mighty eructation, he issued forth a seven-syllable word that nobody understands, but everybody is sure must be unpleasant. Alas for them. The lecture I’m to give will be about what we have to learn from the witness of Christians of the Soviet captivity, about how to identify and resist the soft totalitarianism that creeps ever forward here. The lecture is named after the late, great Father Alexander Schmemann, who was a founder of the seminary.

In his diary, Father S. wrote (10/6/75): “My dream is to write for the people, not for theologians. And when I find that it works—what joy!” And he also wrote (5/24/77):

“Orthodoxy refuses to recognize the fact of the collapse and the breakup of the Orthodox world; it has decided to live in its illusion; it has turned the Church into that illusion (yesterday we heard again and again about the ‘Patriarch of the great city of Antioch and of all the East’); it made the Church into a nonexistent world. I feel more and more strongly that I must devote the rest of my life to trying to dispel this illusion.”

This is what I try to do with my last two books, Live Not By Lies and its 2017 predecessor, The Benedict Option. So many of us Christians — clerical, academic, and lay — are living in an illusion about the state of the churches and the faith. The house is on fire! Where is their urgency? Things are not going to come right again if we can only keep quite still and wait. Nor are we going to carry Christianity into the future by compromising with the world on non-negotiables.

Anyway, back to Hans Boersma’s review:

A book review cannot do justice to the main strength of Dreher’s account, namely his interaction with those who resisted—people such as Fr. Tomislav Kolaković, Václav and Kamila Benda, Alexander Ogorodnikov, and others. Their horrific first-hand tales make it impossible to ignore what they have to say about the fatigue of the West in the face of its current challenges.

I appreciate this point. Yesterday I sat for an interview by a podcaster in California. Before we started, he told me about a Russian friend who pastors a Russian-language church on the West Coast. He said the Russian has been telling him that he can feel rising in this country the same spirit of the system he left behind in the Soviet Union. My interviewer also said that some of his California friends who grew up under communism — I believe he said Chinese communism — have recently left California for Texas, because life in the Golden State was beginning to remind them too much of the old world. Finally, he said that his daughter attends a prestigious school in the Northeast, and that the students there are being encouraged to snitch on fellow students who express wrongthink. You read that right: students are taught that if one of their peers says something that in any way violates progressive orthodoxy, they are to report the offender to school authorities.

Why would people not want to know that this danger is upon us, so we can build defenses to protect ourselves? All I can figure is that it’s the same old human fault: we prefer not to know about things that upset our peace of mind — even if these things can ultimately destroy us.

Boersma — born in the Netherlands, and a naturalized citizen of Canada — sees hope:

The silver lining is worth underlining. Part of the advice, particularly for Americans, should be to continue Christian political, legal, and social engagement at every level. The past few decades have seen declining religious commitments in America, with church attendance levels markedly down among younger generations. This is an ominous sign, which underscores Dreher’s analysis. Still, as a Dutch Canadian, I cannot help but observe that significant differences still persist between Western Europe and Canada on the one hand, and the United States on the other. It is far more difficult for committed Christians to rise to the political top in Western Europe and Canada than it is in America. One simply cannot imagine the Attorney General of Canada launching a speech such as that of William Barr, adamantly insisting on religious freedom. The appointment of someone like Amy -Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court of the Netherlands is simply out of the question.

It is particularly Western European and Canadian Christians, therefore, who should take Dreher’s book to heart. For the most part, they have been effectively shut out from political, economic, and legal places of influence. (Unfortunately, by implication, Europeans and Canadians are far less likely than Americans to turn Dreher’s book into a bestseller.) By contrast, the pre-totalitarian character of American culture still allows for public opportunities to counter the nihilism of the woke capitalist tide. In the American context, therefore, as a matter of prudential judgment, we would do well to emphasize the “pre” in the term “pre-totalitarian culture.”

Is it, humanly speaking, likely that American cultural and political life will withstand the pressures of “woke and watchful capitalism”? No. Christians who care about the future of the gospel in America should give heed to Dreher’s manual. Live Not by Lies is a timely, perhaps even prophetic book.

Read it all. As Boersma points out in his conclusion, Dreher acknowledges in the book that few people in Russia really understood the horror they were inviting on themselves by trashing the old system. His observation took me back to this quote from a speech by the cultural impresario Diaghilev, at a fancy 1905 dinner he gave at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow:

We are witnesses of the greatest moment of summing-up in history, in the name of a new and unknown culture, which will be created by us, and which will also sweep us away. That is why, without fear or misgiving, I raise my glass to the ruined walls of the beautiful palaces, as well as to the new commandments of a new aesthetic. The only wish that I, an incorrigible sensualist, can express, is that the forthcoming struggle should not damage the amenities of life, and that the death should be as beautiful and as illuminating as the resurrection.

