Before going to Russia I had a few days in Scandinavia. First, I did a one-day seminar in Sweden. Swedes are impassive people with no facial expression, which makes speaking difficult, but I met many readers and came away mildly encouraged. Norway was something else. We drove four hours on icy roads and got there at midnight, just in time to grab some sleep before Sunday services the next day. I spoke at two on Sunday evening, total of 1200 people, most under 25.
The Willow Creek model is working amazingly well in Oslo, Norway, of all places. One church combines some traditional Lutheran liturgy with praise music, video/electronics, and an emphasis on the arts. A Pentecostal church just plain rocks, with cutting-edge dancers flopping all over the stage in tight black outfits with strobe lights that leave you dizzy and a band that leaves your eardrums aching. How do I get into these things? One humorous thing happened as I was signing books at a coffee bar after the service. A beautiful young Norwegian girl, perhaps 18 years old, came up to me and said, “Would you like to dance?” That doesn’t happen to me very often, and I must admit my heart started racing until Janet broke in, “Excuse me, what did you ask?” She repeated herself, this time more clearly: “Did you like the dance?” She was one of the dancers onstage. After I came back to earth, she held up an English copy of my book Reaching for the Invisible God and told me of what it meant to her. I must say I didn’t have a Norwegian teenager in mind when I wrote that book, and her words of encouragement were (almost) as meaningful as her invitation to dance.
It’s very moving, and humbling, to meet people who have read my books, and come to me with incredible stories. So many people in Scandinavia are raised with no church background whatsoever, and their conversions are unbelievably refreshing and faith-building. I’m the one who comes away inspired.
Russia is much more difficult. I spoke today at the “Christian booksellers convention” in St. Petersburg, which is a euphemism if I’ve ever heard one. They are meeting in a warehouse district of abandoned factories that looks like something out of Harlem. Janet and I bravely took the subway down there, squinting to figure out the Cyrillic alphabet at each stop. Then we walked a mile or so through a concrete disaster zone and, voila, there was the Bible and cross logo. Ten of my books are published in Russia. As you can imagine, Where Is God When It Hurts and Disappointment with God are two of the biggest sellers. They pretty well define recent Russian history. Newspapers here estimate that one-half of all Russian males died of unnatural causes (war, famine, imprisonment, execution) in the last century.
I visited Russia once before, in November of 1991, a chaotic time in which Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev were fighting for leadership and a military coup had just failed. I wrote about those experiences in a little book, Praying with the KGB, and the scenes from that visit have stayed imprinted on my mind. This time the crisis involved Chechen rebels who had taken over a Moscow theater, until Russian commandoes pumped nerve gas into the hall, killing 170 terrorists and their hostages. The entire nation was in a state of high alert. Due to a fall while jogging in the dark (which I later described in the first pages of my book Prayer), I looked like I had been mugged by the Chechen mafia, with a split lip, missing tooth, and road-rash face. I could barely talk out of the side of my mouth, but it mattered little since the Russian booksellers were listening to my interpreter.
My Russian publisher is a bright, highly educated woman who had worked for one of Russia’s leading financial magazines. When communism fell, she decided she needed to learn about religions, since her atheist background had taught her nothing. She read Buddhist scriptures, then the Koran, and then the New Testament. The story of Jesus grabbed her. “I felt so sorry for him,” she said. “I knew nothing of his story, and as I read, I decided I wanted to follow such a man.” She has worked hard to get books by evangelical authors into Orthodox churches, with some success.
Janet and I spent the morning before the book convention in the great Hermitage Museum, which of course is filled with religious art. One room holds 25 Rembrandts, including “The Return of the Prodigal Son” made famous by Henri Nouwen’s book. In my talk to the booksellers, I reminded them of the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. Philip climbed in the chariot and asked the Ethiopian if he understood what he was reading (Isaiah 53). He said no, and Philip went on to explain it. That’s what Christians can do in Russia, I said. The vocabulary already exists, in the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, so influential in my own faith, in the great art hanging on the walls of the Hermitage and the icons hanging in every church over here. All we need to do is climb in the chariot and explain it.
I’ve met many dedicated Christians facing enormous problems and difficulties with government bureaucracy and cultural opposition. Yet they labor on, with modest but encouraging results. All you need to do is look around at faces that seldom smile, at the percentage of smokers and heavy drinkers, to see the unacknowledged spiritual hunger of a very sad people. Due in part to suicide, alcoholism, and AIDS, the life expectancy for Russian men has dropped below 60, and the birth rate is nowhere near replacement level for the population as a whole. Yet, astonishingly, more than 60% of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians—this despite Communism’s record of killing 42,000 priests and shuttering 98% of all Russian churches. God just may be coming back to life in Russia… (Prospects looked rather bleak on the day we now call Good Friday too.)Copyright © 2002 by Philip Yancey