On the Alliance between Evangelicals and Orthodox Christians

At the First Things site this morning, I have an essay challenging conventional wisdom on the nascent political alliance between American Evangelicals and the Russian Orthodox Church. Here’s a sample:

With respect, I am skeptical of the consensus on both these points. First, I doubt that this alliance can be deep or long-lasting. True, some Evangelical leaders have spoken well lately of Vladimir Putin, who makes Orthodoxy a major part of his public image, and some Evangelical organizations have cooperated with the Russian Orthodox Church in international conferences on the family. But profound differences in belief and practice exist, which will be very difficult to overcome, assuming either side even wishes to overcome them. Evangelicals are not likely to see the value of venerating icons, for example, and the Orthodox are not likely to accept Evangelical ecclesiology. An alliance between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, which share much more in terms of practice and spirituality, would make more sense. I also wonder how many people outside the leadership know about the nascent alliance or take it seriously. International conferences are one thing; actual commitment in the pews (assuming there are pews!) is quite another.

Nevertheless—and here is the second point—if an alliance is forming, it does not strike me as necessarily insincere. Politics no doubt play a role. But Evangelicals and Orthodox may also see each other, genuinely, as allies in a conflict with an aggressive progressivism that sets the agenda in the US and on the world stage. Religious conservatives could easily feel under siege and look for reinforcements.

You can read the whole essay here.

Kotkin, “Stalin”

9781594203800Rounding out this week’s posts, here is a new and well-received book from Penguin Random House, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941by Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin. The book focuses on the period of forced collectivization, during which Stalin consolidated the Communist regime and, in the process, killed almost a million people. The 1930s were also the time of the most vicious persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church, led by the so-called League of the Militant Godless. Tens of thousands of churches were closed, and hundreds of thousands of clergy executed. After 1941, when Stalin needed the help of the Church in rallying opposition to Hitler, the persecution lifted a bit, but the real damage already had occurred. Here’s a description of the book from the publisher’s website:

Pulitzer Prize-finalist Stephen Kotkin has written the definitive biography of Joseph Stalin, from collectivization and the Great Terror to the conflict with Hitler’s Germany that is the signal event of modern world history

In 1929, Joseph Stalin, having already achieved dictatorial power over the vast Soviet Empire, formally ordered the systematic conversion of the world’s largest peasant economy into “socialist modernity,” otherwise known as collectivization, regardless of the cost.

What it cost, and what Stalin ruthlessly enacted, transformed the country and its ruler in profound and enduring ways. Building and running a dictatorship, with life and death power over hundreds of millions, made Stalin into the uncanny figure he became. Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941 is the story of how a political system forged an unparalleled personality and vice versa.

The wholesale collectivization of some 120 million peasants necessitated levels of coercion that were extreme even for Russia, and the resulting mass starvation elicited criticism inside the party even from those Communists committed to the eradication of capitalism. But Stalin did not flinch. By 1934, when the Soviet Union

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Rommen, “Into All the World”

intoalltheworld__33962.1509128445.300.300Earlier this week, I posted about the new Pew Report on Orthodox Christianity, which focuses, in part, on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. I argued that the Ethiopian Church, an ancient Christian communion without colonial associations, is well positioned to do missionary work in Africa, where Christianity is booming. To do so, though, the Church may have to overcome a mindset that views missionary work as something for other Christians. I don’t know too much about the Ethiopian Church, but one often hears expressed, in other Orthodox circles, a reluctance to engage in missionary work–a reluctance that may be more comprehensible to Western Christians when one realizes that such work exposes missionaries to a real threat of murder in many areas where Orthodox live.

A new book from the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Into All the World: An Orthodox Theology of Mission, by Edward Rommen (Duke Divinity School), explores these issues. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Fr Edward Rommen makes the case that it is now time to reexamine the theological underpinnings of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s mission to the world. Globalization has clearly altered the various fields on which missions are carried out. Christians in the West, to their credit, have been actively developing a missional response to these changes. As a result, missiology and missions theology are well established in the academic institutions of the West. However, the Orthodox Church has, in spite of its rich history of missionary activity, been notably absent from these discussions. But now this is changing.

