In This Issue
- Featured Story: The secular and the religious in 2015 and beyond
- Veganism as quasi-religion?
- Southern Baptists’ Advent devotion suggests liturgical turn
- Reform Jews more committed to Israel than usually assumed
- Current Research: January 2016
- Spaces for Russian Orthodox dissent, innovation in provinces
- ‘New Haredim’ making strides toward Israeli mainstream
- Shia Islam takes center stage in Middle East’s interreligious diplomacy
- New stage of religion- science dialogue strikes harmony in Islam
- Social media giving participants greater say in shaping Chinese folk religions
- Findings & Footnotes: January 2016
The following list is drawn from past issues of RW (in which case we cite the specific issue after each item) and from original sources.
- The terrorist attacks in Paris and in California confirmed two recent aspects of Islamic extremism—the reach of ISIS beyond its base in Iraq and Syria into the West and the growth of self-radicalization facilitated by participation in the social media. Both of these developments did not start in 2015. But, the spread of ISIS westward and its call for “lone wolf terrorism” came together in new ways only in the past few months. While ISIS is very critical of other currents in contemporary Islam, the impact of its actions on the image of Islam in the West is strong and continues to put Muslims in a situation of self-justification. While the long-term future of ISIS itself is uncertain, jihadism is likely to experience further mutations and present a durable challenge both for the West and for Muslims.
- The new migration from the Middle East into Europe is historic in proportions and is likely to unsettle both political and religious establishments. Most church bodies from across the left-right spectrum have welcomed the migrants both through resettlement and advocacy. However, there is some division about evangelizing these mostly Muslim newcomers, with the mainline denominations (at least in Germany) condemning proselytism. (September RW)
- The migration has also strengthened far right movements, some of which draw on a “Christian heritage” in Eastern and Western European societies that are otherwise quite secular. Recent research, such as sociologist Virag Molnar’s work in Hungary (in the journal Nations and Nationalism; 22:1), suggests that far right activism is based more on involvement in civic life than on reactionary individualism. But, the organizations that nurture far right involvement are largely secular, and in some cases Pagan, rather than explicitly Christian or church-based. This pattern confirms survey research showing that European far right sentiment is negatively associated with religious involvement and commitment.
- The emergence of Donald Trump as a leading candidate can be interpreted as an American variant of populist nationalism. Yet the large evangelical support shown for the upstart Republican suggested a more complex phenomenon taking place. Analysts speculated that such support signaled evangelical disenfranchisement and disenchantment with the Republican Party. Trump’s anti-Islamic turn later in 2015 found an affinity with a segment of evangelicals’ opposition to Islam, though by that time Ted Cruz had overtaken Trump in evangelical support. The Trump versus Cruz scenario may more accurately be seen as a demonstration of growing evangelical political diversity.
- The U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling in favor of gay marriage will likely have religious implications in the years ahead—and not only on the exercise of religious freedom. The ruling has been interpreted as mainstreaming marriage equality; its popular support, with early engagement by mainline Protestants and liberal Quakers performing gay weddings well before secular organizations, suggested to some that the issue is in line with such changes as women’s and racial equality. However, it can be argued that the strong and uncompromising campaign for gay marriage, and its largely secular justification in the court ruling itself, has more affinity with the divisive issue of abortion and Roe. vs. Wade. In the wake of the decision, conservative Christians seem caught between two not unrelated courses of action—pursuing the “Benedict option,” where they withdraw from the culture wars and maintain a countercultural witness, and engaging in protracted battles over the imposition of gay rights on their institutions. (November RW)
As a radical stream of vegetarianism, veganism—that refuses any product of animal origin, including eggs, milk or honey—bears many of the marks of a religious belief, writes German Protestant theologian Kai M. Funkschmidt in a two-part article in the November and December issues of Materialdienst der EZW. Funkschmidt understands veganism as a kind of substitute for religion. Veganism was born in the 1940s, with the foundation of the Vegan Society in London in 1944. Like vegetarianism, some of its promoters associated it with specific religious views. More significantly, however, it has found a home in movements concerned about the environment and animal rights. While veganism used to make up a subsection of the vegetarian movement, and remains a smaller part of vegetarianism, it is growing and now attracting wider interest (as is evidenced by the large number of books of vegan cooking). It goes beyond a small, committed milieu. Berlin has become a kind of “vegan capital” of Europe, with 36 vegan restaurants already open by 2013.
