30 June 2020

Dostoevsky and Tolstoy on Orthodox Christian worship

A few weeks ago I read Leo Tolstoy's novel Resurrection and in my review of it (see here: Notes from underground: Resurrection: prison and land reform) I mentioned that shortly after the book was published Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church. I remarked that after reading the book I was not surprised by this, since it was clear from the book that he rejected and despised Orthodox Christianity and Orthodox worship.

Some people who read it asked me to say what Tolstoy had to say about Orthodoxy, and this post is a response to that request.

After I finished reading Tolstoy's novel I began re-reading Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, which has more sympathetic descriptions of Orthodoxy and Orthodox worship. In this post I shall quote excerpts from both, and make comments on both.

In the first passage, from Dostoevsky, the monk Zossima, who is ill and near death, tells his fellow monks some of his recollections of his childhood.
But even before I learned to read, I remember first being moved to devotional feeling at eight years old. My mother took me alone to mass (I don't remember where my brother was at the time) on the Monday before Easter. It was a fine day, and I remember today, as though I saw it now, how the incense rose from the censer and softly floated upwards and, overhead in the cupola, mingled in rising waves with the sunlight that streamed in at the little window. I was stirred by the sight, and for the first time in my life I consciously received the seed of God's word in my heart. A youth came out into the middle of the church carrying a big book, so large that at the time I fancied he could scarcely carry it. He laid it in the reading desk, opened it, and began reading, and suddenly for the first time I understood something read in the church of God. In the land of Uz there lived a man, righteous and God-fearing...
And here is Tolstoy's description, from Resurrection:
The service began.

It consisted of the following. The priest, having dressed himself up in a strange and very inconvenient garb of gold cloth, cut and arranged little pieces of bread on a saucer and then put most of them into a cup with wine, repeating at the same time different names and prayers.

Meanwhile the deacon first read Slavonic prayers, difficult to understand in themselves and rendered still more incomprehensible by being read very fast, and then sang them in turn with the convicts. The prayers chiefly expressed desire for the welfare of the Emperor and his family. These petitions were repeated many times, separately and together with other prayers, the people kneeling. Besides this several verses from the Acts of the Apostles were read by the deacon in a peculiarly strained voice, which made it impossible to understand what he read, and then the priest himself read very distinctly a part of St. Marks Gospel, in which it is told how Christ, having risen from the dead, before flying up to heaven to sit down at His Father's right hand, first showed himself to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven devils...

The essence of the service consisted in the supposition that the bits of bread cut up by the priest and put into the wine, when manipulated and prayed over in a certain way, turned into the flesh and blood of God.

These manipulations consisted in the priest, hampered by the gold cloth sack he had on, regularly lifting and holding up his arms, and then sinking to his knees and kissing the table and all that was on it; but chiefly in his taking a cloth by two of its corners and waving it rhythmically and softly over the silver saucer and the golden cup. It was supposed at this point that the bread and the wine turned into the flesh and blood: therefore this part of the service was performed with the utmost solemnity.
There are several notable differences between these descriptions.

The service Dostoevsky describes, though the English translator has called it "mass", is actually Vespers, which on the Monday of Holy Week is followed by the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. In the Orthodox Church, though Vespers is normally an evening service, in Holy Week it is usually celebrated in the morning, by anticipation, hence the sunlight in the cupola.

St Mitrofan Church in Moscow

Doestoevsky describes the service through the eyes of one of his characters. Tolstoy describes it as the author, rather in the manner of a lecturer from the League of Militant Atheists instructing novices in militant atheism on the correct understanding of Christian worship.

Nowadays, in writing courses, novice writers are urged "show, don't tell". This is what Dostoevsky does -- he shows the reader through the eyes of one of his characters. Tolstoy is determined to tell the reader, and does this throughout his book. Tolstoy rarely lets his characters speak for themselves or think for themselves. He himself tells the readers what they think and what they are like. While "show, don't tell" may have become a bit of a literary cliché, or even a literary fetish, comparing Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy has shown me some of the wisdom in it.

