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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The Etymology of God

I enjoy linguistics; I consider it a hobby. I speak only 2 languages fluently, and several others to varying degrees. Whereas some people find language learning tedious, I find it invigorating.

One of the areas of linguistics I enjoy most is etymology: the study of the origin of words.

Etymology gives you a window into the thinking of a culture or a people group.

For example: I have been teaching a church history class at White Fields, and last week we were talking about how Constantine, before his conversion to Christianity, had monotheistic leanings and had declared “the venerable day of the Sun” (Sunday) to be a free day, on which no one was to work. Until that time, Sunday had been a work day, and Christians gathered for worship and the taking of the sacrament (communion) before work and then again after work, in the evening. More on that here.

Someone in the class said: Oh, so that’s why it’s called SUNday?  Yes, and in English that’s why it’s called Monday (Moon) and Saturday (Saturn).

In fact, it is interesting to consider the etymology of the names of the week in other languages. In Russian, Sunday is called: Воскресенье, which is a close derivative of the word воскрешение, which means “Resurrection”.

In Hungarian, it’s not quite as cool: Sunday is “Vasárnap” – which no doubt derives from “vásár-nap”: “Market Day”… Definitely not as cool (or as Christian) as “Resurrection”. While Romans were all about honoring the Sun, Hungarians were all about shopping…

But if etymology gives insight into the way a culture thinks, then what can we learn from the etymology of “God”?

The English word God, does not derive from the word “good”, as one might think, but comes from the Germanic Gott, which derives from the Gothic Gheu, which is thought to derive from the Sanskrit: Hu – meaning: “the one who is invoked” or “the one who is sacrificed to.”  It refers to the supreme being.

The Latin Deus, along with the related Greek Theos comes from the Indo-Iranian Deva/Sanskrit Dyaus, which are related to the terms for “to give light”, “to implore”. It is from these roots that the Spanish Dios comes.

In Hungarian, the word for God is Isten.  I’ve been told that this modern form derives from:  Ős-tény – literally: “The ancient truth (or: ancient fact)”

One of the very interesting things to read about is how different missionaries tried to find a given culture’s word for God, sometimes with great success and sometimes without. For example, in Korea, Catholic missionaries believed that the Koreans had no good word for God – as in, the Supreme Being of the universe – so they used the Chinese word for God, a word which was foreign to the Koreans, and which caused the Koreans to think of Christianity as a foreign religion. It was only when Protestant Presbyterian missionaries came to Korea, that they got to know the Korean culture and language well enough to realize that they did in fact have a word (and therein a concept) for the God of the Bible: the creator and sustainer of all things, the righteous judge of all the Earth – 하나님 (Hananim).

It is as Paul the Apostle said: God has not left himself without witness in any culture, or amongst any group of people. (Acts 14:17)  Etymology gives us a window into this truth.