Many religions involve dietary prescriptions of all kinds, including fasting, that contribute to creating a sense of identity among followers, thus distinguishing them from others. However, with veganism—practiced either for health or for ethical reasons—dietary rules themselves come to create meaning and identity, writes Funkschmidt. Ethical vegans consider food as an issue of “right behavior”, with consequences not only for oneself, but for the world as well. Funkschmidt identifies several features of ethical veganism that come close to religion. First, an aspiration toward individual health and healing. It also includes a notion of universal salvation; thanks to veganism, the world is supposed to overcome hunger and live in peace. Conversion is another feature, with many vegans having reported the experience of a “moment of awakening”.
Then there is the claim of proposing a universally valid solution; some vegans write that it is the only way for living an ethical way of life. There is also a sense of belonging to an elite group, different from the common individual; many vegans find it difficult to interact deeply with non-vegans. Veganism also comes with a sense of a mission, or the need to share their views and to “proselytize” in order to convince others to follow the same way. Adopting veganism also raises ethical issues and a need for definitions and regulations: for instance, should one feed dogs and cats with vegan food? Funkschmidt even identifies “religion wars”, with some vegans going as far as considering non-vegan vegetarians as “murderers” due to their acceptance of products such as cow milk (referring to it as “white blood”). Such features would not lead one to define veganism as a religion, but they help create an understanding of how some worldviews fulfill similar functions and can easily become associated with a set of alternative religious beliefs.
(Materialdienst der EZW, Auguststrasse 80, 10117 Berlin, Germany – www.ezw-berlin.de)
Southern Baptists are showing a new interest in liturgical observances such as Advent, possibly reflecting a “pushback” among evangelicals against the contemporary worship movement, according to an article in Baptist Press (Dec. 11). The news service reports that LifeWay Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has recently published Advent devotional books, and has included advice for observing Advent in at least two holiday magazines this year. North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder, an SBC journal, commended Advent to its readers, offering them a list of Advent resources. SBC congregations across America lit Advent candles weekly, with many of them purchased from LifeWay reports David Roach. Church historian Stan Norman is cited as saying that while observing Advent was once viewed as too liturgical or “high church,” such practices and objects as Advent wreaths, calendars, and readings “seem to provide a bit of structure in a tradition that has maybe gone too far without structure.” He adds that the Christ-centered focus that is part of Advent observances may be seen as needed “in a cultural context in which we are battered on every side to be diverted away from that.”
While criticism of Israeli policies is common among Reform Jews, some 70 percent of them still remain attached to Israel and supportive of the Zionist project, writes Jerusalem-based journalist Elliot Jager in The Jerusalem Report (Dec. 14). Holding liberal theology, progressive political beliefs, and a very high level of intermarriage, the Union for Reform Judaism has 858 affiliated congregations. Union membership is on the rise, despite a low birth rate, and seems to be successfully answering the needs of many US Jews. It has also managed to adjust to new, adverse circumstances by encouraging the integration of non-Jewish partners into the community, considering children of interfaith couples as Jewish if raised as Jews (even if the mother is not Jewish). At its November biennial convention in Florida, many voices critical of Israel were heard. But Jager reports that “Reform insiders caution against conflating the positions of the Union and its political arm with the views of individual members.” Criticism of Israeli policies should not systematically be equated with lack of support. Jager quotes several leading Reform rabbis who are far from supportive of blaming Israel for everything.
On the other hand, Reform Jews are frustrated by the dominance of Orthodox Judaism in Israel, with its control of life-cycle events (as well as substantial budget) and its denigration of Reform Judaism, considered as alien to the religion. Only 12 percent of Israelis identify themselves as Reform or Conservative: “Many Israelis think of themselves as non-practicing Orthodox.” Major changes are unlikely to take place in the immediate future due to the current political context; however, things are changing with the possibility of governmental support for strengthening Reform and Conservative communities within Israel, according to statements made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his November visit to the US. Recent polls showed that 59 percent of Israelis supported equal treatment of Reform and Conservative rabbis, and more Jews may now identify with “progressive” Judaism than with Orthodox streams.