The reason I started to re-read The Brothers Karamazov, however, is related to this point. Someone posted a link to an article about the dangers of Christian socialism, and quoted Dostoevsky as having pointed out the dangers:
Dostoevsky: Fear the Christian Socialist | The Voice Blog: by Chris Banescu –
“The socialist who is a Christian is more to be feared than the socialist who is an atheist.” ~ Fyodor Dostoevsky

Now Tolstoy might have said such a thing, but in Dostoevsky, that is not what Dostoevsky himself said -- it was something he put into the mouth of one of his characters (one who is not at all sympathetic to Christianity -- he started a lawsuit against a monastery to show how anticlerical he was). And this character, Peter Miusev, was quoting a head of the political  police in France. It's a bit like a Jewish author putting similar words into the mouth of an anti-Semitic character quoting a Gestapo chief as saying that Jewish socialists were more to be feared than atheist ones. Well he would, wouldn't he.

And so I started re-reading The Brothers Karamazov to remind myself what Dostoevsky's character Peter Miusev was like, because it is clear that in that linked article he is being quoted wildly out of context.

But I'll review that book in due course. For now the point is that Tolstoy shows himself as hostile to Orthodox worship, so he would really have no reason to worry about being excommunicated, since he made it very obvious that he did not value communion at all.

18 June 2020

In Memoriam: David Levey

Today we attended the funeral of an old friend, David Levey. It was the first funeral we had attended since the Covid-19 lockdown started, and was held at St Wilvrid's Anglican Church in Hillcrest, the Revd Grant Thistlewhite officiating. Everyone wore mask, and the pews were roped off and marked so that everyone kept the regulation 2 metres apart. A register was taken at the door, presumably to see that the number attending did not exceed 50 and to be able to track contacts in case anyone present turned out to be infected.

David Levey, Oct 1918
I say David Levey was an old friend, and we had known him for 37 years, since early 1983, when he and his wife Fran were parishioners at St Stephen's Church in Lyttelton. But soon afterwards they left to join St Alban's Cathedral parish, and over the years I only saw David on rare occasions. David thought they were too rare, and out of the blue invited us to have coffee and chat with him at Cafe 41 in Arcadia in 2012.

Another four years passed and then we heard that David was going to speak at TGIF, an early morning gathering on Friday mornings when someone speaks on some aspect of the Christian faith in the modern world. It was something we attended occasionally when they had speakers who looked interesting, and I thought David would be interesting when he spoke on the topic of "reading irreligiously", and so it turned out to be. After this talk we discussed the possibility of meeting regularly to discuss Christianity and literature, and met every month for the next four years at rhe same Cafe 41 that David had introduced us to. Our meetings came to an end at the beginning of 2020, ended by Covid-19 and David's own illness, which sadly turned out to be his last.

I blogged about most of these meetings, and so perhaps people who knew David might find these accounts interesting where they recorded some of the things that David contributed to the discussion. So here are links to some of those blog posts, some of which also include pictures of David.

We will miss David.

May his memory be eternal.

16 June 2020

Resurrection: prison and land reform

ResurrectionResurrection by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A rather didactic and moralistic novel about fin de siècle prison conditions in imperial Russia. In many places it reads like a documentary. Tolstoy appears to be trying to do what Dickens did in a lot of his novels -- expose social evils -- but he has a heavier touch, and lacks Dickens's sense of humour.

Tolstoy's Resurrection has been sitting on our bookshelves for many years, along with a couple of other books of his, bought by my mother. I don't know if she read them, but I did not. The Covid-19 lockdown, however, with libraries and bookshops closed, drove me to look at the unread books on our shelves. I did try, once, about 30 years ago, to read War and Peace, but found it boring, as it opened with a conversation with a Freemason, and was all about the aristocracy. So much of what I knew of Tolstoy was other people's opinions. I had heard that he was a pacifist, which I liked, but other things that I had heard I liked less. So I began reading Resurrection without much hope that I would like it.

To begin with, I was pleasantly surprised. It seemed a much more interesting book than War and Peace. It includes the aristocracy, but the protagonist is an aristocrat with a social conscience, who takes an interest in the welfare of the peasants, and sees that many of their problems are caused by the lack of land. The land question is big in South Africa, and the way Tolstoy handles it I think makes it worth reading for South Africans, whatever one's view of land. Tolstoy's views were influenced by Henry George, an American who proposed a system of land reform not unlike advocated by the EFF in South Africa today, and in his novel Tolstoy looks at some of the pros and cons of that.

In this Tolstoy resembles Dickens, using his fiction to make his readers aware of social problems, but he lacks the humour of Dickens, and his light touch. At some points he goes in for rather heavy-handed moralising, analysing the spiritual failings of his characters at length rather than letting the reader see them through the story.

