Solzhenitsyn’S Bad Press

Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World,by Edward E. Ericson, Jr. (Regnery Gateway, 433 pp.; $24, hardcover). Reviewed by John Wilson, an editor and writer in Pasadena, California.

Pity about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, isn’t it? In those halcyon days—the time of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, First Circle, and Cancer Ward—he seemed to be that rare thing, a genuine hero: an indispensable witness to the horrors of the gulag (a word he introduced to the world’s vocabulary), one whose life and works testified to the indomitability of the human spirit. After his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974, however, and his choice to live reclusively in Vermont, a different image of Solzhenitsyn began to emerge: “neither a ‘liberal’ nor a ‘democrat,’ ” Jonathan Yardley wrote in 1974, stating the consensus of the Western media, but rather “a not-very-thinly disguised Czarist.” Moreover, as the New York Times Book Review reminded us this past March, Solzhenitsyn turned out to be a man “obsessed with religious ideas.” Alas, “in the righteous mind of the novelist there lurked dark neurotic impulses.”

In Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World, Edward E. Ericson, Jr., argues that this prevailing Western image of Solzhenitsyn is simply and demonstrably wrong. With the collapse of the Soviet Union—an event that Solzhenitsyn surely helped to bring about—and the exiled writer’s declared intention to return to his homeland later this year, a reassessment is clearly needed. Ericson, who published an earlier study of Solzhenitsyn and, with the author’s cooperation, prepared the abridged edition of The Gulag Archipelago, brings to the task an encyclopedic knowledge of Solzhenitsyn’s works and a lucid expository style.

“Any reassessment of Solzhenitsyn,” Ericson acknowledges, “must eventually return the focus to his literary works. They are the most significant thing to know about him.… However, it was not literary criticism of his art which caused Western commentators to stumble in trying to come to terms with him. It was the reactions to his essays which generated the fog of misperception.” Accordingly, the focus here is on the essays, lectures, interviews, and other occasional writings that have been widely misinterpreted in the West.

Solzhenitsyn and the Word

As Ericson observes, it is no coincidence that the sudden shift toward the negative in media coverage of Solzhenitsyn began in the early 1970s, when he first publicly revealed his longtime commitment to the Russian Orthodox faith. Since then, Solzhenitsyn has been characterized as a dangerously rigid “religious fundamentalist,” an anachronistic figure who would impose the discredited certainties of an earlier age on the complexities of the twentieth century. Here, after all, was a man who, in his 1983 acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, recalled the words he heard as a child, when his elders sought to explain the ruinous upheavals in Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” He added, “If I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: ‘men have forgotten God.’ ”

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Such a perspective would not have been alien to Martin Luther, nor is it foreign to the 1993 winner of the Templeton Prize, Charles Colson. To the average secular pundit, however, Solzhenitsyn’s perspective is not merely wrong but outlandish, explicable only by reference to a peculiarly Russian bent for messianic delusions. The reaction of the secular press to Solzhenitsyn’s religious views, in other words, reflects not only a deep hostility to Christianity but also widespread ignorance of what it is that Christians believe.

Ericson’s second chapter, titled “The Moral Universe,” gives the essence of Solzhenitsyn’s Christian world-view. Drawing on a perceptive essay by the Russian-American theologian Alexander Schmemann, Ericson shows how “the triune intuition of creation, fall, and redemption” is central to Solzhenitsyn’s outlook, which is firmly within the mainstream of historical Christian orthodoxy. “The moral universe of Solzhenitsyn,” Ericson affirms, “rests ultimately upon the power of the word. The Word of the Creator established this universe. The word of the writer seeks to be faithful to it. The writer’s little stories reflect the Great Story and explore its ever-unfolding details. By such means the human word upholds and even drives the universe bestowed by the original Word.”

