It was Christmas of our third year in seminary. I was pregnant with our third son and had just finished reading a book about books by some of my favorite Christian authors. Until then, I had not ventured into the world of “the Classics” believing them to be so far above my limited brain power, it wasn’t even worth the effort. But my recent read from beloved “friends” encouraged me to try. So for Christmas, I asked for Crime and Punishment by Fydor Dostoyevsky.
I didn’t jump right into the novel, still wondering if I would be able to “get it” and not wanting to try and then feel dumb if I couldn’t. So much fear. But within a month, our third son was born by c-section, 4 weeks early. So while he stayed, stabilized and in gifted hands at the hospital, for the first time, I went home to recover without a baby. As I laid in bed, cherishing the much needed rest after a difficult pregnancy, I picked up Crime and Punishment and began to read.
My reading has never been the same since.
Not only did I find that I could wade through the dense language and character development, I also found that the work was well worth the effort. I found myself amazed at the arrogance of Raskalnikov, Dostoyevsky’s protagonist, as he lived out his Neitzchen Superman philosophy that says some people (few) are so intelligent that they are above the law. And then my heart turned towards anger as he commits his crime and then seeks to justify himself to himself (and to God) as to why he was not guilty. And finally, I found myself feeling deep compassion for him, such a lost soul, as his burden of guilt brought on physical illness and ultimately insanity – an insanity that Raskalnikov suffered until he confessed his guilt and took responsibility for his crime and then repented before God. It was then and only then, as he endured hard labor in a Russian prison camp that he experienced real freedom.
How much truth can a novel tell? A lot. The wonderful effect that stories have on our hearts is God-designed. We are meant to relate to stories differently than we relate to straight didactic teaching – stories touch our emotions as well as our minds and thus bring about a fuller level of understanding. The writers of days gone by understood this better than most in our age. It was the Roman poet Horace who said, “Art is meant to delight and instruct.” C.S Lewis advised that for every new book one reads, two old ones should be read next. Yes, older books require more effort – the language, even in a translation, can be dense. Often the historicity of the story – taking place in a time and place we can’t relate to, can be a hinderance. But persevere – God gave us minds to use – the depths of the rewards gained from the work put forth will not be lost. By reading more “old” books, we are deepened and sharpened by the lives lived long ago.
So, with that said, a few recommendations: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – it only takes one look into temptation to fall into sin, thus a godly and upright woman is brought down. At the same time, an agnostic honestly struggles to find faith and love. He does.
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – the most beautiful rendition of Gospel in story apart from the Gospel itself found in Scripture. A contrast of living out of gratitude for what has been done for you and trying to do it yourself. Grace vs. Law, 101.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – God is at work in every aspect of our lives even when we can’t see it.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – Discontent, bitterness, and pride will kill our hearts turning us into shadows of the humanity for which God designed.
Elie Weisel said, “God made man because he loves stories.” Our Savior spoke often in stories. Our God tells us stories throughout Scripture to teach of who He is and what He is doing in this world. Don’t be afraid to join the “great conversation” humanity has been having since the beginning of time. Grab a good book, a cup of coffee, light the fire and take and read.