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Friday, October 30, 2020

Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher Book Review


"Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents"
Bestselling Conservative Rod Dreher Offers a Prescription for Culture War Combatants

On October 16, 2020, in a Parisian suburb, a Muslim refugee decapitated 47-year-old schoolteacher Samuel Paty. Previously, during a lesson devoted to freedom of expression, Paty had shown a Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting Islam's founder, Mohammed, to his students.


On October 17, at nine a.m., I posted Paty's photo on Facebook with a salute to his courage. Within minutes, I received notification from Facebook that my salute to Samuel Paty "goes against our Community Standards on hate speech." Note the capitalization of "Community Standards." This document, crafted by self-appointed Facebook thought police, is a new scripture, worthy of capital letters. I would not be able to post for a week. I contested the ruling, and by 10:47 a.m., I received an apology. In spite of this, I still could not post for the next twenty-four hours.


At the same time that Facebook removed a salute to Paty, social media was flooded with bigoted images of Trump Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic. Marc Murphy, editorial cartoonist at the Louisville, Kentucky, Courier Journal, alleged that Barrett, during her confirmation hearing, dressed in such a manner so as to send coded messages that she supports the misogynist agenda depicted in Margaret Atwood's novel and TV series, "The Handmaid's Tale." "The Handmaid's Tale" is a Christophobe's "Protocols of the Elders of Zion." Like that notorious forgery, "The Handmaid's Tale" depicts scary religious people trying to take over the world. "The Family Values party nominated a member of a sex cult," read one of many hysterical replies to Murphy's paranoid conspiracy theory, which was shared hundreds of times.


"Soon, with all the Catholics on the court, will they mandate the only religion allowed in this country is Catholicism? And of course declare this to be a Christian nation and abolish the constitution for their bible," wrote a reader at Slate, responding to Slate's article arguing that Barrett was about to single-handedly take over America.


The New York Times went so far as to conduct an in-depth investigation of Barrett's adoption of Haitian children. The most popular reader comments castigated Barrett as a white supremacist; her adoption of black children just proved it. Ibram X. Kendi is a high priest of the new woke church of perpetual racism. Kendi tweeted that Amy Coney Barrett is "a White colonizer" who uses her black children as "props" to disguise her white supremacy.


What exactly is happening here? In saluting Paty and naming his killer's ideology, I violated a new religion. In demonizing Christianity, others also followed the dogma of the new religion. What to call this new religion? In the past, we used terms like "Political Correctness," "cultural Marxism," "social justice warrior," "woke," "liberal," "progressive," and "leftist." I use the term "Team Anti-Western-Civilization," but this is clearly too awkward. We need a handy new term for a new, powerful religion that is now affecting all of us.


Marxism purports to champion the poor. In this new religion's rigid caste system, a rich black man has higher status than a poor white woman. Rationality provides no workable strategy to map out the new wasteland we all traverse. It is not "hateful" to call someone with double x chromosomes "she," but Twitter will ban you for doing so. But one can find, on Twitter, tweets alleging that "a cabal of Jews control world governments, the banking system, the media and entertainment industry to keep people poor, ignorant and enslaved." "Anti-Semitism and hate speech are rampant on Twitter."


Several recent books have addressed the new religion underlying the above phenomena. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay gave us "Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody." British author Douglas Murray dissected "The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity." Gad Saad, a Lebanese-born, Canadian evolutionary psychologist and secular Jew, has just published "The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense."


Tom Holland's 2019 book "Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World" proclaims the obvious truth: the West is inescapably Christian. Atheists can mock and rebel but they cling to Christian concepts of morality. As Douglas Murray put it, atheists "Dream Christian dreams. They still have Christian thoughts and impulses."


But Christianity as a religious practice is losing adherents. The "Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace," reports the Pew Research Center. What morality will arise once Christian-influenced morality finally disappears? Holland's musings on this question call to mind Dostoyevsky's famous quote. "Without God, everything is permitted." Once Christianity's influence disappears humanity will, as Nietzsche predicted, live by power as the only good.


Rod Dreher's September, 2020, Sentinel book "Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents" takes up the same tasks previously tackled by the above authors, who are all atheists. Dreher attempts to define the murky new religion now controlling our lives, and to offer an action plan for Christians and others who would resist it. Dreher is the senior editor at The American Conservative.


Dreher was raised Methodist, converted to Catholicism in 1993, and then to Eastern Orthodoxy in 2006. He is the bestselling author of 2017's "The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation." New York Times columnist David Brooks called that bestseller "The most important religious book of the decade." In that book, Dreher says that Christians have "lost on every front." Our current society is barbaric. Our barbarian rulers are "governed only by their will to power." They "neither know nor care a thing about what they are annihilating." "Our scientists, our judges, our princes, our scholars, and our scribes are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human."


Christians, Dreher argues, quoting Scottish philosopher Alasdair Macintyre, must emulate medieval monastic life. "A crucial turning point … occurred when men and women … turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium." Instead, they set about constructing "new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness."


