Idiot's Muse

Writing during a period of philosophical and spiritual upheaval in Russia in the latter nineteenth century, Fyodor Dostoevsky brilliantly depicted the futility of a world view which marginalized God.

I first read him as a young college student. Wading through “The Brothers Karamazov,” my primary motivation was to complete the weekly reading requirement as painlessly as possible. Only later did I realize the brilliance of his portrayal of the three brothers, the spiritual Alyosha, the sensual Dmitri, and the intellectual Ivan. Each one, in his own way, was responsible for their father’s murder.

A Christian himself (admittedly, not a perfect one, like you!), Dostoevsky was once challenged to write a novel expressing the results of Christian worldview in contemporary culture. His classic novel, “The Idiot,” is the result. The protagonist’s name is Prince Myshkin, an epileptic who represents the ways of Jesus in the world.

In many ways, Prince is too good for the world. Unerringly loving, honest and generous, trusting to a fault, the world spits him up and chews him out. It is a fascinating portrait, and raises the question: “Is Dostoevsky right? Is the Jesus way so out of step with our dog-eat-dog world that it invariably leads to misunderstanding and suffering?”

I want to say that Dostoevsky is wrong. I’d like to believe that living for Jesus brings blessing: spiritual, physical, financial, sociological. I’ve certainly heard a lot of sermons to that effect!

But it’s hard to find supportive evidence for this in the New Testament. “In the world you shall have tribulation,” Jesus said (John 16:33). The Apostle Paul confessed, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). The Apostle Peter affirmed, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

There are those who believe that suffering is to be expected in other countries, but that due to its accommodation to religion, America is relatively exempt. To which I muse, “Who has accommodated whom?”

By any honest appraisal, Christianity simply is not the salt and light to American culture that Jesus imagined. As Lot “pitched his tent toward Sodom,” American Christianity has too comfortably aligned itself with the gods of our day: money, sex, and power.

Could it be that we fail to take the teachings of Scripture and the lifestyle of Jesus seriously? Are we afraid of being thought an “idiot” by our culture? Are we so busy seeking an abundant life that we’ve neglected the “dying to self” part?

In “The Idiot,” Myshkin says, “The world will be saved by beauty.” However, the integrity and beauty of his own life is unable to overcome the moral vacuity around him. Apparently, Dostoevsky believed that although the world would crush honest to goodness goodness, it was still the right way to live.

While I admire his philosophical integrity, I’m not certain I share his pessimistic point of view. It seems to me that as salt preserves, and as light penetrates, living according to the principles of Jesus has a redemptive effect on society. It happened in the first century; it can happen in the twenty-first.

However, as long as followers of Jesus (myself included) are content to fritter away their lives in the pursuit of pleasure, possessions and power, we’ll never know, will we?