Weekly Word – Job’s Suffering, Dialogue and General Awesomeness

I love the book of Job.  It is forty-two chapters of brilliant dialogue around the problem of evil and suffering that never really provides any solid answers.  People argue and debate, lose their temper and scream at each other.  Its great!

I did not always like it.  I remember hearing people say, in regards to the problem of evil and suffering, to just read Job.  As a kid I read the first few chapters and last few chapters to get the gist, but I skipped the dialogue.  It was not until much later that I plodded through the whole thing and realized it did not offer the answers I wanted but instead gave space to ask questions.

I think people struggle with Job because we read, if we read, one or two chapters a day.  In this way it will take weeks to work through Job.  If you only read one chapter you will read a diatribe by one of Job’s friends one day and then Job’s response the next day.  But by the next day, you’ll forget what Job is responding to.  That is why I think the best way to get Job is to read it in big chunks.   If you can, read it all at once!

Last night at CSF we went through the entire book of Job, obviously not going deep into much of it since it is so long.  Here is an outline of the book:

  • Job 1:1-12 – Introduction
  • 1:13-22 – Satan’s First Attack and Job’s Response
  • 2:1-10 – Satan’s Second Attack and Job’s Response
  • 2:11- 13 – Job’s Friends Arrive
  • Chapters 3-27 – Dialogue between Job and his three friends arguing about why this has happened to Job – Dialogue continually escalates in anger of friends towards Job due to Job’s refusal to admit he deserved it
    • Job’s friends confident – they knew how God worked and that God did not punish those who did not deserve it, so Job must deserve it (rigid retribution theology)
    • Job agrees God works this way in theory – but Job insists he is sinless in this case and thus God is wrong and Job wants to plead his case
  • Job silences his friends (Zophar does not respond a third time like the others
  • Job 28 – An Ode To Wisdom
    • 28:28 – To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom
  • Job 29-31 – Job’s Final Speech – His Defense
  • Job 32-37 – Elihu speaks to Job
    • Job has silenced the traditionalists, Elihu speaks for the younger generation, offering new solutions to old problems but fails to provide an answer just as the others failed.
    • Elihu’s speech on God’s greatness in chapter 37 does foreshadow God’s speech
  • Job 38-41 – God speaks and silences Job
  • 42:1-6 – Job repents, acknowledges he does not know God’s ways
  • 42:7-9 – God rebukes Job’s friends for not speaking right as Job has
  • 42:10-17 – God blesses Job

One of my favorite things about Job is how the story seems to question the sort of wisdom you find in the book of Proverbs.  Proverbs, a fantastic work in its own right, tends to promise that hard workers succeed and lazy or evil people fail.  This is the sort of theology that both Job and his friends hold to.  Yet we know from real life that things do not always work out this way.  More than that, the fact that our Bible contains both Job and Proverbs tells us something important – being a wise person, a disciple of God, does not mean turning our brain off and blindly following a few commands.  Instead, God provides us wisdom teaching that will show us how to think and live in the situation we find ourselves in.

Since Job and his friends have this basic idea that God only punishes people who deserve it, they insist Job deserves it.  He must have some secret sin to confess!  Job, agreeing that God punishes those who deserve it, argues that God is unfair in this case for he does not deserve it.  Thus, Job wants to plead his case with God.  What we, the reader, know is that God is not the one who did this.  God has allowed it for sure, but has not done it.

Is there a difference between God doing something and allowing something to be done by someone else?

I think there is.  There is a big difference between pushing my daughter off her bike as she is learning to ride then in allowing her to fall as she learns.  Anyway, I drew a few general conclusions from Job’s story last night:

Job was WRONG in what he said about God (42:3, 6)

*God’s speech emphasizes the complexity of creation and God’s power over it – as finite beings we do not know much

*When we talk about God then we ought to be humble, realizing how much we do not know.

*When someone suffers and comes to us…we better not be like Job’s friends!

Job was more right in what he said about God than his friends were

*Even though Job was wrong, he was closer to being right even as he challenged and questioned God

*This shows me that God desires a real relationship and not just people who blindly follow accepted truths


God’s speech to Job is satisfying on one level but leaves us wanting more as God remains kind of distant from Job’s problems.

