I am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.
Micah Mattix (PhD, University of Fribourg in Switzerland) is assistant professor of literature and writing at Houston Baptist University and a senior contributor at The American Conservative, where he edits Prufrock (a daily newsletter on books, art, and ideas; subscribe here to get it in your inbox).
He divides his time between Ashe County in North Carolina and Houston, and he, his wife, and their four children attend Grace Highlands Presbyterian Church in Boone, NC.
You can follow him on Twitter at @micahmattix.
There are lots of reasons to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment. The first is that it’s a wonderful piece of art. “At the beginning of July,” the novel opens, “during an extremely hot spell, towards evening, a young man left the closet he rented from tenants in S—y Lane, walked out to the street, and slowly, as if indecisively, headed for the K—n Bridge.” That “as if indecisively” hangs tantalizingly. It foreshadows one of the novel’s major themes—that of self-delusion—and is a useful shorthand for Dostoevsky’s seemingly messy style. The book is a flurry of decisions and indecisions, outbursts, flashbacks, dreams, and wanderings that plunge us into the mind of Raskolnikov—the young man who walked out to the street “as if indecisively,” and who eventually murders two women in his “madness.”
But it’s also a novel of great risk, subtlety, and truth. As Dostoevsky shows, Raskolnikov is not mad in the clinical sense but the spiritual one. The madness is that of pride and the delusion that he is an autonomous being, capable of directing his life toward the ends he chooses. For him, there is no God, and no such thing as good or evil, only suffering and “Freedom and power, but above all, power!” “Away with mirages,” he tells himself, “away with false fears, away with spectres! . . . Now is the kingdom of reason and light and . . . will and strength. . .” It is this unwavering trust in himself and his ability to determine what is right for himself (and others) that leads him to bludgeon two old women for a handful of coins and trinkets to help the poor, he tells himself at one point. In short, Raskolnikov becomes an anti-Christ, very much in the mold of Milton’s Satan, who instead of establishing a kingdom of resurrection and peace, contributes to one of murder and chaos—all in the name of some supposed common good.
In addition to being a novel about delusion, though, it is also one about the absurdity and offensiveness of the Gospel. It has one of the most moving portraits of the Gospel that I know of in literature in the figure of the drunken Marmeladov, who not only fails to provide for his impoverished family because he is always “in his cups,” but steals money from his prostituted 15-year-old daughter to go on a binge. In a moving scene, early in the novel, Marmeladov tells his ugly story to Raskolnikov in a bar:
So, sir, and now I, her blood father, snatched these thirty kopecks for the hair of the dog! And I’m drinking sir! And I’ve already drunk them up, sir! . . . So who’s going to pity the likes of me? Eh?
No one except Christ. Looking forward to Judgment Day, Marmeladov tells Raskolnikov:
On that day, He will come and ask, “Where is the daughter who gave herself for a wicked and consumptive stepmother, for a stranger’s little children? Where is the daughter who pitied her earthly father, a foul drunkard, not shrinking from his beastliness?” And He will say, “Come! I have already forgiven you once . . . I have already forgiven you once . . . And now, too, your many sins are forgiven.” . . . And when He has finished with everyone, then He will say unto us, too, “You, too, come forth!” He will say. “Come forth, my drunk ones, my weak ones, my shameless ones!” . . . And He will say, “Swine you are! Of the image of the beast and of his seal; but come, you, too!”
The response from the bar is derision: “‘Nice reasoning!’ ‘Blather!’ ‘A real official’,” and Raskolnikov, who does not know what to make of Marmeladov, will later express this same sort of disgust. This brief passage doesn’t do the scene justice. If you read the whole thing, it will have you weeping (or extremely angry if you think God saves the good).
The novel also offers a challenge to Christians to mirror the self-sacrificial love of Christ toward the poor, yes, but also towards combative atheists like Raskolnikov. Without giving too much away, Marmeladov’s daughter, Sonya, offers no rational proof of God to Raskolnikov. She breaks down when he calls into question God’s existence and love. What she does do, with great humility and faith, is love Raskolnikov, and it is this love that provokes and silences him. It is a love that he cannot explain or put out of his trouble mind.