Thursday, April 24, 2008

"Putin Picks a Church"

The Orthodox Church, in a manner of speaking, made the front page of yesterday's New York Times. Lead articles in the Times are generally not favorable to their subjects. This article, "At Expense of All Others, Putin Picks a Church," tries hard to put a negative spin on the subject, but I suppose it is all in your perspective.

The writer investigates the plight of Russian Protestants, supposedly suffering from an oppressive and heavy-handed state bureaucracy, aided and abetted by their co-conspirators in the Russian Orthodox Church. The story fits nicely in the Times' well established pattern of Putin-bashing.

There are several problems with the story, however. For starters, the title itself is ludicrous: "At Expense of Others, Putin Picks a Church." I find this image of Putin choosing among churches as an American would shop between denominations to be amusing. Can you really imagine Vladimir Putin trying to decide between, say, the Freewill Baptists, or Missouri Synod Lutherans, or say the New Life Covenant Believers Outreach Center (or is it the New Covenant Believers Outreach Life Center?), rather than say, the Orthodox church which has been the faith of his nation and forebears for over 1,000 years now?

The writer strives to work up a case for the "persecution" of Russian Protestants. I suspect that Russians know a thing or two about real persecution, and this ain't it. To label it such demeans and dishonors the tens of millions of martyrs for the Faith under the Soviet Union. For example, an evangelical Baptist group was prevented from renting a theater for a Christian music festival. That's correct. Oh, the horror of it all! (Would that 90% of Christian music concerns in this country suffer a similar fate.) But I am being cynical, I suppose. The truth is, these groups are merely being inconvenienced. True, some bureaucrats are making their ministry harder with unnecessary red tape and intimidation--in the most time-honored Russian tradition. But a little perspective is in order: Russia without an overbearing, ham-fisted bureaucracy--whether it be czarist, Soviet or Putinist--would hardly be Russia.

Others complain that some government bureaucrats and Orthodox priests do not show proper respect to Protestants, labeling them "sects" and "heretics." We are accustomed to making distinctions between the term "denomination" (which is acceptable) and "sect" (which is unacceptable). Many Americans assume our situation to be normative, and one that should be a model for less enlightened lands. We are too deep in the forest to see the truth behind the shopping mall this is American religiosity. Our situation is nothing short of bizarre. Russians see little substantive differences between denomination and sect. Why should we expect them to play our silly word games?

Americans are united (if, in fact, we still are) around a few core ideals. As I see it, Russians are united around their ethnicity as Russians, their shared history and struggles, in which Orthodoxy is inextricably linked to their very Russianness. When one grasps that, it is easier to understand why they look at what American Protestantism has wrought and say "Thanks, but no thanks."

Many Russians perceive it as alien to their culture. This suspicion was not helped when Western missionaries rushed in after the fall of communism. Eager evangelicals viewed the society as completely atheistic. To the extent that they were aware of Russian Orthodox Christians, they were dismissed as superstitious quasi-Catholics, who were not really Christian at all. I know, for I was an evangelical in those days. The Russian Orthodox Church, which had to begin rebuilding, retraining and teaching at that same time, was obviously frustrated by the crush of Western missionaries. But the situation is changing. The Church is resurgent in Russia today. Recent polls find that 71% of the nation considers themselves Orthodox. Studies also point out that there is something of a "baby boom" underway, and that with such, Russia may be slowing turning from the path of demographic suicide.

Archbishop Ioann, the chief Russian Orthodox priest in the Belgorod region, said Russians had a deep connection to Orthodoxy that the government should nurture. “In essence, we have begun to live through a period that is like the second Baptism of Russia, just as there was before the Baptism of ancient Russia,” he said, referring to Russia’s adoption of Christianity in the year 988.

He said the church wanted warm ties with other faiths, though it was hard to overlook the foreign connections of Protestants. “You know, what else alarms me, the majority of them are born — I must apologize, but I will tell the truth — from the West’s money,” he said. “Naturally, they need to play the role of the offended ones who need protection.”