In Jesus the distant God of Job comes close and experiences our suffering

What Job wanted of God we get in Jesus.


A Parable On Serving and Loving Those We Disagree With

As Jesus went on from there, the crowds pressed in against him. He stepped into a boat and crossed the lake, but the crowds followed him. When he got out of the boat a woman approached him.

“Lord, can you please heal my son?”

Upon hearing her Jesus looked up to heaven. Then he looked back at her and said, “I prayed to God and he revealed to me the sins in your life. I am sorry, but I cannot heal your son.”

The Pharisees and teachers of the Law looked on. They nodded in approval. Here was one truly who cared about the purity of the chosen people.

Going on from there, Jesus entered the synagogue. A man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking to test his holiness and commitment to the tradition, the teachers of the Law asked, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath?”

He said to them, “If any of you has an animal that falls in a hole, will you not lift it out on the Sabbath? It is lawful to do good on the sabbath, to those who meet with God’s approval. This man lives a life contrary to the traditions of Moses.” Jesus then spoke to the man, “Therefore, go elsewhere to find healing, you will find no hope here among God’s people.”

The teachers of the Law nodded in approval at his answer. And the man, like the woman with her son, went away in search of hope and love.

The above story was inspired by this story, of a pediatrician who refused to take a child as a patient because the child’s parents are lesbians.  

When Christians refuse to help, treat or serve others because we disagree with their life choices…is this what  Jesus would have us do?

Christianity’s Dangerous Idea by Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath is one of my favorite theologians and his book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, is a fantastic feast for any who dive into reading it.  The first part is a history of the Protestant Reformation up to about 1900 which reads more or less like a straightforward history book.  In the second part he analyzes a number of issues in Protestantism from worship and church government to more surprising topics such as sports and the arts.  Finally, in the third section he picks up the historical story from part one, focusing in on Pentecostalism.  Pentecostalism began in the early 1900s and by the early 2000s was the most vibrant and largest branch of Protestantism.

I think this would be a great book to read prior to tackling A Secular Age by Charles Taylor.  That book blew my mind and was incredibly challenging.  McGrath’s book is not easy, but it is much easier than Taylor’s.  The two books cover similar periods and complement each other well.  McGrath’s is more straight up history with some theology.  His final emphasis, in part three, is the rise of Pentecostalism.  Taylor’s emphasis is to examine how unbelief, nearly unheard of in 1500, became alive option.  Though with different emphases, I think reading McGrath’s first could be helpful.

The “dangerous idea” McGrath speaks of is the idea that the Bible can be interpreted by the common person.  So anyone can read and interpret the Bible, not just the church leaders.  Along with this was the Protestant idea of “priesthood of all believers” which, again, emphasizes that all Christians are equal and those in authority are not automatically deferred to.  This idea led to the splintering of denominations in Protestantism, ultimately leading to the Pentecostal churches.

Overall, a fantastic read.  If you are a fan of history or theology, check it out.


The Story of Uriah, Bathsheba and David (Weekly Word)

I remember being at a church event once and the speaker was talking on the story of David and Bathsheba from 2 Samuel 11.  The story begins by noting that it was spring, the time when kings go off to war.  But David stayed home.  This, the speaker said, was his first mistake.  It began a chain reaction which led to adultery and murder.  The lesson, we were told, was that if we want to avoid sin (sexual sin, specifically) we need to be where we are supposed to be, unlike David.

The problem is that the previous summer when Israel was fighting the Ammonites, David had also stayed home (see 1 Samuel 10).  It made sense for the king to not always go on military campaign, since he was the head of the government.  Later on David’s soldiers will beg him not to go (2 Samuel 21:17).  David certainly makes mistakes in this story, but simply being home is not one of them.

That said, maybe we could still fault him.  I mean, he was a great warrior!  He had fought Goliath!  But for whatever reason, he was home.  He went out on his roof one evening to catch the cool breeze.  His roof probably gave him a good view of the city, including a view of a woman bathing.  She probably, on her own roof, thought she had privacy.

