Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Crime and Punishment

I just finished listening to Crime and Punishment as read by George Guidall. I just can't praise it highly enough. If you haven't read this book, in the name of all that is holy, do so immediately (or get the audio version, which is wonderfully read by Guidall).

I came into it expecting a masterpiece of psychological fiction. I expected to find the dark inner depths of the human mind plumbed and exposed. I expected an engaging game of cat and mouse as the murderer seeks to escape capture.

What I didn't expect was one of the finest expositions of the Christian faith I've ever read -- but that's just what I got.

Now I have a tendency to read Christianity into everything. For instance, I think "Moonstruck" is a marvelous treatment of the book of Ecclesiastes, and I have a non-gnostic interpretation of "The Matrix." But in this case, I'm pretty sure the author intended what I found there.

This book is nothing short of the Theology of the Cross in the form of a novel. A favorite Orthodox character might ask, "Was it Theology of Cross in 19th century Russia?" Yes, apparently it was. And it's such good theology!

One of the most thought-provoking aspects was the role of the Christ-figure (a prostitute, no less) in Raskolnikov's redemption. In a modern American protestant allegory, the Christ-figure would take the punishment and the guilty man would get off scot-free, but here, the Christ-figure merely joins him in his punishment. There is sin-bearing to be sure, Sonia gives Raskolnikov her cross to wear, while she wears the cross of his victim. But still, he is sent to Siberian prison (where she follows).

What pleased me as much as anything was the way Dostoevsky resisted the temptation to make Raskolnikov's redemption quick and easy. He was not redeemed when he asked Sonia to read him the story of Lazarus, not when he confessed his crime to her, not when he confessed to the authorities and accepted his sentence, not even when she went with him to Siberia. Then, just when he has me wondering if Raskolnikov is beyond hope, we get this:
Suddenly he found Sonia beside him; she had come up noiselessly and sat down at his side. It was still quite early; the morning chill was still keen. She wore her poor old burnous and the green shawl; her face still showed signs of illness, it was thinner and paler. She gave him a joyful smile of welcome, but held out her hand with her usual timidity. She was always timid of holding out her hand to him and sometimes did not offer it at all, as though afraid he would repel it. He always took her hand as though with repugnance, always seemed vexed to meet her and was sometimes obstinately silent throughout her visit. Sometimes she trembled before him and went away deeply grieved. But now their hands did not part. He stole a rapid glance at her and dropped his eyes on the ground without speaking. They were alone, no one had seen them. The guard had turned away for the time.

How it happened he did not know. But all at once something seemed to seize him and fling him at her feet. He wept and threw his arms round her knees. For the first instant she was terribly frightened and she turned pale. She jumped up and looked at him trembling. But at the same moment she understood, and a light of infinite happiness came into her eyes. She knew and had no doubt that he loved her beyond everything and that at last the moment had come. . . .

They wanted to speak, but could not; tears stood in their eyes. They were both pale and thin; but those sick pale faces were bright with the dawn of a new future, of a full resurrection into a new life. They were renewed by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.
I'm speechless. And even still, even at this point, we do not find a theologian of glory waiting to appear. The ending is outstanding.
He did not know that the new life would not be given him for nothing, that he would have to pay dearly for it, that it would cost him great striving, great suffering.

But that is the beginning of a new story--the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life. That might be the subject of a new story, but our present story is ended.

5 comments:

*Christopher said...

One of my favorites. If you have read Brothers Karamazov by Dosevsky, I recommend it.

Luthsem said...

Yes I love his stuff. His book "the Idiot" is also great.

Andy said...

I ordered Brothers Karamazov this morning. I tend to be intimidated by long books, but between everything I've heard about that one and my experience of Crime and Punishment, I decided I better go for it.

Tom in Ontario said...

I just finished The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey and he mentions the key to his understanding the Sermon on the Mount in the writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. In a footnote he writes:

"In the early 1970s Malcolm Muggeridge was surprised to hear that members of the intellectual elite in the Soviet Union were experiencing a spiritual revival. Anatoli Kuznetsov, living in exile in England, told him there was scarcely a single writer or artist or musician in the U.S.S.R. who was not exploring spiritual issues. Muggeridge said, 'I asked him [Kuznetsov] how this could have happened, given the enormous anti-religious brainwashing job done on the citizenry, and the absence of all Christian literature, including the Gospels. His reply was memorable; the authorities, he said, forgot to suppress the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the most perfect expositions of the Christian faith of modern times.'"

Yancey writes:

"I encountered grace in the novels of Dostoevsky. Crime and Punishment portrays a despicable human being who commits a despicable crime. Yet grace enters Raskolnikov's life as well, through the person of the converted prostitute Sonia, who follows him all the way to Siberia and leads him to redemption. The Brothers Karamozov, perhaps the greatest novel ever written, draws a contrast between Ivan the brilliant agnostic and his devout brother Alyosha. Ivan can critique the failures of humankind and every political system devised to deal with those failures, but he can offer no solutions. Alyosha has no solutions for the intellectual problems Ivan raises, but he has a solution for humanity: love. 'I do not know the answer to the problem of evil,' said Alyosha, 'but I do know love.' Finally, in the magical novel The Idiot, Dostoevsky presents a Christ figure in the form of an epileptic prince. Quietly, mysteriously, Prince Myshkin moves among the circles of Russia's upper class, exposing their hypocrisy while also illuminating their lives with goodness and truth."

Andy said...

I couldn't help but trip over the phrase "the converted prostitute." It drips with the typical evangelical lack of empathy. In the novel, Sonia is without question the finest most irreproachable character while she is a prostitute. Dostoevsky does not limit the possible goodness of prostitutes to former prostitutes. He sees their condition.

It's unfortunate. Yancey generally has such a good grasp on grace, but every now and then, his roots show.