Dostoevsky’s Theology of Writing: the Gratuity of Faith and Fiction

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 williamsdostoevskyof 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. Continue reading


New poetry from Rowan Williams: Headwaters

A new collection of poetry from Archbishop Rowan Williams has just been released, Headwaters. This is my first exposure to Williams’ poetry and I have to say, it is elegant, challenging, and rewards with some rereading. Like his theological writings you have to spend some time getting a feel for his cadence and use of language. Altogether there are forty-five selections including some translations of the Russian poet Inna Lisnianskaya and a couple translations of Gwenallt Jones from the Welsh.

In one of my favorites, “Resurrection: Borgo San Sepolcro”, Williams watches the ‘black eyes fixed half open’ of Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection (pictured at right) and waits, ‘paralysed as if in dreams, for his spring’.

Today it is time. Warm enough, finally,
to ease the lids apart, the wax lips of a breaking bud
defeated by the steady push, hour after hour,
opening to show wet and dark, a tongue exploring,
an eye shrinking against the dawn. Light
like a fishing line draws its catch straight up,
then slackens for a second. The flat foot drops,
the shoulders sag. Here is the world again, well-known,
the dawn greeted in snoring dreams of a familiar
winter everyone prefers. So the black eyes
fixed half-open, start to search, ravenous,
imperative, they look for pits, for hollows where
their flood can be decanted, look
for rooms ready for commandeering, ready
to be defeated by the push, the green implacable
rising. So he pauses, gathering the strength
in his flat foot, as the perspective buckles under him,
and the dreamers lean dangerously inwards. Contained,
exhausted, hungry, death running off his limbs like
from a shower, gathering himself. We wait,
paralysed as if in dreams, for his spring.

Rowan Williams on sharia law

Ben Myers (Faith and Theology) has written some helpful comments concerning the ongoing flap over Archbishop Rowan Williams’ recent lecture.

Myers writes, “It has been fascinating to observe all the hullabaloo over Rowan Williams’ recent lecture on sharia law. The press’s infallible capacity for misunderstanding is matched only by the politicians’ spectacular ignorance of jurisprudence – an ignorance best encapsulated in the Home Office minister’s response to Williams: “To ask us to fundamentally change the rule of law and to adopt Sharia law … is fundamentally wrong.” As though Williams had been calling for an overthrow of British law!” Continue reading

Rowan Williams and the demands of confession

What kinds of demands are made on us when we we confess: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”?

Rowan Williams helps us explore this in his little book, Tokens of Trust (a collection of ‘talks’ he512cufo-kol__ss500_.jpg gave in Canterbury Cathedral during the week before Easter back in 2005). The importance of this book doesn’t necessarily rest on Williams’ ability to speak to everyone which, if you’ve read Williams when he’s at work, you’ll know this is a completed task in itself; rather, by calling people back to the creeds, to that particular sphere where the gospel is proclaimed, Williams reminds us that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to doing church. Instead, Williams demonstrates that by an attentive listening to the speech of the saints we not only measure what we say against the gospel, testing our speech, holding our words accountable, but as we confess we find ourselves tested by these words, put under the microscope, so to speak. Continue reading