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Review of “Christian Churches in Post-Communist Slovakia”

Christian Churches in Post-Communist Slovakia, eds. Michal Valčo and Daniel Slivka (Salem: Center for Religion and Society, 2012), 548 pages.

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation—October 31, 1517—we also are approaching the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution—October 25, 1917. In the years following the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviets occupied a significant amount of the territory that had been influenced by the Reformation. I have had the privilege of serving with Lutheran Christians in lands formerly under Soviet power. The effects of the Bolshevik Revolution on the Lutheran Churches,1 other Christians,2 as well as Jews and Muslims, was significantly negative,3 though there were differences at times in the approach of the Soviets to Christians and to Muslims respectively.4

Lutheran Christians are still attempting to recover from the Soviet attempts to destroy religion and religious faith. The fall of the Soviet Union has led to freeing the churches from the oppressive power of the Soviet state and to rebirth even in the midst of uncertainty.5

The Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, coordinated a study entitled “Christian Churches in Post-Communist Slovakia: Current Challenges and Opportunities” in cooperation with the humanities faculty of the University of Žilina and the Greek-Catholic Theological faculty of the University of Prešov, as well as other researchers.

The interdisciplinary research resulted, in part, in this book, which examines the opportunities of the new situation, along with the burdens of the past. Burdens of the past include the oppression of the Nazis, the totalitarianism of the Soviets, the blessings and pitfalls of freedom, societal and cultural change, how to express the Christian faith in the post-Soviet and post-modern age, and how best to deal with the effects of materialism, secularism, and consumerism.

The book is divided into four parts. Part I speaks to the contemporary situation in Slovakia and examines ways to move forward. Part II deals with the history of the Greek Catholic Church in Slovakia, its oppression under the Soviets, and its current renewal. Part III examines the status of Jewish-Christian relationships in Slovakia today. Part IV examines the role of the media in relationship to the church in contemporary Slovakia.

The first essay by Daniel Slivka, “Church and Society in Slovakia—Past and Present,” sets the findings of the Roanoke study in the historical context of Slovakia, including its oppression under the Nazis and the Soviets. After 1989 Slovakia pursued democracy but the findings of the study indicate that there is a disconnect between religious faith and values and public life. Many people are still influenced by a Soviet mentality. Individualism, secularism, and privatization are all negative effects of Western modernization. Responsibility does not appear tied together with freedom and democracy in the minds of many. Thus the need for Christian values to have greater prominence in society.

The essay by Lukáš Bomba and Adrian Kacian, “The Relevance of Christian Faith for Everyday Life in Post Communist Slovakia,” examines the results of the European Value Survey of 2008, which revealed the religious situation in modern Slovakia, the impact of Communism on the Christian churches, and how relevant the Christian faith is for modern citizens of Slovakia. The study revealed that the expression of faith is based more on tradition than on belief, that Christianity is viewed as more of a private conviction than a public reality, and that many question the relevance of Christianity for everyday life.

Kamil Kardis’s “The Human Crisis and Exhibitions of Dehumanization in the Context of Today’s Society” examines the slide into the individualism and subjectivism of Western culture, which assumes that where God and the individual are in conflict, the individual is right and God is wrong. Self and experience are given the highest value and are normative for many.

Mária Kardis examines “The Chosen Aspects of Desocialization in the Context of Crisis of Postmodern Society.” This study found that desocialization resulted from a faulty view of human beings, increased moral individualism, and relativism. These trends led to the loss of ties between people and society, the disintegration of families, more crime, and a loss of faith. This study also found that religion is a dominant unifying force in society.

Katarína Valčová writes about “Liturgical Renewal as a Means of Church Renewal in the Slovak Post-Communist Context.” This essay examines what needs to be preserved so that the apostolic traditions and teachings are retained amid changing times, and what worship alterations would assist in the sharing of the gospel of Jesus Christ in a postmodern, post-communist era.

Michal Valčo’s contribution “Setting the Stage for a Meaningful Engagement: The Need for a Competent Public Theology in the Post-Communist Context of Slovakia.” This essay lays out the unease about the church’s role in modern society. Yet there is great need for the church to share its beliefs in the public realm and to proclaim a robust public Christian theology to today’s world. This is especially true now that Europe has lost its public religious discourse and its tradition of Christian education, thus causing the loss of most of its religious and cultural roots. Rigorous Christian education especially of the young is needed to influence society and to deal with the aftermath of Nazism and totalitarian Communism.

Jaroslav Coranič shares “The History of the Greek Catholic Church in Slovakia.” This church suffered complete liquidation during the Communist era, part of the larger ideological struggle the Soviets had with Rome. The Greek Catholic Church was forced by the Soviets to unite with the Russian Orthodox Church to lessen Rome’s influence in the Soviet empire. This essay traces the history of the Greek Catholic Church from the time of Cyril and Methodius to the year 2008 when Pope Benedict XVII established a new Catholic Greek eparchy in Slovakia.

Peter Šturák helps readers understand “The Attack on the Greek Catholic Church and Its Bishop during the Period of Communist Oppression.” Western Christians need to read such histories to gain understanding of the oppression their Christian brothers and sisters experienced under the Soviets. The accounts of martyrs and saints gives one pause, and the actions of many of them illustrate Christ’s forgiveness, love for enemies, the struggles for freedom, human rights, and faithfulness to Christ’s mission even under trial.

