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Popular Eastern Orthodox Author Talks about The Faith, His Own Journey, Culture Wars and Politics

Popular Eastern Orthodox Author Talks about The Faith, His Own Journey, Culture Wars and Politics


By David W. Virtue, DD
May 12, 2022

VOL: Your call in the Benedict Option for a tactical retreat to resist secularism may be a viable corrective for Christian faith traditions with a well-established understanding of corporate faith and the role Christianity plays in the common good. But for evangelicals, whose theology emphasizes the individual's relationship with God, retreat could actually exacerbate our individualism by disabling a key piece of our theology - the call to actively and intentionally work for the good of our neighbor's soul. The Great Commission still stands. What is your response to that?

DREHER: All Christians have a duty to evangelize. My concern is that we have completely neglected discipleship -- and without effective discipleship, evangelism is weak. What do people think they are evangelizing others to? I was once challenged by a Catholic critic of the Benedict Option, who said that my work runs contrary to Pope Francis's call for Catholics to "go to the margins," or whatever the buzz phrase is. I responded that if we don't know and practice our faith, then we have nothing to take to those on the margins. I know almost nothing about the Evangelical world, but I know a lot about the Catholic world, which I used to be a part of, and I can tell you that for the most part, catechesis and discipleship is weak to non-existent. I have been told by Evangelical friends that most young Evangelicals are the products of youth group culture, in which Jesus is presented as one's Best Friend. This emotivist approach to the faith is useless at best. It's like selling someone a car without teaching them how to drive it.

I think that the common problem is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. We have got to understand what it means to be a disciple of Christ so that when we go out into the world, we can proclaim Christ as he actually is, and not this simplistic, sappy Buddy Christ. This is not to say that we should not be joyful. The Gospel is good news, after all. But it is to say that the shallow consumerist version of Christianity that has become common in American Christianity, across all denominations -- the pseudo-Christianity that sociologist Christian Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism -- is a lie, and it is going to collapse catastrophically in the face of the pressures now coming against Christians.

VOL: The church is called to be a counter culture, but for millions of evangelicals who identified Trump as their political savior, it seems they confused the Kingdom of God with the Kingdom of America; that is, authentic faith with American Civil Religion they see scripture and the constitution on an almost equal footing. They believe in American exceptionalism. How has that handicapped the gospel and evangelicalism in America?

DREHER: It has made it harder to take Evangelicalism seriously, quite frankly. I want to be clear: I don't fault most people for voting for Donald Trump, certainly not in the wake of what we have recently learned about the likelihood of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. That said, it is appalling the extent to which many Christians, especially Evangelicals, treated Trump as some sort of semi-divine figure. Caesar is always Caesar, and nothing but Caesar; he is not Christ. It is bizarre and extremely disheartening to see how so many of my fellow conservative Christians have turned politics into a substitute religion. I more or less expect that from liberal Christians, but I am dismayed to see it among my people.

It seems to me that civil religion in this country is an obstacle to the gospel. I love my country, but it does a lot of evil in this world. I've spent the better part of the past year living in Hungary, working on a fellowship. Seeing America from abroad is to become painfully aware of how our government institutions, and the institutions of American pop culture, are jamming LGBTQ ideology down the throats of unwilling people. I met last fall some Catholic parliamentarians from Uganda, who told me that the West is hurting itself with Africans by trying to force them, as a condition of accepting aid, to embrace and affirm LGBTQ ideology. This is cultural imperialism! It turns out that the American left has no problem with it, as long as it's promoting leftist values.

But the right too has to get over its uncritical love affair with its ideal of America. I love my country and consider myself a patriot, but it is a scandal the extent to which so many conservative Christians have made an idol of America. The Constitution is a document worthy of reverence, but it was not handed down from Sinai. What would conservative Christians do if our government should turn itself into an enemy of Christ? If agents of the government should start to persecute churches and schools for not kowtowing to LGBTQ ideology in the name of "civil rights"? This is not only possible, it is in fact likely within the lifetimes of many of your readers. God save me from having to make this choice, but if it comes down to having to choose between being a "good American" and a faithful follower of Christ, I hope and pray that I have the courage to choose Christ over Caesar, without hesitation, no matter what the cost.