Here’s another part of the story I never got before.  It always sounded like David simply saw this random woman, was attracted and invited her to him.  But if we look more closely, it is pretty obvious he had to know who she was and that she was married.  We are told she is the daughter of Eliam who, we learn in 2 Samuel 23:34, was one of David’s top soldiers.  Uriah, her husband, is also in the list of David’s top soldiers (23:39).  And her grandfather, Ahithopel, was one of David’s most trusted advisors (2 Samuel 16:23).  These three men were part of his inner circle.  This indicates to me that he had to know exactly who he was inviting to his bed.

To make a long story short, and we spent more time discussing it last night, David gets her pregnant.  In an effort to pass the child off as Uriah’s, David calls Uriah back from the military campaign.  After getting a report, David encourages Uriah to go home and enjoy the comforts of his wife.  Uriah, showing deep integrity and identification with his men in the field, refuses.  The contrast is clear – David does not mind staying out of harms way and enjoying women while Uriah chooses to pass up those pleasures in order to identify with his community.

David has to think of another solution and he does.  He sends sealed orders with Uriah for the military commander.  The orders say to put Uriah in harms way so he will die.  The leader complies and after Bathsheba mourns for the appropriate time, David marries her.  This may seem fishy to us.  It was common in those days for a woman to marry her dead husband’s brother.  If Uriah had no siblings, David as king could have volunteered to care for Bathsheba, fulfilling the role of a brother to Uriah.  David would come out looking quite generous.  That is, until the next chapter when Nathan the prophet uncovers the whole thing and David confesses!

So what lessons did we take from this?

1. Uriah provides a fantastic model of integrity for us – In a world filled with cheaters, Uriah illustrates what it is like to live by strong character and conviction.

2. Uriah was an outsider to God’s people who lived a holy life; this points us to Jesus who welcomes outsiders – Uriah was a Hittite, one of the people Israel was to exterminate (Deut. 7:1-5).  Surprisingly then, Uriah is the hero of the story.  When we come to Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus we notice there are only four women listed – Ruth, Rahab, Tamar and Uriah’s wife.  This is often used to emphasize that Jesus came to welcome women and men.  While this is certainly true of Jesus, I do not think that is the point of Matthew’s genealogy.  If it was so, why did Matthew say “Uriah’s wife” and not simply “Bathsheba”?  Bathsheba was an Israelite while Uriah was not.  The emphasis is that those outside of God’s people – Ruth, Rahab, Uriah and so many others – are now welcomed into God’s people.  But “now” is not right, for Matthew is showing that such people have always been welcomed!

3. Reconciliation does not end in Confessing to God – You must go to the one you have hurt – David’s confession in Psalm 51 kind of bothers me.  He says to God, “against you only have I sinned.”  What about Uriah?  Taken alone a passage like this could lead someone to think they just need confess to God and they are fine.  In light of Jesus’ words in places like Matthew 5:23-24 and Luke 15:21 we are reminded that reconciliation is not just vertical with God, we must also pursue reconciliation with others.  Of course, this was already a reality at places in the old testament – see Numbers 5:5-8 and Proverbs 28:13.


Overcoming Stereotypes by Listening to People

When I was in college one of the campus ministry groups sponsored an event that was advertised as a discussion between a Christian and a Muslim.  They were clear it was not a debate, instead it was a time for each person to share what their religion believes about a variety of things.  I attended, excited to see what would be said.  I left thinking that it was a good thing it was not a debate, for the Muslim would have won.

Just on appearance, the Muslim student had a leg up.  He wore a casual sweater and jeans, dressing and talking like a typical, though above average intelligent, college student.  The Christian student wore a tie and clearly did not fit in at the college setting.

I had a few classes with the Muslim student.  We had spoken a few times and he was very friendly.  If I recall, he was going into medicine.  The class we had together was Intro to Islam, so being a Muslim he had quite an advantage going in, but I guess I had an advantage in Bible classes!  Talking with him and a few others was eye-opening simply because I had never known any Muslims before.  It is one thing to read about a group of people in a book, another to become friends with them.