I have given this article so much attention partly because it forced me to confront my own possible hypocrisy. For while I am coming across as a little dismissive of Protestant missionary efforts in Russia, I am the flip side of that coin: an Orthodox convert in America. So, it a fair question to ask of myself. Orthodoxy is indeed alien to our particular culture. Our convert bloggers love to debate the impact of the Americanization of Orthodoxy in this country. I don't intend to wade off into those types of fruitless pontifications. But here and there, Orthodoxy is taking root in American soil. The difference between the two situations, as I see it, is in what each group offers the prospective convert. At its core, Western evangelicalism offers Russians a "personal relationship with Jesus." This relationship is highly individualistic and centered upon the study of the Bible. In portraying evangelicals, the writer of the Times story lumps Lutherans, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and Baptists together. That, in fact, proves my point. What Western evangelicalism really offers Russia is...confusion. What Orthodoxy offers American converts is not confusion, but clarity, communion, commonality and connectivity. Our ancient worship is the same, whether in be in Moscow, Athens, Damascus, Tbilisi, Sofia, Kiev, Belgrade, Anchorage, San Francisco or our little mission behind the Pine Curtain in East Texas; as well as the worship of a church that was already ancient before the New World was discovered, a seamless connection to the saints and martyrs of 2,000 years. So, what is truly alien here? Perhaps it is a superficially Christian nation too long disconnected from the roots of its faith and culture.

Read the story, here.


Mimi said...

I really felt that the story was lacking in a lot of ways and you put your finger on it - the way that Protestants ran into Russia as Communism fell to bring religion to a people who had celebrated 1000 years of Christianity in their land was absurd.

James the Thickheaded said...

Read the it must be in the Sunday edition. I just sort of shrugged and thought, "They don't get religion period, so why should I expect them to understand Orthodoxy?" Glad you thought about this.... and now that you have... think you're right about Russia bashing... though it seems odd they missed out on America bashing... another of their favorite sports.

Appreciate your turning to reflect on the process of reconversion here... but would note when you read some of the lit on conversions in the 19th century (I recently came across Grafton's stuff)... there weren't too many at the time who viewed the USA as all that christian then, either. (Aside: Can't a guy get an even break? Guess not. "I'm heretic bone, an' heretic bred, an' when I die... ").

Anyway... don't think there's a big audience for reality... even at the NYTimes. Celebrity journalism has taken a steep toll on the real gumshoe reporters... I don't think there are many left.

s-p said...

Incisive commentary, John. It reminds me of the cover of a local mega-Church's monthly magazine. It has a picture of a clean cut family with BIG letters: HELP US SEND MISSIONARIES TO GODLESS RUSSIA. And they are standing in front of a Russian Orthodox Church. sigh....

Ascending Incense said...

I find your comment that there is presently a "baby boom" in Russia fairly interesting. From what I've read, the opposite is the case: Russia is to expect a decrease in the birth rate.

Your response to the Times article is great. That comment just surprised me.

John said...

Ascending incense, you are correct. The story of Russia's population implosion is well-documented. And you see the dire figures and projections tossed around all the time. This has been attributed to a poor economy and lower than average life expectancy (particularly for men.) But things seem to be turning around. For years, Russia has been losing about 750,000 people per year. In 2007, however, they lost just 223,000 for the first 11 months, compared with 521,000 for the previous year. This is an astounding turn around. Life expectancy is creeping up as the government is promoting healthier living. But most of all, young couples are having babies again. This is largely attributed to Russia's booming economy. It will take time for all this to really turn things around. And Russia will have to go through a period where there are fewer women of child-bearing age due to the previous trends, but still this is very hopeful news. Those who like to write obituaries for Russia may be a bit premature! The story I was referencing can be found here:

Steve Hayes said...

Thanks for this - blogged and linked.