Vacation and Russian Novels

For the past week we have been on vacation in California. For the first week of it we were in Orange County where I attended the Calvary Chapel pastors conference in Costa Mesa. Rosemary and the kids spent time with friends and at the beach, and Rosemary was able to attend some parts of the conference as well. The conference was refreshing; a great time of focusing on the Lord and recentering as well as reconnecting with friends from all over the world. 

After that we went down to North San Diego and visited friends and family there, and then came to Los Angeles to stay with family. We’ll be back in Colorado for church on Sunday.

Overlooking Los Angeles from the Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood hills 

One of the books I’ve been reading on vacation is Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Several years ago I read Crime and Punishment and it became one of my favorite books. I think Dostoyevsky was a brilliant writer, particularly how he developed characters and got inside their minds.
What was interesting about Crime and Punishment was that it wasn’t only a novel so much as it was a platform for Dostoyevsky’s view of human anthropology – in other words: what makes us tick. What I found even more interesting, as I looked more into Russian literature from that time period, was that the other great Russian author, Tolstoy, did the same thing with his novels, but he had distinctly different views. 

Tolstoy was a pacifist, who considered himself a Christian, but didn’t want anything to do with church in any way. In fact, the more you get to know his views, you realize that he was extremely legalistic and held many strange interpretations of Biblical passages. For example, Tolstoy said that since Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:39), that means that we should not even have police, because the role of the police is to resist evil people. What he was arguing for was beyond pacifism to a form of anarchy, which was based on his fundamental belief in the basic goodness of humankind: that left to our own devices, with no outside intervention, people would trend towards good rather than evil, and that the trajectory of the human race is towards greater virtue, peace and harmony. Tolstoy’s views were a major influence on Ghandi and others.

Dostoyevsky on the other hand, did not share Tolstoy’s views about humanity. Dostoyevsky considered himself a serious Christian, something which is very apparent in his writing, and he held much more traditional (and biblical) views about the nature of humankind and what makes us tick. 

In Crime and Punishment, for example, the main character is a university student who ends up killing the older woman he lives with. The popular thinking at the time (and still in our time as well) was the Englightenment theory that people are basically good, and that when people do things that are wrong, the reason they do them is either because of lack of education or because of poverty. Thus, the thought is that if you can educate people and bring them out of poverty, then crime and violence, as well as racism and hatred will cease to exist. The Bible does not agree with this theory, and says that the reason people do bad things, is because we are sinful and broken, and sin doesn’t just affect us, but it dwells within us, it is part of our very core. We weren’t designed by God to be this way, and it is for this reason that Jesus came, to redeem us from the curse of sin and death. But apart from redemption, all people are sinful, which is the reason we do sinful things. 

If there is any question about this, Nazi Germany is a perfect case study of how the most educated society in the world, which was well off economically, committed some of the worst atrocities the world has ever seen. If the Englightenment theory was true, that shouldn’t have happened, but the Biblical view would say: educated and rich people are still sinners, they’re just educated and rich sinners. What all people need is a new heart, something which can only be found in and through Jesus Christ.
In Crime and Punishment the main character is an educated young man who kills his landlord simply because he wants to, because he’s curious what it will be like, and then he justifies his actions to himself. Why do people do bad things? Because sin dwells within us, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, Dostoevsky would say.

I am only 20% of the way through The Brothers Karamazov, but am very much enjoying it. It tells the story of a father and his 3 sons, actually 4 – as one of the servants is also the son of the man. The father is a foolish and base man, his oldest son is similarly base, but at least has a sense of conscience which his father seems to lack. The second son is an intellectual and considers himself an atheist, but is torn because he realizes that if there is no God and no afterlife and no Heaven or Hell, then there is no meaning to life. The third son is an apprentice monk at the local monastery, where he studies under a devout elder. There is another elder at the monastery who is crazy, and somehow in his derangedness is more popular with the people than the devout and humble  elder who actually says a lot of things which are good and biblical.

One of the points that Dostoyevsky is making in the book is that the life of sincere Christian faith put into practice is the truly good life. Through the characters he is showing the results of a life of sin and the meaninglessness and pain of life apart from God and encouraging the reader to forsake sin and turn to God.

At least that’s what I’ve gotten out of it so far. I’ll let you know if anything changes!

