Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher

(New York: Sentinel/Penguin, 2020), 256


Summary: Communist immigrants to the United States shared with Dreher that events in the United States today remind them of when totalitarianism first came to the Soviet states.

  • Some marks of the emerging totalitarianism:
    • Rights of the individual are being replaced with group-based justice; Good and Evil exists as power dynamics between groups
    • A utopian vision drives progressives to rewrite history and reinvent language
    • Elites impost constantly changing standards of thought, speech, and behavior. The consequences of violating the standards include losing your livelihood and reputation. Dissenters are marginalized as Evil.
  • Our spiritual lives must be in order to resist the coming soft totalitarianism
  • "You will not be able to predict what will be held against you tomorrow." (xv)

Part 1: Understanding Soft Totalitarianism

Chapter 1: Kolaković the Prophet

Summary: Dreher holds up Fr. Kolaković as a model of how we need to prepare for the coming Soft Totalitarianism: study the culture and prepare in small groups for the coming suffering.

  • Fr. Kolaković understood the Soviet communists and the unfolding of the Red Army victory over the Nazis in Eastern Europe. His mission became the preparation of Christians (and the underground Church) in Slovakia for the coming persecution.
    • Only a total life commitment to Christ would enable them to withstand the coming trial
    • He established cells of faithful young Catholics to come together for prayer, study, and fellowship
    • He adopted the Jocists motto of See, Judge, Act
    • Fr. Kolaković had studied Soviet communism deeply to prepare for his missionary work --> we need to study the ideologies of today to know how to respond to them
  • Totalitarianism: form of government that combines political authoritarianism with an ideology that seeks to displace all prior traditions and control all aspects of life
    • Seeks to define and control reality; truth is whatever the rulers say it is
    • Secular Religion: Fills a void previously occupied by religion
    • Embraces The Myth of Progress as justification for eliminating all opposition (49)
  • The new totalitarianism is Soft Totalitarianism: exploits modern man's preference for comfort and pleasure and convenience over principles
    • The relevant dystopia is not Nineteen Eighty-Four but Brave New World
    • Philip Rieff (The Triumph of the Therapeutic) was a cultural prophet: he saw the death of God in the West leads individuals to seeking pleasure and managing anxiety and predicted the devolution of religion into watery spirituality as realized in Christian Smith's Moralistic Therapeutic Deism: God exists and wants us to be nice and happy
  • This totalitarianism is more subtle than previous versions, and we can't practice Ketman (outward conformity with inward resistance, or hypocrisy)

Chapter 2: Our Pre-Totalitarian Culture

Summary: Many of the weaknesses of contemporary American society are consonant with a pre-totalitarian state, including our social isolation, lack of faith in institutions, and moral decadence. And we have an intensely ideological and progressive intellectual elite.

  • How communism came to Russia and Central Europe:
    • Marxism is a Secular Religion for the post-religious age, views history as a struggle between classes and religion as a drug to dull suffering and maintain control
    • Marxism appealed to the restless young intellectuals who were sick of the old order
    • Central Europe was desperate for any respite from Nazi occupation, and succumbed to the "constant, all-encompassing, everyday psychological and economic pressure"
  • How to see totalitarianism coming, from Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism:
    • Loneliness and social atomization: alienated people with little community are prime targets for totalitarian ideologies, cf. Putnam's Bowling Alone
    • Losing faith in hierarchies and institutions: "you can destroy as much by failing to build as by actively wrecking"; Philip Rieff: collapse of civilization comes when you can no longer transmit faith in institutions and customers to younger generations
    • The desire to transgress and destroy: immerse in the basest aspects of human nature as a form of "liberation"
    • Propaganda and the willingness to believe useful lies: living divorced from reality due to misplaced idealism or hating other more than you love the truth
    • A mania for ideology: totalitarianism is the politicization of everything
    • A society that values loyalty more than expertise: Trump, "cancel culture", and loyalty oaths
  • Intellectuals as the revolutionary class:
    • Miłoz: "...came to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy."
    • Arendt: a determined minority can come to rule over an indifferent majority
    • "Social justice warriors" (SJWs) are playing this role in our society

Chapter 3: Progressivism as Religion

Summary: The modern age is built on the Myth of Progress which replaces a linear Christian view of history as progressing from creation to redemption with a progression toward a secular, positivist utopia. Social Justice is the secular cult that enforces the march toward this utopia and holds that power dynamics between identity groups are central.

