If The Benedict Option (2017) outlined a tactical Christian retreat, Rod Dreher’s Live Not by Lies (2020) is more of a battle plan for when there is no longer somewhere to retreat to. From draconian COVID restrictions and rioting in our streets to the macabre advent calendar of events leading up to the presidential election, 2020 has completely flipped the script on the comforting maxim, It can’t happen here.
The concept is simple. Dreher mines the battle-won wisdom gleaned from survivors of hard Soviet totalitarianism in order to prepare us for the soft totalitarianism at our doorstep. Dreher draws on Hannah Arendt’s work to argue that pre-totalitarian society has arrived. We share: (1) loneliness and social atomization; (2) a lost faith in hierarchies and institutions; (3) the growing desire to transgress and destroy; (4) an increase in propaganda and the willingness to believe useful lies; (5) a hunger of ideology; and (6) a society that values loyalty more than expertise.
The primary difference is that instead of red martyrdom, we can expect a martyrdom of white. Gulags and KGB will be replaced by the constant fear of losing our employment, the danger of committing “hate-speech” will castrate actual free speech, and churches that don’t drink the rainbow cool-aid can expect to lose their tax exemptions as per Plan Beto (that is, if the woke arsonists don’t get to the churches first). And we won’t be interrogated by secret police either: they won’t need to, they already know everything by our digital footprint, which is now everywhere.
Part one of LNBL offers a historical overview of how we got here, as it serves as a wake-up call to conservative Christians who think that we can somehow avoid this Pink Dawn through presidential elections, supreme court appointments, and by harkening back to our constitutional rights and freedoms. We cannot underestimate a rival that won the culture war, controls education, and now has the tyrannical overreach of big tech; this makes todays college campus radicals tomorrows political, cultural and corporate leaders. But the bigger mistake is for us to believe that we are facing merely an ideological opponent. Dreher persuasively argues that radical progressivism is actually a rival religion, replete with dogmas, purity codes and of course, an inquisitorial thirst for heretic-hunting. And this sets the table for part two of the LNBL, which locates traditional Christians in the cross hairs of this rabid progressivism.
As a reviewer, the joy of being wrong with LNBL was that I was expecting a battle plan for the coming Pink Dawn; instead I got a battle plan within a spiritual classic. Through extensive travel and interviews with Christian survivors of Communism, Dreher mines the spiritual treasures that can only be illuminated by the most unspeakable hardships. These chapters in themselves make the book worth its weight in gold as they illuminate and affirm the profound value the Christian tradition places on suffering. And this is critical because for the most part, Christians today are poorly catechized practitioners of a “Christianity without tears,” a form of therapeutic deism which will crumble in the face of actual threat. Dreher shares many strategies tried and tested in the underground churches of Eastern Europe to prepare us for travail, so as not fall prey to the trap of admiring Jesus when what He demands are followers. The kind of Christian we will be in the time of testing depends on the type of Christian we are today.
Amongst the true followers of the Via Crucis we meet in LNBL are Soviet dissident Alexander Ogorodnikov, who endured years of torture in gulags for his campaigning for religious liberty. His captors sought to break his spirit by placing him on death row, of which he recounts the purpose of his suffering (and please forgive the length of the excerpt below, there is simply no other way to do this story justice):
“When I went into the cell and looked at the others who were there, I told them, ‘Listen brothers, I was sent here to help you meet death, not as criminals but as men with souls that are going to meet their makers, to go meet God the Father,” he tells me. “Given that they always took people to go be shot really early in the morning, many of them didn’t sleep. They were waiting for the knock at the door to see who would be called out. So, of course they didn’t sleep. Neither did I. I helped them turn this night of terror into a night of hope.” The young Christian, not yet thirty, told these hardened criminals that though he was not a priest, he would still be willing to hear their confessions. “I told them I couldn’t absolve them, but when I die and go before the Lord, I will be a witness to their repentance,” he says. “If I wanted to describe for you their confessions, I would need to be Dostoevsky. I don’t have the words myself. I told them that God is merciful, and the fact that they are admitting what they had done, and denouncing it, would wash them and purify them. They were all going to be shot sooner or later, but at least they would die with a clean conscience.”
When the prison authorities realized that confinement in a cell with the worst of the worst was not leading Ogorodnikov to repent of his sins against the Soviet state, they put him in solitary confinement. “I was alone in the chamber one night,” he remembers. “I felt very clearly that someone woke me up in the middle of the night. It was soft, but clear. He goes on: When I woke up, I had a very, very clear vision. I could see the corridor of the jail. I could see the person being taken out of his cell in chains, but I only saw them from behind, but I knew exactly who it was. I understood that God sent me an angel to wake me up so I could accompany that man in prayer as he was being taken out to be shot. “Who am I to be shown this?” I asked God. Then I understood that I was seeing the extent of God’s love. I understood that the prayers of this prisoner and I had been heard and that he was forgiven. I was in tears. This awakening didn’t occur with all of those prisoners, only with some of them. Ogorodnikov interpreted this as a sign that not all of the prisoners with whom he prayed had been sincere in their repentance. As he languished in solitary confinement, the mystical awakenings continued, as an unseen force would nudge him out of sleep with a gentle touch. The same kind of vision played out in front of the prisoner’s open eyes: the image of guards leading a shackled prisoner to his execution. After this happened a few times, Ogorodnikov wondered why, in these waking visions, he was not allowed to see the condemned prisoners’ faces.
