Live Not by Lies

Rod Dreher, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (Sentinel, 2020), 256 pp., hardcover, $27.00

Published posthumously in Christian Reflections, “The Funeral of a Great Myth” is one of C. S. Lewis’s most perceptive and provocative essays. The “great myth” of the title is evolution, but Lewis locates the origin of that myth, not in Darwin, but in Romantic poets like Keats who lived and wrote in the shadow of the French Revolution. Darwin did not create the myth; to the contrary, his scientific hypothesis was latched on to for it seemed to give a factual basis to the imaginative myth.

According to the myth, each generation is an improvement on the one before. Unlimited progress is the rule; it cannot be halted. We claim that our belief in the myth is scientific, but it is imaginative. Yes, we claim to observe it in the acorn that becomes an oak and the embryo that becomes a man, but that is only because we blind ourselves to the fact that “the acorn was dropped by an earlier oak” and “the ovum and the spermatozoon came from two fully developed human beings.”

Real science shows us far more entropy and degeneration than evolution and progress, but we cling to the myth in the face of the facts for it appeals to our imagination. In Lewis’s day (as in our own), it is clung too for three additional reasons. First, it “soothes the old wounds of our childhood,” allowing us to blame everything on our fathers and so release us from the intolerable burdens of respect and gratitude. Second, it “pleases those who want to sell things to us,” for it makes of us consumers who must ever have the newest toys and fashions.

Third, “modern politics would be impossible without the Myth. . . . If the cases of degeneration were kept in mind, it would be impossible not to see that any given change in society is at least as likely to destroy the liberties and amenities we already have as to add new ones: that the danger of slipping back is at least as great as the chance of getting on: that a prudent society must spend at least as much energy on conserving what it has as on improvement. A clear knowledge of these truisms would be fatal both to the political Left and to the political Right of modern times. The Myth obscures that knowledge. Great parties have a vested interest in maintaining the Myth. . . . In Russia, where it has been built into the state religion, it may survive for centuries.”

* * *

Though Rod Dreher, in his newest and most challenging book, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, does not reference Lewis’s essay, his research bears out the persistence of what Dreher calls the Myth of Progress. For Dreher, modern society has bought into the Promethean lie of unlimited human potential, and in all three areas highlighted by Lewis.

First, in the name of the Myth, we justify throwing off all those traditional restraints—family, church, community, sexual—that we connect with our parents and their outdated virtues. Second, we demand the right to be consumers whose wants and desires are not to be curtailed. Third, we expect of the political realm, whether from the left or the right, unbounded freedoms without counting the cost of those freedoms.

In working out the multi-faceted dimensions and dangerous ramifications of this Myth of Progress, Dreher covers familiar ground, but in a fresh way that both clarifies and offers a new perspective on those dimensions and dangers. Here are some of his insights:

  • Conservatives have long taken solace in our belief that once students graduate from their radical campuses, they will enter the real world and regain their common sense. Today, unfortunately, those students have “brought the campus to corporate America, to the legal and medical professions, to media, to elementary and secondary schools, and to other institutions of American life” (8).
  • Religion has not disappeared but has been reformed “along therapeutic lines centered around subjective experience” (13).
  • Our increasing loneliness and isolation, our loss of faith in traditional institutions, and our growing willingness to believe ideological lies if they will relieve us of obligations have left us powerless to resist progressivist propaganda.
  • “One of contemporary progressivism’s commonly used phrases—the personal is political—captures the totalitarian spirit, which seeks to infuse all aspects of life with political consciousness” (39).
  • The ever-swelling ranks of Social Justice Warriors are “full of middle-class, secular, educated young people wracked by guilt and anxiety over their own privilege, alienated from their own traditions, and desperate to identify with something, or someone, to give them a sense of wholeness and purpose. For them, the ideology of social justice—as defined not by church tradition but by critical theorists in the academy—functions as a pseudoreligion” (42).
  • To oppose progressive goals is to oppose science, even if science opposes them.
  • The “Myth of Progress as it has been lived out in our mass consumerist democracy” defines “progress as the liberation of human desire from limits” (67).
  • “China today proves that it is possible to have a wealthy, modern society and still be totalitarian. The techniques of social control that have been common in China,” which Dreher identifies as mass surveillance and a social credit system that doles out rewards and punishments on the basis of carefully-tracked actions and expressions, “could be adapted by America with relative ease” (84).