"Live Not By Lies" offers a sequel to "The Benedict Option." The opening hundred or so pages, that is roughly half the book, offer Dreher's take on the enemy our culture has become. Dreher says he was alerted to this enemy by a phone call from an American whose mother had lived in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia. This survivor saw in modern American life reminders of life under Soviet communism.


Virtue is no longer about individual rights, but about rights assigned to privileged groups. A utopian vision demands the denunciation and punishment of transgressors, like the Indiana pizza parlor forced to close down by violent threats. A reporter broadcast a ridiculous story about the pizza parlor not hosting gay weddings; the restaurant owners paid the price.


In this new religion, what was acceptable yesterday is heresy today. "It masquerades as kindness." Dogma is expressed in constantly evolving jargon like "diversity" and "inclusivity" and has no real meaning: if you are Catholic and you are pro-life, you are excluded from "diversity," "tolerance," and "inclusion." Pope Benedict called this new religion "a worldwide dictatorship of seemingly humanistic ideologies." Dreher calls it "soft totalitarianism" and, after sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." Its dogma consists of lies; its power lies in terrorizing the population with show trials, often conducted on social media.


Dreher bemoans the "almost incalculable influence over public and private life" exercised by Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google. These companies can and do tell states what legislation to accept or reject. Dreher cites Indiana's 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law meant to protect small business owners like Colorado cake decorator Jack Phillips. The law was opposed by Apple, Eli Lilly, the NBA, and the Islamic Society of North America. "Equity, diversity, and inclusion" offices are found in 90% of Fortune 500 companies.


This new religion's reach is also described in a recent Gad Saad YouTube interview. Most of the granting agencies that fund research in the natural sciences, Saad reported, that is physics, chemistry and biology, demand from applicants a "DIE religion statement." DIE stands for diversity, inclusion and equity. Funding applicants must state what they have done to promote DIE principals and how their work will promote DIE. Right now the world faces a pandemic. Imagine being a vaccine researcher seeking funding, and being forced to announce how your vaccine will promote DIE.


Roughly the second half of "Live Not by Lies" offers examples of Christian dissidents who resisted Soviet domination. Dreher writes about famous figures like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel, Karol Wojtyla, and Milan Kundera, but also figures lesser known in the West including Stjepan Tomislav Kolakovic, Kirill Kaleda, Maria Wittner, Vaclav Benda, Silvester Krcmery, Richard Wurmbrand, and Jerzy Popieluszko. Dreher also mentions Catholic anti-Nazi resister and martyr, Franz Jagerstatter. These resisters lived in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Russia, Romania, Austria and Croatia.


From their lives and examples, Dreher draws the following lessons. Those who would refuse to bow to our as-yet-unnamed new religion, and those who choose to remain faithful to Christianity or even just the Constitution, should consider doing some or all of the following. Accept a life outside the mainstream. Form small, supportive communities of fellow believers. Maintain memories of the best in Western civilization. Host and attend lectures in private homes. Send children to Catholic school. Accept suffering as part of life.


I'm glad a bestselling author is bringing new attention to Eastern European dissidents and communist persecution of Christians. "Live Not by Lies" is a quicker and easier read than the above-mentioned books that also address the new religion we all confront. I had a few issues with the book, and on the off chance that Dreher would ever read this review, I would be remiss if I did not mention them.


My mother was born in a village in what is today Slovakia. My father was Polish. I traveled to what was then Czechoslovakia in the early 1970s, just after Soviet-bloc tanks crushed the Prague Spring. I've been to Eastern Europe several times since, and spent 1988-89 in Krakow, Poland.


I don't often try to explain to Americans how wretched Soviet communism was. We have been conditioned by Hollywood to regard anyone who condemns communism as a McCarthyite. Even popular romance films like Barbara Streisand's The Way We Were send that message.


Too few know that Communism murdered 100 million people. Even those who know this may think that those killings were merely the initial price paid to overturn corrupt, moribund monarchies and establish the worker's paradise, after which life settled down to free health care and concerts. Michael Ignatieff confronted this attitude in a conversation with communist and influential scholar Eric Hobsbawm. "Had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?" Ignatieff asked Hobsbawm. "Yes," Hobsbawm replied.


The wretchedness of communism was about so much more than massacres and gulags. By the time I spent a year in Poland, I had lived and worked in the Central African Republic, one of the poorest and most dangerous countries on earth, and also in very poor Nepal. In C.A.R., life expectancy was 49 years. Low-level warfare was constant. Slavery was still a problem. But in people's day-to-day lives, Africans had hope. The Africans I knew, though living in absolute poverty, expressed the conviction that tomorrow would be better than today, and that their effort would make it so. Africans' irrepressible vitality is reflected in Pew polls that describe Africans, no matter how poor, as among the most hopeful people on earth.


