Love Redeems: Crime and Punishment Book Review

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to read fiction, and I like to at least read one every few months to make sure that my heart remains full and refreshed. I read plenty of narrative prose for my research and day job, and I read plenty of prose for learning about Christ and teaching in my church. While I love the beauty of well-written, technical, narrative prose, my heart remains detached from the details of those documents. I cannot remain detached from the fiction that I read.

My latest book was Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This was, quite possibly, the best book that I have ever read. For me, the power of the book is in its communicating the power of love to redeem and transform even the most guilty conscience.

In my opinion, this book, like Anna Karenina, was much more about a supporting cast member, Sonechka, than the main character, Rodya. While the book deals mainly with the acts and thoughts of Rodya, his ideas about the doctrine of man from the agnostic/atheistic and theistic/Christian perspectives, social structure and hierarchy, guilt and the identity of man, the book makes its main statements through the actions of Sonechka.

As a Christian, I find Sonechka’s place in the story remarkable. Having become a prostitute to support her family in spite of her father’s alcoholism and depression, her lower caste and occupation makes her essentially untouchable in the contemporary Russian society. Nonetheless, her nobility is demonstrated in her inability to remain indifferent when confronted with the suffering of her family. Rodya rightly sees this aspect of her character, and even appraises her character much more highly than the higher caste Luzhin, engaged to his sister. Luzhin has the higher social position and resource, but he is of much lower character, treating his future mother-in-law and fiancé with great contempt.

At the end of the book, Sonechka is vindicated as we witness the closing scene between Rodya and Sonechka. Having been sent to Siberia for his murder, Rodya has recovered from a sickness and now has the chance to receive Sonechka after an illness of her own. During this time, it becomes clear to him how much he loves her and is indebted to her reckless companionship and faith in his future redemption. We are told at the end of the book that it is her tireless love that convinces Rodya to pursue life, spurning guilt’s heavy weight on his conscience and giving him a taste of the sweetness of life. He is compared to Lazarus, in my opinion. Just as Lazarus is resurrected at the word of Jesus, the redemption of God endures beyond the greatest guilt that can be upon any man or woman. Sonechka clearly believes this, as we see from her reading of this story with Rodya when he visits her after his sister spurns Luzhin, and this story is in the background of the final third of the book as we approach Rodya’s confession.

Crime and Punishment closes with a statement of newness of life for Rodya, a statement of renewal and regeneration. There’s so much more in this that could be explored–the use of a broken vessel to bring life to a guilty soul; the inability to escape one’s own guilt; the fact that our deeds and desires carry us along despite our desire to master them. But I leave the exploration of these topics to my fellow reader.

But here begins a new account, the account of a man’s gradual renewal, the account of his gradual regeneration, his gradual transition from one world to another, his acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality. It might make the subject of a new story–but our present story is ended.

Henri Nouwen on the true meaning of obedience…

To be obedient means to be constantly attentive to this active presence and to allow God, who is only love, to be the source as well as the goal of all we think, say, and do.

Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Direction (2006)

Finally, “Selma” is a film that portrays white Americans as allies, not liberators

An exceptional review of the film, Selma, by my friend, Prof. Kellie Carter Jackson. If you like what you’re reading, please follow her on Twitter @kcarterjackson. Peace and love for 2015!

pedagogy of humility

today, in my Bible reading, i came to the following passage:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

this struck me because Jesus is the One who knows all things. he knows all our motives, he knows our situations and circumstances, and he is, Himself, the standard for human conduct. yet, he says here, I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  

that last line struck me because although Jesus knows everything, and has the highest and most important standard of achievement for us, he remains humble in heart as an instructor. because he alone is royalty, he alone has the right to judge without gentle guidance. yet, he promises us rest for our souls by following him. his yoke is easy and his burden is light, despite the weight of the lessons he wants us to learn.

this is encouraging and challenging. as an engineering professor, quite a few times my teaching evaluations have said that i don’t make students feel comfortable, the workload is too heavy, and it is not clear why the workload is relevant to the scenarios students will see in practice. regardless of what i feel about these critiques, the content of my lessons cannot be as important as the content of Jesus’ syllabus for life. yet, he teaches with gentleness, his yoke is easy, and souls find rest in him.

matthew 11:30 is encouraging because it tells us there is a way to be a rigorous teacher while allowing my students to find rest for their souls. i’m not going to be Jesus, and my work is not going to reach the same level of import, but my teaching can be done in such a way that students clearly see why they have to do it–and also that they have the freedom to truly master the lesson (because the true test will come later when they face relevant situations in practice). his yoke is easy–while we know we can’t reach Jesus’ standard, we do not feel condemned or despised in His presence. and while the work of life is often heavy, Jesus somehow enables the burden to be light.

this will be my challenge for the upcoming semester. how to be a humble teacher, with a light burden and easy yoke. while the pedagogy of the oppressed has been greatly celebrated, Jesus shows us that we need a pedagogy of humility.