We really are reaching a Bonhoeffer Moment in this culture -- and most American Christians are not ready for it. I am aware of a story of a large group of middle-class conservative megachurch pastors who would not raise their voices to defend conservative Christian colleges threatened with shutdown over LGBTQ issues, out of fear that the world would consider them to be bigots. If we aren't even willing to sacrifice middle-class respectability and career opportunities for the sake of the Gospel, then how on earth are we going to find the courage to surrender our liberties, and even our lives, for Jesus?

VOL: You were in Jerusalem over the Orthodox Easter and you were part of a group being prevented from reaching the Orthodox sites. What did you conclude from the experience as to the Israeli treatment of Palestinian Christians?

DREHER: Well, look, I should say that I recognize the situation in the Holy Land is extremely complex. I believe in Israel's right to exist, and I believe that the Israelis certainly have legitimate security concerns over Palestinian terrorism, which is a horrible fact of life for the Israelis. That said, the situation for Christians in the Holy Land is appalling. On this trip, I went to Bethlehem with an Orthodox group, and visited with an Italian Christian helping to build a Christian community center. I stood on the roof and looked out over new Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands. The Palestinians are powerless to stop this. And to go in and out of Bethlehem now is like entering and exiting a prison.

It turns out that for the Orthodox Christians of the Holy Land, the Holy Fire ceremony on Holy Saturday is the highlight of their year. They all crowd into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to await what they believe to be a miracle. This year, though, the Israelis strictly regulated the numbers of Christians allowed into the church, cutting it by something like 80 percent. The Greek Orthodox patriarch was outraged, but again, there's nothing one can do. I watched Hasidic Jews allowed to pass freely into the Old City to pray at the Western Wall, while large crowds of Arab Christians were kept behind security gates. Why? It made no sense. The Israelis really do have a problem with Muslim violence and hostility, but Arab Christians are peaceful.

I complained about this to a Palestinian Christian shopkeeper, who said, "Now you know how we have to live every day." I tell you, to spend time with Arab Christians in the Holy Land is to find oneself deeply frustrated with the way American Evangelicals treat Israel. Again, I support Israel's right to exist, and to live in peace, with secure borders. But that doesn't mean that the Israeli state should have carte blanche to do what it wants to. Why don't American Evangelicals, in general, show any concern at all for their Arab Christian brothers and sisters there? Their ancestors were worshipping Our Lord while our ancestors back in Europe were still praying to trees. And yet far too many of us American Christians -- and not just Evangelicals -- don't even see the Palestinian Christians, and their plight. I'm guilty of this too, I confess.

.VOL: In your book LIVE NOT BY LIES, you cite Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who noted that people often assume that their democratic government would never submit to totalitarianism---but you say it's happening here. You have sounded the alarm about the insidious effects of identity politics, surveillance technology, psychological manipulation, and more Your call is to equip contemporary Christian dissidents to see, judge, and act as they fight to resist the erosion of our freedoms. Is the situation getting better now post Trump or worse?

DREHER: It is getting worse, no question. Trump exacerbated it, in the sense that the left panicked, and accelerated its totalitarian tendencies under Trump. I'm not blaming Trump for that, simply noting that this was an effect of his presidency. But it was going to happen anyway, once the cultural left gained total hegemony over American institutions. The left has controlled the media, academia, and other culture-forming institutions for a long time, so that's no surprise. The surprise is that the cultural left -- not the economic left, which is weak in this country -- now controls big business, the military, and the intelligence agencies. Most American Christians really have no idea how bad it is, but those who work in places like the tech sector face it every day. It is becoming generalized very quickly.

The political scientist Eric Kaufmann has recently warned that civil liberties are facing a political wipeout with generational change. Most Americans over the age of 35 still believe in old-fashioned liberalism, in the sense that they believe in free speech, open debate, freedom of religion, and the rest. But the younger generation overwhelmingly believes that these things are dangers, because they allow bad people to live and move and have their say in society. Kaufmann says that if conservatives are unwilling to fight the culture war, there won't be any space left for conservative thought and speech -- including conservative religion -- in the decades to come.

It's interesting, David, but I find that despite my healthy book sales in America, Christians in Europe tend to engage much more with my work. It's not hard to understand why. They have already lived through the thorough de-Christianization of their societies. If you are still going to church today in Europe, it's because you really do believe. And you are now eager to find a way to thrive in the post-Christian, and increasingly anti-Christian, landscape. Sociologists have now shone that the US is no longer an outlier in the West, but is rapidly secularizing. It's going to take at least a decade, I fear, for American Christians to finally open their eyes to what's happening. We will have lost a decade or more that we ought to have used to prepare for life in post-Christian America. And don't be fooled: it's not just that we Christians are going to be minorities in tomorrow's America, but also that we are going to be scapegoated, hated, and persecuted. The people who lived under Communism see it coming, and they're trying to warn us.