Yes, in Poland and Slovakia material conditions were magnitudes better than in Africa. It's hard, then, to communicate this simple fact: daily life in communist Poland felt worse to me than daily life in C.A.R. Communism isn't just a bad model for economics. It is a straightjacket and a gag that asphyxiates the human spirit and inevitably results in mass, petty pathology.


How to say this without sounding absurd – one of my worst days involved an attempt to get bedsheets for my dorm room. The woman in control of the sheets conspired to make my day miserable, for no discernable reason, except that she could. It was the twisted, sadistic pettiness of it all that confounded me. Franz Kafka, who died before communism arrived in his native Prague, knew how to describe the ugly absurdity of arbitrary power. Read Kafka's "The Trial," to get a sense of what I mean.


Daily life under Soviet communism was not romantic resistance. It was going for a walk in a park, struggling for air through steel mill exhaust, and a man in a pathetically shabby suit jumping out of the shrubbery and masturbating in front of you. It was days when you went to the shops to confront empty shelves. On one day, you could buy cabbages, on another, blueberries. One day bread, another day yogurt. Food, but never all you wanted, never all at once.


Daily life under Soviet communism was people shoving you on the sidewalk. We foreign students discussed this. Are they doing it on purpose? Consciously? A friend was pregnant. She said once she started showing, no one pushed her any more. Life under Soviet communism was small town streets paved with the supine bodies of inebriated men on Sundays. Their wives would come and try to shovel them up and get them home, and they'd rouse themselves enough only to wrestle with and yell at their wives.


One day I went to a bar mleczny in Krakow, that is, a cheap eatery that served basics like fermented rye soup, borscht, and sliced cucumbers with sour cream and dill. An old man in worn clothes, his sagging cheeks prickly and unshaven, picked up his potato pierogi and smashed it against his cheeks, smearing it into his stubble, as if it were shaving cream. He just sat there, his face besmeared with the basic starches and grease – flour, butter, and potatoes – that made up much of our daily calorie intake. That was communism. Ugly irrational, soul-crushing. Thirty years later, some of those souls have yet to bounce back. Life expectancy in the former Soviet sphere remains lower than one would expect for developed, European nations. Interestingly, Poland defies this trend. Its citizens gained in life expectancy after communism's fall, in spite of its rapid "shock" transition to capitalism, possibly because of "the country's strong social institutions." For that clinical phrase, think "The Catholic Church."


During that first trip in the early 70s, when I was a naïve girl visiting relatives in my mother's hometown, I met a priest who had been tortured, and who lost his mind. There was a blank-faced, stumbling body; there was no discernable functioning inside that body. A girl my age lead the priest by the hand. My mother said he was kept in the village as a warning. My Uncle Jan was a woodsman who guided others through the mountains, often hunters, but also a dissident scientist who had been made a non-person. This scientist lived in a primitive dwelling in the middle of nowhere, unable to communicate with his peers, cut off from intellectual life. No, he wasn't being tortured, he wasn't in prison, and they didn't kill him. His fate would appear on no list of the victims of communism. Our visit with this brilliant, isolated, effectively paralyzed scientist broke my heart.


I'm walking myself and you, dear reader, down this sooty memory lane, reeking of vodka and inhabited by sad perverts, for a reason. Dreher is asking his readers to be ready to suffer and sacrifice. That is right; that's what Christians do; that's what atheist dissidents do. But there's a phrase I heard in Poland during the 1989 uprisings. "Everyone is ready to die for Poland. But how many are ready to live for Poland?"


The suffering Dreher's American disciples will undergo will not necessarily be cinematic, accompanied by a poignant, rousing soundtrack. Once the street demonstrations in 1989 Poland reached fever pitch, once I was running for my life, stampeding, with thousands of others, from the ZOMO, paramilitary thugs who landed many of us in the hospital, life was thrilling. But outside of those demonstrations, life felt infinitely petty and pointless. The devil who will attempt to seduce Dreher's dissidents may not be a clear-cut demand to sign a document or lose a job. The demonic siren call may be boredom, friendlessness, loss of respect or income, and a sense of meaninglessness.


And, yes, this anonymous, isolating, devil of boring meaninglessness operates in lives of American dissidents, too, just as it did in those interminable bread lines and the constant breakdowns of that miracle of Soviet engineering, the Trabant automobile.


I never wanted to be a dissident in American academia. I wanted to get a PhD and tell my people's story through my work and help my students. I was told I was the "wrong ethnicity" and "too right-wing." I was told, to my face, that my being Catholic was a problem. In spite of publications and some excellent reviews from peers and students, I never got that tenure-track job. As a semester-by-semester hire, an adjunct, I was given to impolitic statements, for example, "I love my country;" immediately after that, I lost my job. My life lacks the thrill I felt when I was running from the ZOMO. I live in a garbage-strewn, high crime, low-rent neighborhood, and wonder about paying for groceries. Again, no swelling anthem on my soundtrack, no martyr's flameout. Just day to day drear. Surviving that, alone and silently, is my discipline. I know I'm not alone.


