My Journey of Spiritual Reading

Tag Archives: russian

Don’t Call it a Comeback

My life outside of this blog has been particularly active of late.  It is for this reason that one of the two people who read this blog recently asked me, “Where have you been?”  In response, I merely offer that I have been everywhere…but here.  As this blog is about my reading (or my sometimes lack thereof) not my life, I will withhold the commentary about where God has taken me over the past few months.  Suffice to say it is a good place, a place to which I have been led and I am very glad for it.  My new life (and it is a new life) is starting to find its groove and I think I may have some time now to devote to the chronicle of my reading journey.

What have I been reading in these silent months here at the melikereadgood blog?  That’s an easy one.  Since finishing Lewis’ That Hideous Surprise, I have read four books.

The Three Kings by Gene Edwards
This is a quick little book from the early 80s about the life of David.  You may consider it biblical   fiction in that it retains the biblical narrative of the Davidic story with certain artistic liberties taken.  The book centers around the relationship between David and King Saul and the later relationship between King David and Absalom   It is certainly not a heavy read, but I enjoyed it.  One of the interesting questions the book calls us to consider is, “What do you do when someone throws a spear at you?”  That question is timeless.  As I think back on the book, the words “modern melodrama” come to mind (point of fact, a dramatized version was also released after publication for churches to use in their drama ministries).  It gave me new and fresh things to ponder about one of my personal favorite Old Testament characters.  It is worth your time.

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen
Nouwen’s studied, yet contemplative take on the parable of the prodigal was a pure joy to read. Using the framework of Rembrandt’s magnificent painting of the same name, Nouwen delves deep into his own life and calls the reader to do the same.  I would like to blog in-depth about how this book impacted me spiritually at a later time but for now, I will only say this book earns its moniker as one of the great modern christian classics of devotional literature.  I will read it again and perhaps soon.  I also have a new bucket list item – a pilgrimage to the State Heritage Museum in St. Petersburg to see Rembrandt’s tremendous piece of artistic brilliance with my own eyes.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat
Astute readers will remember my gushing praise for a book I read last year called A Stone of Hope which I labeled “the best surprise” of my 2012 reading journey.  Douthat’s tight, well-written, and scholarly look at the American religious landscape as we know it today may well be this year’s “best surprise”.  The book is worth the price of admission for his detailed look at the  prosperity gospel teaching and the god within theology that has made its way into far too many corners of the religious fabric of our culture.  Douthat posits that the current religious zeitgeist in America is a direct result of a decades-long move away from orthodox Christianity.  He meticulously shows how America is a much stronger place when good orthodoxy is at the center of our pluralistic religious scene.  He ends the book with a clarion call back to historic Christian orthodoxy (not just an Americanized  version).  It was a great book that I encourage everyone to read, no matter whether you are a believer or a seeker or an agnostic or a presbyterian (just kidding).

Cancer Ward by Alexander Soltzhenitsyn
This one has been on my radar for quite a long time.  I finally got around to reading it in the past few weeks.  I am about 80% finished and I am loving it.  My only previous encounter with Alexander was a few years ago when I read The Gulag Archipelago.  I had to drag my way through that one.  This one is much easier and much more engaging.  Set in a cancer ward in the earlier part of the 20th century, Solzhenitsyn explores the human condition as his characters face humanity’s greatest plague – cancer – in each of their own particular ways.  As is usually the case with these Russians, there is the wonderful unforced meshing of the religious and the secular aspects of life that I really enjoy.  There’s community because we all live in community (whether we believe we do or not).  It’s grim because cancer is grim.  There’s hope because there is always hope.  But, how can there be hope with a terminal illness?  Ah, there is a question worth considering.  I have risen and fallen with each character as they attempt in various ways to assimilate their death sentence into their minds, hearts and lives.  I am almost finished but I can already give this book an unqualified recommendation to all.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
I would love to tell you that I read this book because I am working on a thesis about how the current pop culture interest in zombies informs our collective understanding of life, death, and the afterlife.  I wish I were that cool.  The reality is that I was looking for something to amuse (the archaic definition of “diverting the attention of so as to deceive”) me and this happened to be on the front page of whatever screen I was looking at at the time.  The only thing I have to say is, “It worked.”

Anna Karenina and the Balance of Life

Last year I decided to read through 3 of the great Russian authors of the last 150 years or so.  (I’m sure there are other great ones but these are the only three I really knew.)  So, I read The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  I read through it and enjoyed it, though I felt like I needed a Prozac prescription while I was reading it.  After completing the first phase of my goal.  I then proceeded to read The Brothers Karamazovby Dostoevsky.  It was another incredible read and another prescription of Prozac.  Darn these Russians!  They have a knack for messiness of everyday life, which can be very depressing sometimes.  However, all is not lost.  There are little slivers of hope and redemption lining the walls of these characters and their adventures.  And faith is a very real and gritty part of that very messiness, as it is in my own life.

So….at my glacial pace of reading (thank you television) it took me about 9 months to complete these books.

Then in December I started the third installment of my Russian journey – it was Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.  You can find a description here.  This was perhaps my favorite of all three.  Of course, the immediate question is: Did I go for the Prozac again?  Well, there is certainly tragedy and the Russian angst that I felt with the other two books.  Anna, the title character, wore me out to the point of exasperation.  She evoked in me anger, repulsion, excitement, disdain, sorrow, remorse, and pity all at once.  She was a character who decided to do what she wanted and to live for no one but herself.

But her story was intersected by another, more hopeful character – Konstantin Levin.  The book could have easily been titled “Konstantin Levin” instead of “Anna Karenina.”  I almost wish it had been.  As the reader follows Anna spiraling down the vortex of her own self-centeredness, the reader also watches Levin ascend to a higher place with each and every chapter.  He is the self-less counterbalance to Anna’s ever-present narcissism.  Though their lives only come together briefly in the book, their stories form the two pillars around which the whole massive tome comes together.

I think the Russians understand the need for a counterbalance.  In the Gulag Archipelago, it was the good people of Russia that withstood the ferocity of tzars and dictators.  In The Brothers Karamazov, it was the humble younger brother Alyosha that served to counter the sensualist older borther Dmitri.  Anna and Levin.  Weight and counter-weight.

This understanding that the universe, and our lives hang in a sort of balance is something that Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Dostoevsky all show through their stories as a spiritual principle of life.  My flesh stands in stark contrast to the holiness of God.  My bad love is but an echo of the good and perfect love with which God fills my soul.  My mistreatment of others is counter-weighted by His grace toward me.  Balance.  That is why I think the story could have been called “Konstantin Levin.”  They are both a part of the whole.  The story of Anna Karenina needs the story of Konstantin Levin and it is incomplete without it.  It is a spiritual principle these Russians are so good at showing us.  Good needs bad to show us how good the good really is.  It’s just as true for a story as it is for a life.