At the fall 2015 Department Chapel, students, faculty, and staff gathered for a time of worship and to hear featured the speaker, Dr. Olga Lukmanova, a professor of English Language and Literature at the Linguistic University of Niznhy Novgorod, Russia. Lukmanova was a writer in residence and was Wheaton’s first Visiting Fulbright Scholar. Dr. Lukmanova spoke about her faith journey and its connection to her life as a scholar and lover of books, beginning with her childhood in the Soviet Union. Growing up as a communist and an atheist, she described her former view of life as “a spark between two big nothings.” Her dream was merely to make her own short spark as bright as possible, in order to inspire and bring comfort to others. In 1991, as a young college student in the midst of a collapsing communist state, Lukmanova found herself abruptly wakened from that dream.
Disillusioned but resolved to finish her education, Lukmanova signed up to take part in an exchange program with visiting American students, some of whom happened to be from Wheaton College. She recalled her impression that Americans were sweet but deluded, although she humored their beliefs for the sake of hospitality. Not long after the students returned home, she began listening to some of the Christian music they had left behind and found herself thinking, “What if it’s true?” Lukmanova compared that moment to the falling of dominoes: “One thing after another seemed to make sense,” she said. “Meaning was there, morality was there, the earth was there in its place.”
A year later, the growing Christian movement in Russia created a demand for English theological books to be translated into Russian. Lukmanova took on John Stott’s Basic Christianity and several other texts, through which she discovered the work of C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald. In a revitalized Russian church that was beginning to struggle with authoritarianism, Lukmanova experienced MacDonald’s writing as spiritual refreshment: “His God was so good. There was so much freedom and joyful expectation of heaven.” Lukmanova noted the interconnectedness of the Western literary canon; Lewis and MacDonald led her to Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams, and T.S. Eliot. “All these masters lead you to other masters, doors lead to other doors, and it just keeps getting better and better,” she said, urging students to choose their own literary masters and follow them throughout life. “Every time God wants to say something to us, he creates a Shakespeare, or an Eliot, or a Sayers,” concluded Lukmanova, echoing words spoken by George MacDonald. “They all point in the same direction.”