Marek Petro enlightens readers as to the “Stability and Flexibility in the [Greek Catholic] Church after the Fall of Communism.” This essay sets forth the stories of the martyrs Bishop P. P. Gojdič and Bishop Vasil’ Hopko, and the renewed flexibility and zeal of the church after Communism. Flexibility is necessary, for children are no longer brought up in Christian homes. Many homes are in fact anti-religious. The Greek Catholic Church has organized activities for youth and established youth centers, as well as centers for outreach to the Roma and their families.

František Ábel’s essay, “Righteousness, Justice and Holiness within Koinonia: The Theological Perspective of Development of the Jewish-Christian Dialogue in Slovakia,” attempts to deal with Slovakia’s totalitarian past and the near-elimination of the Jewish community by the Nazis and Communists. Now that such repression has ended, how do Christians and Jews interact so that Christians grow in their understanding of their Jewish roots and promote fraternal Jewish/Christian relationships and societal harmony? This essay uses several terms to frame the way forward: righteousness, justice (or justification), holiness, and fellowship.

Hedviga Hennelová’s essay, “The Culture of Media as a Substitute for Religion in a Post-Communist Context,” analyzes the influence of the media, which has become a kind of modern religion by its promotion of itself as an arbiter of truth, the lack of need for God, and a more secular view of life without absolutes. These things are in conflict with religious values. Thus there is need for religious people, especially Christians, to study the influence of the media and to effectively use the media to bring the gospel of Christ to bear on an increasingly secular world.

Terézia Rončáková’s essay, “Mass Media Coverage of Religious Topics: Understanding Topoi in Religious and Media Arguments,” researches the mass media’s ability to cover religious topics. The topoi are common places based on common values in society. To effectively communicate with an audience, gain its consent, and shape its attitudes, the approach must be grounded in the topoi. The study focused on the secular media’s coverage of five religious events. It also noted the challenges that the secular and church media both have in attempting to communicate effectively to society at large.

Imrich Gazda’s essay, “Catholic Media in Post-Communist Slovakia,” lays out the history of Catholic media (newspaper, radio, and television) in the post-Communist years. The work of the Slovak Bishop’s Conference Press Agency is also examined. The essay then examines the strengths and weaknesses of the Catholic media in Slovakia. The main work of the Catholic media is to sustain and strengthen the faith of Slovakia’s Catholics, and its main challenge is to deal effectively with the increasing secularization of society. Questions are also raised about an enhanced presence on the internet.

Some might read the title for this book and wonder why it should be read by anyone outside of Slovakia. Christianity worldwide is experiencing some of the same challenges that are evident in Slovakia: the lessening of Christianity’s influence in society, the loss of moral absolutes, the church’s place and role in society, changes to the understanding of marriage, a loss of interest in doctrine and theology accompanied by the entrance into Christianity of religious and spiritual teachings antithetical to the faith, the challenge of religious pluralism, the rise of militant atheism, a resurgence of neo-Marxism, the challenge of peaceful interaction between the major world religions, questions about the media’s role in society and its portrayal of religious events and topics. This is a book that deserves a wide audience.

ARMAND BOEHME is Associate Pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Northfield, Minnesota, and a former missionary to Kazakhstan.

1. Gennadij Khonin, A Brief History of Lutheranism in Kazakhstan and the Restoration of a Brethren Lutheran Community to an Authentic Confessional Lutheran Congregation (D.Min. Thesis, Concordia Theological Seminary, 2011), 1–59; Arthur Voobus, The Department of Theology at the University of Tartu: Its Life and Work, Martyrdom and Annihilation: A Chapter of Contemporary Church History in Estonia (Stockholm: Estonian Theological Society in Exile, 1963); Milan Opočenský, “Christian Existence in a Communist Country,” dialog 2/3 (1963): 214–23.
2. Kurt Hutten, Iron Curtain Christians: The Church in Communist Countries Today, trans. Walter G. Tillmanns (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1967); Dimitry Pospielovsky, The Russian Church under the Soviet Regime 1917–1982, vol 1. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984); The Church in Today’s Catacombs, ed. Sergiu Grossu, trans. Janet L. Johnson (New Rochelle: Arlington House Publishers, 1973); Arthur Voobus, The Martyrs of Estonia: The Suffering, Ordeal, and Annihilation of the Churches under the Russian Occupation (Stockholm: Ministerium of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1985).
3. Arch Paddington, Failed Utopias: Methods of Coercion in Communist Regimes (San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1988), 47–66; J. N. Westwood, Russia 1917–1964 (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 51, 81, 160, 190, 193–4; Alfred Martin Rehwinkel, Communism and the Church (St. Louis: Concordia, 1948), 40–75.
4. Paul Froese, The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 89–100; Laurent Murawiec, The Mind of Jihad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 169–255.
5. Jörg Swoboda, The Revolution of the Candles: Christians in the Revolution of the German Democratic Republic, trans. Edwin P. Arnold (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1996); A Decade of Miracles 1998–2008, ed. Tomáš Gulán (Martin: Bible School in Martin, 2008).

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