Book review: Live Not By Lies

Live Not By Lies: A Manual For Christian Dissidents

Rod Dreher

Sentinel, 240pp, 2020, £22 hardback (Amazon)

In Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, Rod Dreher analyses the current trajectory of Western society, warning of a rise in what he refers to as ‘soft totalitarianism’. Drawing from the experiences of eye witnesses to Soviet-era totalitarian regimes, Dreher warns that many today are surrendering their historically-cherished political rights within democracy in exchange for personal pleasure and convenience. In idolising safety, wellbeing and personal happiness as the ultimate goals in life, even Christians have embraced so-called ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ which relativises truth and leads to much cultural confusion (11-12).

Dreher finds inspiration for Live Not By Lies from Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s essay of the same name. He outlines Solzhenitsyns’ description of how to live such a life in ways that transcend the political divide. One who refuses to ‘live by lies’ will show a commitment to the truth by, among other things,

·      not writing, affirming or distributing anything that distorts the truth

·      not taking part in a meeting in which the discussion is controlled and truth cannot be voiced

·      not voting for a political candidate or proposal considered to be dubious or unworthy (18)

Soft totalitarianism

Dreher describes much of what is happening to us in terms of ‘soft totalitarianism’. What is it?

1)     It manipulates isolation via the power of corporations and Big Tech to drive ideology

A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality. Truth is whatever the rulers decide it is... wherever totalitarianism has ruled, ‘It has begun to destroy the essence of man.’ (8)

Interestingly, Dreher does not see compliance with today’s ‘progressive’ beliefs as enforced primarily by politicians, but by elites and private corporations, those whose wealth and power often drive the composition and actions of governments. This is quite consistent with concerns raised by 2020 documentary The Social Network, which suggested that Big Tech (Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Apple etc.) is gaining unhealthy levels of power and control over our lives. People are vulnerable to such behaviour as they are increasingly isolated and lonely, cut off from meaningful and responsible community, despite being more connected via technology (31). And so under the guise of a benevolent striving for just societies, Big Tech changes definitions and truth is reframed according to subjective principles.

2)     It defines its own standard of justice

Soft totalitarianism often masquerades under the heading of ‘social justice’, but it is something very different to that which Jesus teaches, which

presumes a transcendent moral order, proclaimed in Scripture... Christian social justice sought to create conditions of unity that enabled all people – rich and poor alike – to live in solidarity and mutual charity as pilgrims on the road to unity with Christ. (64)

Thus, Christian social justice recognises who we are as male and female, acknowledges personal sin and culpability, and is faithful to Scripture and cannot therefore join hands with the soft totalitarian reframing of justice which see the Bible’s teaching on life, marriage and identity as unfair and evil. (65)

3)     It demonises individuals who dare to oppose new standards of ‘progress’

Soft totalitarianism is not achieved by means of blatant power and control as was, for example, Soviet-era totalitarianism; rather it presents itself as a liberal force for good. Unlike older forms of liberalism which allowed for different points of view and was tolerant of such, Dreher points out that this new liberalism has little room for opinions that fall outside its self-defined orthodoxy. He warns that Christians who stand up in defence of the traditional family, male and female gender roles, and of the sanctity of human life risk becoming pariahs, leading to a loss of livelihood and reputation (xii, xiii, 9, 13).

Preying on social isolation, often exacerbated by modern technology, and manipulating a distrust of hierarchies and institutions, soft totalitarianism seeks to disrupt and reset God-given norms for healthy human flourishing. Any who dissent are demonised as victimisers who should be silenced in order for truth, righteousness and justice to prevail. Dreher quotes Rene Girard’s warning: ‘The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for the victims into a totalitarian command and permanent inquisition.’

Overly pessimistic or genuinely realistic?

Dreher does well to steer clear of partisan politics, highlighting principles applicable to both the left and the right of the political spectrum. The outlook he paints is indeed bleak. One reviewer on The Gospel Coalition website referred to the book as ‘overly pessimistic’[1] and suffused with ‘hopelessness’, while conceding that Dreher’s challenge to transformed practice of faith is essentially sound and commendable.