I think of that today at times, especially when I see posts on social media about how all Muslims are terrorists or all ______ (insert group here) are ________.  It is disheartening to me to see such simplistic generalities, because I know when you meet actual people they do not all fit in.

You do not just need to meet them.  There was a liberal Bible scholar I heard a lot about while in seminary.  He was often mentioned as someone who does not trust the Bible, who takes apart the faith and who is all wrong.  I am sure I regurgitated some statements later on when his name came up.  Then, years later, I read a few books by him.  And while I disagreed (I disagreed on a lot!) I also saw that the stereotype was wrong.  He was not the faith-destroying monster I had been taught.

I am surprised that Christians are often so quick to engage in stereotyping, since Christians are often on the other end of stereotyping.  A few years back a study came out that found the majority of 16-29 year olds said Christians are hypocritical, judgmental and other such negative things.  I discussed this with the Christian students I work with on campus and other students over the following months.  What was interesting was that many students would admit that their Christian friends were not like this, but most Christians were.  I wanted to ask how many times a stereotype has to be contradicted before you give up on it?

There is a human tendency to surround ourselves with voices that affirm what we already believe.  I try to be aware of this and to read diverse opinions on things.  I hope I have friends on different sides of issues to keep me honest if I slip into stereotyping one group.

In the end, we need to talk to actual people and listen to them rather then generalizing about what we do not know.  As we do that, I think we’ll find that most people we meet do not fit into the stereotypes we’ve inherited.

Thoughts on How We Talk About Religion, Specifically Christianity and Islam

I’ve been continuing to see stories about, and to have discussions about, President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast.  It certainly hit a nerve with a lot of people.  I shared a few thoughts last week.  A good friend helped me see why more people were offended, something I missed before.  Plus, even as discussion on Obama’s remarks fades, ISIS continues to be in the news with their continual violence towards Christians, and others.

My friend argued that one reason many were so upset with Obama’s speech is that they felt it reflected a double standard in the media and public discourse.  When speaking of Islamic terror, we are always clear and quick to say these people are radicals and do not represent Islam.  Yet we make no such caveat when speaking of Christian evils, we simply say Christians committed evils.

I can see how some people do talk like this, though I am not in a place to say how most people talk in our culture.  Almost no matter what you think or feel, you can probably find confirmation of it somewhere in the cacaphony of voices out there.  In response to my friend, I think of Chris Rock’s tweet last week saying that we refer to ISIS as “radical Islam” but do not refer to the KKK as “radical Christians.”

Anyway, it has made me think – how do we determine when someone is representing the essence of their religion?  I hesitate to write on this because I cannot claim to know much about the essence of other religions.  I think Christians are too quick to read an isolated verse or two from the Quran and claim to get Islam.  We need to be careful about claiming to know the essence of Islam and which Muslims are truer to its teachings.  As outsiders, that can sound arrogant.  Would we want outsiders to the Christian faith to start telling us which Christians are actually following the Bible?

At the same time, we can look at history.  It is a historical fact that Jesus died on a cross and it is a historical fact that Muhammad led armies into battle.  Many Christians argue in light of Jesus’ example that we ought to be nonviolent, never using violence against others.  Christians who go to battle can claim King David or Abraham or other Bible figures as their example, but not Jesus.  Muslims at war can see themselves doing what Muhammad did.

Does this mean Islam is inherently violent?  I don’t think so.  Most Muslims see the work of groups like ISIS as outside mainstream Islam.  And again, I am hesitant to say anything about Islam is “inherent” since I am nowhere near an expert.

Really, my point is twofold:

1. Let’s try to be consistent in our language – If we are careful to say that terrorists do not represent true Islam then we ought to be as careful to say that medieval crusaders of American southern lynchers do not represent true Christianity.  Perhaps if Obama had been clearer here some of the backlash would have been lessened?  (I doubt it).