Such are the symptoms and warning signs that America is moving swiftly toward a soft progressive totalitarianism. How does Dreher know this? Partly because he has read closely the writings of Solzhenitsyn and Miłosz, Orwell and Huxley, Philip Rieff and Hannah Arendt. Even more so because he has interviewed the people who are best able to read and interpret the signs: survivors, and the children of the survivors, of Soviet and Eastern European communism.

From both groups, the writers and the witnesses, Dreher learned how to recognize and frame the problems; from them as well, he learned strategies that we in the West, particularly those of us who identify as Christian, can use to prepare ourselves for the oncoming threat of totalitarianism in the political and corporate spheres. In fact, after devoting the first half of his book to diagnosing the problems, he moves on in the second half to offer, to quote his subtitle, “a manual for Christian dissidents.”  

* * *

Although Dreher borrows the phrase “live not by lies” from Solzhenitsyn, he embodies that ethos most fully in a passage he quotes from a Czechoslovakian writer who also witnessed the horrors of communist totalitarianism: Václav Havel. Havel tells a story of a humble greengrocer who refuses to mouth communist orthodoxies or to participate in their secular rituals, a decision that will lead him to be shunned and persecuted. His resistance is small, but it has a profound impact:

“By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted façade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked” (98-99).

As simple as it may sound, resistance begins with regular people rejecting totalitarian doublethink: not by writing pamphlets or marching in protests, but by speaking the truth and standing apart from the crowd. Only when citizens courageously refuse to live by the lie can the cultural memory of a nation be preserved, a memory Dreher connects to a “nation’s gods, its heroes, its villains, its landmarks, its art, its music, its holidays” (114).

A nation’s cultural memory forms one of the strongest bulwarks against progressivist totalitarianism. The elite disciples of the Myth of Progress know that; that is why they do all they can to disrupt the two main carriers of that memory: the church and the family. Christian dissidents must fight hard to keep those two carriers alive and well, ensuring that they do not cave in to propaganda and social pressure. In fact, Dreher speaks of the family unit as a resistance cell where children are trained to know and defend the truth.

The church and family can themselves be strengthened through a network of meetings and seminars in private homes where Christians can read and discuss forbidden books and topics that are necessary to the preservation of cultural memory. Dreher pictures these meetings as academic in content, but they also provide safe spaces where Christians can gather to “celebrate festivals, make pilgrimages, observe holy-day practices, pray litanies, perform concerts, hold dances, learn and teach traditional cooking—any kind of collective deed that connects the community with its shared sacred and secular history in a living way is an act of resistance to an ethos that says the past doesn’t matter” (127).  

We must not wait, Dreher warns, until real censorship begins to form these groups. We must organize now and plant the seeds of courageous resistance that will be needed if and when there is a clamp down. Perhaps the most important seed that must be planted is a willingness to take up our cross if we must. In fact, in his most controversial chapter, Dreher takes the Western church to task for its unwillingness to suffer.

We have become like the post-communist children of Hungary, who “have fallen to a more subtle, sophisticated tyranny: one that tells them that anything they find difficult is a form of oppression. For these millennials, unhappiness is slavery and freedom is liberation from the burden of unchosen obligations” (184). The progressive tyrant need not threaten us with pain and torture to get us to capitulate; he need only threaten to take away our comforts and pleasures.  

As I read Dreher’s closing chapters, I kept thinking of the apostle Peter’s sobering words: For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17; RSV). Dreher’s book offers a cogent analysis of the current dangers to our hard-won civil and religious liberties. But it also serves as a loud and convicting wake up call to a church that has grown too complacent, too willing to adapt itself to social causes that disguise themselves as biblical mandates for justice, mercy, and compassion.

We need to be woken, not woke.

Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his 22 books include Atheism on Trial and Lewis Agonistes: How C. S. Lewis Can Train Us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World.

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