Don’t Take Offense at Jesus’ Call

This is one of a series of Lenten devotionals I wrote for our church’s Foreign Missions Ministry and appears on their blog. However, I wanted to share it with you all…

Today’s Scripture Focus: Acts 16:1-3

Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek. The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.

Today, we reflect on the fact that Lent not only calls us to give something up, but it reminds us to consider what we may gain.  This is all the more important, because we may sometimes be called to a costly or painful sacrifice. Let us consider the example of the early church leader, Timothy.

Imagine you have been saved, and over time your gifts of leadership, prayer, teaching, and knowledge have brought you to the attention of a prominent leader in our church, say, Bishop Thomas. Imagine further that because the church culture is different from the one in what you have been raised, your mentor decides that people who know your background may find it an obstacle to their acceptance of you and willingness to advance or promote you. Your mentor knows that their requests or reservations are worthless, and may in fact be contrary to the doctrine held by church leaders and passed down by the Spirit of god, yet your mentor decides for the sake of unity and your ministry you must go along with what they are asking.

This is exactly what Timothy faced when Paul recruits him to the ministry in Acts 16. Timothy is a bi-racial young leader on the rise in the church at Lystra. Paul knows that Timothy will be an asset to the church and decides to train him. [We know that Paul’s judgment was right, as in I and II Timothy, Paul is writing a letter to Timothy at a distance to teach him how to be a bishop over several churches in his region, despite his youth.] Yet, Timothy is required to undergo the painful procedure of circumcision, despite the fact that Peter and other church fathers explicitly said that Gentiles did not have to undergo circumcision. The only reason he is doing this is to satisfy the Jews in the area, and ensure there are no further hindrances to Timothy’s development.

Has Jesus asked you to come alongside Him in a place where you will have to make a costly, but seemingly unnecessary sacrifice? Suppose God calls you to a community whose only church is a conservative church that does not allow women to preach or lead. Yet, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God has called you to minister to victims of human trafficking and domestic violence in that community. Will you hesitate because your position of leadership and authority will not be publicly affirmed?

Suppose God has expressly called you to be a witness to an influential CEO, and He has opened a door to you to be one of their VPs. However, the condition of the job is that you always be on call, available by email, available to be present in the office within 1 hour, and travel whenever the company requests. God will place you in this man or woman’s life in order to prepare for a later great move through this CEO’s influence and save many in their circle, but you are required to give up all of your time with your church and family until God says otherwise. Will you make this sacrifice for God?

A final example: Let’s say God wants you to work on a initiative for racial reconciliation, but the person recruiting you to the team has certain political values such as acceptance of gay marriage as a God-ordained lifestyle, abortion being unconditionally a woman’s personal judgment, or a belief that matters of faith should not be mentioned in public discourse. You know that God wants you to serve in order to be a light and influence for the kingdom, but you will be publicly associated with teachings openly hostile to your understanding of the teaching passed down by the church and the Holy Spirit.

Timothy was called to do something offensive, and to some, probably unnecessary. But he and his mentor, Paul, had Jesus and the Kingdom more prominent in their minds than their personal goals.  While I have used examples that may come to pass in our cultural context, as missionaries we may be called to situations in which we are asked to make sacrifices much more costly or painful than these. Yet, Lent is a season to renew our relationship with God and fellowship with other believers so that we will be able to test and approve what God’s will is in every situation.  We will hear His voice because we belong to God. And we will not be offended at what He calls us to do.

Count Not Just the Cost, But Also The Worth

We have been writing Lenten devotionals in our church’s Foreign Missions Ministry. This post was originally written to be published on our minstry’s blog, but it was not required. I think that I’d like to share it with you all on my personal blog, so here goes…

Today’s Scripture Focus: Luke 14:28-33

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?    For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you,    saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’ “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?    If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.    In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”

During my discipleship class this week, we were discussing this passage. If you turn to Luke 14 in your Bible, and start reading from verse 25, you will see that Jesus had been followed by very large crowds. Seeing the condition of their (and our) hearts, He says to them “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.    And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” These are probably among the most famous words in the Bible. Jesus is clearly telling us that it will cost us everything to follow Him.

