It can’t happen here: A review of Live Not By Lies

By Francis X. Maier | Catholic World Report

In January 2017, three days before Barack Obama left the White House, the New York Times published an opinion piece entitled “Reading the Classic Novel That Predicted Trump.”

Written by Beverly Gage, it spoke darkly of parallels between the 1935 Sinclair Lewis fantasy, It Can’t Happen Here, and the incoming new president. In the Lewis novel, a populist bully, Berzelius Windrip, sweeps to power in the Great Depression. He attacks blacks and Jews, the “lies” of the press, and the elitism of intellectuals. He promises “every real American family” a cash bonus. Once in office, he locks up Congress and installs a homespun fascism.

As Gage fretted in the Times:

At a moment when instability seems to be the only constant in American politics, It Can’t Happen Here offers an alluring (if terrifying) certainty: It can happen here, and what comes next will be even ghastlier than you expect . . . If Lewis’s postelection vision is what awaits us, there will be little cause for hope, or even civic engagement, in the months ahead. The only viable options will be to get out of the country — or to join an armed underground resistance.

Time has been cruel to the Lewis novel. Fascism never came close to power in the United States, not even under the dreaded Donald. And compared to Orwell’s 1984 or Zamyatin’s We, It Can’t Happen Here is second-rate literature.

But the Times article is still instructive. It’s the voice of a coastal ruling class freaked by the prospect of troglodytes from the flyover colonies wrecking their lawn party. One needn’t be a Donald fan to read the last four years of media loathing and congressional guerrilla warfare for what they are: a slow-motion coup by the nation’s “right people,” the “best people,” against a vulgar — if, alas, constitutionally legitimate —intruder. Trump clearly earned part of that hostility; but only part. As a think-tank friend likes to quip, nothing is more suggestive of Washington’s entrenched government class these days than the 1978 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The aliens running things may look human, but they recoil and shriek at any outsider who’s not One of Their Own.

Here in the real 2020, the conditions that produced a “Big Man” style dictatorship — a Hitler or Franco or Mussolini — simply don’t exist in advanced economies. It Can’t Happen Here really can’t happen here without a collapse in the U.S. standard of living. But something worse can happen, as Rod Dreher argues persuasively in his latest book, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents.

As events would have it, we don’t need an American Caesar or the theatrics of a Rubicon crossing. Our political institutions and public consciousness can be, and are being, transformed from the inside out, without any melodrama. The result, says Dreher, will be a comfortable servitude, a “soft totalitarianism,” run by a technocratic, progressive elite, and supported by Big Data and a compliant capitalism. Everyday life will be far closer to the sunny brain-scrub of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than the shabbiness and goon-squad brutality of Orwell’s Airstrip One.

Dreher has been the canary in a cultural coal mine for some time. He wrote compellingly about “post-Christian” America long before many Christians were willing to admit the obvious. His best-selling 2017 book, The Benedict Option, linked modern believers to their monastic past for the tools to thrive in unfriendly times. He has two goals in Live Not By Lies, a fitting sequel to his earlier work. He seeks first to explain what’s reshaping American culture and why; and then to suggest the strategies needed today to live and witness Christian hope, despite the changing terrain.

Dreher has a simple, vigorous, engaging style, backed up by exhaustive research and numerous interviews with survivors of Soviet era repression. His book’s title — “Live Not By Lies” — is taken from a 1974 essay by the great Russian dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. And logically so. A survivor of the gulag, Solzhenitsyn committed his life to attacking the mendacity and murderous delusions of Marxist-Leninist ideology. Stalin and his millions of victims were not an “aberration” of the socialist system. They were the inevitable fruit of deceits congenital to Marxist and progressive thought. For Solzhenitsyn, the label “progressive” itself was a misnomer, an example of overweening conceit and skillful self-deception. The materialist view of man was not simply wrong, but a poisonous lie.

Dreher borrows this basic insight and applies it to the smiley-face atheism at the heart of modern technocratic thought. The lie that infects the DNA of atheism kills. Whether the killing is quick and brutal, or a slow, soft strangulation of the spirit, the result is the same.

Part One of Dreher’s book argues, to quote the author, that “despite its superficial permissiveness, liberal democracy is degenerating into something resembling the totalitarianism over which it triumphed in the Cold War.” Dreher examines the seemingly implausible, but very real, parallels between our own society and the ones that gave birth to the totalitarianisms of the last century. Part Two of the text outlines the “forms, methods and sources of resistance” we might use to push back against “soft totalitarianism’s lies.”

The chapters in Part One on “Progressivism as Religion” and “Capitalism, Woke and Watchful,” are especially strong. Anyone imagining big business as instinctively conservative need only remember the speed with which corporations jumped on the same-sex marriage and “gay rights” bandwagon. The lavish business support showered on the “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) movement is also revealing, since — beneath its calls for racial justice — the BLM agenda is toxic to what most Americans believe. The lesson here is simple: Absent a grounding in broadly biblical principles, corporations follow profits, wherever they lead. In Part Two, the chapters on cultural memory, families as resistance cells, and “the gift of suffering,” make for essential reading.

The excellence of this text flows not just from the richness of its content, or the clarity and passion of its presentation, but also from the providential nature of its timing. We live in a uniquely weird moment of uncertainty: a time of peril from a changing culture, but also of opportunity to witness, with our lives, the power of what we believe. It demands a new kind of missionary work, done family to family, friend to friend, local church to local church. It’s a moment when many of our Christian leaders, including Catholic leaders, seem too weak, or confused, or coopted — or dealing with regimes like China, too deluded — to inspire trust.

But the work of the Gospel still does need to be done. And that’s on us. It’s also why a book like Live Not By Lies is so important.

This article was originally published by Catholic World Report. It is republished here with permission.

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!