BOOK REVIEW: Holy Rus' - The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia

For centuries, Orthodoxy was embedded in folk practice. To be Orthodox was not primarily a matter of learning the meaning of Church doctrines or rituals; rather, it was a way of life shaped by the rhythms of village life. A general sense of wonder and awe before the powers of nature was reinforced by the experience of the holy in the Divine Liturgy

This article originally appeared on a new site about the Christian renaissance in Russia, called Russian Faith. Their introductory video is at end of this article.


With all the negativity currently going on in the Hollywood news networks regarding Russia, it seems like a worthwhile thing for researchers to help America and the rest of the world get to know what Russia really is, and what they are truly about. The book Holy Rus', by John P. Burgess, is a fine read for anyone who wants to know the facts about Russia and the direction she is headed within her culture.

The book is worthwhile reading for virtually any Orthodox Christian. The reason is this: the author’s experience as a pilgrim in Russia helps us to see the light of the gospel, and that the gospel is not about you or me, but is about us, about community.

In the introduction, John speaks of how he once had a truncated view of Russia, a nation that he was trained as an American to fear. He goes on to describes how he, as a Protestant, was pleasantly surprised during his stay in Russia, to find a whole new type of world open up to him, one which he describes as possibly experiencing a slice of “heaven” where the “competitive rat race” has been overtaken by a people that have quite possibly been “chosen by God,” as he puts it, to form a society where both the Church and state cooperate with each other. This communal aspect of Orthodoxy is often referred to as symphonia, the form of the Church as it grew out of the catacombs in her early stages, and in to broader society.

I’m not sure how much John knows about Russian Orthodox theology, but symphoniais indeed a key element to how Orthodoxy has operated within Russia, as well as the Byzantine Empire, prior to Russia. He seems to understand the importance of this fact as he speaks of the political climate throughout the book, and how the Church manages through this type of modern chaos. The book reads like it is written by a catechumen or Orthodox inquirer, but an intelligent one. It is not a scholarly read, but it does lend to a more intellectual study. It is an interesting read, because the book is written without a lot of bias, and it begs traditional Russian theology in so many areas, simply by his observations and conclusions.

FROM CULTURE TO MARTYRDOM

John begins the first chapter outlining his arrival in Moscow, Russia. He points out how, although decorated with a generous amount of modern fashion, this Russian capital is also deeply embedded with Orthodoxy, with church processions in the streets, church construction for parishes and monasteries, and a personal detail: a St. Nicholas icon“affixed to the taxi driver’s dash.”

The book maintains a serious religious theme. After all, the subtitle of the book does proclaim the “Rebirth of Orthodoxy”. The book is rightly very sociological and political. John never seems to run away from either of these categories throughout his chapters, but if he were an Orthodox student of Russia, rather than a Protestant, he likely would have traveled a more historic route, delving deep into the culture and sainthood of Russia’s origins in order to truly understand what is actually being “rebirthed.”

I think that, for him, a true depiction of Russia is one that is holistic in nature, covering all that Russia is about, but again, as a non-Orthodox, he simply may not be able to tap into this type of writing. His observation of Russia took place from 2004 to 2016, which seems like a generous amount of time! There is no doubt that he did all he could, short of converting to Orthodoxy, to write the book.

One particular quote that made me pretty excited in this first chapter was one by Patriarch Kyrill himself:

“The Gospel was proclaimed primarily not by priests, missionaries, or Church literature. It was proclaimed by the culture… Literally, everything that had been created during centuries of cultural development – literature, poetry, architecture, art, and music – made a witness to Christ… A Christian worldview, the Church’s wisdom, and biblical aphorisms lived on in the people’s consciences.”

This is what Russian Orthodoxy is about and always has been: to continue the covenantal community of Christ’s people. The gospel, to Russians, is not a set of principles or doctrines to convince our neighbor of. Rather, it is a life to live in harmony with the community, which in turn draws our neighbors. In Russia, this is realized like in no other nation! The gospel is lived out as a culture and as a community, as broken as it might be, but nonetheless as an Orthodox community.

John does not romanticize Russia. He points out many of her struggles, and describes one of her main points of contention: There are so many people in Russia that are victims of the communist revolution, believing they are Orthodox but not fully engaging in Orthodox sacramental life. He describes this as a new part of Russia’s mission, the actual slogan of the modern day Church: Votserkovlenie, meaning “in-churching,” to draw the fallen Orthodox people back to the heart of the Church.

An appropriate move in the book was to immediately begin speaking of the Soviet era. John mentions the “New Soviet Man” which was essentially a secularized ideal of the new, more industrial, more modern Russian, as opposed to a more agrarian and religious Russian ideal. The New Soviet Man embodies a significant era in Russian history.