Dreher's followers need to know this. The price one pays for dissidence will not always look, to the outside world, like heroism. Witold Pilecki and Emil August Fieldorf, two men Dreher does not mention, were courageous anti-Nazi resisters. Soviet communists captured them, tortured them, and buried them in unmarked mass graves. Before erasing their physical existences, the communists defamed them with false accusations. These men were part of the Armia Krajowa or Home Army. Soviets labeled them "anti-Semitic," and, thus, an ally to the very Nazis Pilecki and Fieldorf risked and suffered to resist. That charge, that Poland's anti-Semitism made the Nazis' job easier, was convenient to the Soviets overrunning Eastern Europe. It was also convenient to Roosevelt and Churchill, who agreed, at Yalta, to betray Poland, their former ally, and the first nation to fight against the Nazis. During the war, Western media might portray Poland as a courageous victim. After Yalta, Poland became a despicable villain. World politics write history and play a role in your not knowing the names of Witold Pilecki and Emil August Fieldorf.


The microcosm is like the macrocosm. Express a pro-life position on Facebook and be called a "misogynist." Express support for traditional marriage and be called a "homophobe." Express support for children being able to live out their childhoods without life-altering, sterility-inducing drugs and surgeries, and be called a "transphobe." Link to accurate statistics on police shootings and be called a "racist." Mention the centrality of freedom of speech to Western Civilization and be called an "Islamophobe." Talk about a tortured priest you met behind the Iron Curtain and be called a "paranoid McCarthyite cold warrior." Acknowledge that "free college" actually does cost a great deal, and be called a "capitalist tool who votes against her own best interests." A Facebook friend who is a child of Holocaust survivors, and relative of Holocaust victims, is regularly called a "Nazi" because she supports Israel's right to exist.


Sometimes, to observers, heroes will look like the scum of the earth, before they are disappeared forever, without ever having had the chance to tell their story. Many of the dissidents Dreher describes survived torture in prison, but then went on to rehabilitation. Some joined post-Communists governments. Some wrote memoirs that are cherished by believers worldwide. These happy endings are granted to very few. For many of us, being a dissident means, simply, wondering how you will pay rent.


In "Live Not by Lies," Dreher quotes Maria Wittner about her experience of arrest and imprisonment after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Wittner mentions a friend, Catherine. Communists hanged Catherine. Before dying, Catherine "straightened herself up and went with her back ramrod straight." There is no further mention of Catherine in Dreher's book. I am most touched by Catherine, and I know virtually nothing about her, including her last name. I admire the superstars, Lech Walesa, Karol Wojtyla, and Vaclav Havel, who passed through a period of anonymous suffering but emerged, respectively, as TIME man-of-the-year and a Nobel Prize winner, a pope and a canonized saint, and a friend of Frank Zappa. Catherine is like most dissidents. Her courage will never be known to the wider world, and no one can visit her tomb, because it's probably an unmarked, mass grave. The Catherines deserve to inhabit our consciences, instruct our concerns for our own futures, and educate us about our judgments of others as much as do the superstars.


Dreher and his disciples need to know this. By dissenting, they may be inviting the kind of exhilaration that we enjoyed when taunting the ZOMO, and then running for our lives. They may even win Nobel prizes. Or they may disappoint their loved ones by becoming "losers," and their kids may have to go a week eating not much more than potatoes. The temptation the devil sends them may not be anything as exotic as the fleshpots of Egypt; it may be something as simple as adjusting one's speech to gain access to a Twitter account.


Even bestselling Christians are not above judging their poor fellow Christians as "losers." "You don't want the destructive culture of the poor imported into your neighborhood. Drive over to the poor part of town, and see what a shithole it is. Do you want the people who turned their neighborhood a shithole to bring the shithole to your street? No, you don't. Be honest, you don't." The bestselling Christian who wrote these words about the poor is Rod Dreher.


What I want to shout to Dreher's readers is this: please don't think that you doing Christianity wrong if you practice all the courage of the Eastern European dissidents Dreher describes and you do not attain a halo, your loved ones express contempt for you, and your prayer life feels like a monologue to no one, spoken in the desert.


I've got a second issue with Dreher's book, and this one is difficult to talk about. I've been insisting in my own published writing for years (see here and here) what Tom Holland seems to have just realized. Western Civilization is Judeo-Christian. That many Westerners are not religious is not the point. Rather, our concepts of right and wrong, our insistence that "All men are created equal," are inheritances from the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Western history, there have been attempts completely to root out Christianity's influence, and those attempts have often ended very badly (see here and here). New Atheist authors like Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose insist that humans are rational. Human reason, stripped of any religious underpinning, can and will result in moral societies. I see more support for Tom Holland's fear that Nietzschean struggle for power will dominate.


So, yes, along with Dreher, I vote for institutional Christianity, even in so simple a form as a house church, as a good.


