Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, Rod Dreher. New York: Sentinel, 2020. Hardcover, 240 pages.
Rod Dreher’s latest book has gained as much interest as his previous work, The Benedict Option. This new offering explains the new world we’re in, the “brave new world” looming on the horizon, and how it all connects to the recent past of Eastern Europe. Live Not By Lies also wants to provide guidance for Christians as we descend into the darkness of “soft totalitarianism.” It looked like a promising read. However, it turned out to be less than what I was hoping for.
The strength of this volume is in its first part: Understanding Soft Totalitarianism. This part is more descriptive, historical, and analytical. Dreher explains that totalitarianism is about complete state control over actions, thought, emotions, and even what is and isn’t true. Soft totalitarianism “is therapeutic. It masks its hatred of dissenters from its utopian ideology in the guise of helping and healing” (p.7). Soft totalitarianism “masquerades as kindness, demonizing dissenters and disfavoured demographic groups to protect the feelings of ‘victims’ in order to bring about ‘social justice’ (p.9).
Dreher helpfully draws historical lessons from the Eastern European experience of totalitarianism during the Cold War era. He interviews people who lived through that horror and who see disturbing parallels developing in western democracies today. Chapter 3, “Progressivism as Religion” is the best chapter. It explains how the Christian faith and totalitarianism, particularly manifested with today’s woke leftists, are “best understood as competing religions” (p.56). So far, so good.
The subtitle is “A Manual for Christian Dissidents.” Dreher desires to help Christians dissent from the deepening soft totalitarianism. This is the focus of the second part of Live Not By Lies, How to Live in Truth. In this section too, there are valuable insights to be gleaned from the experiences of others who’ve endured communism in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, this is the weaker section of the book.
I say that for two main reasons. One is because I’d expect “A Manual for “Christian Dissidents” to offer authoritative guidance based on what the Bible teaches. The Bible is mentioned here and there. There are paraphrases from a couple of Bible passages and one direct quote. But the Bible doesn’t appear to be foundational to Dreher’s manual. The lived experience of people who were dissidents during the Cold War seems to be more so.
The second reason I found this section of the book weak is because of what it does, and doesn’t do, with the gospel. In some places Dreher mentions the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. However, there’s no mention of salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone. In fact, there are places where that biblical teaching is denied by some of those interviewed by Dreher (e.g. Alexander Ogorodnikov on p.196). Moreover, the book doesn’t emphasize how it’s the true gospel of Jesus Christ which can actually transform not only individual lives, but also entire nations.
These points won’t be surprising to those who know something of Dreher’s background. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1993 and then to Eastern Orthodoxy in 2006. Sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church led to his departure. However, Dreher continues to have a mostly positive view of Roman Catholicism.
That leads me to one of the other major issues in Live Not By Lies: its false ecumenism. When Dreher says “Christian,” his definition includes Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Baptists, Pentecostals, etc. It’s a definition that can’t be swallowed by a confessionally Reformed Christian. I can grant that many of the people interviewed in this book are religious, as is Dreher. I can grant that, in sociological terms, they and their churches are often described as “Christian” in the broad sense of being distinct from other religions. I can grant that totalitarian persecutors don’t care about our theological differences — they will persecute the devout Roman Catholic as a “Christian” just as readily as they will the Bible-believing Protestant. What I cannot grant is that any person who holds to the gospel-denying tenets of Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy is truly a Christian in the biblical sense of the word. As an Orthodox believer, Dreher holds otherwise. This is a dangerous lie which we ought not to live by.
His Orthodoxy surfaces at certain points in the book. Dreher describes “mystical awakenings” by which God is supposed to have revealed himself (p.197). He speaks of a prisoner who “was able to be an icon” to others (p.204) and an Orthodox father-son duo canonized as saints whose icon hangs in Dreher’s home (p.178). Dreher quotes a Romanian Orthodox priest who says, “You, my friend, are the unique bearer of your deification in Jesus Christ…” (p.160), referring to the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis.
Finally, Dreher’s focus is on more recent totalitarian movements. However, a Reformed reader can’t help but think of other historic forms of totalitarianism, especially those connected with Roman Catholicism. I think of what the Huguenots endured in France during the two centuries following the Reformation. What Reformed believers need today is a “manual for Christian dissidents” primarily based on Scripture, but also explaining how our Huguenot brethren dissented in their day.
Live Not By Lies is worth reading, but with discernment. It requires a cautious eye and a thoughtful mind. To be sure, Dreher has helpful insights to offer. But it has to be recognized that he’s not coming from a Reformed perspective, not even a Protestant or Evangelical perspective. He has an understanding of what it means to live not by lies that’s not entirely acceptable to a Reformed Christian. For us, living not by lies means we need to live by the truth of God’s Word as our ultimate standard. Living not by lies means we need to uphold the truth of the biblical gospel – that there’s salvation through Jesus Christ alone. Living not by lies means we need to experience unity with other believers only on the basis of a biblical faith.