At some points Tolstoy could be commenting on current events. Last month the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, USA sparked off worldwide protests against police brutality. There was talking of "defunding the police" and the Minneapolis city council was thinking of abpolishing its police force. Tolstoy would have applauded.

At one point in the story the protagonist, Nekhlyudov, witnesses prisoners marching to the station in summer heat to board the train for Siberia to serve out their sentences there. Several collapse because of heat exhaustion, and some die. Nekhlyudov, thinking about this, attributes it to the official mentality of the police:

"All this comes," thought Nekhlyudov, "from the fact that all these people -- governors, inspectors, police officers, and policemen -- consider that there are circumstances when human relations are not necessary between human beings. All these men, Maslennikov, and the inspector, and the convoy officer, if they were not governor, inspector, officer, would have considered twenty times before sending such a mass of people out in such heat -- would have stopped twenty times on the way and seeing a man growing weak, gasping for breath, would have led him into the shade, would have given him water and let him rest, and if an accident had still occurred, they would have expressed pity. But not only did they not do this, but they hindered others from doing it, because they thought not of men and their duty towards them but only of the office they themselves filled, and considered the obligations of that office above human relations. That is the whole matter," Nekhlyudov continued. "If once we admit -- be it only for an hour or in some exceptional case -- that anything can be more important than a feeling of love for our fellows, then there is no crime which we may not commit with easy minds, free from feelings of guilt."

Tolstoy is sometimes described as a Christian pacifist and anarchist, the inspiration for Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I am inclined to be a Christian anarchist and pacifist, but I don't feel much inspired by Tolstoy. His factual information is interesting, his moralistic rants less so. Among Rusan novelists, I prefer Dostoevsky, who raises some of the same issues, but not in quite such a didactic and preachy way.

Shortly after the publication of Resurrection Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, and after reading the book I am not surprised. Two chapters are devoted to a hostile parody of Orthodox worship, which Tolstoy says is "All lies",

Tolstoy says, not without justification, that what the prison system achieves is that
Ordinary simple men holding the social and Christian morality of the ordinary Russian peasant, lost this conception, and formed a new prison-bred one, founded chiefly on the idea that any outrage to or violation of human beings is justifiable if it seems profitable.
Yet the "social and Christian morality of the ordinary Russian peasant" came from the very worship that Tolstoy denounces and mocks in terms that nowadays would be called "hate speech".

View all my reviews

13 June 2020

Fallen Idols

Over the last few years there has been a lot of talk of statues, and some have been removed after people have protested about them. This has occasioned a flurry of articles about whether this is a good or a bad thing. One of the better ones is Statue wars | blog post by Mary Beard - The TLS.

I'm rather curious about what provokes such heart-searching, though. I didn't notice such articles when the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in 2003 was in the news. Nobody seemed to be complaining then about the loss or destruction of history.

Yet when people were demanding the removal of statues of Cecil Rhodes, quite a lot of people were bemoaning the "loss of history". What is the difference?

There are actually quite a lot of similarities between Saddam Hussein and Cecil Rhodes.

Saddam Hussein sent the Iraqi army to invade a neighbouring country, Kuwait.

Cecil Rhodes sent his private mercenary army to invade two countries -- first in 1890 he invaded Mashonaland and later used that as a springboard for a botched invasion and attempted putsch in the South African Republic, which was stymied rather as Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait was stymied.

The major difference between the two was that Saddam Hussein used his country's army, whereas Rhodes's invasion was a matter of private enterprise.

Another difference is that Saddam Hussein's statue was erected while he was in power, and its fall was almost simultaneous with the fall of the prototype.

Rhodes's statue, on the other hand, was erected after his fall from power and more than 30 years after his death. I am not sure about Saddam Hussein, but the various statues of Cecil Rhodes were symbols of a cult that grew after his death.For more details on that, see That hideous strength and Rhodes must fall | Khanya.

It is not unusual for political leaders to become the centre of cults,  and Christians have a tradition of objecting to this -- see here, for example Russian Orthodox Church Outraged by Appearance of 'Stalin Icon'.And some lovers of "history" deplore the Christian tendency to destroy pagan cult statuary. As the historian Ronald Hutton puts it:

The pagan Roman empire executed hundreds of Christians for refusing to endorse the validity of its system and its religion, and it did so in appalling ways. By contrast, once in power the Christians tended to attack deities but spare humans. There is no recorded case of an execution of a pagan in the first two centuries of the Christian Roman Empire.

