Monday, February 08, 2021

Live Not by Lies

The latest book from Rod Dreher is a sequel of sorts to The Benedict Option, and continues the author's attempt to navigate a way forward for orthodox (small o, although Dreher is big O) Christians in contemporary Western culture.  I found The Benedict Option stimulating and helpful; I think Live Not by Lies is a significantly better book, which I'd recommend to anyone - and perhaps especially to those who weren't persuaded by the earlier volume.  This might clinch it for you, or at least clear up some of those areas where you had questions.

The book falls into two parts, with the first part diagnosing the problem and the second proposing particular ways to respond.  The whole is really a reflection on the experience of Christians and other dissidents under Communism, in the USSR and its satellite states.  Dreher points out that various survivors of that context have been sounding the alarm at the direction of Western culture in the last few years, pointing out similarities to the rise of Communism in their youth.  Of course, we know that totalitarianism could never take off here - could it?  Dreher knows that we know that; but he also knows that the people of Eastern Europe knew that before the Communists arrived.  Everyone thinks it couldn't happen here.  Until it does.

Dreher describes the current situation in the West as pre-totalitarian.  He means that the situation is ripe for the rise of totalitarianism, but we aren't there yet.  There is some comparison with Tsarist Russia; there is some interaction with Hannah Arendt.  I found the symptoms of pre-totalitarianism listed by Dreher to be terrifyingly convincing: atomisation and loneliness, the loss of faith in institutions, the desire to transgress, the mania for ideology...  Yep, that's us alright.  The soil is prepared for totalitarian takeover, because the things which cultivate normal, healthy human society - family, community, hierarchy, limits - are so badly eroded.  It's worth noting that Dreher does a good job here, partly through the use of pre-revolutionary Russia, of pointing out that it is often the conservatives in society who have failed to make the case for these things; the liberals have not been forced to argue against the institutions of society, because conservatives have so obviously used those institutions to their own advantage, preventing them from working as they should.

But really, totalitarianism?  Could that happen here?  Well, Dreher isn't expecting state totalitarianism of the USSR type - not in the West, although of course that still exists in China and other places.  Rather, what he fears is 'soft totalitarianism'; what you might call social or cultural totalitarianism.  Where certain opinions cannot be spoken; where the pressure to conform is so great.  I don't find this hard to believe.  When I worked for the University, explicit support of a political position by staff would have been frowned upon; but chatting to people still there it sounds like the pressure to wear the rainbow lanyard and signal approval of a particular position on sexuality and gender has now ramped up.  It's just social and cultural pressure; you won't be fired for not going along.  But does anyone think that makes the pressure any less real?  Chatting in the pub, I quietly express my view that perhaps biological sex might be important; though I know a number of people around the table agree, there are nervous glances and somebody says 'you can't say that'.  You can't, you see, even though legally you can.

If you still think that 'woke' just means concerned for justice, and that political correctness is just politeness, I'd encourage you to read this book.  I think you're being naive, and I think in the long run that naivety is likely to come with a cost.

Having said that, I think the chapter on surveillance capitalism is a little paranoid.  So maybe I'm naive.  And I guess just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

The second half of the book is about how to respond.  The chapters are shot through with extraordinary stories from the Eastern Bloc - stories which illustrate the resistance which Christians were able to offer to Soviet-style totalitarianism.  Many of these are stories of suffering, but Dreher's interviewees repeatedly stress that the appalling suffering was worth it, was even blessed.  Each chapter ends with an application to our own setting, or rather to the encroaching soft totalitarianism which may lie in the future.  An absolute commitment to truth, the value of the family as the primary 'resistance cell' where values can be passed on, the need to have something for which one is prepared to die...  These are things we need to think through.  As Dreher highlights, it was a conscious decision on the part of these dissidents to take a stand; they had already decided before the trial came what they would do.  We must, of course, hope for grace when the moment comes, but we should not just assume that we will be able to stand then if we are not getting ready to stand now.

For those who feared that The Benedict Option was advocating a sort of Christian isolationism, I hope this book will set you straight.  I can see how it could be taken in that direction, but that's not where Dreher is going with it.  His stories of Christian dissidents who remained so open to wider society, even as that society turned against them, or who worked with secularists to stand against the Communist regime, count against that reading.  I think that he is just taking seriously that if you want to engage the culture, in a way which has the potential to be transformative, you need to be doing so from a place that is deeply grounded, from within a community that is committed to truth, from within a deep understanding and practice of your own religion.  My guess is that it is only with those things that Christians can have the courage to be open and to engage.

I wonder somewhat hesitantly about the intersection between Dreher's concerns and the movements for liturgical renewal in the church.  I think there is overlap in strategy at least - renew the centre for the sake of the church's witness to the world.  I think that is worth thinking through further.

The title for this book comes from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  We may not be ready to take a courageous stand for truth, not yet; but at the least we can avoid living as if the lies were true.  "Our way must be: Never knowingly support lies!"  I think Dreher is a helpful guide as we wake up to this responsibility in our own context.

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