2. As Christians, let’s emphasize the uniqueness of Jesus – It is not a knock at Muslims or Muhammad to say that Jesus is totally different in his person and teachings.  Muhammad led armies into battle, eventually defeating his enemies who had driven him from Mecca.  Jesus taught love of enemies and turning the cheek to those who strike you, then he lived this out by dying on a cross.  He could have called down legions of armies to fight for him, but he chose to die.  This is one reason I am a Christian – Jesus is totally unique and incredibly compelling.

This is where some of those people who want to get rid of religion and just have Jesus are going.  Religion, whether Christianity or Islam, is not the answer.  Only Jesus is.  Of course, once communities of people form around Jesus you end up with a religion, it is unavoidable (apologies to those who seem to want to just have Jesus).  But if we focus more on Jesus and his teachings, seeking to shape ourselves to him, we’ll be on a better path.

Postscript: I wrote this post at the end of last week and since then more news of ISIS beheadings have come out.  It is truly horrible.  As we try to grasp what ISIS is and how they relate to Islam as a whole, this article is helpful.   I also came across this article which, I think, illustrates a truly Christian response to people of other religions in the face of a world that wants us to hate.

Telling God’s Story: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching the Bible

I grew up in the church learning all the old Bible stories.  I fondly recall hearing, over and over again, Jonah and the whale, Daniel and the Lions Den and so many more.  I am forever grateful for what I learned as a child.  Yet as I’ve moved into an adult faith, I see some of the problems in this sort of traditional Christian education.

First, the stories are sanitized.  Since you are teaching children you cannot go into all the gruesome details.  Second, any sort of understanding of the Bible as a grand narrative, a complete story, was missing.  Along with this, how all those Bible stories relate to Jesus as the central figure is often absent.  So we learn to see David as an example of faithfulness and trusting in God as he fights Goliath as Israel’s representative but do not go into how David points to his greater ancestor who fights the greater battle as humanity’s representative.

The question of how to teach the Bible to children has become more important to me as I now have my own kids.  What is the best way to teach them the Bible?

Peter Enns has worked to answer this question.  His book Telling God’s Story: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching the Bible  serves as an introduction to a new type of curriculum.  Basically, Enns argues that we focus solely on Jesus from grades 1-4.  Then we get into the rest of the Bible in grades 5-8.  Finally, in grades 9-12 we get into some of the problems and issues with the Bible story, the sort of thing scholars argue about.

I’ve long been a fan of Enns and his books have been greatly helpful to me.  Last fall I read and enjoyed his book The Bible Tells Me So.  In it he makes accessible much scholarly work on the Old Testament, just the sort of things that are not taught in Sunday school.  One nagging thought I had as I read was how we teach this to children?  My daughter has a bunch of story books about Noah – do we just teach them the story of Noah as kids and then hope when they are older they can accept that maybe the story did not happen exactly as the Bible said?  Do we teach that Israel conquered the land and then later hope that when they learn a bit of what archaeologists say they do not just reject faith altogether, but instead just learn to read the story in a new way?

Obviously that book was not written to answer such questions.  This book and curriculum, is.  Enns’ answer seems to be that such questions will be discussed in high school, when kids have a foundation on what matters, Jesus.

I like it.  I hope more churches adopt it.


The Story of Hannah and Samuel (Weekly Word)

Last night at CSF we took some time to read and discuss the story of Hannah from the 1 Samuel.  Hannah was one of two wives of Elkanah, a Levite (his being a Levite ought to have us on edge after last week’s lesson, but he’s a good guy).  Elkanah appears to be wealthy, able to sacrifice three bulls, and it is possible he married the second wife because Hannah was not having children.  This is a common theme in the Bible, we’ve read of women before who were unable to conceive (Sarah and Rachel being two).

Hannah prays and promises that if God gives her a son she will never cut his hair and that she will give him to the Lord.  To make a long story short, she soon becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel.  Samuel grows up in the temple (not the temple in Jerusalem, that is not yet built) and becomes the last judge.  He is a pretty pivotal guy as his name is on the book that tells not just his own story but that of the first kings, Saul and David.

Reflecting on the story, we drew out five points:

1. Everything you have is a gift from God Hannah realized this, which is why she was able to give Samuel back to God.  May we realize it too, from the time we are poor college students to when we are making the big bucks later on!