  • The modern age, since the Enlightenment, is built on the Myth of Progress, which as an ideology effectively becomes a rival religion
  • Totalitarianism embraces the Myth of Progress as justification for eliminating all opposition
  • Progress & History: rather than a cyclical view of progress, Hebrew religion moves in a linear direction from creation to redemption.
    • But, this doesn't imply that all changes improve upon the past inevitably
    • Modern progressivism originates in the Enlightenment with the replacement of faith in God with faith in science and technology, or Positivism: science is the source of all authoritative knowledge
    • Positivism expounded byHenri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, incorporated into classical liberal political tradition by John Stuart Mill and therefore the foundation of the American dream
    • Left and Right today is really a disagreement between radical progressives and conservative progressives over the rate and details of change
  • Dissent from Progress in the form of thoughtcrimes make accusation and guilt the same thing
    • Similarly, individual deeds and actions are replaced with social class and status in determining guilt or innocence
  • Social Justice in our society resembles the religion it replaces by filling similar needs, resting upon axiomatic truth claims, and engaging in "dialogue" to confess sins and submit to a creed
  • Core Social Justice (SJW) beliefs include:
    • The central fact of human existence is power and how it is used: the mission is to reorder society to make more just power relationships, and those who resist are practicing "hate"
    • There is no objective truth, only power: the value of truth claims depends upon who is making them
    • Identity politics sorts oppressed from oppressors: Justice is a matter of determining what is due to an individual not as an individual but as the bearer of a group identity
    • Intersectionality is social justice ecumenism
    • Language creates human realities: SJWs police the spoken and written word and consider their personal beliefs to be a form of uncontestable knowledge and disagreement as an attack on their identity
    • The secular cult of social justice is difficult to reconcile with its Christian roots: Christian social justice rests upon a Christian anthropology including the recognition that we are all sinners in need of redemption

Chapter 4: Capitalism, Woke and Watchful

Summary: Surveillance capitalism is conditioning us to surrender our privacy and political liberties for comfort and convenience, sowing the seeds of soft totalitarianism.

  • We increasingly live in a world of "woke capitalism" where corporations aggressively pursue "corporate social responsibility", and "surveillance capitalism" where corporations work to both understand and change user preferences for profit, both of which lay the foundation for a soft totalitarian state
  • Using vast data, corporations can identify and silence dissenting views, and government can manufacture crimes to imprison or destroy a reputation
  • China is pioneering the modern techno-totalitarian state with their social credit system (see China - Surveillance state or way of the future? | DW Documentary)
    • In a fully digital economy the government can instantly bankrupt dissidents
  • Living the truth is only possible within a private life; Kundera: "the moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, we involuntarily make allowances for that eye, and nothing we do is truthful" (91)

Part 2: How to Live in Truth

Chapter 5: Value Nothing More Than Truth

Summary: Lies corrupt our ability to think clearly about reality, so we need to prudently refuse these lies and accept the material consequences of doing so.

One word of truth outweights the whole world.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (100)

  • Fr. Kirill Kaleda: living in the truth may require limiting ourselves in other ways (our careers for example)
    • Yuri Sipko: If we take Phil-01 ("For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.") seriously we will live with reduced expectations of worldly success
  • Under soft totalitarianism it is more difficult to see the costs of compromising your conscience; we need prudence to know which fights are worth having
  • A society's values are carried in the stories is chooses to tell about itself and in the people it wishes to honor

Chapter 6: Cultivate Cultural Memory

Summary: Forgetting history makes us vulnerable to totalitarianism. We have to tell our stories and use memory as a weapon of cultural self-defense.