(The Jerusalem Report – http://www.jpost.com/Jerusalem-Report)
01: The largest community of Shi’a Muslims in the U.S., in Dearborn, Michigan, tends to consist of “wandering worshippers,” gravitating toward a range of events at different mosques rather than attending solely one mosque, according to a study in the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs (35:4). With 96,000 residents, a large proportion of whom are Shi’a Muslims from Iraq, Dearborn has been known as a small, yet prominent Muslim and Arab enclave in the U.S. The city has drawn both “pre-9/11” Iraqis and those who emigrated during/after the Iraq war in 2003. Researcher John Cappucci compared the “mosque life” of both waves of Iraqi-Shi’a immigrants, as he interviewed samples of 25 participants from each of the two groups to discuss their worship habits and mosque preference.
He finds that the second wave of immigrants attend mosques less frequently than the first wave, though the second wave actually donates more money to mosques, “perhaps to compensate for the infrequent attendance.” This may be partially due to the fact that the first wave is older while the more recent wave of immigrants is influenced by the “youth-oriented secular society.” Both waves seek to attend events of interest rather than establish themselves at one particular mosque. It is not necessarily the case that the Iraqis are wandering because of feeling rejected at established mosques, although Lebanese Muslims dominate the majority of mosques, since there are several predominantly Iraqi mosques in the area. Capucci argues that their “willingness to frequent different mosques shows that the Iraqi-Shi’a have an ability to adapt to different environments with relative ease.”
(Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cjmm)
02: Despite a common concern with peacemaking, the Orthodox and Catholic churches in the Ukraine are divided in their responses to the military conflict in the nation, according to a study by Tikhon Vasilyev of Oxford University. In a presentation at the recent meeting of the American Academy of Religion, attended by RW, Vasilyev studied the news and other information posted on the websites of three major Ukrainian Christian bodies—the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate), and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church—during 2014-2015 to understand how they portray themselves in relation to the conflict and Ukrainian society. While the three bodies featured news and information on peacemaking, when it came to humanitarian aid, both the Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholic Church showed limited aid and support to those outside their flocks. Both denominations have limited presence in the territories not under the control of Kiev, but such humanitarian assistance could be a sign of good will and contribute to the reconciliation between the people in the eastern territories and the rest of Ukraine. The Kiev Patriarchate church also presents a more militaristic image on its web site than the other two churches, showing a greater degree of spiritual support of the army. This includes more information on military chaplain activities, blessings of troops, and participation in funerals and other ceremonies.
While the Russian Orthodox Church is often portrayed as a monolithic church under the sway of Vladimir Putin and nationalism, new movements and groups are creating more space for dissent, especially in the provinces, reports Wallace Daniel in the Christian Century (Dec. 9). Even the stance of Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow suggests the different complexions of Orthodox nationalism; he is constricted by his political alignment with Putin and cannot criticize his action in Ukraine, yet he also stresses the need for peace, negotiations, and an “end to civil strife—an implicit response to the government’s military assault.” The patriarch has also reinvigorated theological education, creating seminaries and other theological institutions that have aided movements and initiatives challenging the status quo, according to Wallace. It is in such provinces as Ivanovo and Vladimir to the north of Moscow, the priests have been considerable freedom by their bishops to address social problems, as well as launching initiatives to engage in social outreach and educational programs on local issues.
Sergei Filatov, a leading scholar of Russian religion, says that “While their leaders remain conservative in their theological beliefs, they are not wedded to the past in their activities. They are developing a different form of Orthodox conservatism, which is very socially oriented and emphasizes social outreach and compassion for the marginalized.” Signs of alternative movements within Russian Orthodoxy have surfaced in relation to the work of Alexander Men, a priest and writer who was murdered in 1990. For many years after his death, his once-popular works, such as on ecumenism, were no longer carried in church bookstores. But that has changed with Kirill paying homage to Men in 2014. Additionally, last September, the publishing house of the Moscow patriarchate published the 15-volume set of his writings for the first time. Men is still a source of controversy and tension in the church, especially his call for the church to repent for its collaboration with oppression in the czarist and Soviet eras. The Kiev Patriarchate church also presents a more militaristic image on its web site than the other two churches, showing a greater degree of support of the army. This includes more information on military chaplain activities, blessings of troops, and participation in funerals and other ceremonies as well as raising funds for the army’s needs.
