Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov

This isn't a proper book review, just a collection of three blog posts, two commenting on some of the theology I observed reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel. I was so impressed by his insights, that there are maybe a half-dozen additional one-line references back to one of these, but nothing more to say than is here.

2013 February 15 -- The Trials of Job

I mentioned reading Brothers Karamazov. One whole "Book" (three chapters) is devoted to the memoirs of a monk Zossima who died in the arms of the youngest of the three bothers, which memoirs (according to the story) Alexey transcribed for our benefit. Unlike previous references to Scripture in the novel, Zossima had a great fondness for reading the Bible, and a substantial part of these memoirs is spent thinking about Old testament persons, most notably the Patriarch Job.

Job is one of those odd people of the Bible that nobody understands. Three years ago I posted a review of a book by a pastor or some such, who was totally clueless about Job. This fictional monk in the pen of Fyodor Dostoyevsky might be forgiven for being almost as clueless as his modern American counterpart, because a trained pastor writing a whole book specifically on the Patriarch should have researched his topic better than a Russian novelist two centuries ago.

Nobody understands Job, because nobody really understands what the Christian message is all about. It's about God, not you and me. We are people, created to serve and love God, not the other way around. Job shows us how that is supposed to work. Sure, Bad Things Happen, both to him and also (usually in much less degree, but not always) to the rest of us, but God is God and deserves our worship and praise because He is God, and not because we receive any benefits from it. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't, but God is still God. "Blessed be the Name of the LORD," Job rightly said, in good times and in bad.

Dostoyevsky, in the writings of his fictional monk, has a problem with the children:

How could God give up the most loved of His saints [Job] for the diversion of the devil, take from him his children, smite him with sore boils so that he cleansed the corruption from his sores with a pot-sherd -- and for no object except to boast to the devil! ... Many years pass by, and he has other children and loves them. But how could he love those new ones when those first children are no more, when he has lost them? [Book VI]
Jesus gave special care to the children, and we should do no less, but Dostoyevsky/Zossima did not read the text very carefully. He skipped over the numbers. Dostoyevsky said so. The numbers are important. ALL Scripture is profitable for instruction, and this is no exception.

At the beginning Job had seven sons and three daughters, 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 female donkeys, and uncounted servants. His statistical lifetime, according to Moses, was 70 years. At the end Job is rewarded for his patience by 14,000 sheep, 6000 camels, 1000 yoke of oxen, and 1000 female donkeys. His actual lifetime was 140 years. He also had seven more sons and three more daughters. Everything he lost was doubled in the restoration. Everything.

But wait, he only got ten new children, same as he had before he lost them! Because, unlike you and me and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, God and Job did not see the first ten as lost forever. In the Resurrection he would have 20 children, 14 sons and six daughters, double just like the sheep and camels and everything else.

OK, it doesn't say that in the text. But why did God give us all those numbers, if we were not expected to do the math?

God is not the author of evil, nor does He capriciously deny us good things, just for some stupid bet with Satan. God is Good, and Job did not lose those children entirely. They are still his children (present tense). Jesus told the Sadducees that "God is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob" (present tense), because they are not dead. Neither are Job's children, because Job prayed for them, and God heard his prayers. God is the God of the living, not the dead. Jesus said so. Dostoyevsky almost believed it, when he said "if there's no immortality of the soul, then there's no virtue, and everything is lawful." Dostoyevsky certainly believed in virtue, so he must have believed in immortality, however incompletely.

2013 February 12 -- Incomplete Christianity

Last month I mentioned starting to read Brothers Karamazov. It's heavy going, so I'm only a third of the way through it, with a lot of deep theological stuff, mostly the main characters (the eponymous brothers and their father) trying to figure out Reality without being fully informed by God's word. Make no mistake, they know more about Scripture than most Christians I know today, but their understanding appears to be limited to the Gospels and the Apocalypse, as if their (or perhaps Dostoyevsky's) understanding is informed only by what they heard in Sunday sermons -- certainly heavier than anything preached in American churches today, but incomplete by focus only on the red letters (what Jesus himself said and did).

While struggling with the problem of evil in much greater depth than most modern writers -- including the atheists, see my rebuttal to Hitchens and also the short video on the topic -- they are unwilling to reject God out of hand, for "if there's no immortality of the soul, then there's no virtue, and everything is lawful" [BookII, ch.7]. Last night I read a particularly long chapter, mostly a long monologue by the oldest brother Ivan describing his epic "poem" set three centuries earlier in the Spanish Inquisition. It's an analysis of the nature of the three Temptations of Christ in the wilderness, with the most attention given to making bread from the stones.

In Ivan's explanation, this is not (as the Gospel tells us) that Jesus was hungry, but that making bread magically like this would serve his potential followers as in the Feeding of the 5000, and somehow thus deprive them of their freedom. It's a modern notion of freedom he has here, not the first-century Christian view, which is the freedom to be all that God intended us to be. The modern notion, which the atheists especially like, is rather the reverse, seeing freedom as the opportunity to reject God's perfect will for us, which the Apostle Paul calls "slavery" in Romans. Thus I infer that Dostoyevsky did not come up with this notion from reading the whole Bible, but only by drawing ever remote and improbable inferences from tiny excerpts. There is certainly insight in recognizing that love not freely given is not love at all, and the foreshadowing of "cargo cults" a century later, and their pseudo-Christian imitators which "believe" only because of perceived personal benefits is not true faith.

Yet, Jesus did feed the 5000, and then 4000 again some time later. God does give blessings to His believers. But God also allows Bad Things to Happen in this life. The Christians in China and Viet Nam and Saudi Arabia are not Christians because of the personal benefits they might receive, but rather because they know it is True.

Maybe Dostoyevsky gets around to discussing the nature of true faith, which survives hardship because its object is the Truth, both the Reality that is, and also because God is about Truth and expressed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Or maybe -- like so many Americans, "Christian" and unbeliever alike -- he has Clue Deficit Disorder. We shall see.

2013 January 10 -- Reading My Own Library

I got a few pages into the novel I'd checked out from the library and realized the scene was familiar. When I started doing that with the movies I checked out, I began making a list of all the movies I've seen, and taking it with me to the library, so as not to check out flicks I've already seen. A few movies are worth watching a second time, but not many. The library gets most of their flicks by donation, and people don't give away movies they want to watch over and over. Maybe I need to start the same practice with books.

Then I realized I have a bunch of books in boxes in my garage that I never read. When I was young and had more dollars than sense, I bought books. If I don't start reading them now, I probably never will.

So today I started Brothers Karamazov. The box it was in had not been opened in almost 20 years.

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