Gosh! Finding meaning in great Russian literature?

I spent most of last week on the other side of the planet (a Media Project-Poynter.org event in Bangkok) or getting to the other side of the planet and an odd little post I had been planning slid down into the tmatt file of guilt.

The Washington Post did an interesting story the other day that I really wanted to salute, while at the same time noting that it was haunted by a rather obvious religion ghost.

The story ran under a pitch-perfect headline: “Crime and punishment: Juvenile offenders study Russian literature.”

The bottom line in this story: Russian literature offers the kinds of hard-hitting, muscular truths that even appeal to young people behind bars. If you can get them started on “War and Peace,” they will come back for more. That’s what is happening in a class offered by the University of Virginia, with inmates at the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center.

Say what? Here’s a key chunk of the report:

Researchers have documented positive changes in behavior, decision-making, social skills, educational goals and civic engagement, according to a study by U-Va.’s Curry School of Education. The study also points to benefits for the undergraduates who study alongside incarcerated youths.

The demand for the service-learning class, the response and the impact it seems to have prompted U-Va. to give Andy Kaufman, a lecturer and fellow at the university, a $50,000 grant to expand his experiment. He hopes to bring classics of Russian literature to more U-Va. students, more people at Beaumont, and more inmates at other prisons in Virginia and nationwide.

Beaumont residents said privately that the course had a profound effect on them. Jonis Romero, just released back home to Woodbridge, said that since taking the class, he thinks constantly about how he wants to live his life. He got a job at a carwash right away and hopes to go to George Mason University. Alex Espinoza, an 18-year-old from Arlington County, said it “helped me acknowledge the little things, not worry about greedy things.”

One inmate told researchers that for the 90 minutes of class each week, he felt like a human being again. “When they leave Beaumont,” lead research assistant Rob Wolman said, “do we want them feeling like human beings or feeling like criminals?”

The key is that these books play for keeps, asking big questions about good and evil, life and death, sin and grace, repentance and forgiveness, heaven and hell and, yes, crime and punishment. What is the meaning of life? What happens when the sins of the fathers plague the lives of the sons? Is there life after you have been sentenced to a living hell? What are the lessons someone learns when they watch people die? That’s what the “Books Behind Bars” concept is all about.

So where’s the ghost?

Here’s another hint.

Kaufman thinks Russian literature is — unexpectedly — a particularly good fit for prisoners. The authors often asked what they called “the accursed questions,” Kaufman said: “Who am I? Why am I here? Given I’m going to die, how should I live?”

Inside the razor wire on a hillside in rural Virginia, beyond the metal detectors and the locked doors, 18 Beaumont inmates were sitting at small tables with U-Va. students on a recent afternoon. They had read the short story “An Honest Thief.”

They listened closely as Kaufman told them about Feodor Dostoevsky and the writer’s fascination with criminals. When he was 18, his father was slain by some of his peasants. He was arrested for political reasons and sentenced to execution. “The guns were trained on him,” Kaufman said, “and at the last minute, the czar sent in guards and said, ‘We changed our minds, we’re just going send you to prison camp in Siberia for eight years.’?”

Justice Green leaned back in his chair in surprise.

“He got to know all kinds of people — rapists, murderers,” Kaufman went on. And after his years in prison, “Dostoevsky would say, yes there is evil, there is evil inside every one of us, and we have the capacity to choose between good and evil.”

So, we are dealing with books that do not shy away from questions of good and evil, books that point toward the moral absolutes in a murky, muddy, fallen world.

Now where did a man like Dostoevsky go, when seeking these kinds of insights into the human condition? Where did he learn the crucial role of confession in a life that turns toward healing and forgiveness? What is the source of the ultimate hope found in these great Russian books that provide so much catharsis and healing?

And what does all of this have to do with the biblical parable (icon above) of the Prodigal Son?

Consider a few of the big ideas linked to the work of Dostoevsky.

Unlike most Russian novelists and writers of the 19th century, Dostoevsky’s intent in his creative activity was precisely to exemplify Orthodox principles. … In Crime and Punishment he traces the effect of the philosophy of nihilism (the foundation of the revolution) on one person’s soul, and its salvation by Christianity. In “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” and in The Brothers Karamozov, he set forth the difference between the Western distortion of Christianity and true Orthodoxy, and in The Diaspora of a West he showed further the underlying unity of papalism and socialism and their ultimate merger in the reign of Antichrist. In these and other books he laid bare the intent and the final goal of modern secular humanism: a society without God. He expressed the “theological” definition of this goal several years before Nietzche in the West: There is no God (or: there is no immortality), therefore everything is permitted. But unlike Nietzche, whose inability to believe drove him insane, Dostoevsky with his diagnosis gave also the answer to this modern sickness of the soul: a return to the fundamentals of Orthodox Christianity.

The point of the story is that these books have a unique ability to point troubled individuals toward First Things when wrestling with the biggest issues in life. How do you talk about these kinds of Russian classics without even mentioning faith?

Just saying. Oh, and for a reminder of the scripture behind this, click here.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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