Ericson devotes three chapters to documenting the responses of Western critics to Solzhenitsyn. Here Ericson employs a device used powerfully by Solzhenitsyn himself: allowing people to condemn themselves with their own words. Writing in 1975 about the Baltics, one critic of Solzhenitsyn suggested that it was “difficult … to muster up any great sympathy for their ‘plight.’ … It is no exaggeration to say that these talented peoples have never enjoyed comparable well-being—thanks primarily to their peaceful employment … under the Soviet nuclear umbrella.” The bland enormity of such statements is staggering.

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The next three chapters deal with specific topics on which Solzhenitsyn’s views have been misunderstood or misinterpreted: his attitude toward the West, toward democracy, and toward nationalism. These are followed by a close reading of two of his essays on the state of the former Soviet Union. A consideration of Solzhenitsyn’s influence concludes the volume (especially noteworthy here is the discussion of the affinities between Solzhenitsyn and Václav Havel).

The czarist and the quota queen?

Ericson’s book will not end debate on Solzhenitsyn’s political and religious views, nor is it intended to, but it should make debate more productive. Ericson shows, for example, that there is no basis for the oft-repeated charge that Solzhenitsyn favors an autocratic form of government, or even that he is antidemocratic. What is true is that Solzhenitsyn doubts that majority rule is capable of achieving justice and wisdom unaided. Thus, in Rebuilding Russia, he proposes various means by which popular sovereignty would be limited and balanced for the common good.

Despite significant differences in local circumstances and ideology, there are parallels between Solzhenitsyn’s proposals and some of the controversial positions taken by C. Lani Guinier, the law professor whose nomination to head the Justice Department’s civil-rights division was withdrawn by President Clinton after excerpts from several of her articles prompted a firestorm of criticism. Both involve abridging (not denying) the power of the majority in a democratic system; both can point to widespread abuses of majority rule (which is not absolute in any case). In this reviewer’s judgment, Solzhenitsyn’s proposals are clearly utopian, while Guinier’s are achievable but undesirable. Both, however, deserve to be argued on their merits, not obfuscated with talk about nostalgia for the czar or quota queens.

Some commentators have suggested that, with the downfall of communism, Solzhenitsyn’s work has become dated, irrelevant to the bewildering realities of the new Russia. Ericson shows, to the contrary, that Solzhenitsyn’s abiding message is spiritual, not political. He is concerned with the fundamental and perennial terms of human existence—above all, with the struggle between good and evil. That struggle did not begin with the birth of communism (or capitalism, or imperialism, or patriarchy), and it will not end with communism’s death. In Solzhenitsyn’s words, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

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Nuptial Life Preserver

Marriage Savers: Helping Your Friends and Family Stay Married,by Michael J. McManus (Zondervan, 283 pp.; $15.99, hardcover; $9.99, paper). Reviewed by Charles Colson, author of The Body (Word).

Christian books decrying social ills are often long on diagnoses but short on cures. Typically they offer sweeping indictments of modern culture, with condemnations of the church’s all-too-often fumbling responses. Readers are left yearning for practical answers—ways they can make a difference.

But this is one book that meets our yearning for answers. In Marriage Savers, Michael McManus lists all the disturbing demographics on family breakdown: divorce, cohabitation, out-of-wedlock births. But he does not stop there. The bulk of the book reports on concrete strategies that have a proven track record in building strong marriages.

America is the world’s most churchgoing modern nation. Three-fourths of all American marriages are blessed by a pastor, priest, or rabbi. Yet our incidence of family breakup soars far above that of other countries. The painful conclusion is that “the church itself is part of America’s divorce problem,” McManus writes. Organized religion “is often simply a ‘blessing machine’ that has no more impact on the couple getting married than does a Justice of the Peace.”

But there are signs of hope. In writing his nationally syndicated column, “Ethics and Religion,” McManus has come across heartening examples of “marriage savers”—churches and organizations that offer programs to strengthen marriages. These models provide useful strategies that will help any church become a marriage saver.

First, pastors must boldly teach biblical sex ethics. A University of Wisconsin study found that those who cohabit before marriage increase their odds of divorce by 50 percent. “Cohabitation is a cancer eating away at the center of marriage,” McManus writes. Yet, “have you ever heard a sermon on living together?”