As the constraints of political and religious oppression have eased, the Church is awakening to its own history, but more importantly to its own missionary responsibility. There has been a great deal of fresh activity among Orthodox scholars that can enrich our reexamination of the Church’s mission. So it is now indeed an opportune time to tap into the biblical, historical, and traditional resources of the Orthodox Church and attempt to reformulate a systematic, theological statement of the rationale and goal of mission, to reaffirm the centrality of the Church in missionary outreach, to describe for a new generation the nature of the gospel and the basic content of church education, and to rearticulate the guidelines that should govern our mission work.

Vosganian, “The Book of Whispers”

9453aa94e9dd50e2c55ac53c0b7d9ad2Continuing our focus this week on Orthodox Christians, here is a new book from Yale University Press on the Armenian Genocide of 1915, an ethnic cleansing campaign against Armenian Orthodox Christians in Ottoman Turkey that also swept up Greek and Syriac Orthodox Christians, as well as Catholics and Protestants. The Book of Whispers, is by Romanian parliamentarian Varujan Vosganian. Here’s the description from the Yale website:

A harrowing account of the Armenian Genocide documented through the stories of those who managed to survive and descendants who refuse to forget

The grandchild of Armenians who escaped widespread massacres during the Ottoman Empire a century ago, Varujan Vosganian grew up in Romania hearing firsthand accounts of those who had witnessed horrific killings, burned villages, and massive deportations. In this moving chronicle of the Armenian people’s almost unimaginable tragedy, the author transforms true events into a work of fiction firmly grounded in survivor testimonies and historical documentation

Across Syrian desert refugee camps, Russian tundra, and Romanian villages, the book chronicles individual lives destroyed by ideological and authoritarian oppression. But this novel tells an even wider human story. Evocative of all the great sufferings that afflicted the twentieth century—world wars, concentration camps, common graves, statelessness, and others—this book belongs to all peoples whose voices have been lost. Hailed for its documentary value and sensitive authenticity, Vosganian’s work has become an international phenomenon.

Frankfurter, “Christianizing Egypt”

9780691176970_0The Coptic Church today is suffering one of the worst periods of persecution in its history. Yet few Americans, including American Christians, know much about it. In fact, I’d guess that most Americans, including American Christians, assume that Egypt is uniformly Muslim, except for a handful of American Evangelical missionaries and their congregations. In fact, Christianity has ancient roots in Egypt, and the Coptic Church preserves some of the earliest Christian traditions.

A new book from Princeton University Press, Christianizing Egypt: Syncretism and Local Worlds in Late Antiquity, by Boston University Professor David Frankfurter, discusses some of that history. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:

How does a culture become Christian, especially one that is heir to such ancient traditions and spectacular monuments as Egypt? This book offers a new model for envisioning the process of Christianization by looking at the construction of Christianity in the various social and creative worlds active in Egyptian culture during late antiquity.

As David Frankfurter shows, members of these different social and creative worlds came to create different forms of Christianity according to their specific interests, their traditional idioms, and their sense of what the religion could offer. Reintroducing the term “syncretism” for the inevitable and continuous process by which a religion is acculturated, the book addresses the various formations of Egyptian Christianity that developed in the domestic sphere, the worlds of holy men and saints’ shrines, the work of craftsmen and artisans, the culture of monastic scribes, and the reimagination of the landscape itself, through processions, architecture, and the potent remains of the past.

Drawing on sermons and magical texts, saints’ lives and figurines, letters and amulets, and comparisons with Christianization elsewhere in the Roman empire and beyond, Christianizing Egypt reconceives religious change—from the “conversion” of hearts and minds to the selective incorporation and application of strategies for protection, authority, and efficacy, and for imagining the environment.