But. I think Dreher has gotten a couple of things wrong here. America today is significantly different from Soviet-era Eastern Europe, and Soviet-era Eastern Europe is not exactly as Dreher implies.


"Religion is at the core of effective resistance," Dreher writes. "The underground church became the principal means of anti-communist dissent for the next forty years." Yes, the overall message of Christianity was a driving force for dissident movements. Yes, the institutional church offered support. Yes, totalitarians singled out the church for persecution. The "priest's barracks" at Dachau was "the largest monastery in Germany." Yes, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox religious leaders were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by Soviets and Nazis alike.


This is all true. It's also true that not all Christians in Eastern Europe were dissidents, and not all dissidents were Christians. Lech Walesa was obviously, devoutly, Catholic, and close to the pope. Adam Michnik, no less an important figure in Solidarity and the downfall of communism, was a secular Jew. His parents and brother were leading communists. Jacek Kuron, "the godfather of the Polish opposition" self-identified as a "non-believing Christian" who followed Christian teachings but did not believe in God. When asked who ended Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, Lech Walesa included American journalists. Yes, the very same New York Times that so mishandled the Holodomor, the Holocaust, and the 1619 Project published John Darnton's Pulitzer-Prize-winning coverage of martial law in Poland.


I met a Pagan dissident who worshipped the ancient Slavic god Swiatowid. I participated in actions by the Orange Alternative, a surrealist dissident group without religious identity. In those protests, we used humor, for example by chanting the slogan, "Citizen, help the militia! Beat yourself up!"


During one Krakow dusk thirty-one years ago, hundreds of us were gathered in the Rynek, the thirteenth-century square. I couldn't make out the words of the speeches. I was, like a nostril-quivering gazelle on the Serengeti, balanced on the balls of my feet, ready to spring. The ZOMO could start a baton charge at any moment, from any direction. My body bore technicolor bruises from previous encounters.


A young Punk stood in front of me. He was about 17 years old. Skinny, small, tattooed, with spiked hair, ripped clothes, and safety pins in his multiply-pierced earlobes. He was carrying a khaki green backpack.


Somewhere in the dusk, it began with one voice. "Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła." "Poland is not yet lost while we remain alive." The national anthem. Others picked it up. I began to sing.


The anonymous young Punk standing in front of me let his backpack slide down off of his shoulders onto the ancient cobblestones. His shoulders pressed back. He stood  straight as an uhlan, those legendary Polish cavalrymen. His whole affect changed; suddenly, he was no longer a slack-spined, ironic-lipped, lounging Punk, disciple of Johnny Rotten. He was a Polish patriot, ready to give his all for his homeland. He belted out the national anthem with earnest conviction. That kid, that moment, was one of the lightning bolts illuminating the no-exit drear that was Soviet-era Poland.


I mention these atheists, communists, Jews, Pagans, Punks, surrealist pranksters and the New York Times for this reason. Dreher's approach strikes me as a tad smug. "We're the Christians; we've got it right; the rest of you are doing it wrong; we will retreat from you and will associate only with the right people. We'll emerge periodically to broadcast our correctness via bullhorns."


It didn't work that way in Eastern Europe. Non-Christians were essential participants in bringing down Communism. "Divide and conquer" was a tried-and-true tactic of Poland's totalitarian invaders. Nazis and communists worked hard to sow animosity between Christians and Jews, workers and intellectuals, urbanites and farmers. "Solidarity" referred to the miraculous union of religious workers, embodied by Walesa, and secular, even leftist, intelligentsia, epitomized by Michnik.


There are many articulate, empowered atheists tilting at the exact same dragons that Dreher is taking on. I've listed many of them here: Pinker, Lindsay, Pluckrose, Holland, Murray, Saad. Not a few of the folks taking on the new religion are gay: Dave Rubin, Douglas Murray, Bruce Bawer, Andrew Sullivan. Christians should be forging strategic alliances with these courageous figures.


Dreher wants Christians who resist the new religion to form small groups of mutual support. As I've described in detail in my other writing, I embarked on the quest for a PhD as a wide-eyed, first generation, working class, Polish-Slovak-American Catholic. My collision with academia almost killed me, and that's not a metaphor. After a particularly unfortunate encounter with a very powerful professor, my inner ear burst and I spent the next six years functionally blinded and paralyzed much of the time, and unable to stop vomiting. I could not work; I lost my life savings. After a pro bono surgery, I hit the job market, and was repeatedly told I was the "wrong ethnicity" and that I was "too right-wing" to be on a university campus.


As Dreher prescribes, I have a support network, and that support network has held my hand and pushed me forward. There's been Don Friedkin, Stuart Vail, Laurie Skopitz, Roman Solecki, Nachman, Morton, Robin, Alex, Sue, Paul Kujawsky, Karen, Otto Gross, Simon, John, Sandy, Danuta, and others. A few of these folks have stuck with me for decades. I can have serious conversations with all of them about what's happening in our culture. They educate me, and they are willing to learn from me. Not a single one of these people is a practicing Catholic. Most are secular Jews. A couple are former Christians and current atheists. 