(The Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org)
Although forces against change remain strong and often intimidating for those who think otherwise within the community, changes are taking place among Orthodox Jews in Israel, among other places, as evidenced by the 5,000 Orthodox Jews who now serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), writes Andrew Friedman in The Jerusalem Report (Dec. 28). There is a cultural war going on in the Orthodox world between those who would like to remain immune to modernity in order to maintain their religious standards, and those—especially young people—who are no longer willing to live behind the walls erected by their ancestors. Economic challenges have played a role; lack of prospects for young Orthodox people due to their kind of training led to opening ultra-Orthodox vocational schools over the past decades. In 2014, 9,000 ultra-Orthodox students were studying for an undergraduate degree. However, the Internet and associated developments have proved to be the greatest challenge for Orthodox Jews, much more difficult to control than television (see RW, October 2015). It has given young Orthodox exposure to many things outside of their lifestyle. “One can still be a Haredi in the age of the Internet. But, Haredi after the Internet is not the same as Haredi before the Internet,” summarizes Rabbi Bezalel Cohen, founder of an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva high school in Jerusalem.
Another important change relates to evolving attitudes of many ultra-Orthodox toward Zionism, reports Amotz Asa-El in another article in the same issue of The Jerusalem Report. While Zionism used to be seen as the main enemy of Judaism, more than half a million ultra-Orthodox Jews now speak no other language than Hebrew (which Zionism revived), there is an ultra-Orthodox minister in Israel’s government, and the police force has trained and hired 15 ultra-Orthodox criminal investigators last year. While many ultra-Orthodox still keep the old walls of separation erect, an increasing number have now in practice made allegiance to the Zionist project that their forefathers used to reject.
Shia Islam may be taking the place of the Sunni branch of the faith in making an effort to foster interreligious diplomacy in the Middle East, according to The Economist (Dec. 5). This shift is most evident in Najaf in Iraq, the most revered place in Shia Islam. The Shia holy site of the Imam Ali Shrine recently hosted an interfaith gathering of such diverse faiths as Melkite and Orthodox Christians, Sunni Muslims and members of smaller religious minorities, such as Yazidis and Mandeans. They also visited an 11-story academy for interreligious studies under construction opposite the shrine’s gates. “And in an apparently unprecedented gesture, a Grand Ayatollah, one of four clergy of that rank in Najaf, invited them in for a bite to eat.” Another interfaith initiative is already in place at the Faculty of Islamic Law at Kufa University, Najaf’s largest college. “We want to turn Najaf into a meeting place of religions,” says Walid Farajallah al-Asali, the dean and a cleric who specializes in the Babylonian Talmud. “There is even talk of a papal visit to Najaf. Followers of Grand Ayatollah Sistani have made similar gestures, with one imam in Lebanon giving sermons in Beirut’s Christian churches.”
The article comments: “It was not always so. A century ago, the country’s Shia clergy considered it sacrilege to shake hands or sit at table with non-Muslims, on grounds that the presence of non-believers would render their food impure. But now a historical reversal seems to be going on. For centuries, Iraq’s multi-faith tradition has been preserved under Sunni leadership; now, as Sunni fanatics assault that tradition, the Shia clerics of Najaf are keen to emphasize their openness to others.” The open-door policy in Najaf’s holy sites is unusual enough in the Middle East, where such sites as Mecca and the Fatima Masumeh, the holiest shrine in Iran’s theological center of Qom, are for Muslims only. Critics charge that the ayatollahs’ openness “has yet to percolate down to their devotees,” a criticism the clerics say they are addressing. “Beyond the clerical ivory tower of Najaf,” Shia militias engaging in sectarian cleansing continues, as does popular prejudice against groups such as the Mandeans and Yazidis, the article concludes.
A new era of dialogue between Islam and modern science is based more on the harmony between these fields compared to past attempts to “Islamicize” science, writes Nidhal Guessoum in the journal Zygon (December). The 1970s and 80s saw the growth of a number of schools of Islamic thought seeking to reconcile science and the faith, which included attempts to mine the miraculous scientific content of the Koran and to merge classical Islamist thought with the philosophy of science by the thinker Seyyed Hossein Nasr (known as traditionalism). The most ambitious program was what is called the Islamicization of knowledge, which sought to rewrite science from an Islamic perspective and is largely based in Malaysia and at the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Washington. While most of these schools lost momentum since the 1990s, the endeavor to find modern scientific concepts prefigured in the Koran continues to find a strong following in Islamic schools, media, and academic conferences throughout the world. But, a “new generation of thinkers” has recently emerged that stresses affinity with modern scientific developments, such as evolution, and is conversant with philosophy.