2. There may be something you desperately want, so ask God for it!  I think the way Hannah prays is a model for how we ought to pray.  We do not need to be shy or fearful, we can pour out the depths of our heart to God.  Of course, there may be some things we desperately want that we do not need, or even if we ever got them we would realize we do not really want them.  What Hannah wanted though was a beautiful thing and there is no shame in asking God for good things.

3. Hannah’s prayer is answered, but this does not mean ours will be.  Prayer does not work like that.  It is not as simple as just asking for something and getting it.  Lots of women then and now desperately want to get pregnant and cannot.  I have friends who want to get married and have not yet, perhaps they never will.  How prayer works remains a mystery.

4. When you do get that thing you pray for, it still belongs to God.  Again, Hannah knew this which is why she was able to give Samuel back.  It is easy, or easier, to rely on God when we need or want something.  After we get it, when life is comfortable, we may forget that previous reliance.  The point here is to remind us that at all times, its all a gift.

5. Hannah’s story points us to Mary and thus to Jesus.  Hannah knew everything was from God and belonged to God.  She was thus able to give Samuel back even as she praised God (1 Samuel 2).  This praise echoes that of another unexpected mother, Mary, in Luke 1:46-55.  Mary’s miraculous birth gave the world Jesus Christ.  And just as Hannah’s son served God, so too did Mary’s, going to the very farthest extent of love for the world.

The point of Hannah’s story is not to pray like or have faith like Hannah, even though she is a good example.  Her story, like all stories, points us forward to the coming of Jesus.  Jesus is the gift to the hungry and needy world, Jesus is Lord and Savior.

Five Thoughts on Obama’s Prayer Breakfast Speech

Last week at the National Prayer Breakfast President Obama condemned  ISIS, Obama and went on to say: “Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

It is this part of the speech that went viral and caused controversy.  Most people probably did not listen to or read the entire speech to get context (you can do so here).  This is indicated by the fact that most of the people offended refer to his words on the Crusades, events from centuries ago, and not the more recent events in our own country he went on to speak of.

I was surprised at the hubbub.  I’ve interacted with some friends on Facebook in recent days over it and as I’ve thought about it, I’ve had some scattered thoughts.  Here are some:


1. Christians Have a Dark Past – It is no secret that people have done awful things in the past in the name of Christ.  I’ve heard and read these events referred to countless times.  Philip Jenkins has a fantastic, must-read book on this subject that shows, historically speaking, Christians may have more blood on their hands then Muslims.  If that sounds controversial to you, he even argues that the Bible is a bloodier and more violent book then the Quran.  This dark past is not only centuries ago.  Obama mentioned more recent history also, which most who were offended have ignored, but it was not long ago that Bible believing Christians in America were lynching black people.  For a chilling example of this, read here.  Compared to the teaching and example of Jesus himself, these events are to be unquestionably condemned.

2. People Who Know Little About History Speak Too Confidently About It – There is a lot of misinformation about such events.  The Crusades are often spoken of and not often understood, but you can find both well-written books and articles to put them in historical context.  If your thought of the crusades is wicked Christian soldiers attacking weak and outnumbered Muslims, your thought is wrong.  If you have been told that Islamic terrorism today is rooted in memories of the Crusades, you are mistaken.  This is not to say the Crusades were justified, in my opinion.  Such violence is far from the way of Jesus.  But if we are going to talk about history, we ought to be accurate.

3. Christians Make Contradictory Arguments  I have noticed a interesting set of arguments Christians have given when responding to the sorts of things Obama said.  Two statements seem to be made:

A. The Crusades were the responses by Christians to Muslim aggression.  The lands the Muslims held were once Christian lands that were taken by Muslims.  So the Crusades were merely the Christians fighting back.

B. Jesus never committed violent acts but Muhammad did.  So when Christians do violence, they are going against their leader while Muslims are acting in line with theirs.

