What does Christian faith have to do with fiction, the novel?
On Rowan Williams’ account, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction, we find in Dostoevsky’s fiction something of a theology of writing, one indicating a relationship between faith and fiction that points toward the gratuitous nature of both. Williams’ comments regarding the correlation between Dostoevsky’s narratives and his own faith have proved helpful for my reading of Dostoevsky as well. Rather than putting forward a vision for ‘ideal’ faith or a paradigm for obedience, Williams sees Dostoevsky instead imagining through his fiction what faith might look like (rather than should look like) in varying situations, personalities, and human hardships. Put differently, Dostoevsky invites us to ask, ‘What would be possible if we – characters and readers – saw the world and all its sufferings, tragedies, and desolations in the light of faith?’
Rowan Williams is proving to be a delightful companion to Dostoevsky, and being on vacation last week finally gave me opportunity to begin reading it together with The Brothers Karamazov. Any other suggestions for good works on Dostoevsky or, perhaps, your favorite Dostoevsky novel?
[T]here is no end to writing. The endless turning on itself of the Devil’s conversation with Ivan [from The Brother’s Karamazov] is analogous to the writer’s self-interrogation becomes more urgent, since the dangers of avoiding it are so dramatic. All that we have seen of the destructive and self-destructive potential of language and faith, the various ways in which we can reduce it either to the willed and subjective or to the descriptive and worldly, with the suicidal consequences of both, means that we have to go on speaking/writing about God, allowing the language of faith to encounter fresh trials every day, and also fresh distortions and refusals.
In writing fiction in which no formula is allowed unchallengeable victory, Dostoevsky has implicitly developed what might be called a theology of writing, specifically of narrative writing. Every fiction is at its most fictional in its endings, those pretences of closure and settlement. Every morally and religiously serious fiction has to project something beyond that ending or otherwise signal a level of incompletion, even in the most minimal and formal mode, indicating a as yet untold story.
Faith and fiction are deeply related – not because faith is a variant of fiction in the trivial sense but because both are gratuitous linguistic practices standing over against a functional scheme of things. The gratuity of faith arises from its character as response to the freedom of the creator as unexpectedly in the fabric of the world. The gratuity of fiction arises from the conviction that no kind of truth can be told if we speak or act if history is over, as if the description of what contingently is becomes the sole possible account of language. A fiction like Dostoevky’s which tries to show what faith might mean in practice is bound to be both inconclusive in all sorts of ways, and also something that aspires to a realism that is more than descriptive (p. 46).