Second, the author describes various programs available to churches, each targeting a different stage of life. He includes abstinence programs like “Why Wait?” for teens; PREPARE, an extremely accurate premarital inventory, for engaged couples; “Marriage Encounter” weekend retreats for married couples; and reconciliation programs, like the highly effective Retrouvaille, for troubled marriages.

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Your pastor does not have time to run another program? McManus’s third suggestion is that pastors recruit mature Christian couples as mentors. The author and his wife of 28 years have mentored several young couples.

Fourth, the author urges Christians to support legal reform to amend no-fault divorce laws that reward spouses who flout their marriage vows.

Finally, McManus advocates Community Marriage Policies, an agreement signed by church leaders in a given locale to make certain minimal requirements of any couple that asks for a church wedding: a four-month waiting period, premarital counseling using PREPARE, work with a mentor couple, and so on. Community Marriage Policies are already showing remarkable results. In 1991, when clergy members in Peoria, Illinois, signed this policy, there were 1,210 divorces. Just a year later, divorces dropped to 947, a 21 percent reduction.

The Southern Baptists adopted McManus’s proposals in helping to organize Community Marriage Policies in nine cities. The denomination is also coproducing a video series based on Marriage Savers. Archbishop William Keeler is working to get Catholic churches involved in similar programs.

Although McManus occasionally strays from the reporter’s role into the less useful “how-to” approach of a typical marriage manual, Marriage Savers offers an overwhelmingly positive contribution to the church. Family breakup is a major crisis in American life, and who is doing anything about it? The government can’t. The media won’t. The schools aren’t. It is up to you and me, as the church. This is front-line Christian work, and McManus gives the church the tools it needs to do the job.

Stott’S Return To The Basics

The Contemporary Christian,by John Stott (InterVarsity, 432 pp.; $17.99, hardcover). Reviewed by J. I. Packer, whose book Knowing God has been reissued in a special twenty-fifth anniversary edition by InterVarsity.

Like John Wesley, whom he resembles in so many other ways, John Stott continues in his seventies to travel, preach, and write like a man half his age, with no discernible loss of power in any department. The present book is vintage Stott, with all that that implies. In it, as usual, we find him digesting and deploying a wide range of material with a symmetry matching that of Mozart, a didactic force like that of J.C. Ryle, and a down-to-earth common sense that reminds one of G. K. Chesterton. So the book is an expository treat. It is really a pastoral essay, a sermon on paper aimed at changing people rather than the advancement of learning as such.

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Bible based and well researched, intimate and magisterial in style, passionately calm and generous to a fault, this is a finely arranged and beautifully written contribution to what Stott calls “BBC”: “balanced biblical Christianity.” Those who know his writings will find few surprises, but every reader will find here great clarity and great strength.

Billed as a companion volume to Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today (Revell), The Contemporary Christian pursues one of Stott’s long-term projects, namely, the formation of adult Christians to live responsibly and realistically in the post-Christian Western world of our time. Stott sees some huddling with minds averted from that world and others drifting from their biblical moorings through immersing themselves in it, and he diagnoses both conditions as pathological. The cure, he says, is “double listening”—listening to the Word as hard as to the world and vice versa. This way, pietistic indifference to the world and ideological surrender to it can both be avoided.

An obvious point? Maybe so, but a basic one, often disregarded in practice by those who accept it in principle. Stott does not waste either his time or ours when he raises the issue. To make his point thoroughly, he discusses in turn the Gospel, the Disciple, the Bible, the Church, and the World (that is, the Christian mission in the world); and in doing this, he builds up a full-scale profile of informed, alert, mature, wise, resolute Christianity that everyone will be the better for for working through before the Lord. His analyses are elementary in the positive sense of being elemental and fundamental (those on the church and the world being particularly good): they are designed to set us going along the right lines, and once those lines are drawn, he stands back and leaves us to get on with it.