The first statement sounds, to me, like a wordy way of saying, “but they started it!”  Any parent is familiar with this – one child is caught hitting the other and upon being reprimanded, the child says, “but he started it!”  That aside, the two statements seem contradictory.  How can you say Christians being violent are acting out of line with Jesus (argument two) and then justify violence (argument 1).  It sounds like an argument that says, in essence, the way of Jesus is great but sometimes we need to employ the way of Muhammad.

4. Let’s Stop Stereotyping “All Muslims” – I often see people post things on social media, confidently stating what Muslims believe and what the religion is all about.  I suspect most of these people have not read the Quran, let alone the Hadith.  Zach Hunt has a great article about this.

5. Remember What it is to be a Christian – Maybe we need to shed some of our patriotism and remember what we learned in Sunday school – we are all sinful, we all have darkness inside of us, so we all need Jesus.  We are not better then anyone else, we are sinners saved by grace.  We strive to be like Jesus and we do so in humility recognizing we fail every day.


You Should Read Some Dostoyevsky…Here Are Some Tips!

When I talk with people about books I am reading or favorite books I have read, I always mention Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  Often the person looks at me like I have three eyes.

Having read a bunch of his books, I want to offer some tips and encouragement.  They are certainly challenging, a far cry from many of the popular books that dominate American bestseller lists.  His books are long on dialogue and often lack much description of the surrounding landscape.  It would not be wrong to call Dostoyevsky a philosopher, with his philosophy veiled in novels.  His novels are quite psychological as he dives deeply into the human mind and motivations.  Through all of this he asks deep questions of meaning and morality, often seen as one of the early existentialists.

First, what books of his should you read and in what order?

Start with Crime and Punishment, the story of a man named Raskolnikov  who plans a murder to steal money.  Much of the novel is his mental anguish before and after this crime.  After this move on to The Idiot.  The Idiot is the story of Prince Myshkin, a kind and gentle man who has recently returned to Russia from a Swiss sanatorium.  Myshkin’s kindness is overwhelmed by the depravity of those he meets.  They see him as an idiot and, more or less, end up driving him insane.

After this you could try Dostoyevsky’s first work, Poor Folk.  It is quite different then his later works, but shorter and very readable. Poor Folk is often paired with House of the Dead which tells the story of a man’s time in a forced labor camp in Siberia.  This is somewhat autobiographical as Dostoyevsky had spent time in such a prison.  I found this book one of the more difficult to read (playing the old House of the Dead videogame was much easier), though it was an interesting glimpse at prison camp life.

Another short, and much different in style, book is Notes from the Underground.  The first half of this book reads like a diary, the rantings of a man against the popular philosophy of the day.  In this you get a glimpse of Dostoyevsky’s philosophy examining questions of meaning, morality, free will and determinism.  The second half of the novel is a story.  The underground man whose diary we have been reading emerges and we read of his, shall we say, adventures.  I recall it was a weird story, but worth the read as it fills out the philosophical rantings of the first part with narrative.

Dostoyevsky’s best work, and my favorite novel ever, is The Brothers Karamazov.  You could certainly read this work before the others.  I save it for here as it is long and intimidating so reading the others would prepare you for it.  We meet three brothers – the saintly Aloysha, the intellectual atheist Ivan and the hedonist Dmitri.  Conflicts with their father, his murder and fantastic dialogue make this book a must-read.  Included in it is some of the best writing on the problem of evil as well as the haunting story-within-a-story, the Grand Inquisitor.

Finally,  there is The Possessed, also known as Demons.  I found this book to be the most difficult of all that I have read.  Dostoyevsky has written other books, but the above are all I have read.

Another tip I would give is to Utilize Help.  Do not be above utilizing Sparknotes or other internet helps.  Read summaries to familiarize yourself with the setting and context of the writing.

Also, Watch Out for the Names!  This can be one of the most frustrating things.  Not only are the names incredibly long and complex, but every character has a variety of nicknames.  You may think you are meeting a new character only to realize it is one you’ve already met but who is now being addressed differently.  Or you may lost track of who is who.

Finally, Be Patient.  These books are not quick reads.  They are challenging.  But so much of our life in 21st century America is fast paced, filled with sound bites and social media.  Reading challenging books is beneficial.  So if you’ve never read Dostoyevsky, give it a shot!