New Pew Study on Orthodox Christianity

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Ethiopian Orthodox Cathedral, Addis Ababa

 

All this week, I’ll be posting items on Orthodox Christianity, an important but understudied (at least in America) Christian communion. To start, here’s a new report from the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, “Orthodox Christianity in the 21st Century,” released this month. Orthodox Christianity has relatively few communicants in the United States, mostly immigrants from Orthodox countries and their descendants, as well as a small number of converts, especially from Evangelical denominations. But, globally, Orthodoxy is the third largest Christian communion, after Catholics and Protestants, with a combined number in the hundreds of millions.

Orthodox leaders are becoming increasingly visible in global affairs. For example, the Ecumenical Patriarch has been active on environmental questions. Thanks to an increasingly assertive Russian Church, Orthodoxy is beginning to have an impact in human rights fora like the UN Commission. In fact, even in the US, Orthodox Christians may have had an impact on the last presidential election. At a panel at Fordham University earlier this month, scholar Nicholas Gvosdev pointed out that Donald Trump appealed to Orthodox Christians in places like Michigan–which Trump won with a narrow margin.

The Pew report reveals that although their numbers across the globe are growing in absolute terms, the number of Orthodox Christians has declined relative to Catholics and Protestants. In the Middle East, at least, that decline is explained in part by persecution against Orthodox (and other) Christians in the twentieth century, which continues today. Seventy years of Communist repression in the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc also didn’t help. But the report reveals a hopeful resurgence of Orthodox Christianity in former Communist countries.

The report pays a lot of attention to the largest Orthodox Church outside Europe, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (36 million members), one of the five so-called Oriental Orthodox Churches. This is commendable, as people often assume that Orthodoxy is an entirely European phenomenon. Although declining in its historic European home, Christianity is soaring in the global south, including in Africa. In fact, the Ethiopian Church, an ancient Christian body without any colonial associations, may be well positioned to do missionary work across the continent in the coming century.

The report details many interesting facts about Orthodox practice and belief — compared to Catholics and mainline Protestants, for example, the Orthodox are deeply conservative on social issues like gender and marriage — as well as prospects for ecumenism. It will be very valuable for anyone interested in the sociology of Christianity today. (H/T: George Demacopoulos at Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center, who served as a scholarly adviser on the report).

Scott, “Sex and Secularism”

9780691160641The description of this new book from Princeton University Press, Sex and Secularism, by Joan Wallach Scott (Institute for Advanced Study) puzzles me. The author appears to argue that secularism historically stood for the oppression of women and for Christian superiority, and that only the recent challenge of Islam has caused secularism to switch positions and promote women’s equality. I’m not sure what secularism the author means. Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in the 1940s, long before “the Muslim question” arose in the West, and, although one can make a good argument that secularism derives historically from Christian ideas about church and state, it seems implausible that secularism was itself a means of promoting Christian superiority. Secularists eagerly attacked Christian legal and cultural superiority at every turn. Anyway, readers can judge for themselves. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:

How secularism has been used to justify the subordination of women

Joan Wallach Scott’s acclaimed and controversial writings have been foundational for the field of gender history. With Sex and Secularism, Scott challenges one of the central claims of the “clash of civilizations” polemic—the false notion that secularism is a guarantee of gender equality.

Drawing on a wealth of scholarship by second-wave feminists and historians of religion, race, and colonialism, Scott shows that the gender equality invoked today as a fundamental and enduring principle was not originally associated with the term “secularism” when it first entered the lexicon in the nineteenth century. In fact, the inequality of the sexes was fundamental to the articulation of the separation of church and state that inaugurated Western modernity. Scott points out that Western nation-states imposed a new order of women’s subordination, assigning them to a feminized familial sphere meant to complement the rational masculine realms of politics and economics. It was not until the question of Islam arose in the late twentieth century that gender equality became a primary feature of the discourse of secularism.

Challenging the assertion that secularism has always been synonymous with equality between the sexes, Sex and Secularism reveals how this idea has been used to justify claims of white, Western, and Christian racial and religious superiority and has served to distract our attention from a persistent set of difficulties related to gender difference—ones shared by Western and non-Western cultures alike.