VOL: How much worse has President Joe Biden made it?

DREHER: Much worse. He has made transgenderism "the Civil Rights issue of our time," as he called it, and is instituting wokeness -- the slang term for antiliberal cultural leftism -- throughout the federal bureaucracy. Ordinary Americans don't believe it is happening, and certainly the media, who approve of all this, don't report on it. They hardly believe it's news. But again, immigrants who came here from Communist countries can see what's going on, and they think America is going crazy.

VOL: American Christians, especially evangelicals don't like the idea that suffering and persecution could or should be their lot. Yet the NT and Early Church bear witness to persecution as part of a Christian's lot right up to the time, at least, of Constantine. In your opinion why don't Christians see this?

DREHER: In part because they are American exceptionalists. They see themselves as the blessed, the chosen ones, and America as a nation that is especially favored by the Lord. But even if America were akin to the Biblical Israel, don't they see how God dealt with Israel? He sent Israel into Babylonian exile, after all, to punish it for its unfaithfulness. Why wouldn't He do that to us? In fact, I expect Him to do precisely that. Maybe he's doing it now.

Furthermore, far too many of us American Christians are functionally prosperity-gospellers. That is, even if we don't endorse the Prosperity Gospel heresy formally, we still act as if being a Christian means that we are entitled to middle-class health, wealth, and status. This, by the way, is why so many of us will apostatize, and rationalize it away, once it costs us something to be Christian. In times past, and in many places around the world today, to be a Christian means to suffer scorn and hatred as a normal part of life. As Kierkegaard says, everybody admires Jesus, but Jesus didn't call admirers; He called disciples. You can tell the difference when one has to suffer for the faith.

VOL: China today has 120 million Christians, mostly evangelicals (6 percent Roman Catholic) according to Open Doors and the CIA. They are growing by leaps and bounds. They have no First or Second Amendment protections; no Bill of Rights, no government protection, in fact they are being persecuted, their churches torn down and Christians imprisoned and much more. China has banned mentioning Christ on the Internet. But in raw numbers there are probably more real Christians in China than America, bearing in mind that 40% of evangelicals in America go to church twice a year. What is your take on this?

DREHER: The Chinese are more like the first and second century Christians than they are like us. We should be careful not to idealize them, though. I had a painful conversation with three Chinese Protestants once who told me that the Chinese churches are susceptible to turn into personality cults around popular pastors. This had happened to their own church. In the meantime, the Vatican has already made a deal with the Devil, selling out the underground Catholic Church to accept the so-called "patriotic" Catholic Church controlled by the state.

That said, we have too much to learn from the Chinese church. Whatever its flaws and challenges, it is certainly not the middle classes at prayer. In my book "Live Not By Lies," I interviewed a man, Viktor Popkov, who was a disillusioned young man in the early 1970s, and was drawn to Christ through the ministry of other young disillusioned Soviets, who were willing to risk everything for Jesus. He came to Christ and began to pray with them. Eventually they all were sent to prison for their faith, but he said it was worth it. How many of us would do the same? I'm sure all of us think we would, but if it came down to the test, would we pass it?

The Chinese who are worshiping today are real disciples. Who knows? Maybe Christianity's center will move to the South and to the East. The Holy Spirit goes where He is wanted. The Lord said the gates of Hell will not prevail against His church, but He didn't say it wouldn't prevail against his Church in the United States of America. That's up to us.

VOL: The rise of Nones corresponds to the decline of most mainline Christian denominations, many believe will be out of business 2040. Do you see any sign this will be reversed any time soon?

DREHER: No, it is not turning around. How could it? What does the Mainline have to offer other than left-wing politics and middle-class conformism? That said, for years many of us in the more conservative churches sneered at the Mainliners for falling apart, while we who were more faithful to the Gospel and to tradition were thriving. That's not true anymore. All of us are in decline. All of us have to learn how to navigate the stormy seas ahead. This is not a time for triumphalism. As the founding prior of the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, the birthplace of St. Benedict, told me in 2015, the only Christians who come through the dark trials ahead are going to be those who embrace some form of what I call the Benedict Option -- that is, some form of resilient countercultural Christian life in community. Simply holding all the correct conservative theological opinions won't mean much. We are in an age that demands deep discipleship -- and that includes learning to see our exile as a blessing.