The fact that several of these thinkers stressing harmony with science are practicing scientists and are open to Islamic and non-Islamic philosophical/religious traditions may lend them more influence among educated Muslim and non-Muslims. The thinkers, including Mehdi Golshani, Basil Altaie, Guessoum himself, and Usama Hasan, tend to criticize Islamic creationism and intelligent design and accept theistic evolution and big bang cosmology, even if some may not follow the implications of these views for traditional Islamic teachings (such as on the existence of miracles and the historicity of Adam). The issue remains that the new generation of Islam-science thinkers are from a dominant movement and, as practicing scientists, they may have to initially make their contribution as authorities on more practical issues in the Islamic community. This includes matters such as the role of Islamic astronomy (determining holy days and months, and the calculation of prayer times), as well as in the growing field of bioethics—from abortion and euthanasia to cloning and transhumanism.
Social media is also having an impact on East Asian folk religion, challenging old hierarchies and elites and democratizing participation in its rituals, according to a study the Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies (Winter). Chinese folk religions in Taiwan, which are a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, have sought to increase their visibility and overcome a loss in believers due to low fertility rates by trying to draw the younger generation to its ceremonies. For this reason, temples have not only created their own websites, but are also investing in social media. This can be seen in an historic temple in Taiwan of the sea goddess Mazu, which allows visitors to interact with temple custodians through posting and sharing real-time messages and information through social networking sites. Social media has also “functioned to serve current followers with time constraints. Practitioners can now participate in many Taoist ritual practices online, such as praying, fortune telling, and pacifying patron saints, writes Kuo-Yan Wang.
To find out how social media is changing these ceremonies, Wang conducted a survey among 1,152 participants at temples devoted to Mazu in Taiwan. He finds that interest-based online communities, known as netizen groups, are playing a key role in events related to folklore belief. They use forums to ask questions, as well as debate and express opinions on issues that may have previously been reserved for community leaders. Wang concludes that social media involvement intensifies the competition between temples as they seek to market themselves to a wider audience. Social media has also facilitated new kinds of cooperation between local Mazu-dedicated temples, the public tourism sector, and local businesses and industries (selling religious merchandise), which is resulting in the new visibility of traditional beliefs.
(Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, http://www.jsri.ro/)
01: Providence is a new quarterly magazine seeking to rehabilitate and reinvigorate evangelical engagement involvement in foreign policy. Published by the Institute for Religion and Democracy, the magazine has a distinct neoconservative orientation, arguing that evangelicals and other Christians have fallen into either isolationism or pacifism. The lead article illustrates the very different evangelical situation of today as compared to two decades ago, where the influence of the evangelical left was marginal to public life. Today, the evangelical left has become “mainstream in American Christianity,” especially in what the editors call “elite evangelicalism” and its “penchant for peacemaking at all costs,” which has been “accompanied by a rising ambivalence if not hostility towards Israel.” Another article by foreign policy writer Walter Russell Mead argues that the Baby Boomer and Millennial generation evangelicals have so often focused on NGOs in social change that they have overlooked the role of congregations in the generation of social capital. For more information, visit: www.providencemag.org
02: The movement of ex-Protestant, mostly ex-Episcopalian, married clergy into the Catholic priesthood is given in-depth treatment in Keeping the Vow (Oxford University Press, $29.95), by sociologist D. Paul Sullins. Based on surveys of married priests and Catholics, priests and bishops in general, the book covers both the motivations and attitude of these converts as well as the institutional barriers they continue to face in the church. Sullins, a married priest himself, argues that these priests’ trajectory into the church follows a classic conversion model, ironically breaking with the authority of their former denominations to find a true sense of authority in Rome. There are still a small number of married priests under the Pastoral Provision and the later Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, totaling only about 100 nationwide (mainly in the South). Sullins finds a range of factors behind such institutional reluctance to increase their ranks, ranging from the bishops’ concern with feeding resentment and dissatisfaction over clerical celibacy among celibate priests to a reluctance to financially support priests with families.
