Several years ago, while working for a company in Texas, I met a middle-aged Russian woman who was on-loan to our office to conduct some training. She was beautiful, happy, outgoing and easy to work with. During some down time, while several of us were sitting around, I asked her what is was like in 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Her bright face quickly saddened and she said, “I was a teenager at the time and I suddenly realized we all had been living a lie.” Her answer surprised me – instead of the happiness of being free from Communist tyranny – there was the grief of realizing everything she had been taught by her government, and had believed, was a lie. People had been imprisoned and killed by lies. Their society was ruled by lies. She had been living by lies.
That is one reason my interest was piqued when I heard of a book by Rod Dreher titled Live Not by Lies – A Manual for Christian Dissidents (Penguin Publishing.) Mr. Dreher is a conservative blogger and serves as a Senior Editor of the “The American Conservative.” He has also authored three other books – The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (about his late sister), How Dante Can Save Your Life (about his love for the poet), and The Benedict Option (a call to Christians to divorce themselves from the secular mainstream of America.) The timing of this, his most current book – being so close to an election that could have dire consequences for freedom in our country – caught my interest. As Christians, where should we stand should our government go completely in with the socialist agenda? If, on the other hand, we are able to keep ourselves from being sucked into tyranny this time, how should we live in a culture that is steeped in false narratives that continue to pull us that direction? This book provides answers which are both disturbing and encouraging.
The title of the book is a quote by the Soviet dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn from his final message to the Russian people before his forced exile from Russia entitled “Live Not by Lies!” In that piece he challenged the idea that the socialist, or communist, system was so powerful that ordinary people could not challenge it. Mr. Dreher sums up the rest of Solzhenitsyn’s essay:
The foundation of totalitarianism is an ideology of lies. The system depends on its existence on a people’s fear of challenging the lies. Said the writer, “Our way must be: Never knowingly support lies!” You may not have the strength to stand up in public and say what you really believe, but you can at least refuse to affirm what you do not believe. You may not be able to overthrow totalitarianism, but you can find within yourself and within your community the means to live in the dignity of truth. If we must live under the dictatorship of lies, the writer said, then our response must be: “Let their rule hold not through me!” (page xiv)
The book is divided into two parts. The first (the most disturbing) is “Understanding Soft Totalitarianism.” In these four chapters Dreher introduces us to the creeping totalitarianism in our country through the eyes of those who lived through it in the Soviet Bloc. These stories revolve around a Jesuit priest named Tomislav Kolakovic (to whom the book is dedicated.) He was a Croatian priest who fled to Czechoslovakia from the Nazis. As the war came to an end, the Nazi threat diminished and the Soviet threat increased. Kolakovic knew what was coming and started to prepare his congregants for the inevitable. He soon gained a following and they adopted a motto – “See, Judge, Act.” Be awake to the realities around you, seriously discern the meaning of those realities in the light of the truth of Christianity, and then act to resist the evil. His strategy worked – although the Slovak Christians were the most persecuted in the Soviet Bloc, the Catholic Church thrived in its resistance.
Dreher goes on to say that the survivors of Soviet totalitarianism are the Kolakovics of today – warning us of a coming totalitarianism – a “soft” totalitarianism that seeks to control all aspects of our lives. He describes this soft totalitarianism in this way:
This totalitarianism is therapeutic. It masks its hatred of dissenters from its utopian ideology in the guise of helping and healing. (page 7)
The author goes on to say, like all totalitarianism, this brand seeks to displace all prior institutions and traditions and bring everyone under the control of its own ideology. The most disturbing thing about this section is the way the Mr. Dreher introduces us, throughout this section, to the words of former dissidents and Soviet citizens – now living in, or observing, the West – warning us that “this was the way it started with us.”
The second half of the book – “How to Live in Truth” – is encouraging. It lays out specific principles and practices that were followed by Christians of all stripes that helped them live by the truth while under Soviet totalitarianism. Dreher does a manful job of research to enable us see these practices lived out before our eyes through the lives of real Christians who lived under a hard totalitarianism. The author groups these practices and principles into six groups:
- Value nothing more than truth.
- Cultivate cultural memory.
- Families are resistance cells.
- Religion: the bedrock of resistance.
- Standing in solidarity.
- The gift of suffering.
When I was a boy, I used to look through the training manuals my father was allowed to keep after serving as a soldier in World War II. They were concise and practical. They were designed to help him survive, fight, and win in a very hostile environment – a war. As a Christians living in America we are also called to survive, fight, and win in a war that is both spiritual and cultural. Rod Dreher has helped increase our chances of surviving and winning this war through this manual – I highly recommend it.