Twelve years later, the old order was swept away by revolution. Diaghilev, who was in Europe at the time, never returned home, and died in exile.

This, by the way, is why I do not join those on the Right who denounce the entire American system as rotten. Decadence there certainly is in some quarters, but people who are eager to bring it all down are not people who have paid attention to history. Liberalism (I’m speaking of classical liberalism, of which there are left and right variants) has reached a decadent phase, but we should be very wary of its passing, for we know nothing of what will replace it. Between militant wokeness on one side, and Gen. Flynn’s Christo-authoritarianism on the other, threadbare liberalism still looks pretty good.

About the Schmemann lecture, I want to say one more thing. There has been rather purplish rhetoric coming from voices on the Orthodox Left — that is, from those who want to liberalize Church teaching on LGBT issues. They correctly understand that my argument in Live Not By Lies identifies LGBT rights as the tip of the sword that the state and its institutional and corporate allies will use to oppress Christians faithful to Scripture and Tradition. And they rightly foresee that my lecture will make mention of that. I don’t believe there are good faith discussions to be had with Orthodox who believe that the clear teaching of the Church is negotiable. I do, though, think that it is well worth talking about what it means to live out this teaching in the contemporary world, and the challenges Orthodox Christians, both gay and straight, face in a world that at best fails to comprehend our ethic, and at worst despises it. But that is not the conversation on the table.

A reader sent along this commentary from 2019 by the Orthodox biblical scholar Edith Humphrey, criticizing a text authored by Metropolitan (Archbishop) Kallistos Ware, a venerable figure in Orthodoxy who, in the piece (a foreword to a book), seemed to be opening the door to revising Orthodox teaching on homosexuality, and sexuality in general. Humphrey dissents, lamenting that “this foreword is ambiguous at a time which cries out for clarity.” She goes on:

The Metropolitan makes the disclaimer that he is not suggesting we abandon Orthodox teaching on this matter wholesale, but rather that we “enquire more rigorously into the reasons that lie behind it.” I would have welcomed a foreword that actually did this, raising questions regarding anthropology, discipline, and sexual expression. Instead, His Eminence’s questions have led the reader to question the ability of Orthodox Christians to discipline their bodies, the wisdom of the confessor who is seeking the salvation of those who have same-sex desire and whom he loves, and the dignity of a Church that cares about sexual expression among its members. Indeed, he does not only commend an inquiry into the reasons for the Church’s teachings, but also “experimentation,” “creative courage,” and “loving compassion” that “acknowledge…the variety of paths that God calls us human beings to follow.”

I have seen this kind of rhetoric before and it leads in only one direction. What begins as a call to pastoral clemency frequently ends in an unexamined shift in ethical and social practice. In contrast, I would agree with my dear friend Bradley Nassif, who quotes Chesterton’s sage comment that one should never tear down a fence unless one knows why it was put there in the first place. His own article in this same issue of The Wheel, now available to all online, goes far in asking and answering the right kinds of questions, including why the Church, following the Scriptures, has set these boundaries.  May the questions we ask come from a place of knowledge and faithfulness, and may those who lead us couple pastoral compassion with truthful discipline. For true co-suffering love requires both!

Well, I may be wrong about some issues, but the thing you will get from me in my upcoming lecture is clarity. I will be talking not just about the Orthodox Church world, but about the life and faith of all Christians living in the West. I hope you will buy a ticket for the Jan. 30 online event, and tune in. Punches shall not be pulled.

(By the way, for you readers who are looking for the Study Guide I wrote for Live Not By Lies, here it is — free and downloadable.)

UPDATE: Here’s a post from Orthodoxy In Dialogue, one of those let’s-queer-the-church organizations, in which they are trying to lead a mass campaign to get me disinvited from speaking at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Though I am not orange, I am a Bad Man. Notice the unintentional comedy in this screengrab from the bottom of the posting:


We have to do everything we can to keep Bad Man from speaking — because we promoted the free exchange of ideas by offering a wide range of perspectives blah blah blah.

It’s terrific to see these people unmask themselves. They are doing exactly what Prof. Humphrey says they do: pretend they seek “dialogue,” but direct the dialogue only one way. I am grateful to Father Chad Hatfield for his invitation, and for holding firm. I certainly don’t expect everyone who hears my talk to agree with me, and I invite criticism. But these Dialogists are only interested in talking at everybody else, and silencing dissenters. Notice too how they aren’t even interested in whether or not one is Orthodox.

Well, I agree. If you are not an Orthodox Christian, but you support a true diversity of thought and speech within important institutions, I hope you will buy a ticket to my upcoming talk next month (online). I know that my Catholic and Protestant readers will enjoy what I have to say, and I bet some of my Jewish and Muslim readers will too. Here’s the link to reserve your spot.