Battle of the dead Russian writers

Fred Sanders examines the opposing worldviews of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy:

In fact, I have long thought that there are basically two kinds of people in the world: Tolstoy people and Dostoevsky people.

Sanders quotes literary scholar George Steiner on the differences between the two authors:

“Dostoevsky, advancing into the labyrinth of the unnatural, into the cellerage and morass of the soul; Tolstoy, like a colossus bestriding the palpable earth, evoking the realness, the tangibility, the sensible entirety of concrete experience; Dostoevsky, always on the edge of the hallucinatory, of the spectral, always vulnerable to daemonic intrusions into what might prove, in the end, to have been merely a tissue of dreams; Tolstoy, the embodiment of health and Olympian vitality; Dostoevsky, the sum of energies charged with illness and possession; Tolstoy, who saw the destinies of men historically and in the stream of time; Dostoevsky, who saw them contemporaneously and in the vibrant stasis of the dramatic moment…”

I would say that I tend to fall more in the Dostoevsky camp (I’ve also read much more Dostoevsky than Tolstoy), though I find Tolstoy immensely valuable. From my reading of the two authors, the world of Tolstoy is a world that can ultimately be grasped. Dostoevsky’s is a world where the individual is ultimately diminished in the face of a greater, often menacing transcendent order. Tolstoy’s ultimate concern is with all things immanent, where Dostoevsky leans more toward the transcendent.

Christian theology, of course, takes into account both the transcendent and the immanent. The incarnation of Jesus is the immanent embodiment of the transcendent God—the temporal manifestation of the eternal.

I agree with Sanders’ point that a person is either a Dostoevsky–inclined person or a Tolstoy–inclined person, but not both. It should be noted, however, that if a person follows either of these trajectories to the complete exclusion of the other, he or she will miss much.

For more reflections on Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, check out my brief reviews of The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, and Anna Karenina.

Three things before we get started…

Before regular posting here resumes tomorrow (really–no foolin’!), there are two items I highly recommend reading:

  • Colby Willen’s 2-part (of a promised 3) series on the “Call to Ministry.” It’s a seldom seen perspective within the church on a phenomenon that’s too often abused. Part one, and part two. Read them now.
  • Eaten Alive: An article by Ronald F. Marshall in the latest edtion of Touchstone on the biblical story of Jonah is so much more than the subtitle—In Removing the Fear from the Story of Jonah, Children’s Versions Remove the Gospel, Too—suggests. It’s an unsanitized look at the biblical tale which rightly reflects how the Gospel doesn’t always take us down the easy path in life. One of the best things I’ve read in a long time.

Back tomorrow…

The good in Good Friday

[I don’t normally do re-postings here, but this from a few years ago is still appropriate today.]

What is so good about Good Friday?

Long before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah had this to say about him:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:4-6, ESV

The good, of course, is found in the grace of God in putting the wrath which we deserved upon his undeserving son. The crucifixion—an act of extreme violence—turns out to be the act of extreme mercy. I deserve wrath. You deserve wrath. Christ took it upon himself. Let us reflect upon the mercy of the cross today.

The lesser of two evils?

“I’m just gonna vote for the lesser of two evils.”

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that phrase from evangelical Christians in recent weeks. Usually this has been in the context of Mitt Romney and John McCain. There’s a great problem in the statement, and it has little to do with McCain or Romney. Compare this ethic of adopting the “lesser of two evils” with the ethic presented us by the Apostle Paul:

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. [Romans 12:9, ESV]

Abstain from every form of evil. [1 Thessalonians 5:22, ESV]

Christians are not called to do evil, but good. How then does this work out in such seemingly impossible situations as the voting booth? The simple answer is to do good by your vote. If at any point a Christian determines he is doing evil, he should refrain.

In the midst of difficult dilemmas, there may indeed be a “good” choice after all. It would be, for example, a good action to use deadly violence against a terrorist who is about to shoot up a shopping mall. The same thinking can be applied to Just War Theory, choosing from a cholesterol-laden menu, and yes, even the voting booth.

So, if you’re voting, don’t do evil.

If you’ve already voted, don’t vote again.

Joyeux Noel

Let’s not forget this Christmas that the babe in the manger now sits on a throne, that the gentle child is a warrior king who commands vast armies, and that he fights that we may rest in him. The God who is incarnate is making and will make all things new. As he told the serpent in the garden:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
[Genesis 3:15, ESV]

May that Enmity indeed deliver us. Merry Christmas!