I am still Catholic, but all too often, when I knock on my church door, I hear a hollow sound. When I was diagnosed with cancer and told I would probably die, I asked for a visit with a priest. I couldn't get one. Instead, a New Age priestess who volunteers at the hospital rubbed my feet and talked to me soothingly about death. Liron, an Israeli I've never met, reads everything I write and offers insight from her considerable knowledge. You are reading this thanks to David Horowitz, a secular Jew.


When I try to give as well as take, the door still remains closed. I asked a priest at a campus Catholic center if I could, for free, offer talks on Islam. Students were convinced that Islam emerged before Judaism and Christianity, that it is a "religion of peace," and that the Crusades were all about Christians marching to Jerusalem to force Muslims to convert. I wanted to provide the students with the basic facts: who, what, when, where, why, how. The priest said no; he was afraid such talks might cause a stir. I've had too many similarly disappointing encounters with institutional Protestantism. I was being considered for a tenure-track position at a Protestant college. I was hopeful. Suddenly, the hammer came down. The college does not hire Catholics. Is such internecine sectarianism a worthy focus at this time of crisis?


On social media, I've encountered Catholics who are more woke than Antifa; on their Facebook pages, one proves one's virtue by bashing white people incessantly. On the page of a mild-mannered liberal priest, a Catholic who questioned the insertion of BLM dogma into Catholic practice was immediately labeled a "racist." I've visited the Facebook pages of conservative Catholics, where conservatives dismiss their fellow Catholics as "Bolsheviks," "fools," and "stupid."


Dreher is wrong about this: we American Christians are not analogous to Christians persecuted under communism. We are the ones closing Catholic schools, by not sending our kids to them. We are the ones sentencing young people to lies, because we aren't addressing what's happening in education. We are the ones dividing and conquering. We are the ones who have lost the commission to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and to announce our identity with the love we show each other.


Dreher says we need support groups to aid us through trials. He's right. We need Christians who emulate Jesus in such groups. Jesus made people feel that they could go on through anything. How? Jesus made people feel that their most private, pressing sleepless nights mattered to the God of the universe. A lonely and poor woman had a wound that wouldn't heal. A smart-mouthed woman was in a series of bad relationships with men who wouldn't commit to marriage. Newlyweds ran out of wine. Those listening to Jesus preach got hungry. A shepherd lost a lamb. A father's son went astray. Jesus focused on the individual and cared about what he or she cared about. That's why we are still caring about Jesus 2,000 years after his ignominious, prisoner's death.


Maybe, in his next book, Dreher could talk to lapsed Christians who need and want supportive fellowship and haven't been able to find such fellowship in the church, but have found it elsewhere – among Jews and atheists, lapsed Christians and gay people, in Twelve Step groups and on private Facebook pages. Such accounts could help Christians to understand how better to nurture the kind of groups Dreher envisions.


Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery

You can find this review at Front Page Magazine here

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Roses for Others


I'm closer to death than to birth now, and it's safe to say that none of the prayers I offered God most fervently were answered.


That Mike not die of cancer. That the beatings and abuse in my childhood would stop. That I would have what normal people have: health, a job, some kind of family or home.


No, no, no, no, no.


There's one "no" that really rankles.


My getting a PhD was a Sisyphean task. Harassed by a powerful black, female professor who had the entire university behind her in public -- but in private that very university used her abuse of me to sabotage her.


I came out of all that chronically ill and crippled for life.


But I soldiered on, for people like my parents, for Bohunks. I wanted to write and publish a book that would make a difference for us.


Living on nothing. Eating food I acquired in ways you don't want to hear about, fighting back the constant nausea from my crushed inner ear.


I wrote the book and publishers  immediately pounced on it. Ohio University Press sent me a signed contract. "Groundbreaking!" "Wonderful!"


And, after a year of stringing me along, they reneged, and pulled out. Fear. The book was "controversial."


That happened again and again, with one publisher after another. Fordham, U of Wisconsin, CEU, etc


Meanwhile, having paid all my student loan debt back immediately after graduating, I had *nothing.* I ate ... again ... you don't want to know.


I was totally alone.


I couldn't find a job


Life was lived under a constant gray haze of isolation and despair.


I was back in Paterson, applying for hundreds of jobs and not getting so much as an interview. I didn't realize it at the time, but this was happening to many other new PhDs. there were just too many of us. I got rejection letters saying, "We had 600 candidates for this job ... "


I was older, sicker, with a "controversial" dissertation. and white. And that all factored against me.


The sky was always gray. The sun never shone. No one talked to me. Why should they? No job. I was nobody and nothing to nobody.


I had no car. I was always in Paterson. Garbage was always underfoot. Constant noise. Hostile stares. People yelling threats out of car windows. "Ima kill that white bitch!"