He did not penetrate this mystery until later, in a different prison, through what he regards as a divine revelation. In that small prison, Ogorodnikov was the only captive, and he was looked after by a single guard, who was clearly a pensioner, allowed to work the night shift because he was lonely. One night, he entered Ogorodnikov’s cell with a wild look on his face. “They come at night,” said the old man to the prisoner. Strange words, but Ogorodnikov understood that the old man was being driven to the brink of insanity by something and that he needed to confess. Ogorodnikov urged him to speak. This is what the haunted prison guard said: When I was a young guard in a different prison, they would gather twenty or thirty priests who had been behind bars, and took them outside. They rigged them up to a sled, so that they were pulling the sled. They had them pull the sled out into the forest. They made them run all day, until they brought them to a swamp. And then they put them into two rows, one behind the other. I was one of the guards who stood in the perimeter around the prisoners. “One of the KGB guys walked up to the first priest. He asked him very calmly and quietly, “Is there a God?” The priest said yes. They shot him in the forehead in such a way that his brains covered the priest standing behind him. He calmly loaded his pistol, went to next priest, and asked, “Does God exist?” “Yes, he exists.” The KGB man shot this priest in the same way. We didn’t blindfold them. They saw everything that was about to happen to them. Ogorodnikov fights back tears as he comes to the end of his story. In a voice cracking with emotion, the old prisoner says, “Not one of those priests denied Christ.” This is why the old man volunteered to keep Ogorodnikov company after sundown: memories of the priests’ faces in the moments before their execution haunted him at night. This encounter with the broken prison guard made Ogorodnikov understand why, in his mystical visions, he had not been able to see the faces of the condemned. He too would have been driven mad by the horror. He had to be content with the knowledge that because he had been present to share the Gospel with them, those poor souls, damned in this life, would live forever in paradise.”
Refreshingly, this is not the baptized stoicism we find so often in modern therapeutic deist writing on the spirituality of suffering: this is the old time faith, the intervention of the Living God in history. This is not hagiography but testimony recounted directly in conversation with survivors. And this gives LNBL its immense value: it is impeccably researched, with wisdom emanating directly from the mouths of those who suffered. What could be more valuable to us than the survival strategies shared by Christians who were able to keep the flame of faith alive through the unimaginably dark night of totalitarianism? And this is where his work really shines, making it a worthy sequel to The Benedict Option, by charting a path to resistance (for which a small group study guide is also available as a free download). Believers today, writes Dreher, must learn from the past and fortify their faith in order to prepare for what lays ahead. If we don’t, we will easily succumb to the lies and seductions of pink coercion.
And just as The Benedict Option has generated volumes of discussion and debate, the same has been happening since LNBL has emerged. An interesting thread is currently playing out on the blog The Gospel Coalition between and Trevin Wax and Thomas Kidd. While Wax argues that Dreher is overly pessimistic and feels that right-wing populism may pose and equal or more dangerous threat than the progressive left, Kidd argues that Dreher does not go far enough, that the bridge to hard totalitarianism is even closer than we would dare to imagine:
Dreher does not mention one of the most important ingredients that would allow American elites to turn soft totalitarianism into hard totalitarianism—the increasing concentration of political power in American life. Consider that before World War I, we had no federal income tax; Supreme Court decisions did not generally apply to the states; the federal government had no role in education; the vast majority of college students attended private colleges and universities; entities such as the FBI, CIA, and the Department of Homeland Security did not exist; federal regulatory agencies were almost nonexistent; and our military was miniscule. These things made us very different from the monarchies across the Atlantic Ocean, including Russia. All those things have now changed, to make us more like the former USSR. Today, one letter from one federal bureaucrat, or one decision with a one-person Supreme Court majority, can radically alter the price of faithfulness for Christians in education, business, or health care. As Ross Douthat recently noted after the death of Justice Ginsburg, “A system in which the great questions of our country are settled by the deaths of octogenarians is too close to late-Soviet Politburo politics for comfort.” Structurally, we are more like authoritarian and totalitarian governments than ever before.
Personally, I favor the argument of Kidd, and would raise it in light of three potentially transformative factors: the first being the emerging Defund the Police movement. It is a short leap between defunding the police and “re-imagining policing” in the image of the woke-state. And secondly, the erosion of civil liberties in the name of fighting COVID-19. If there is a ‘second wave’ or if there is some sort of mutation into COVID 2.0, all this surely greases a slope that gets slipperier by the day. And the last wild card is the presidential election. A contested election is a Pandora’s Box of horrors not fit for this review. But if Biden wins, Harris is a heart beat away from from becoming a the most rabidly woke president in the history of America; she has already publicly smeared her running mate as a racist sexual assaulter (imagine if he was also a Knight of Columbus!) The ways this sort of regime could impact religious freedom for traditional Christians I dare not further speculate.
This is a book of impressive scope, as Dreher successfully wears many hats: theologian, political theorist, sociologist, historian, but most importantly, prophet. Sometimes a book speaks to our times; and surely this is rare enough. Even rarer is when a book speaks to our present and our future at once. In LNBL, we are fortunate to have one of those extraordinary accomplishments in our midst. Don’t just read it: read it, and then buy a copy for each Christian in your life who thirsts to remain faithful to the deposit of faith—especially your pastor.