Analytic Theology

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Surfeit of Religious Media Ensues from Orthodoxy’s Revival in Russia

December 25th, 2008 by David Kronemyer · 2 Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER: Sophia Kishkovsky wrote an interesting article in today’s New York Times, “With Orthodoxy’s Revival in Russia, Religious Media Also Rise.” She states: “After 70 years of state-imposed atheism and 20 years that have run the gamut from glasnost to post-Soviet chaos to a revival of Russian pride, Russians have increasingly embraced their Orthodox roots.”

The article’s primary focus is the role of the media in stimulating a resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Any discussion of its role implicates broader issues unique to the Russian sensibility. I am thinking here in particular about the closing pages of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” (“Сталкер”).

A. Brothers Karamazov

The schoolboys initially detested Illyusha. They threw rocks at him. Alyosha intervened. Ungrateful, Illyusha bit Alyosha’s finger. Gradually however the schoolboys and Illyusha became reconciled. Illyusha (who was sickly) perishes. Alyosha delivers a moving speech by a rock. Alyosha admonishes the boys to remember Illyusha and their friendship together. Their pact is charged with an additional element, which is their simultaneous, self-aware knowledge that they are entering into it. Dostoyevsky intends an analogy to the formation of the early Christian church and Jesus’ hand-off to Peter – a lineage that (in principle) has continued unbroken to Pope Benedict XVI.

In his monumental treatise A History of Russian Literature D. S. Mirsky parses these events. “Russian educated society must be redeemed by a renewal of contact with the people, and by an acceptance of the people’s religious ideals – that is to say, of Orthodoxy.” Dostoyevsky’s religion “is Orthodoxy because it is the religion of the Russian people, whose mission it is to redeem the world by a reassertion of the Christian faith” (emphasis in original).

Dostoyevsky believed that a state-sponsored secular religion (such as socialism) was inherently improbable. Alternatively he proposed a religious state with secular overtones. With its rejection of mysticism and its focus on community the Russian Orthodox Church was the ideal template for this endeavor.

Dostoyevsky would have been in complete disagreement with contemporary theorists such as Robert Bellah who have proposed a “secular religion.” Dostoyevsky advocates a “religious secularism.” Alyosha left the monastery at Zosima’s urging to pursue a life in the world. He never, however, abandoned his cenobitic leanings. A proposed but never-written second volume of the Brothers Karamazov would have followed Alyosha’s subsequent career to foster this ideal.

Modern Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia or Iran provide an interesting illustration of Dostoyevsky’s concept. They attempt to reconcile the competing impulses of secularism and theology. They strive to implement Western technology without losing sight of their fundamental religious values.

B. “Stalker”

“Stalker” presents a second illustration of this deep-rooted aspect of the Slavic character. Although we are unsure of its provenance, the Zone (“Зоне”) a real place. The Stalker (played by Alexander Kaidanovsky) traverses it along with the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko). Their journey also is real. Its objective is to reach a “room” where one’s deepest unconscious desire becomes realized.

In fact there is no such room, or the protagonists abandon the thought of entering it just when they are on the verge of doing so. It might be a figment of the Stalker’s imagination. More likely it is a social delusion. The Stalker actually believes there is such a place, as do the Writer and the Professor. Regardless of whether it actually exists, the mythos of the room serves its purpose. The Writer becomes inspired. The Professor comes to understand technology’s insidious potency.

The problem with the room is that it raises expectations. For this reason the Zone’s borders are zealously patrolled. The State (or even human culture and convention) must guard against the possibility of hope becoming something more than the absence of despair. In this respect we all live in the Zone. The Stalker is our guide as we attempt to reconcile our conflicting impulses. He is Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor personified. As he tells his wife (Alisa Freindlich), if one believes in the existence of the room then its powers are real.

“Stalker” also illustrates the conflict between technology and nature. The city bordering the Zone is devoid of nature. It is an industrial slum. Train tracks are built on top of dirt. It is filmed in dismal sepia tones. The Zone on the other hand is devoid of technology. It is a reliquary of the natural world. It is a primordial place covered in moss and water. It is lush, pastoral, verdant. It is filmed in beautiful color photography. While it is primordial, it is not a wilderness. It is a repository of abandoned precipitates of human culture – a world permanently frozen in time. Dirt encrusts these artifacts (buildings, tunnels, abandoned gears, syringes, pieces of paper, religious icons). Culture is built on top of nature but then nature overwhelms it. Culture inexorably decays. The Zone is a world permanently frozen in time (just as natural processes now have overtaken Chernobyl, which is an eerie fulfillment of Tarkovsky’s vision). It is a snap-shot of ecology’s ultimate triumph over material culture and the futility of purposeful human endeavor. It’s all we have even as it ultimately constrains us. The Stalker’s wanderings through the Zone are non-linear, seemingly random. We all are wanderers through the world in which we live.

[Thanks to Andrew Kronemyer for comments.]