Book Reviews

Wanner, Catherine. Communities of the Converted: Ukrainians and Global Evangelism. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007. 305 pp. $24.95. Reviewed by Paul D. Steeves.

Ukraine was the tenth-century cradle of Russian Christianity. Ukraine also was the launching point for modern Western evangelization of eastern Slavs in the nineteenth century. Evangelicalism emerged and grew rapidly in Ukraine in the post-1855 reforms of Emperor Alexander II. Throughout the twentieth century Ukraine was home to the majority of evangelicals under Soviet rule, known variously as Baptists, Evangelical Christians, or Pentecostals. Since 1991 Ukraine has been the focus of the most vigorous evangelical activity in post-Soviet space. This book by Catherine Wanner contains a cornucopia of information that documents the product of evangelicalism in Ukraine.

The book’s title conveys no cogent message about its content. Lacking a coordinating theme, the book, which cannot be called a monograph, comprises a collection of six worthy essays loosely united by reference to Ukraine. Wanner deserves credit that she is the author of each of these rich, disparate essays collected here.

Wanner describes Ukrainian evangelicalism from her perspective of a secular sociologist. This is both a great virtue of the book and a drawback. She confesses that she is not herself evangelical, so even though she is always sympathetic, she lacks a certain empathy with her subjects. She has no training in theology, so she does not portray the important doctrinal aspect of her subjects. She is not an historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, so her generally accurate account of the past 150 years lacks essential nuance.

Chapter one narrates succinctly the history of evangelicalism in Ukraine up to the Stalin years. This story has been told in several other books and Wanner adds nothing new. The supposed focus on Ukraine becomes blurred in chapters two and three. Chapter two leaves the subject of Ukraine to deal with the entirety of the U.S.S.R. in the post-Stalin years. Wanner skillfully portrays the great ambiguities evangelicals faced in surviving amidst Soviet atheism. Some evangelicals accommodated while others resisted. Here one confronts the greatest difficulty in the book. Wanner tells the story of an accommodationist named Karl Jablonsky. Supposedly Jablonsky was elected “bishop” of the Moldovan department of the legalized All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (AUCECB) and in this role was privileged to travel abroad, allegedly giving evidence that religious freedom was respected in USSR. Wanner offers no documentary corroboration of the account. A close examination of Baptist sources turns up no evidence to support this story and much substantial evidence to the contrary. No Jablonsky occupied a responsible position among AUCECB churches or traveled with AUCECB delegations. In the absence of better documentation, for the time being one must conclude either that Wanner was deceived or failed to present her information in a comprehensible and accurate fashion.

Chapter three moves to the United States to survey how Ukrainian émigrés have fared abroad, with some retaining concern to support evangelicalism back home. Chapters four and five present the heart of Wanner’s own field research in post-Soviet Ukraine among the evangelicals who are continuing the work of the movement descended from the 19th century. These chapters show the vigor of Ukrainian evangelicals, especially in Kharkiv.

The last chapter describes the phenomenon of the “Embassy of God,” a megachurch network started by a Nigerian evangelist. This topic, while very interesting, lacks any connection with the earlier parts of the book other than its location in Ukraine. One could at least hope for a discussion of the relations among the “Embassy” and more traditional Ukrainian evangelicals. One could dispute whether the “Embassy” really is evangelical, but there is little doubt that the “Embassy” has nothing to do with the history of evangelicals in Ukraine.

This book can be strongly recommended for anyone who wants an accessible summary of what has happened among evangelicals in Ukraine.

Paul D. Steeves is professor of history and chair of the history department at Stetson University, Deland, Florida.

 Witte, John Jr. and Frank S. Alexander, eds. The Teachings of Modern Orthodox Christianity on Law, Politics, and Human Nature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Reviewed by Chris Bounds.

This book is part of a three-volume project arising from the work of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. The thesis of the project is that modern Western jurisprudence has become too narrow and insular as a result of the dominance of legal positivism which has ignored the contributions of recent Christian thought on law, politics, and society. The purpose of the project is to introduce the best of modern Christian reflection in these areas with the hope that it can provide a salutary influence in legal circles today. With this in mind, the editors have identified 20 seminal Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians from the 19th and 20th centuries and published in three volumes their most salient writings on issues relevant to jurisprudence.

This particular volume examines the potential resources for contemporary law from the Orthodox tradition. Specifically, five Orthodox theologians and philosophers are addressed: Vladimir Soloviev, the first modern Russian to develop an Orthodox philosophy of law and political order from the Christian understanding of salvation; Russian Nicolas Berdyaev, who articulated an anthropology grounded in an “ethic of creation, redemption, and law;” Russian Vladimir Lossky who related human dignity, freedom, and law to the Orthodox doctrine of the Trinity; Romanian theologian Dumitru Stăniloae who argued for the natural and supernatural resources of law and authority in the midst of human freedom and sinfulness; and Mother Maria Skobtsova, a Russian nun and social reformer who developed a theology of incarnational living and sacramental care for the poor with implications for the role of law in addressing issues of injustice. In each case, a scholar has been chosen to provide a biographical sketch, a presentation of their thoughts on law, politics, society, and human nature, concluding with a selection of their primary source writings.

The work done in this volume is helpful in four ways. First, it recognizes that modern Eastern Christian thought can make significant contributions to Western theology and jurisprudence. Orthodoxy, recognized and respected in its own right, offers a perspective not found elsewhere in Christianity and therefore deserving a hearing. Second, while Orthodox thought is firmly rooted in the past, particularly in its adherence to the early Church Fathers, this volume helps readers see that Orthodoxy is not monolithic. Readers will note true doctrinal development taking place in modern Orthodoxy as this volume highlights original Orthodox reflection in the areas of law, politics, society, and human nature. Third, the volume faithfully presents the teaching of each Orthodox Christian, with minimal or no critique. The goal is to present Orthodox thought on issues related to jurisprudence and theology, allowing readers to then critique and appropriate accordingly. Finally, the selection of original sources is outstanding. They allow readers to cut to the heart of each Orthodox thinker’s key arguments and ideas in his or her own words. Their relevance to the purpose of the book is clearly seen.

Some minor weaknesses, however, are apparent. The most glaring is the section on Mother Maria Skobtsova. While the inclusion of a woman in this three-volume series is laudable, with women well represented in the Protestant and Roman Catholic texts, the presentation of Mother Skobtsova in this volume is weak and perhaps a stretch. While Michael Plekon gives an insightful presentation of Skobtsova, her contributions to an Orthodox understanding of human society, politics, and law lack the strength of the other chapters. This is substantiated even more in the choice of Skobtsova’s writings: They do not have the same relevance to the stated purpose of the book as the other Orthodox selections.

In conclusion, this book is a useful resource for two academic disciplines – jurisprudence and theology - giving a modern Orthodox perspective on law, politics, society, and human nature.

Chris Bounds is associate professor of theology, Indiana Wesleyan University, Marion, Indiana.