Only once did I find myself disagreeing strongly enough to merit comment in a review. I was sorry that Stott assumes, as is so often done, that ecumenism means some form of involvement with the doings of the World Council of Churches. My opinion, for what it is worth, is that through what strikes me as demonic politicization, the wcc has twiddled itself into insignificance so far as true ecumenism is concerned, and those who care for the true unity of the churches must now work through other channels and along other lines. I wish John Stott had recognized this.

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But only one serious disagreement in 432 pages? For me, that is almost a record, and it should be understood as an eggheaded professorial way of confirming that this really is an outstandingly good book.

When Christians Get Cancer

A Medical and Spiritual Guide to Living with Cancer: A Complete Handbook for Patients and Their Families,by William A. Fintel and Gerald R. McDermott (Word, 250 pp.; $12.99, paper). Reviewed by James C. Peterson, C. C. Dickson Chair of Ethics, and director of the program in religion, ethics, and technology, Wingate College, Wingate, North Carolina.

The accent is on living with cancer, and the audience is any Christian faced with cancer whether as a patient, family member, or friend. William Fintel is a medical doctor specializing in cancer treatment, and Gerald McDermott is a professor of religion who has long counseled and reflected on dealing with cancer. Designed as a handbook, the chapters are clearly organized around practical questions, and each chapter can be read independently as questions arise.

The first half of the book focuses on clear explanations of cancer, treatment, and the hospital system, such as a chapter on “How Do I Pay My Bills?” The explanations are patient-centered. For example, when a treatment course is described, one of the questions always addressed is how much it might hurt. The authors inspire confidence with their honesty, experience, and evident care for people. They even manage to be as upbeat and appropriately humorous as the subject allows.

The second half of the book is of particular interest to Christians facing severe illness. Fintel and McDermott discuss with sensitivity and fairness several popular cancer treatments that are not in the medical mainstream. Faith-healing traditions such as those of Kenneth Hagin and Fred Price receive particular attention. The authors make a balanced case that God will answer prayer, but that God’s answers to prayer are not limited to physical healing, nor has God promised it.

If one cannot count on God’s always choosing to heal physically, how should one pray? Relying heavily on the work of Francis MacNutt, the authors suggest that one begin by dealing with any attitudes, such as bitterness, that tend to block healing. Then one trusts in God’s character and prevails in prayer. The authors observe that God does heal physically, and they relate three detailed stories of physical healing to affirm that.

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To its credit, the book does not shy away from the difficult issue of pain and suffering. The authors also give helpful insights into what to expect emotionally and offer suggestions for protecting and building relationships and other support through trying times. The appendixes list numerous support groups with telephone numbers and addresses and a glossary of terms one is likely to encounter.

The book’s major limitation as a “complete handbook” is in not addressing living wills, hospice care, designation of a health-care agent, stopping treatment, or other essential questions that need attention if God allows the cancer to continue.

Nonetheless, as one who has experienced cancer in my own family, reflected on it as a theologian, and as a pastor has served people confronted with the disease, I could not recommend this book more highly as a wise and helpful place to start.

The Cyberpunk Pilgrim

October Holiday,by Stephen P. Adams (Moody, 373pp.; $9.99, paper). Reviewed by Mark Home, coauthor of Legislating Immorality: The Homosexual Movement Comes Out of the Closet (Moody).

Set in the third decade of the third millennium, Stephen Adams’s October Holiday presents a pagan America in which supercomputers are developed by hooking them into the brains of live aborted fetuses, or “concepti.” The result is the first Christian “cyberpunk” science-fiction novel.

In a science-fiction market glutted with sword-and-sorcery epics and interstellar-empire trilogies, the cyberpunk genre—created by such authors as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling—presents realistic near-futures of anarchy and computers. Cyberpunk has always taken for granted the decline of religion or even predicted an upswing of paganism, but never before has an author brought a Christian perspective to such a scenario.

Occasionally Adams’s vivid prose is marred by sermonizing, but that is typical of even mainstream science fiction. The fact is, despite occasional stumbles, October Holiday is both frightening and entertaining.

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