Here are some excerpts:

“Love God’s people, let not strangers draw away the flock, for if you slumber in your slothfulness and disdainful pride, or worse still, in covetousness, they will come from all sides and draw away your flock. Expound the Gospel to the people unceasingly. Do not love gold and silver. Have faith. Cling to the banner and raise it on high.”  – Father Zossima, the humble and sincere elder to Alyosha, the third son who is a Christian

“Remember, young man, unceasingly,” Father Païssy began, without preface, “[humanism], which has become a great power, has, especially in the last century, analyzed everything divine handed down to us in the holy books. But they have only analyzed the parts and overlooked the whole, and indeed their blindness is marvelous. Yet the whole still stands steadfast before their eyes, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Has it not lasted nineteen centuries, is it not still a living, a moving power in the individual soul and in the masses of people? It is still as strong and living even in the souls of atheists, who have destroyed everything! For even those who have renounced Christianity and attack it, in their inmost being still follow the Christian ideal, for hitherto neither their subtlety nor the ardor of their hearts has been able to create a higher ideal of man and of virtue than the ideal given by Christ. When it has been attempted, the result has been only grotesque.

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Reading and Writing… but Mostly Reading

 

I haven't been posting much on this blog lately, mostly because I've been doing a lot of reading. I've had plenty of thoughts and ideas though, so I'll get caught up on some of those over the coming days and weeks, but below is a list of some of the books I've read lately. Most of them are theological, some are practical and others are fiction.

Earlier this year, around late summer/early fall, I felt a strong desire to get back into reading more, and so that's what I've done. Several authors and leaders that I respect have come out recommending that pastors read more fiction in order to excite the immagination and stir up God-given emotions which find their fulfilment in the salvation which Jesus gives, e.g. redemption, love without ceasing, heroism, sacrificial love, etc. The idea being, that everything we love in stories is deeply engrained within us because the story of the Gospel is written on our hearts, therefore these truths resonate within us and move us deeply whenever we encounter them. This was one of the convictions of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien and the reasons why they wrote fiction as vehicles for communicating and celebrating the spiritual truths of the Gospel.

Here's that list:

Center Church, Timothy Keller – This is Tim Keller's treatise on pretty much everything he's ever thought about culture, the Gospel and church. I wish everyone could and would read this book. It's a bit laborious but you come away with basic instruction in many areas which are incredibly helpful in not only being a disciple of Christ but also a person who helps share the good news and make disciples. Absolutely great book.

Christ and Culture, Richard Nieburh – This is considered a classic on the subject of how Christians are to relate to culture. Rather than giving many (any?) answers to the question, in this book Nieburh helps to categorize different responses and explain the underly beliefs behind how Christians relate to culture, and showing how it has worked out throughout history. He gives 5 different approaches of Christians to culture, from rejection of culture to complete embracing of culture and the views in between. It's a very informative and helpful book; many consider it the seminal work on the subject.

Christ and Culture Revisited, D.A. Carson – As the title suggests, Carson revisits Nieburh's classic book, pointing out some areas (rightly) where Nieburh did not take as strong of a stand as he could (should) have, such as his claim that the Gnostics were simply Christians trying to embrace their culture. Carson claims that while Nieburh did good work, he should have been quicker to condemn certain approaches to culture and the Gospel which are actually heretical. There's more to this book, but unless you're really interested in the topic, I would suggest read Nieburh's book and spit out the seeds.

Egri Csillagok, Gárdonyi Géza – A classic Hungarian work of historical fiction which has as its setting the siege of the city of Eger by the Turkish army in the 15th century. Eger is the town my family lived in in Hungary, before moving to Colorado, so this book has long been on my list of things to read.

Ministering to Problem People in Your Church: What to do with Well-Intentioned Dragons, Marshall Shelly – An easy read, mostly of stories shared by pastors and help for understanding and ministering well to people who can be problematic in church, whether intentionally or not.

Tertullian, First Theologian of the West, Eric Osborn – I felt that Eric Osborn went out of his way to dispell any negative criticism of Tertullian. Perhaps that approach is justified, but I'm not sure it is in every case.

1984, George Orwell – I'd been meaning to read this for a while. It wasn't as good as I'd hoped, but I'm glad I can check it off the list. The thing about the TVs that watch you and you can only turn them down, but never off, was pretty interesting. I felt that the love story, although not totally unnecessary to the story, was given too much attention.

Issues in Missiology, Dwight Pentecost – A great overview of the theology of missions and the issues related to sharing a timeless message in changing and varied cultural settings. Definitely a good read for anyone interested in sharing the Gospel cross-culturally, both here and abroad, as many of us live in areas where other cultures are present and represented.

That's it for now. I've still got a stack of books on my desk waiting to be read…

Next up: The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I'd love to hear your thoughts about what you've been reading, or if you've read any of these books. Leave me a comment below.