Steve Jackson, a Polish American poet in Paterson, told me that St Therese the Little Flower aids those at the end of their rope. She sends them roses.


I turned to St Therese.


I prayed for a rose.


No rose.


But one day I was walking to Corrado's, and a truck passed. It was from the White Rose grocery chain. On the side of the truck was a picture of a rose, and the phrase, "You deserve the best."


I thought, wow, you are such a powerful saint, this is the best you can do? A sign on a truck?


It's now years since that horrible time. Some things have improved. I've reconnected with an old friend from high school who has been very charitable, and that kindness has made things possible that weren't possible before.


Yeah, people really do need people.


I have a car. It's twenty years old, but it is wheels, and those wheels keep me sane.


The other day, an envelope arrived in the mail. It was a solicitation for a donation from the Little Flower Society, that helps spread the news of St Therese's life.


I remembered that horrible time when, on the advice of a Polish American poet from Paterson, I begged St Therese for a rose, and all I got as a sign on a truck.


I thought, "I'm not donating to your cause. To the other Catholic organizations asking me for money, yes. To you? Nothing."


I asked someone. I told him the truck story. "Should I donate?" He's Protestant and doesn't like Catholicism and he didn't give much of an answer. So the question was still in my court.


And then, I decided, I will donate.


I wondered why. And then I realized -- she didn't give a rose to me, but St Therese has given roses to so many others, including that Polish American poet I mentioned. His life isn't easy, either. He called on St Therese, and she answered.


Many, many people are followers of St Therese. She wrote a book about her faith and it has inspired millions of people.


So that's why I donated to her organization. Once you donate they send you letters throughout the year asking for more money, and I'll probably donate again.


Roses for others.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Surviving My Birthday: The 2020 Version


Patty thank you for the card 

Garret Mountain was very gray and rainy

Skylands perennial garden still had some color 

The annual garden was pretty much spent 

State Line Hawk Watch photo taken on a sunnier day 


Birthdays can be hard for those of us who are alone in the universe.

Here is my annual, "I survived my birthday" blog post.


I had an important and unavoidable doctor's appointment on my birthday so I did some fun things before the actual day. Saturday I went to Skylands. The sky was white and there wasn't much light. The gardens are straggling to their last hints of color. The Mexican sunflowers, which, it seems like only yesterday, overwhelmed the eye with orange, were mostly withered, gray skeletons. A while back, swallowtails avoided bullying bumblebees amidst the blossoms. Saturday I saw only one monarch, and, of course, no hummingbirds, which always look like hallucinations, anyway.


The large, scary-looking leaves of the poisonous castor bean plants are green with a purple wash – an ominous color. Sickly things are green with a purple wash. Eight points jut out from the center of star-shaped leaves that are up to three feet wide. These prehistoric-looking plants dominated the annual garden. The poison ricin is obtained from castor beans, as is castor oil, a laxative. This web page proclaims many different health benefits of castor oil.


There were still a few, brave flowers remaining in the annual garden. The spicebush leaves are now all yellow, though they still smell as enticing as ever, like a kitchen full of cinnamon-and-nutmeg-laced cookies baking, with a mug of cold, fresh apple cider on the side. A couple of frogs soaked up the sun on a log.


Sunday I went to the State Line Hawk Watch. Again, the sky was white and the light dull. There weren't many birders there. A slim, gray-haired gentleman mentioned his book "The Real James Bond" and I realized I was talking to Jim Wright, a famous New Jersey birder. He was in competition with a birder in Massachusetts, whom he contacted by phone. I asked what the stakes were. The goal was to spot as many raptors as possible, and the prize was a Hershey bar. Alas, there were not many birds, but I did see an immature bald eagle, red-tailed hawks, a merlin, a peregrine falcon, an osprey, the usual black and turkey vultures, and a red-shouldered hawk.


I also ran into Marc Chelemer, one of New Jersey's best birders. As we were standing on the hawk watch, Marc raised his binoculars to his eyes and called out, "Red-shouldered hawk." I was astounded. I saw only a dark, bird-shaped silhouette in the distance. I asked Marc how he knew it was a red-shouldered hawk. He said the light crescents at the bird's wrists. I saw no such crescents. The Sibley Guide says that red-shouldered hawks have a "reaching" posture while flying. I have no idea what that means but I offer it for what it is worth. Anyway, it was fun to run into Marc.


Afterward I went to Pizza Town in Elmwood Park, considered by some to be among New Jersey's best pizza.


Next day was Monday, my birthday. I had leftover pizza for breakfast and dropped into Facebook.


Sue, a woman I had interacted with for a quarter of a century on the web, but never met in person, posted, in response to Columbus Day, about America's "racist, extremist, xenophobic, colonialist, white supremacist underbelly." I said that her post was hypocritical. She lives in America. If she hates this country so much, she could leave. She told me we shouldn't be Facebook friends any more. I posted a long response, here.


