I have been fascinated by dystopias since my youth—a youth full of sci-fi movies with grim visions of the future, films such as 1976’s Logan’s Run and the Charlton Heston trilogy from the late 1960s and early 1970s: Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, and Soylent Green. When I became a more fervent reader, it was the classics: Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
In later years, it’s been James’s Children of Men, Benson’s Lord of the World, Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and several novels by the Canadian writer Michael D. O’Brien, such as his “Children of the Last Days” series and Voyage to Alpha Centauri.
As I steep myself in this genre, a literature that has a remarkable unity in its diversity, it becomes clear that we are living in dystopia, a post-Christian world. All the major features of the imagined dystopias are coming about.
As in Logan’s Run, we are overvaluing the activity of youth and denigrating the wisdom that comes with age, killing off the elderly; as in Children of Men, we are becoming infertile (although it is more of our own doing than the Creator’s) and substituting other relationships for the parent-child bond; as in Brave New World, we are numbing ourselves with drugs and sensual pleasure; as in 1984, we are tracking and monitoring nearly everything, and punishing thoughts and ideas; as in Fahrenheit 451, we are eschewing books and reaching for video screens and mindless entertainment; as in Lord of the World, we are sacrificing religious morality and natural law for scientific utilitarianism.
When it comes to current events and traditional dystopia, the difference is only one of degree, not of kind.
At the same time, a new genre has risen, what one could call dystopian nonfiction: books on how to survive, and eventually turn the tide on, today’s culture. I do not refer to mere survivalist handbooks, although they might fit into a niche here. I am more interested in how we may endure and evangelize, how we may save our hearts, minds, and souls, and those of others—the battle that really matters.
New books in this canon include R. R. Reno’s Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, which hearkens back to T.S. Eliot’s 1939 lecture series on the idea of a Christian society, and which Reno describes as “a sustained argument for a Christian vision of moral and social renewal.” Eliot would approve. In his essay on this subject, he pointed out that “a Christian society only becomes acceptable after you have fairly examined the alternatives.” Clearly, now is the time to bring one back.
Writing in National Review, Rachel Lu recommends Reno’s book for our “time of widespread demoralization.” To hear some tell it, the outcome of the November election may well reflect a decisive shift toward or away from a more Christian culture. I have friends on both sides of the debate—some who contend that President Trump and Steve Bannon offer a vision that is more closely aligned with Catholic social teaching than ever before seen in the White House, and some who argue the exact opposite.
With his Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, Anthony Esolen characterizes our modern-day dystopia: “We no longer live in a culturally Christian state. We do not live in a robust pagan state, such as Rome was during the Pax Romana. We live in a sickly sub-pagan state, or metastate, a monstrous thing, all-meddlesome, all-ambitious.”
Esolen is currently under attack for teaching Catholic truths at a Catholic college, which is all the more disconcerting given that his persecutors are school officials who should know better. Here’s one more example, along with that of Brendan Eich, that Orwell’s 1984 really is coming true, and ideas can be crimes.
Another addition to the canon is the just-published Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. It takes a look at today’s dark, dismal, and dreary culture, and discovers hope for Christians. “Christians have many good reasons for hope,” the book begins. “Optimism is another matter. Optimism assumes that, sooner or later, things will naturally turn out for the better. Hope has no such illusions.”
Chaput considers faithful Christians to be “resident aliens” in this world—hence the title—and his focus is on discovering the City of God in this life, as much as we are able. Something to ponder, perhaps, at a time of renewed focus on the role of immigrants.
One of the books in the dystopian nonfiction genre that I’m most looking forward to is Rod Dreher’s forthcoming The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Dreher has been writing about the Benedict Option for the past few years, and I am certain his book will be much debated, and much misunderstood, if the reaction to his articles and blog posts on the “Ben Op” are any indication.
In defending the focus of his work in an online FAQ, Dreher quotes Alasdair MacIntyre, from After Virtue:
What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.
These local forms of community—some call them “intentional communities”—are modeled, either loosely or tightly, intentionally or not, on the work of St. Benedict, whose monasteries became focal points for Western civilization in the Middle Ages, attracting laity as well as monks. It’s not so much about walling ourselves off from the world, Dreher would argue, but providing places where we can safely regroup and refresh. Dreher sees no other option: “To continue the path we’re traveling, hoping that things will get better, is to court disaster.”
Dreher also understands the need for dystopian nonfiction, and the reasons for its rise. In November, he shared an online interview with Anthony Esolen around this idea. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these books are emerging independently of each other, at the same time,” Dreher noted.
Esolen responded: “It is time to rebuild. There can be no more pretense of a culture around us that is Christian or that is even content with Christianity being in its midst. … The world is leveling every cultural institution in its path—we must save them or rebuild them from the dust, for the world’s own sake, and for God’s.”
One of my more recent cinematic favorites, 2009’s Zombieland, includes a handy set of rules for surviving the imaginary zombie apocalypse: Cardio! Double-tie your shoes! Travel light! Enjoy the little things! For our current dystopia, it’s refreshing to know that Reno, Esolen, and Dreher offer a more serious, and helpful, set of instructions for finding our way out while keeping our souls intact.
K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who works in corporate communications.