Faith and fiction in Dostoevsky
Mediaculture: Reflections on the effect of media and culture on our faithby Gordon Houser
What do we have to learn from a 19th-century Russian nationalist who was a gambling addict and spent time in a Siberian prison for political dissent?
Let's add that this Russian is considered one of the world's greatest writers and wrote one of the greatest novels ever, The Brothers Karamazov.
According to Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Cantebury, this man, Fyodor Dostoevsky, wrote about terrorism, child abuse, absent fathers and the fragmentation of the family, the secularization of culture and other anxieties we face today. Yet his novels "insistently and unashamedly press home the question of what else might be possible if we—characters and readers—saw the world in another light, the light provided by faith."
Williams' book Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (Baylor University Press, 2009, $24.95) is a scholarly work. It's a difficult read and will not be appearing on any best-seller lists.
However, the book has insights important to people of faith, and Williams, an outstanding theologian as well as a student of Dostoevsky, is an excellent guide.
As his title indicates, Williams looks at the meanings of language, faith and fiction. He also shows how these connect in Dostoevsky.
This book is part of a series called "The Making of the Christian Imagination," and Williams in his introduction to the series notes the ways imagination and faith connect. Any system of perceiving and receiving the world depends on imagination, Williams writes.
Further, he writes, "the forming of a corporate imagination is something that continues to be the more or less daily business of religious believers." And this is a sophisticated process. We don't simply repeat dogmas; we seek ways to apply our faith to daily realities. This requires imagination.
Fiction is certainly an arena of imagination. And Dostoevsky’s fiction shows "the interdependence between human freedom and human language and imagination," Williams writes.
Both faith and fiction involve free linguistic responses. Faith is a response to the freedom of the creator, and what Williams calls "the gratuity of fiction" arises “from the conviction that no kind of truth can be told if we speak or act as if history is over.”
In other words, fiction does not present simple answers in a closed system. It shows characters interacting freely. Anything can happen.
And faith is not locked into some deterministic plot. We interact with a world of possibilities.
Williams even calls the novel "a statement of 'nonviolence,' of radical patience with the unplanned and undetermined decisions of agents."
People have viewed Dostoevsky in various ways: as a staunch Russian Orthodox believer who wants Russia to be a theocracy, as an unbeliever who holds up religion to ridicule, as an existentialist, as a disturbed writer of morose literature.
Williams shows him as more complex and more Christian than some have thought. Contrary to some critics, he is not writing to argue for or against God's existence. Rather, he is concerned about the context from which we derive values.
Williams writes: "The world without the sacred is not just disenchanted but deprived of some kind of depth." We cannot learn to be human subjects of God’s creation without faith.
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