I posted that long post partly for myself, but also to invite Sue into deepening our exchange. She was outraged that I called her stance – of hating and denouncing America, of cheering on recent anti-American pogroms, but of living in America – hypocritical. I wanted to let her know what I think, and offer her a chance to tell me what I was missing. That didn't happen. Sue just said adios.


I feel sad about this exchange. I don't feel sad about Sue cutting off Facebook contact. I understand that what I said was confrontational and she has every right to cut me off. Also, she's very anti-American and that gets old. I could write her posts for her. Just plug in "racist transphobic, colonialist, xenophobic," here and there in your sentence. Like, take, "I went to the store to buy dog food and coffee" and, using the woke speech generator, it becomes, "I went to the imperialist, white supremacist grocery store to buy xenophobic dog food and transphobic coffee," and you're all set.


I feel sad because I fear that I hurt and insulted her by calling her a hypocrite, and it's not my job, as a Christian, to go around hurting and insulting people. So maybe I shouldn't have spoken up. Maybe remaining silent would have been more kind.


At the same time, it's not my job, as a Christian, to remain silent in the face of evil, and hatred is evil. It's part of a much larger evil that results in destruction and death. I want to speak against that evil.


How did Jesus do it? All I know is I'm falling down on the job. Sue, I'm sorry I hurt you. But what you said was wrong. I don't know how to handle this. And I seem never to learn. When to speak up, when to be silent, how to speak the truth without offending people. I obsess on these questions and I still screw up.


Well, the phone rang. It was the doctor's office, canceling my appointment. Had I known he was going to cancel, I could have made better plans for the day. As it was, I got sucked into watching the Amy Coney Barrett hearings on YouTube. I cannot resist the lure of a Senate Judiciary Hearing.


I'm a registered Democrat and a former leftist. Watching my former comrades attack Amy Coney Barrett in the most misogynist, intolerant, and anti-Catholic of ways was both nauseating and fascinating, like watching a praying mantis devour her mate. Watching ACB stand up to them with strength and intelligence was inspirational.


I went to Garret Mountain. Because of the rain and cold I had the place almost all to myself. I saw five people during my entire walk. I listened to the RadioShack transistor radio I inherited from my brother Joe. Curtis Sliwa, on WABC, was hosting a pro-Italian program. The anti-Columbus-Day hate campaign is also an anti-Italian-American campaign, and Italians know it. Italian New Yorkers and New Jerseyites called in with stories of Italian, Irish, and Polish wakes. Many had relatives who tried to jump into coffins or graves of deceased loved ones. Those were the days.


I decided I'd like to have chocolate chip mint ice cream, a treat I rarely indulge in. I went to ShopRite and bought some.


I had dal bhaat tarkari for dinner, one of my favorite meals. It's what I used to eat in Nepal. Nepal is a food-deficit nation. It doesn't produce enough food to feed all the citizens. As a Peace Corps volunteer in a remote outpost, there were times I ate wild plants that looked like what I knew to be edible plants back in the US, I was so hungry. Some volunteers had to be sent home because they couldn't keep up a normal weight. When you got to a "city" – that is a town with more than two streets of inhabited houses – and you found a good "dal bhaat tarkari" – that is rice, lentils, and vegetables – eating would provide so much satisfaction. So, to this day, my body associates dal bhaat tarkari with satisfaction.


Dal bhaat is accompanied by spicy condiments. I remember once, at a Newar wedding, I was served this spectacular, powdery something that tasted of salt, heat, and sour. I have no idea what it was. In the remote hills I used to eat something made from lapsi, or pickled Nepali hog plums. And then there was this very thick, mind-blowing sour, black syrup made from reduced lemons. 

I can't get these items in the US, so I improvise. I had Mrs. Renfro's Texas hot green salsa. I also had Ajvar Perustija from Macedonia. This is a very delicious spread made from roasted red peppers, roasted eggplant, sunflower oil, salt, and vinegar. And I had Mother's Mixed Hot Aachar, an Indian combination of mangos, carrots, hot peppers, asafetida, oil, and salt.


Afterward, I had no room for chocolate chip mint ice cream.


I watched "Angel Eyes." I recently saw "Infidel," a new Jim Caviezel movie. I adore Jim Caviezel and wanted to see more of him, so a kind friend made a copy of the movie for me. (I am afraid to go to theaters during the pandemic.)


Strangely enough, "Angel Eyes" is about a man who is traumatized because his son is killed in a car accident on his birthday. Well. My brother Phil was killed in a car accident on my birthday. But I'll never be as gorgeous as Jim Caviezel. Life is so unfair.


So, I survived my birthday. It wasn't so bad. I didn't crash; I didn't cry.


Warm thanks to Facebook friends who sent birthday greetings. :-)


Thank you to Patty for sending me a birthday card. You are so sweet you must be an angel.


Thank you to the anonymous person who bought me pizza, and for everything else.


Thank you to Karen for everything. I'd be lost without you.