Losing our souls for self

This observation by Eugene H. Peterson is noteworthy:

We live in a culture that has replaced soul with self. This reduction turns people into either problems or consumers. Insofar as we acquiesce in that replacement, we gradually but surely regress in our identity, for we end up thinking of ourselves and dealing with others in marketplace terms: everyone we meet is either a potential recruit to join our enterprise or a potential consumer for what we are selling; or we ourselves are the potential recruits and consumers. Neither we nor our friends have any dignity just as we are, only in terms of how we or they can be used.

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, p. 38


We in the West excel at marketing commodities, and how natural it is for us to treat people as commodities as well. As the self has replaced the soul, we have become a culture populated, dominated, and interested in selves. Because the self is, after all, so very much more selfish than soul.

Toward a Tolerable Tolerance

The relationship between religion and politics, always a perennial subject of much consternation, is yet again at forefront of the national discussion. One of the chief questions that always arises out of such debates has to do with whether or not faith even belongs in the public square. The faithful say “yes!,” the unfaithful “no!,” with the overlap ruled by a nebulous force called tolerance.

Ron Hartikka recently weighed in on this whole notion of tolerance in a comment on this blog. Quoting from Lesslie Newbigin’s book Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, Hartikka observed:

And from page 140:

“With such an understanding [of tolerance], we can envision a state (whether or not such a thing is a present political possibility) that acknowledges the Christian faith as true, but deliberately provides for the full security of other views.”

No, no, no. The tolerance we have seen from the Christians has not been such that we are anxious to depend upon it. Forgive my speaking so bluntly, but it is the truth. (Forgive *me* Peter Lorre.) As Kevin Seamus Hasson says in relation to religious government in “The Right To Be Wrong”: “Tolerance, in short is just a policy choice of the government, not a right of the people. And policy choices can be reversed. The notion of tolerance though, is a Rasputin of an idea. Thoroughly discredited, it refuses to die.” Nobody, Christian or not, can be relied upon to deliver on a promise of tolerance.

Hartikka raises a couple of good points here. First of all, with regard to Newbigin’s quote, it might be helpful to note that Newbigin writes from a British perspective — a place where the government is officially nominally Christian. This flavors his statement a little differently than an American would naturally see it. Even American Christians like me who believe faith should have a place in the public square are suspect of the state church because there often tends to be a little too much state in the church.

That said, I agree with Newbigin’s statement that the state could conceivably acknowledge Christian faith as true while providing for the full security of other views. To show that this is possible we must first define tolerance, which is no easy task. Theologian D.A. Carson shows the modern difficultly with the term:

…It used to be that a tolerant person was one who insisted that those who disagreed with him had rights no less than his own to speak their own positions freely. The slogan was, “I may detest the things you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say them.” The tolerance, was, in other words, was directed toward people, not their ideas. In fact the idea implicit in this notion of tolerance is that the tolerant person disagrees with some idea or another: that is precisely why tolerance is needed. One does not “tolerate” someone with whom one is already in perfect agreement!

By contrast, the new tolerance is directed not to people who are permitted or even encouraged to articulate repugnant views, but to the ideas themselves: under the priorities of postmodern ideology, it is wrong to say that any worldview or set of ideas or religious opinion is wrong or untrue or evil. Ideas alien to us may be “bad” in the relative sense that our own system sees the other system as flawed. But (postmodern tolerance urges) it is wrong to say that a contrary view is wrong, at least in any objective or absolute sense.

Love in Hard Places, p.147

Such a view that this “new tolerance” espouses is, in the end, philosophically untenable because is presupposes a neutral position. The problem is that a purely neutral position does not exist in the real world, even in a pluralistic society like ours. As University of Texas professor J. Budziszewski aptly observes:

…The bottom line is that Neutrality is no more coherent in the matter of religious tolerance than it is in tolerance of any other sort. What you can tolerate pivots on your ultimate concern. Because different ultimate concerns ordain different zones of tolerance, social consensus is possible only at the points where these zones overlap. Note well: The greater the resemblance of contending concerns the greater the overlap of their zones of tolerance. The less the resemblance of contending concerns, the less the overlap of their zones of tolerance. Should contending concerns become sufficiently unlike, their zones of tolerance no longer intersect at all. Consensus vanishes.

The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man, p. 53

Even the supposed neutrality of a secularist position falls prey to the fact that its ultimate concerns differ from those of, say, a Christian worldview.