Ecklund & Scheitle, “Religion vs. Science”

9780190650629Here is an interesting-looking contribution from Oxford University Press to the sociology of religion in the United States: Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think, by sociologists Elaine Howard Ecklund (Rice University) and Christopher P. Scheitle (West Virginia University). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the authors conclude, after a five-year study, that media portrayals of an anti-science bias on the part of religious Americans are simplistic. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

At the end of a five-year journey to find out what religious Americans think about science, Ecklund and Scheitle emerge with the real story of the relationship between science and religion in American culture. Based on the most comprehensive survey ever done-representing a range of religious traditions and faith positions-Religion vs. Science is a story that is more nuanced and complex than the media and pundits would lead us to believe.

The way religious Americans approach science is shaped by two fundamental questions: What does science mean for the existence and activity of God? What does science mean for the sacredness of humanity? How these questions play out as individual believers think about science both challenges stereotypes and highlights the real tensions between religion and science. Ecklund and Scheitle interrogate the widespread myths that religious people dislike science and scientists and deny scientific theories.

Religion vs. Science is a definitive statement on a timely, popular subject. Rather than a highly conceptual approach to historical debates, philosophies, or personal opinions, Ecklund and Scheitle give readers a facts-on-the-ground, empirical look at what religious Americans really understand and think about science.

Mullen, “The Chance of Salvation”

9780674975620-lgObservers since Tocqueville have noted the individualism that runs deep in the American character. This individualism extends to religion. Americans see religion as a personal decision, a voluntary choice of spiritual identity. The idea that one would have a moral obligation to adhere to the religion of one’s ancestors, or to a religion one has chosen for oneself but no longer finds compelling, is quite foreign to us. This individualism explains why conversion is comparatively frequent in America — more frequent than in Europe, for example. A new book from Harvard University Press, The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America, by George Mason University professor Lincoln A. Mullen, traces the history of conversion in America. Looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:

The United States has a long history of religious pluralism, and yet Americans have often thought that people’s faith determines their eternal destinies. The result is that Americans switch religions more often than any other nation. The Chance of Salvation traces the history of the distinctively American idea that religion is a matter of individual choice.

Lincoln Mullen shows how the willingness of Americans to change faiths, recorded in narratives that describe a wide variety of conversion experiences, created a shared assumption that religious identity is a decision. In the nineteenth century, as Americans confronted a growing array of religious options, pressures to convert altered the basis of American religion. Evangelical Protestants emphasized conversion as a personal choice, while Protestant missionaries brought Christianity to Native American nations such as the Cherokee, who adopted Christianity on their own terms. Enslaved and freed African Americans similarly created a distinctive form of Christian conversion based on ideas of divine justice and redemption. Mormons proselytized for a new tradition that stressed individual free will. American Jews largely resisted evangelism while at the same time winning converts to Judaism. Converts to Catholicism chose to opt out of the system of religious choice by turning to the authority of the Church.

By the early twentieth century, religion in the United States was a system of competing options that created an obligation for more and more Americans to choose their own faith. Religion had changed from a family inheritance to a consciously adopted identity.

 

Leppin, “Martin Luther”

9780801098215On this 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, we continue with our list of new and forthcoming works on Martin Luther. From Baker Academic Press, here is a new biography of the Reformer — looking rather skeptical on that jacket cover, come to think of it  — by German medievalist Volker Leppin (University of Tübingen), Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life. The description from the publisher’s website:

This brief, insightful biography of Martin Luther strips away the myths surrounding the Reformer to offer a more nuanced account of his life and ministry. Coinciding with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this accessible yet robustly historical and theological work highlights the medieval background of Luther’s life in contrast to contemporary legends. Internationally respected church historian Volker Leppin explores the Catholic roots of Lutheran thought and locates Luther’s life in the unfolding history of 16th-century Europe. Foreword by Timothy J. Wengert.

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