by Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Wilburn
Does anyone blog about Fyodor Dostoevsky? Nobody actually reads Dostoevsky. Too thick – literally, the books are too bullet-stopping thick. Too thick – FD’s books are classified as “philosophical and psychological.” *Yawn. But still, something calls me to read him (Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, and now Crime and Punishment). Maybe it’s because many of the authors I read quote FD. But the real reason is that Dostoevsky is the master at describing the human soul.
Sin, redemption, guilt, shame, violence, filth, filthy rich, desperadoes, and A-holes. His wonderfully nice characters you wish would punch somebody. And his despicable characters, which is most of his characters, you want to slap or run through with a hot iron. Harsh? I tell you, FD has the worst of the worst in his books. And he models them after real people, people he knows much if time.
Personally, Dostoevsky is a complicated Christian. He’s messy. His life is jacked. He writes in the 1860s to 1880s. This comes after he spends several years in Siberian work prison for sedition against Tzar Nicholas I, just because he helped publish a flyer for some do-nothing anarchists. FD has a terrible gambling addiction and at one points flees Russia because he owed everyone so much money. He chained smoked, and dies four months after he completes Bros. Karamazov. His father was a medical doctor who was a dirt poor alcoholic, but finally got a government appointment at a hospital in nowheresville, and bought a 300 acre “estate” with no water, no trees, no crops, and a hoard of serfs, which in that day you basically owned like slaves; FD’s father begins raping all the little serf girls (this is real life – not a novel) so the locals ambush him and crush his private parts with their hands and shove vodka down his throat until he suffocates. You see what I mean: right now you’re thinking “OMG!” and “Yes! that’s justice!” And that’s how FD gets you hooked in his novels. Reading FD is like psycho-analyzing a train wreck of human carnage – usually all brought on by their own doing.
In The Idiot, the “hero” Prince Mishkin is the Christ character. But he’s a pushover. Mishkin holds no opinion of anyone. He doesn’t care about titles or money. Everyone takes advantage of him, takes his money, calls him idiot to his face. Yet, somehow everyone ends up liking him, and insulting him in the same instance. He pities everyone – and there are plenty of characters who deserve no pity. He is insulted and punched and does nothing. Only when Prince Mishkin falls in love does he become unravelled. He never recovers mentally. FD presents a fascinating picture of Jesus: love drives him to mental illness. Not just romantic love – the reader is never sure if Mishkin falls in love, or just pities these used up flirtatious girls. Does Jesus love us, or just pity us? Jesus becomes one of us. Why? Pity? Love? The Apostle Paul desires to be “a fool for Christ.” But FD shows a Christ who becomes a fool for us. And it ruins him.
In the 1860s the European world of Dostoevsky is in the throes of modernism: the industrial age has arrived with smoke and stench, slums and prostitutes; working people have become “labor” or “resource” – depersonalized and abused. Morality is no longer God-sourced, but rather is arbitrary, and situational. Morality is no longer spiritual but rational and logical. Modernist thinking leads to World War 1, and WW2, Hitler, Auschwitz, genocide… because it is logical: Jews are no longer needed – the human race is now at its 3rd race (Third Reich); the time of imperfect human is over (this is kinda based on evolution – except “evolution” is always “positive” and benefits the Nazis).
FD sees it all coming. The Communist Revolution included. FD sees the European aristocracy crashing just like the demise and end of Downton Abbey, except all of FD’s aristocrats are brainless jerks. FD foresees a depersonalized rational dehumanized world. Weirdly, FD personally is convinced Jesus is going to come back to Russia, and the Orthodox Church is going to reign over the world – and all will be better again. FD’s a “slavophile” – an apocalyptic Russia lover. (I think he’d like Putin.)
I guess nerdy and thinking Christians read Dostoevsky. Yeh, that’s me. FD leaves you rubbing your chin. Mostly I chuckle and wag my head in disbelief as I read FD. I get angry the good people lose. Justice never seems to come. Somewhere in here I feel sorry for Fyodor Dostoevsky. His life was a tragedy. His life was “a Russian novel.” He is brilliant, a brilliant madness.
Mostly what I think these days is no American or Christian takes the time and effort to read or think. And we are paying the price (just to go there) as evidenced by our current political mess. We can’t tell the genuine difference between a mass shooting and looking at cute kittens on our cell phones. We do both in the same moment – we are exactly like FD’s rich aristocratic buffoons. We have become base, confused, exaggerated, and fogged in. It’s like we are all Cinderella at the ball, and we know the clock is going to strike midnight, but there is no clock on the wall, so we just dance and whirl around ever so much harder pretending the chimes will never sound. It’s the end of the world as we know it, but I feel fine. Superpower affluence ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.
We are morally adrift, and spiritually adrift. To quote modern-day philosopher, Charles Taylor, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” We are flat, secular, simple-minded, and have no idea what is truly precious – all is so precious to us these days – kittens and LGBT Orlando shootings.
I wish FD were alive. He’d accurately describe us. He’d show us the Jesus we really need today. I don’t think FD would wake us up, but he could accurately tell us how we are sleeping.
Who will read Dostoevsky? Hardly a person anymore. This is me being nostalgic. I long for thinking Christians. Read or listen to FD if you want to be more mindful. FD tells us how to make sense of things.