Tuesday, November 11, 2008

today is the birthday of fyodor dostoevsky

I receive the daily "Writer's Almanac" via email from Garrison Keillor, and learned this morning that today is the birthday of Fyodor Dostoevsky. If in your lifetime you have some ambition to climb a literary summit----to tackle a work of literature that will test every ounce of your mental and spiritual resources, I would suggest The Brothers Karamazov. Keillor disappoints in giving virtually no commentary on the great Russian novelist, so I will briefly address the oversight and post a couple of observations. I have been introduced to FD by two mentors, first Ralph Wood in lectures, and then Eugene Peterson, whose debt is rehearsed in at least two places: an essay entitled "God and Passion" in Reality And The Vision, and in Under The Unpredictable Plant.

In the latter, Peterson writes:

"I actively went looking for help to support me in maintaining and developing the pastor/writer vocation. I was looking for a pastor, a priest, a guide...I made several attempts to find a vocational mentor among the living, without success. Then I found Fyodor Dostoevsky...I took my appointments calendar and wrote in two-hour meetings with "FD" three afternoons a week. Over the next seven months I read through the entire corpus, some of it twice...I spent those afternoons with a man for whom God and passion were integral---and integrated."(49-50)

The Brothers K is massive and complicated, and I will admit having tried at least twice to make it through, but without success. But one year, the week following Easter, I made a plan to stay there, to stay with FD until I worked my way through 796 pages. And I must say that the novel is nothing less than stunning. As another literary hero, Frederick Buechner notes, the Brothers K is "a novel less about the religious experience than a novel the reading of which is a religious experience: of God, both in his subterranean presence and in his appalling absence."

It is all there in The Brothers K: rebellion, doubt, pride, self-destruction, materialism, disillusionment, corruption, materialism, scandal, but also grace, humility, forgiveness, simplicity, contemplation, purification, doxology and even holiness. I realize that the novel is simply too daunting for some, and there is the tendency to isolate particular chapters, books within the book: "The Grand Inquisitor", or "The Odor of Corruption", and the reader could do far worse than to spend time reflecting on these particular scenes.

The integration of God and passion is nowhere more present, or more crystalized for me, than the simple proverb voiced by one of the characters, "if there is no immortality of the soul, everything is permitted". My hope in the life to come, on my better days, infuses a motivation to act in accordance with the One who "was in the beginning, is now, and evermore shall be, world without end". And the separation of religion and morality, which was the enlightenment's great project, has not ushered us into paradise. Quite the opposite.

For these and other reasons I am grateful today for the birth of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821).


Blogger David said...


Thanks for the insightful words. This book has been on my "must read" list for years, and I hope it is not too many more before I get to it and through it. Like you, I receive Keillor's Writer's Almanac every day. I consider reading it one small part of my spiritual discipline.


11:43 AM  

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