And in many cases, attacking deities is what the modern iconoclasts are doing. I don't generally feel strongly about statues that are not linked to active cults. Most of them are of people who were morally flawed like most of us. The equestrian statue of Louis Botha in the grounds of the Union Buildings is not, as far as I am aware, a pagan cult object. While he was alive and in power he had his supporters and detractors, and he, like most of us, did good things and bad things. Let him be.

But Rhodes was definitely the object of a cult, as was Edward Colston, whose statue was recently uprooted from Bristol and tossed into the harbour, like the sick slaves from his ships that through illness had lost their commercial value. That statue, like most of those of Rhodes, was erected long after his death, and it too was the centre of an idolatrous pagan cult.

So I tend to agree with the author of this article Expert: Why I Welcome the Decision to Throw Bristol’s Edward Colston Statue in the River | The National Interest.

I'll conclude with the same quote from G.K. Chesterton that I used my my review of the book on The cult of Rhodes | Khanya:
Rhodes had no principles whatever to give to the world. He had only a hasty but elaborate machinery for spreading the principles that he hadn’t got. What he called his ideals were the dregs of a Darwinism which had already grown not only stagnant but poisonous. That the fittest must survive and that only one like himself must be the fittest; that the weakest must go to the wall, and that anyone he could not understand must be the weakest.

01 June 2020

A tale of two tales

A few days ago I posted a couple of stories on Facebook. I thought one story was important, the other trivial. Facebook, and Facebook users, however, reversed the order. The trivial story got far more exposure, and elicited many more comments.

One story was prompted by an interesting cultural difference. I had gathered from several blog posts and comments that many American readers of C.S. Lewis's book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had never heard of Turkish Delight before they read their book, and some commented disparagingly on the sweet when they did encounter it, saying how disappointing they found it.

Clearly when Lewis wrote the story he expected his readers not only to know what "Turkish Delight" was, but also to think of it as a sweet that, once you had had one, you wanted more. It's perhaps a taste not shared by everybody, but it's one I share with Edmund in the story, and my family often give me Turkish Delight for Christmas and birthdays -- lemon and rose flavoured, all over icing sugar. And I have to restrain myself from consuming it all in one day.

Last Sunday my wife Val went to the shop after church (at home in the sitting room, just the family, under Covid-19 lockdown) and as a Sunday treat returned with a bar of Turkish Delight chocolate, and it reminded me of how it was apparently unknown in American culture, and so I posted a picture of the wrapper on Facebook, which elicited a large number of comments.

I note that in Greece what the English call Turkish delight is called loukoumi, and it is usually offered, with a glass of raki to visitors to monasteries, but that was not the point of this particular story, which was the ignorance of Turkish Delight in American culture, which perhaps caused a point made by the book to be missed.

The other story, which I believe was far more important and significant, was Chicago schoolgirl Katarina Ristić removes anti-Serb bias from history textbooks.
Fourteen-year-old schoolgirl Katarina Ristić took on a Chicago school board about their anti-Serb history curriculum. And won.

How far would you go if you (or your child) had to write a school assignment on the genocide that Serbia conducted against Bosnia which killed 200,000 Muslims?
Go on, read it all.

Reading it took me back 45 years to Durban North, where 10-year-old Kerry Murdoch's mother was called to her daughter's school by the principal and asked to deal with her delinquent daughter. What had Kerry done? She had been cheeky to her teacher by objecting to her referring to black people as "kaffirs". Her mother told the head "I'm proud of her, and I hope she does it again if the teacher behaves like that."

Katarina Ristić went further, and took on the whole district school board, and had biased history corrected.

I remember the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. They are in living memory for many people. And I remember the Western media broadcasting Nato warmongering propaganda day after day, with not the slightest attempt to audi alterem partem (a legal principle, which means "hear the other side"). It all came straight from the mouth of one Jamie Shea, who became the face of Nato war propaganda.

And it seems that that propaganda was being reproduced, unadulterated, in the history syllabus of Chicago schools until Katarina Ristić stood up for truth and justice.

For those who may have forgotten, or who may be too young to remember, I've written more about the background to the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession here: Nationalism, violence and reconciliation.

And it seems that this brings out something in Lewis's story. Facebook is the witch, who offers the users (Edmund), not perhaps Turkish Delight, but eye candy,. so they are attracted by which is bright and glittery and shallow, so that, like Edmund, we are distracted away from concern with truth and justice and courage and loyalty, and become statues in the Facebook castle. 


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