Getting back to the point at hand, Mr. Hartikka contends that “the tolerance we have seen from the Christians has not been such that we are anxious to depend upon it.” While it may be true that some Christians in government have misapplied the faith through their politics, the same could be said of secularists, of whom the American government has likewise never been lacking.

For tolerance to work properly in a representative democracy like the United States, it must be focused upon people rather than ideas. That means that there will undoubtedly be disagreement, but people will continue to be safe and free to voice their opposition. While such a concept poses great risk to weak ideas, those who hold them will no doubt benefit from the fact that their ideas won’t be artificially buttressed by a tolerance that doesn’t tolerate contending concerns.

Living will to power?

I’ve always been uneasy with the concept of the “living will,” known in technical terms as an advance health care directive. Part of my uneasiness stems from the fact that I do not know at this moment, in this situation, what I would want to be done in a potential situation where my life circumstances may be dramatically different. I would not want an unknown medical professional, who practices an ethic unbeknownst to me, to interpret what I was thinking when I wrote the living will.

Today’s Washington Post has a facsinating op/ed by Charlotte F. Allen which raises some similar points:

According to [a 2004 Hastings Center Report], it seems that people talk a good game about living wills, especially when they’re healthy, but when their health begins to fail, they often have very different ideas about what they would be willing to undergo to stave off death for a little while. Furthermore, according to a 1990s study by the National Institutes of Health, even when patients have living wills, if those wills contain directives with which doctors and hospitals disagree (such as, I myself suspect, prolonging the patient’s life instead of terminating it), many doctors simply ignore the patient’s desires. Living wills, it would seem, are effective only if they happen to comport with doctors’ and bioethicists’ own theories about what is best for the patient anyway. For this reason, the authors of the Hastings study propose that instead of filling out a living will, people execute a durable power of attorney, a simple document that entrusts decisions about end-of-life care to a relative or friend who shares the signer’s moral beliefs about death and dying. That sounds about right to me.

Far too many Americans have bought into the notion that a nebulous characteristic called “quality of life” should be the determining factor in whether we should live or die. When doctors become the arbiters of our destiny, the outcome is likewise murky. A doctor who is a proponent of the “right to die” movement, for example, might interpret your case differently than one who found euthanasia morally repugnant.

The so-called “right to die,” is of course, one of those meaningless terms which are deployed only for political expediency. After all, if death is a “right,” then it is certainly a right of which none of us will be deprived. Death is much too easily obtained to be considered a commodity denied to a certain group. But “rights” language is politically charged, and therefore gets the issue of euthanasia on the table. The problem is that this issue is already on far too many tables in America’s medical community.

The other question that a living will does not answer is this: do our own wills carry the authority to decide whether we should live or die in any given circumstance? Legally this may be the case, but theologically speaking, there is only one who gives and takes life.

Whence evangelical art?

In a brilliant essay in this month’s Touchstone magazine, Donald T. Williams examines an obvious missing product of evangelical writers: good literature.

Viewing this problem through the lens of one of my favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor, Williams observes:

O’Connor complained that too many Catholic writers were too utilitarian in their approach, but at least their theologians thought art a topic worthy of attention. Indeed, Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar made it the organizing principle of his systematics, with series entitled The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics and Theo-Drama.

So it is not surprising that, with no such emphasis coming from its leaders, the popular Evangelical subculture seems even more addicted to pragmatism in its approach, as a brief trip through the “Christian bookstore” will show. Fiction can only be justified if it has an overt evangelistic purpose; works of visual art must have a Scripture verse tacked under them.

Rather than merely griping about absent evangelical excellence in literature, Williams proposes, following O’Connor, that doctrine and dogma hold the key. Living by the whole counsel of the word of God can better train evangelical artists to better display these lost aspects of God’s glory.

Like I said, it’s a brilliant piece, and worthy of a read if you’re interested in evangelical Christianity and the arts.

The Word, not words, changes the heart

Here’s a quote from Lesslie Newbigin that should give evangelical Christians both pause and comfort:

The radical conversion of the heart, the U-turn of the mind which the New Testament calls metanoia, can never be the calculable result of correct methods of communication. It is something mysterious for which we can only say that our methods of communication were, at most, among the occasions for the miracle.

Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, p. 6

It should give us pause in that we shouldn’t rely upon our fanciful methods of communication to change the hearts of people.

It should give us comfort in the knowledge that no matter how lacking in finesse our communication is, it is God who finishes the job.