Responding to the assertion that Live Not By Lies is fear-driven, Dreher says,

I am trying to instill the rational kind of fear into my readers. I believe one of the greatest enemies of the church in this time and place is the middle-class complacency that everything is going to be okay if we just sit still and wait this out... we should listen to the immigrants who grew up under communism when they express their alarm at what they’re seeing happen right here...’[2]

Indeed, while Dreher highlights the trajectory of much of Western society, far from being hopeless, I find his realistic presentation and the solutions he offers rather hope-filled, particularly in reminding Christians of the importance of family life and Christian community.

Resisting soft totalitarianism

In clear fashion, drawing on many accounts of Christians from behind the Iron Curtain, Dreher provides some principles for resisting the encroachment of soft totalitarianism:

1)     Building model Christian families

Given the current onslaught against the biblical model of family life, it should be no surprise that this is one of Dreher’s first concerns:

In the coming soft totalitarianism, Christians will have to regard family life in a much more focused, serious way... the days of living like everybody else and hoping our children turn out for the best are over... if you want to love and serve the church, the community and the nation you must first learn to love and serve your family. (149-150)

2)     Anchoring yourself in Christ victorious

Christian families must be rooted in Christ; they must be distinct and set apart. Dreher’s first and second points walk hand-in-hand:

For those whose creed is Christianity, then in the face of ubiquitous hatred and cruelty, faith is evidence that the true Truth, the real Reality, is the eternal love of God... 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.’ (152, 163)

3)     Unity in small groups

Isolation is a tool of our adversary the devil. It is often rooted in pride and a feeling of self-sufficiency. Dreher sees the formation of small groups of Christians in churches as key to strengthening the entirety of the church. Here, as elsewhere in Live Not By Lies, Dreher’s stories are particularly helpful and inspiring as they point to small Christian communities meeting illegally across the former Soviet Union who were at peace in Christ and would not be defeated. These groups provided accountability, enabled people to bear one another’s griefs at the state of the culture, and allowed a framework from which to ‘see, judge and act’.

4)     Suffering with joy

Suffering with the undefeated joy of Christ is a principle found throughout the Scriptures. James and Peter wrote their letters with joyful Christ-centred suffering as a primary theme. At the heart of Dreher’s work there is a concern that Christians in the West are not really ready to suffer for the cause of Christ; and yet this is no new thing. He reminds us that the threat of soft totalitarianism is not so much that of physical pain to gain conformity as it is the manipulation of our fear of discomfort; Christians will have to get used to alienation and ostrasisation. We will need to stop being people pleasers and consider what God is most pleased with.

A call to dissidence without bitterness

Dreher gives many stories of redemptive forgiveness and what it looks like to suffer without bitterness. While the stories themselves are riddled with bleakness and tragedy, they are also filled with Christian hope. Rather than allow fear and bitterness to consume us, let us take our suffering and see it serve as a refining fire to purify our love for God and others. (206)

Published in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, Live Not By Lies presents a thought-provoking manual for engaging what may well be a more difficult coming normality than we are accustomed to. Former Prime Minister Theresa May and a significant number of MPs have expressed concerns over precedents set by certain COVID-19 regulations. Among Christians there has been discussion as to when it might be no longer right to submit to secular authority (Romans 13). These discussions are likely to be even more necessary if Dreher’s Huxleyan vision of the near future is accurate. Wherever we land on these issues, seeing the spiritual opportunity in the challenges to come is crucial and Live Not By Lies may help us to think through such questions.

Regan King

Regan King pastors The Angel Church in Islington, London, is author of #TBH: Basic Challenges to Millennials Who Can’t Even, and leads Pregnancy Crisis Helpline.

[1] Trevin Wax, ‘Are Western Christians Facing a Totalitarian Threat from the Left? Review: Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents’, The Gospel Coalition, 18 September 2020.
[2] Rod Dreher, ‘Evangelical Dislikes Live Not By Lies’, The American Conservative, September 2020.




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