VOL: Some Evangelicals are calling for revival, but is that possible in the present climate where gun violence, greed both corporate and personal; hedonism; a porn industry that generates $12 billion dollars in annual revenue - larger than the combined annual revenues of ABC, NBC, and CBS. Is revival possible?

DREHER: Well, revival is always possible, because with God, all things are possible. But what do they mean by "revival"? Do they mean juicing people's emotional fervor for the things of God? That's not necessarily a bad thing, but if it doesn't mean repentance, it's pointless. I talk with conservative Christian educators a lot, who complain that parents send their kids to the conservative Christian school, but then allow their children to have smartphones, and to participate fully in the decadent popular culture around them. These Christian teachers do what they can, but they feel that the parents are not actually all that concerned with saving their kids' souls, but rather with saving them from liberalism. This is why I'm skeptical of evangelism as a solution, rather than deepening our commitment to discipleship. You can't give the world what you don't have -- and if what we Christians have only superficially distinguishes us from the world, well, do we really have anything to give them?

VOL: President Joe Biden doesn't seem to get that the Culture wars over abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage and transgender issues play a significant role in how people vote. Despite an infrastructure bill, supporting the Ukraine people against Russia, his ratings are not exactly soaring. What is your take on that?

DREHER: He lives in a bubble, as does the entire left. They genuinely can't conceive that anybody disagrees with them. I saw a piece recently in the Washington Post about how horrible Republicans are, pouncing on culture war issues for electoral gain. These people are so blinkered by their own biases. They honestly believe that it is perfectly normal and natural to teach kindergartners that they can be genderfluid, and that the only people who could possibly object are wicked Christofascist bigots. Similarly with racial issues. The Post the other day published an op-ed by a black senior at the George Washington University, demanding that the DC-based college to change its name. What's important about that is not that a college senior holds a stupid opinion. What's important is that the Washington Post amplifies it.

The Democrats are going to get shellacked in November, and their party's cultural extremism is a big part of why. I am so heartened to see Florida Governor Ron DeSantis take on the LGBT Industrial Complex over gender ideology in elementary schools, and then, after the Walt Disney Company attacked him over it, go after Disney, telling that woke capitalist behemoth to stay in its lane. I am not used to seeing Republican politicians fight the culture war in an effective way. Normally they are too frightened of being called bigots by the media, and of Big Business. Maybe that's changing. Please God, I hope it's changing.

VOL: Has the war in the Ukraine caused you to re-evaluate your advocacy for Viktor Orbán who is seen in league with Vladimir Putin's ethno, political and religious synchronism.

DREHER: Not at all. Viktor Orban has certainly been friendly with Putin over the years, but it's a mistake to think that Hungarians love Russians. They all remember what Russia did to them, and not just in the Communist years. It was the Russian tsar who sent forces to aid the Habsburgs and crush the nascent Hungarian republic in the 19th century. Orban is a pragmatist.

You have to remember that the Hungarians get something like 85 percent of their natural gas from Russia, and 60 percent of their oil from there. They are a landlocked country that can't get it delivered by tanker. As you and I speak, Viktor Orban's government is holding up further European Union sanctions on Russian oil and gas. He knows that if those sanctions take hold, it will destroy Hungary's economy completely. Why on earth should Orban consent to destroy his country for the sake of this war that America and its European allies want? This is a question the rest of us should be asking too. Washington just approved $40 billion more in aid to Ukraine, at a time when Americans increasingly can't afford groceries.

As an Orthodox Christian, it has dismayed me to see how fully the Moscow Patriarchate -- that is, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church -- has supported the Ukraine invasion. I have always believed in the separation of church and state for the protection of the church. Patriarch Kyrill's kowtowing to Putin over Ukraine shows why. The church ought to play the role of prophet, not cheerleader.

As far as I'm concerned, Viktor Orban is the leader of the West, in the sense that he is the only major Western leader who understands that we are in a civilizational war, mostly with ourselves. Hungary has been part of the West since the year 1000, when the first king, Stephen, received a Latin baptism, even though his mother was Byzantine. But Orban today looks to his West and sees a dying civilization, one that has lost the confidence to defend itself, its ancestral religion, and its traditions. He's trying to figure out how to preserve his own country from the rot.