But this time, reading this passage, I couldn’t help feeling that we were missing something.

I think that Jesus knew we’d miss the point, so He uses a parable to explain why it is that it is worth giving up everything.  This pair of parables is our Scripture focus today.  First, Jesus compares to a builder who “estimates the cost” of his building and evaluates the plans that have been established. Second, Jesus compares to a king who is about to go to war and considers “whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand.” This is strikingly different than what Jesus says above in that we must “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters…” How does the “hate” meet up with “estimate the cost.”

I believe Jesus uses these parables to show us that our focus should not be on what we are losing, but what we are gaining! The point is not to fail to build the house, but to make sure your secure the mortgage before you start! The point is not to stay home from war, but to make sure you have 20,000 troops or alliances that will protect you!

So, what am I saying. Why does God tell us count the cost? Because we are to clearly see that God’s life, and life with God is much more valuable than anything that we currently have.  This is the goal. And anything less than life with God is like building on a foundation without securing the mortgage. Living this life without rebirth in Jesus is like us in our will and wisdom (10,000 men) going up against God and His holiness in eternity (20,000 men).  The foolishness of this task is just as clear as the folly shown by the foolish builder or the foolish king. This foolishness is compounded by the fact that the solution is simple in both cases.  Consider buying a home: very few of us have the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars required to build a home. However, the value of home ownership for building wealth is worth so much to many people in our culture that we see clearly the advantage of committing to a debt greater than a substantial part of our financial worth in order to pursue the vision of homeownership. While many of us will spend the majority of our working adult lives paying down our mortgages, it is not seen as a sacrifice at all.  Consider the king going to war. If one can’t defeat his adversary, he goes to him and makes terms of peace. One will have to give up his autonomy and live under the King’s authority, but it is infinitely worth it. If we make peace with God, we will be part of His Kingdom!

Of course, to make peace with God, we must give up everything that we have (v. 33). But, in view of the alternatives, this is not a sacrifice at all! We are the opposing king who has just been made an ally in the most powerful kingdom in all eternity!

Purge [Puhdistus] by Sofi Oksanen

Work has been wild recently, so I stole some time from family colleauges and friends to read Sofi Oksanen’s book, Purge.

I have recently felt a prompting by God to learn more about sexual violence, sexual slavery, and sexual abuse.  So, you can imagine the shock of my librarians at Enoch Pratt when I walked to the information desk and asked them for fiction books on the topic of sexual slavery. They sent me a couple places in the stacks, and I eventually left the library with Oksanen.

I couldn’t have asked for a better recommendation.

Usually, I like to post quotes or key themes from these books to illustrate why I think you should read them too. For this one, unfortunately, I don’t think any one passage or quote illustrates her meaning effectively. The whole book is a masterful journey through the linked lives of three generations of Estonian women from Estonia, to the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, and back to Estonia.  There are significant parts of their lives set in Vladivostok, Russian Federation, and Berlin, Germany.

I think you should read this book because it makes the invisible lives of those who have suffered in the East-West economic conflict visible at a very visceral and emotional level.  You should read this book, as an American, because it shows very clearly the perilous balancing acts  of loyalty and devotion ordinary citizens had to make as the very ground beneath their feet became completely different nations overnight. One day, one master, another day, the next.

I think the most important takeaway for me is the way this book describes the devastating consequences of the breakdown in the rule of law and trustworthy authority for the cohesion of the family and the physical security of women, especially. For example, one of the characters fought for the German occupying forces when Estonia was occupied by Hitler. After Hitler’s force was defeated by Stalin, the Soviet forces cracked down on every opponent. In order to redeem her father one of the characters, a 13 year old Estonian girl, was forced to visit the Soviet barracks and be subjected to various sexual abuses. It is not clear that her father knew this, but his record was purged and there was no “official” memory of his anti-Soviet activities. This story haunted one of the main characters, as the father of the 13-year old girl was one of the main chracters’ infatuations’ comrade in anti-Soviet dealings. Indeed, the three generations of women who are the subject of the story were brutally interrogated because of the pursuit of the man of the house.

I don’t think I want to deal with any more of such horrifying details, because the story is full of them. I will close with this: one of the themes through much of the fiction I’d been reading over the past year deals with life’s purpose. When you read things like Purge, you realize that our worldview and teleology has to answer such helplessness and darkness. How is redemption achieved out of such perversion? What can be done to restore the image of God among those who have seen, lived, and felt such horror?