Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Christian Churches in Post-Communist Slovakia: A Review

"Missionaries don't uproot themselves and get transplanted somewhere else. Instead, they are like banyan trees, and extend their root system and additional trunks to make homes in more than one place." This, or something like it, was the best lesson I learned from an experienced missionary one summer back in the mid-90s.

My wife and I served for three years as missionaries with the ELCA in Košice, Slovakia. We put down roots there. A dozen years later, I still speak with students and former colleagues from Slovakia on a weekly basis.

Recently Ondrej Kolarovsky, our good friend and the pastor who presided at our wedding, who continues to serve as pastor of the Lutheran church in Košice Terasa ( recommended a new book to me. Published by the Center for Religion and Society of Roanoke College, Christian Churches in Post-Communist Slovakia: Current Challenges and Opportunities (the table of contents, foreword, introduction, and author biographies are all included in the pdf to which I've linked the title) is, as far as I can tell, the first volume of its kind in English.

I've spent enough time living in post-Communist Eastern Europe to remain curious about the religious landscape of the region. There are considerable regional differences. Religiosity is quite different in Poland than it is in the Czech Republic, or in the former East Germany. So a book focused on the dynamics within one nation-state is smart.

However, the book does more than just focus parochially on Slovakia. The authors, most of whom are scholars from academic centers in Slovakia such as Žilina, Prešov, Martin, and Bratislava, write here in their second (or third) language, in the hopes that they can share their insights into a history that few people know, but more should. They do so because they are learning lessons from studies in post-modern, post-Christian studies that inform their analysis of the churches in post-communist Slovakia, and they believe their contribution can help inform scholarship by those analyzing religious life in other countries (especially the U.S. context).

The first chapter by Michal Valčo is a compelling presentation of the history of Christian faith in the region, extending about as far back into the history of Christian faith in Slovakia as we have record. It's a great introduction. For those unfamiliar with the work of Cyril and Methodius, for example, Valčo provides a helpful introduction. My only concern in this essay is that later opinions in the essay are often unfounded based on the data provided in the essay itself. I would characterize some of these opinions as being conservative reactionar-iness rather than solid analysis. This is the one and only bias of the book that weakens it at places throughout the essays.

Chapter two is helpful progressive statistical analysis of census data over the last thirty years. The author charts the ebb and flow of majority and minority Christian traditions in Slovakia. Roman Catholicism is by far the dominant tradition (with over 60% adherence), followed by Lutheran (6%), Greek Catholic (4%), and Reformed (2%). Those with no religious affiliation make up approximately 14% of the population. This means the country as a whole is relatively homogenous in terms of religious affiliation. The chapter ends with some analysis of the inter-relationship of secularization, Christianity, and the previous communist era on contemporary faith patterns.

The third and fourth chapters are largely "critical" essays charting what the authors describe as the dehumanization and desocialization of post-modern culture; the content of the chapter is keyed to more global analytics of post-modernism, like the work of Matthew Fforde, Emilie Durkheim, and others. Although these chapters do not forward the readers specific understanding of post-modernism in Slovakia in considerable ways, they do help set the stage for the conversation currently taking place between social critical scholarship in Slovakia, and similar scholarship happening in Europe and North America.

Chapter five will be of particular interest to Lutherans, as it examines the liturgical renewal movement in light of the developments in liturgical theology and hymnals and worship in Slovakia, with an eye to current conversations around worship and inculturation. Anyone who has followed the various controversies in North American Lutheranism around the production of new hymnals and reform of liturgies will be both amused and relieved to see similar discussions taking place in Slovak Lutheranism. My own personal experience of this while living in Slovakia hopefully adds an additional dimension. Although liturgical reform in Lutheran churches was steady and on-going, the real cutting edge developments were happening in the growing evangelical and Pentecostal churches there. I would love to see more analysis in this book of those traditions.

Chapter six is devoted to the need for a competent public theology in Slovakia. Statistical work reported earlier in the book had given indication that the majority of Slovaks do not see how the ministry of the church pertains to public goods and conversation per se. Here the book comes into conversation with some of the streams of Lutheranism dominant at Roanoke College. Valčo engages Robert Benne, a notable Lutheran public theologian, and offers a seventy page tour de force including case studies, historical survey, and deep theological analysis, of the challenges and opportunities for public theology in Slovakia past and present.

This concludes part one of the review. In the next post, I will engage Valčo's public theology essay in more detail, and survey the fascinating chapters in the book (7 and 8) on the history, suppression, and redevelopment of the Greek Catholic church in Slovakia. The volume concludes with a fascinating chapter on Jewish-Christian dialogue in Slovakia, and a series of chapters on mass media and religion.

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