  • Cultural memory is the story we tell ourselves to remember who we are: totalitarianism's ambition is to control this memory
  • Modernity assets our right to choose and denies any stories/structure/habits/beliefs that constrain our actions
  • Family and religion are the two great institutions of cultural memory, as demonstrated by Karol Wojtyła
  • We need to build the parallel polis, the alternative set of social structures (families and small communities) within which cultural memory can be preserved
    • This might consist of seminars in private homes, Classical Christian schooling, and everyday acts within the home

Chapter 7: Families Are Resistance Cells

Summary: The Benda family of Prague is a case study in how a devoted family can protect itself while serving the wider community. Christian parents must be intentionally countercultural while filling their homes with the good things: guests, books, art, and life.

  • Family is where we first learn to love others and is the bedrock of civilization
  • Benda: marriage and family offer three gifts: a fellowship of love, freedom, and the dignity of the individual
  • Benda family advise:
    • Model moral courage: there are some things more dangerous than the loss of political liberties
    • Fill their moral imaginations with the good: their mother read to them for 2-3 hours each day (!!), especially from ~The Lord of the Rings: Mordor is real
    • Don't be afraid to be weird in society's eyes: if you do not strongly impart a sense of difference to your children, you risk losing them
    • Prepare to make great sacrifices for the greater good: don't make compromises for the sake of your children; our suffering has purpose
    • Teach they are a part of a wider movement: value diversity within a broader unity of shared goals
    • Practice hospitality and serve others: make a space for ordinary people to come together: film screenings, seminars, gatherings

Chapter 8: Religion, the Bedrock of Resistance

Summary: Our faith in God can be the bedrock upon which successful resistance to totalitarianism is built.

  • "A creed one holds as a statement not of one's subjective feelings, but as a description of objective reality, is a priceless possession. It tells you how to discern truth from lies." (cf Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed, 152)
  • Memorize Scripture: "Memorizing texts from the The Bible proved to be an excellent preparation for critical times and imprisonment. The most beautiful and important texts which mankind has from God contain a priceless treasure which 'moth and decay cannot destroy, and thieves break in and steal' (cf Mt-06)" (Silvester Krčméry, 153, 192)
  • When disillusionment with materialism comes Christians who proclaim a real alternative to hedonistic materialism will be beacons guiding the lost and tempest-tossed.
  • "If you are not rock solid in your commitment to traditional Christianity, then the world will break you. But if you are, then this is the solid rock upon which that world will be broken." (163)

Chapter 9: Standing in Solidarity

Summary: Only in solidarity with others can we find the spiritual and communal strength to resist totalitarianism.

  • Ján Šimulčik: only in small communities can people be free
  • Courage is contagious: when you see someone acting courageously, you will act courageously too
  • The atomized individual standing against the machine will be crushed: we have to stand together

Chapter 10: The Gift of Suffering

Summary: We must learn from the stories of those who have suffered and come to see suffering as a means of sanctification

  • Suffering is a normal part of life that teaches us how to be patient, kind, and loving
  • In ~Brave New World John the Savage is "fighting for the right to be unhappy"
  • Join your suffering to others to make it easier to bear
  • Suffering can be a gift, as in ~The Gulag Archipelago: "Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!"
  • Feeble faith will be quickly burned away in the slightest persecution
  • Aldous Huxley: to refuse to see suffering as a means of sanctification is "Christianity without tears"

Conclusion: Live Not by Lies

Summary: The secular, liberal "freedom" (from rather than for) is a lie, and soft totalitarianism bewitches us with the therapeutic promises of entertainment, pleasure, and comfort. Our mission now is to build up our resistance to these forces while we still can.

Source: Ben H


New Words

  • immiseration: the act of making miserable, especially impoverishment (28, 54)
  • febrile: feverish (46)
  • capacious: spacious or roomy (80)
  • aver: to assert or affirm with confidence (15)
  • doddering: mentally or physically infirm with age (132)

Created: 2021-10-30
Updated: 2023-01-23-Mon