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For many are called, and few are chosen: eternity and peoplehood amongst Orthodox Christians in Serbia



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Lackenby, Nicholas 


This thesis considers the interaction of ethno-national and spiritual identities in a postsocialist, Orthodox context. It demonstrates the ways in which those identities mutually reinforce one another, and the tensions which this inevitably produces. Overall, it heeds Herzfeld’s (2002) suggestion that the Orthodox desire for ‘reenchantment’ produces ‘a very different understanding of the relationship among personhood, religion, and national identity’ to ones familiar in Protestant settings in the West. Ethnographically speaking, it is a study of a demographically-diverse network of practising Orthodox Christians (‘vernici’, lit. believers) in the central Serbian town of Kraljevo. Whilst the majority of Serbians today identify as ‘Orthodox’ – national and confessional identity being widely perceived as synonymous in post-Yugoslav Serbia – only a relative minority engage in what vernici would call ‘liturgical life’. Beyond claiming a ‘traditional’ Orthodox identity through ethnic affiliation, these Christians actively seek to lead lives centred on the Divine Liturgy, lives structured around fasting, prayer, confession and receiving Divine Communion regularly. The thesis, sitting at the intersection of the anthropologies of Christianity and Postsocialism, makes two tightly interlocking claims: one concerning the temporality of Orthodox life and the other concerning a conception of the Serbian people (srpski narod), seen by my interlocutors as a historically-rooted, moral-cum-ethnic collectivity. It argues that, for vernici, ‘eternity’ (večnost) – perceived as being proximate, not chronologically distant – drives everyday life, imbuing it with coherence and direction. However, it also suggests that such eschatological claims are made within the framework of an understanding of Serbian peoplehood. Eschatology is thus seen as requiring national-historical embeddedness, a contention made to feel more urgent in the wake of Yugoslav socialism when, vernici lament, Serbian identity was attacked. Despite being integrated members of Serbian society, structurally speaking vernici inhabit a peculiar position: marginalized (sometimes stigmatized) for their religious practice and yet marshalling ideas about a collective identity and way of life which they claim to be essential for all Serbs. However, the vernici’s persistent (negatively-inflected) critical push against what they see as an indifferent, non-practising society is generative for liturgical life, allowing for the emergence of powerful discourses about ‘true’, ‘sincere’ Christians forever being a minority. Moreover, the contingencies of this world – where people suffer and deviate – only serve to shore up certainty about the arduous yet transient nature of this fallen, temporal dimension, and the nearness of the eternal one. The thesis proceeds through analysis of themes and practices recurrent in the lives of vernici, such as repentance, fasting, longing for ‘our history’, suffering, and the practice of memorial rituals. Ultimately, it complicates commonplace assumptions regarding ‘religious nationalism’, arguing that whilst these Christians have a keen sense of peoplehood, they are primarily motivated by the prospect of salvation, not a politically-oriented project vis-à-vis the state. Moreover, it advances debates on continuity and rupture through showing how Orthodoxy, as well as valuing deep-rooted tradition, insists on penitent change – and that, in light of Yugoslav socialism, this allows for personal transformations to tessellate meaningfully with societal ones.





Robbins, Joel


Serbia, Orthodox Christianity, religious nationalism, temporality, Serbian Orthodoxy, former Yugoslavia, eternity, peoplehood, religion after socialism


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
William Wyse Fund Henry Ling Roth Fund St Edmund's College, Cambridge