It is beneficial that the book moves in the direction of the Soviet era, but the author does not really tackle it like he could have. Rather, he briefly uses the Soviet era simply to contrast what is currently happening in Russian culture, just enough to awaken the western spirit of the reader, mentioning trigger words and phrases about communism and its stereotypical view of the West.

What I think that he should have covered is Russia’s struggles of the late 1800s and early 1900s. This is where it all began completely unfolding. Russia needed industrial strength, and the Bolsheviks capitalized on this need, hence the symbol of the Hammer and Sickle! The Bolsheviks were modernists. They conquered the threat to their new economy (the Church). The Church was antiquated, to them, and was in the way of modernization. The author does not go into this kind of detail and brushes with the typical Stalin-was-a-monster theme.

Although he may certainly have been a monster, there were social constructs that contributed to this monstrosity. The Church had not been pushing into education and other social and cultural ministries like she should have been, and when they came to realize this problem, it was too late, and then WWI was suddenly upon them.

Next, John discusses Orthodox education. Perfect! He does speak briefly of how education in prior times was lacking Orthodox content, but he does not mention the turning points that some scholars have written about, regarding Russia’s infiltration into the universities of the west. A concise and scholarly review on this subject can be found in the book Third Rome by Dr. Matthew Johnson.

Early in the Education chapter, John says he communicated with a number of Orthodox people who said the Church today is gearing more toward teaching doctrine, due to the nature of modernity. He said today's people want, more than anything, to understand how the gospel stands against other religions. John says,

“For centuries, Orthodoxy was embedded in folk practice. To be Orthodox was not primarily a matter of learning the meaning of Church doctrines or rituals; rather, it was a way of life shaped by the rhythms of village life. A general sense of wonder and awe before the powers of nature was reinforced by the experience of the holy in the Divine Liturgy.”

This is interesting, because although the Church is attempting a more didactic approach in this day for the Russian people, she is also quite serious about continuing the tradition of community and culture, as we discovered earlier in the book.

Next in the book is a chapter on social ministry. This is akin to education, in that it fits in the overall scope of Orthodox culture. All throughout the Scriptures, we see how Christ commands us to help the poor, the widow, the sick, and the prisoners. In fact, Christ says in the Gospel of Matthew that our very judgment is based on this theology of philanthropy: “when I was sick…when I was naked, etc.” This is an essential aspect of Orthodox culture and community: to completely graft in philanthropy!

John mentions the many ministries he visited while in Russia, including a number of very organized monasteries and parishes who help those in need, including drug addicts and other victims of the devil. There are not a lot of theological or historical references in this chapter, but there are many eyewitness accounts of some great work that is being done by the Russian Orthodox Church. Very inspiring!

In one of the last chapters, John writes about parish life, sharing his observations on how people are living in Orthodox community around parishioners and priests. Like in most of the chapters, he throws in some contrast to the Soviet era and points out how things have changed. I suppose this is what the Barnes and Noble reader might be interested in, but again, I think a deeper dive is needed here. How did Russian Orthodox parish life look in the first several hundred years of Russia? How did it evolve into the 16th and 17th centuries? How much influence did Peter the Great have on modernizing Russia and her parish life? And finally, is Russian parish life adopting the things that she lost through her modern journey?

In the chapter just prior to the one about the parish life, and just after the social ministry chapter, John tackles a very important subject: The New Martyrs. Now, this could have been fantastic if it were written through a more historical perspective. It read more like a news article, when I think it should have read more like an adventure story.

There are a number of good books outlining great stories about the martyrs during the 1900s, but he chose not to go in to this kind of detail. He spoke mainly of what he saw the people doing with icons and how they respected the martyrs. This is good, but more detailed stories on the actual martyrs themselves and the effects they have on today’s Orthodox people, would have been an even more valuable read, I think.

CONCLUSION

I would love to see this book become a top seller. I think it deserves to be on every Orthodox Christian’s book shelf, especially the catechumen’s, simply because it has the right idea, and the right theme. Some of the observational material in the book seems extraneous, slightly dampening the main thrust the author is conveying, but the overall depiction of what is happening in Russia is very good.

This Protestant author gets it! I would not be surprised to see him get baptized into the Orthodox Church. His research pegs the gospel in so many ways, drawing us back to the way the early Church and the Byzantine Empire saw the gospel: as a community of people. I’m not sure how much John Burgess understands Byzantine saints and the early fathers, but the book certainly begs this theology. My prayer is that he converts and writes a sequel!


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