Some of my fondest memories of growing up in Albany, Georgia, were the frequent trips to the neighborhood library just across the the street from Sherwood Baptist Church and Sherwood Elementary school. All three were only blocks away from my house on Sharon Avenue, so I could easily hop on my bike and be there in minutes. My friends and I spent hours there and I checked out many books over the years. I read so many biographies, Black Stallion books, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, and more I cannot recall. My love for reading was set for life. By junior high I was venturing into some longer fiction and over the next years read Gone with the Wind, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and several James Michener novels—Centennial, Hawaii, and The Source are three I remember. The Source in particular stirred a lifelong interest in biblical archaeology, an interest that fed into my doctoral dissertation on Caesarea Maritima in Israel. Of course, in high school we read William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and some other Southern authors, as well as Shakespeare. Although I do still read fiction, the bulk of my reading since college has been of the non-fiction variety, especially as I had to develop expertise in the discipline of biblical studies. Reading for fun became primarily a vacation activity, usually murder mysteries or spy novels. One cross-over genre I have “cheated” with has been the historical novel. The good ones teach history but have a compelling story line and characters. The Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough taught me an immense amount about the late Roman republic, and The Pillars of the Earth and sequels by Ken Follett much about medieval England.
Although I have begun a number of nineteenth century “classics” over the years, I never seem to finish them, whether of the British, French, or Russian variety. The intense and often flowery descriptive language always seemed to get in the way of the plots and characters for me. Of late, though, my interest in René Girard’s mimetic theory (much, much more to come in future posts) has piqued my interest once again, particularly the nineteenth century Russian author, Fyodor Dostoevsky. A number of years ago, a student of mine who went on to study Russian literature, told me that The Brothers Karamazov was his very favorite book. For a young man in his early twenties, this was quite a statement. I went to Barnes and Noble and picked up an inexpensive English translation. I am not sure I made it ten pages in. A few years later, I tried again and only got a few pages further. In the last few years, my copy has largely collected dust, except for a moment a few years ago when my colleague Craig Slane called my attention to the story of the Grand Inquisitor told in the novel. That story is striking and worth the read even if you don’t read the novel itself. A couple of years later I read Girard’s short biography of Dostoevsky, Resurrection from the Underground, about Dostoevsky’s personal self-understanding and ultimate conversion to Christianity as shown in his novels. The Brothers Karamazov was the ultimate expression of his writing powers and of his deep faith after a life-time of uncertainty.
So lately I decided to begin again. What a difference a few years has made. The reading is slow, to be sure, but I am actually reading much of the novel aloud, allowing the tone of each word and character to take on some life that silent reading often misses. Dostoevsky took the interesting tact of speaking as a first person narrator who is present to observe all of the action and even perceive the thoughts of the characters. Although he uses description and makes many off-handed comments to explain things, he primarily uses dialogue to build the picture of each character. Though I am only a tenth of the way in, I am hooked this time. And as a follower of Jesus, I am especially drawn to the clear expression of the gospel that is already evident in the first one hundred pages. There is certainly an Orthodox flavor, but the notions of God’s love and grace are deeply evident, especially in the words of Father Zossima. At this point I do not know what will become of Father Zossima or of the plot and characters as a whole, though the author tells us up front that Alyosha Karamazov is the protagonist. I do know that I have already had to think about myself and my own motivations as I am getting to know the characters. I expect that Dostoevsky desired for this to happen in his readers.