VOL: There is a rising tide of antinomianism in the American church today. Should the church reintroduce the subjects of sin, judgment and repentance into our message?

DREHER: Of course! You know, back in my late teens and early twenties, when I was wrestling with whether or not to commit my life to Christ, the big obstacle I had to overcome was what to do with my sexual freedom. It wasn't like I made much use of it, but as a red-blooded American male, I wanted to keep my options open. I tried worshiping as an Episcopalian as a college student, because I thought I could have liturgy without anyone bothering me about my sex life. It didn't work. I couldn't reconcile myself with this dealmaking approach to being a Christian. Even then, as a silly college kid, I knew that either Christ was the Lord of my entire life, or my faith was a fraud.

Back then, I began to look to Pope John Paul II as a model religious father. He struck me as someone who was unafraid to proclaim unpopular truths. I eventually became a Catholic, but delayed it because I still wasn't willing to surrender my liberty and submit to the yoke of Christ. Eventually the day came when I wanted Jesus more than I wanted myself -- and that's when I converted. My Christianity stuck, though, because I was willing, at last, to pay the cost of discipleship, and to live chastely. It was very hard to do, especially living as I was then in Washington, DC, as a young journalist in a secular world. But I eventually saw the spiritual and emotional fruits of this asceticism.

So today, when I hear people in various churches, including my own Orthodox church, say that we need to relax the rules to attract more young people, I think: no, this is poison. It is certainly possible to be too legalistic, and that is something to watch out for. But for most American Christianity today, legalism is not the real problem; moral laxity is. Too many churches teach us to embrace ourselves, to affirm ourselves, when in fact when Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die to himself. Antinomian Christianity is going to be the first to evaporate when the persecution starts.

VOL: Thank you Rod.


Mr. Dreher is the author of six books, three of which have become extremely popular - The Benedict Option, Live Not by Lies, How Dante Can Save Your Life. He told VOL that Live Not by Lies has sold 163,000 copies with not a single review by any newspaper or online publication.

The following thoughts of Mr. Dreher were delivered to delegates at the annual diocesan convention of the ACNA Anglican Diocese of the Living Word in Souderton, PA.

"My last two books are about faith and the intersection of faith and culture. It is about the rediscovery of the sense of the sacred, it is about the recovery of a sacramental world."

"Complete emotionalism has become the new normal. Christians are disoriented. People are driven by their emotions and their passions."

"Propositional apologetics are useless. No one cares about reason."

Asked if he ever entertained evangelicalism, Dreher said, "never. I grew up in the south. I disdained it, I thought Christianity was for stupid people, and their role model was Jimmy Swaggart! There was no life of the mind there at all."

Dreher was raised a Methodist, became a Roman Catholic but when he saw the vast sexual abuse by priests and prelates he left for the Eastern Orthodox Church. At that time, he argued that the scandal was not so much a "pedophile problem", but that the "sexual abuse of minors is facilitated by a secret, powerful network of gay priests", known as the "Lavender Mafia".

Asked how Christians might find another way to reach people, Dreher opined that Eastern theological conservative Christianity offered sacred arts and saints as the incarnations of the propositional. "There is great beauty going beneath rationality."

"I was raised a Methodist, but my mother won a trip to Europe. A bus stopped to look into an old church. I met God at Chartres Cathedral. I saw the glory of God in stained glass. God exists and he wants me. I gave my life to Christ as a Catholic. I fell in love with the Catholic intellectual tradition. I became a Catholic in Washington DC. when John Neuhaus was a prominent Christian cleric and writer and editor of First Things. It fed my own spiritual arrogance. I looked down on evangelicals. Four years later filled with anger and injustice around me I lost my ability to believe. My wife attended an orthodox cathedral in Dallas. We became Orthodox but not as a haven from human sin. The Lord shattered my spiritual pride and arrogance. My Orthodox conversion of the heart was the most important thing in 2006."

"It was a second chance God has given me. I have come to love evangelicals. They are some of the finest Christians I know. Many evangelicals are averse to pride."

Asked about the Culture Wars' impact on American Christians, Dreher said Christians must become radical outliers, exiles, sojourners and strangers. "We think the world is only material. We have impoverished ourselves to that reality. Pagans still perceive that reality. We must intuit the logos. The material world is filled with God in a mysterious way."

This interview and his thoughts took place at the annual diocesan convention of the Anglican Diocese of the Living Word, in Souderton, PA under the leadership of Bishop Julian Dobbs.

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