But the book shows that these married priests are exceptionally institutionally loyal, are much more conservative than other priests, and are happier and more committed in the priesthood than other priests, with their wives often serving as key sources of support and strength. Sullins sees the ranks of married priests not only coming from the Episcopal Church, but also from the many new splinter Anglican groups (and some non-Anglican churches). They will likely have a steady—although small—presence in the church and will have an impact in American Catholicism just because they circulate in the Latin-rite church (unlike Eastern-rite married priests). But, the fact that these priests largely defend the celibate priesthood suggests they are unlikely to be a force for change in Catholicism.
Sullins writes that the number of ex-Catholic priests traveling in the opposite direction to Protestant pastorates are far smaller than the married priests though, because of the size of the Catholic Church and the ex-Catholic pool, the former phenomenon is larger. In Stephen Joseph Fichter’s book From Celibate Catholic Priest to Married Protestant Minister (Lexington Books, $80), the percentage of ex-Catholic priests that have become Protestant clergy is estimated at under one percent; however, the trend is viewed as saying as much about the Catholic priesthood as about religious conversion and switching. Fichter’s sample of 133 ex-priests-turned-mostly mainline Protestant ministers, whose stories he intersperses with theoretical discussions and survey analysis, tend to have been strongly influenced by the aftershocks of the Second Vatican Council (a period marked by a high rate of priestly resignations).
They made the transition out of the church and the priesthood in their mid-30s, with the mid-1970s being the peak of such conversions. Thus these cohorts tended to face a mid-life crisis at about the same time that they faced societal and ecclesial upheavals. Another interesting finding concerned the fact that the large majority of these conversions or transitions took place among diocesan priests. Those priests based in religious orders were far less likely to leave and convert compared to diocesan priests, most likely because of the greater level of community and support found in religious orders. Celibacy was clearly a motivating factor in these switches, but Fichter finds that “while marriage was indeed the primary ‘pull’ factor throughout this past half century, the later cohorts [of Catholic priests-turned-Protestant ministers] manifested a growing inclination towards an ideological embrace of Protestantism first.”
03: Political scientist Elizabeth Shakman Hurd provides a revisionist and critical view of how religion itself changes as religious freedom becomes a globalized crusade in her book, Beyond Religious Freedom (Princeton University Press, $29.95). The first part of the book presents an engaging account of how religious freedom moved from a back burner issue fomented by activists to its current embrace by policy makers from a wide swath of the political spectrum. Hurd argues that the everyday or “lived religion” of practitioners clashes with the way religion is formulated and privileged in law and international public policy, often favoring a modern liberalized version of the faith. This is especially the case when American exceptionalism in matters of religious freedom (viewing the U.S. as the apex of religious freedom) is exported abroad.
She uses the example of the wars and killings in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda where the Christian-on-Christian violence makes it difficult to impose the cause of religious freedom on such cases. What Hurd calls “cornering religion” privileges certain faiths (minority over majority, or “good” versus “bad”) over others in the interest of designing foreign policy, but readers may wonder what the alternatives are in facing cases of actual violence and discrimination over religion? She argues that policy makers need to recognize religion for the local and unstable reality it is and to take into account the other identity markers involved in social conflict, such as class, race, ethnicity, gender, and custom.
04: Evangelical Christian Baptists of Georgia (Baylor University Press, $79.95) is a unique and in-depth study of how Baptists in the former Soviet Republic have contextualized their evangelical faith in an Eastern Orthodox society. Written by Malkhaz Songulashvili, the former Metropolitan Bishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, the 508-page book serves as an extended case study of how a “free church” saw how “Orthodoxy has had an important impact on society and drew on its substantial symbolic capital in Georgian life and thought.” Much of the book looks at how the Baptists struggled to gain religious freedom, first in the USSR and then after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
It was only after Protestants were granted religious freedom that the Baptists made the singular choice to become a “church for all Georgians”, adopting Orthodox liturgical forms (including iconography, the Eucharist and pilgrimages) and social teachings (while rejecting religious nationalism), rejecting proselytizing Orthodox Christians, but also accepting such innovations as the ordination of women and social activism (such as in its work with Chechen Muslim refugees). These changes have given the church a following among professionals, intellectuals and artists, while also raising the ire of other Baptist groups across the former Soviet Union. Songulashvili concludes that through its various missions (or apostolates), the ECB has had some influence among other Baptists (such as in the African country of Burundi) and Christians on issues of liturgy as well as cultural and artistic renewal.