Review: On Christian Leadership

Review: On Christian Leadership

Posted by Amal Morcos on 12th May 2020

On Christian Leadership is a truly fantastic in depth study of the friendship and working relationship between two giants of 20th century Orthodox theology: Frs Georges Florovsky and Alexander Schmemann. The book presents, for the first time in English, their complete correspondence between 1947 and 1955.

But the book offers a lot more than their correspondence, which by the way is gripping, interesting, poignant and ultimately tragic because of the rift between them that occurred in 1955 and that was never reconciled. In the first few chapters, before presenting the correspondence, translator and author Paul L. Gavrilyuk writes deeply satisfying biographies of the two men. We learn about their families, origins, formative years, the history of the Russian emigre generation of which they were both members, and how and by whom they were influenced in their development as theologians.

We also learn about 20th century Russian theology, Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement, the formation of the different Orthodox jurisdictions in America, their inter-Orthodox battles, and most importantly the formation of the first theological institutions in America – primarily St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary where Schmemann and Florovsky collaborated together.

Above all, Gavrilyuk writes effectively about the formation of each man, their drives and their psychology. For example, the effect that poetry had on nine-year-old Schmemann:

I vividly remember the handwritten notebooks he put together by himself—actually an anthology of Russian poetry. If I had not met him when I was nine, if I hadn’t been his favorite student (because of poetry) in those formative years, from 9 to 14, I think my life would have taken a different course. With the opening to poetry began a liberation of the spirit, an intuition of something “other.”

Gavrilyuk then shows that that “something ‘other’” would eventually lead Schmemann to a life in the church and to theology.

Gavrilyuk is rather humble about his work in translating the correspondence. He admits that something is inevitably lost in translation. He writes:

Translation is a humbling experience. You begin with the best intention of balancing the colorfulness of the original with the clarity of the translation. Halfway through the project, you realize that by straitjacketing Russian into English you scramble the music of the former and destroy the architecture of the latter. When you finish, you have the nagging thought that you have just ruined a fine piece of literature.

No doubt this is the experience of all translators and it should not take away from the monumental significance of having the dialogue between two giants of modern Orthodoxy in English for the first time.

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