It’s rather embarrassing, but I have never in my life read a Russian novel. For a bibliophile, I feel like reading thick, wordy novels by people with names like Solzhenitsyn and Petrushevskaya is a given. (I just googled those authors, by the way. Like I said I’ve never read any novels from the Great Cold Expanse.) I have friends who have read Crime and Punishment, War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov and have actually enjoyed them, but just the idea of those books always scared me. Lately, especially, I’ve been resting in the safety of re-reading old favorites (Wilson and Rowling), knitting magazines and housekeeping books.
For some reason though, I haven’t been able to get Anna Karenina out of my mind lately. I’ve always turned up my nose at that book (“Who wants to read a whole book about a lady who commits adultery and then dies?”). I didn’t want to read a book that finished with a less-than-cheerful ending. But Wilson reminded me lately (through that masterpiece, Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl) about how life isn’t all upbeat, cheerful and cozy. A lot of life is cheerful, upbeat, cute, positive and cozy, but that’s only half of life. Life isn’t all bleak landscapes and black eyeliner, but it also isn’t all fuzzy animal memes and knitting magazines. Both are part of reality, and if a story is to have any sort of meaning then there must be some sort of balance.
I think we Christians especially are guilty of focusing on only the soft, the gentle, the safe and the lovely. Tune into your local Christian radio station, listen to the DJ’s oozing with saccharine sweetness and you’ll see what I mean. Walk into the local Christian book store – you’ll see fish magnets, Thomas Kincade paintings and hundreds of devotionals aimed at making you feel good inside. Even though it contains some of the most powerful declarations of the Gospel I’ve ever read in a fictional story, I seriously doubt you’d find a copy of Dracula tucked in between One Minute Inspirations for Women and Amish Sweethearts.
On the other end of the spectrum, the authors and movie makers and song writers who ignore the good in the world, who focus on the death and dark and black spots in life, are just as one-sided and imbalanced. They call themselves realists, but they ignore the beautiful, soft, gentle aspects of life that are just as real as war and struggle.
Sometimes life is truly like a postcard – the sun is shining and the world seems like it could not be more perfect. Sometimes it’s a bit more like a Russian novel.
The peace of God, the glory of God, the love of God – these things are real. You will feel good when you draw near to God because He is Purity, Peace and a Sanctuary. But focusing on just making yourself feel good isn’t exactly the point. Glory is not a Thomas Kincade painting. Peace is not a dove magnet on your fridge. Love is not a good feeling you get after reading a devotional. There’s nothing wrong with any of the cute and positive and feel-good products and stories out there. There’s nothing wrong with feeling fuzzy inside.
But it is not the whole picture.
Love is a Person who walked on the earth, healing, loving, laughing, weeping, transforming. He was beaten and torn and tortured to death for the salvation of His Bride, becoming the very embodiment of sacrificial Love. Glory is a Majesty, a Life, a Power so intense that even death could not hold Him. And the kind of Peace He gives is the assurance and hope that has sustained His children not just through the good days, but through the hell of the Holocaust, persecutions, prison, torture and death for two thousand years.
These are not fragile virtues. They are not threatened or extinguished when the dark times come. They are real, they are powerful, and they are more solid than the ground under your feet.
If true art is that which reflects reality, then we writers (and readers) should never zero in on just one aspect of life, whether it’s the light, sparkly parts or the dark, hard parts. The light Christ gives is a light that can handle the darkness. We live in the light, but we should never fear the dark. We should invade it.
In the words of Wilson:
“The world is rated R, and no one is checking IDs. Do not try to make it G by imagining the shadows away. Do not try to hide your children from the world forever, but do not try to pretend there is no danger. Train them. Give them sharp eyes and bellies full of laughter. Make them dangerous. Make them yeast, and when they’ve grown, they will pollute the shadows.”
So I’m not afraid of reading tragedy, because I know One who took all tragedy on His own shoulders. I can read Hamlet and weep. I can read read Dracula and shudder. I can read Jane Eyre and revel in the beautiful, somber bleakness. I have the Light of the world in my heart and on my side, so I can look into the shadows and learn. I don’t live there, and I never want to focus solely on the darker places in life. I will never read 50 Shades of Grey, I will never watch horror stories, I will always hate the ending of the Hunger Games, and I abhor the modern novels of “realism” that wallow in pain and death, because these are only darkness and nothing more. But the stories that mix sorrow and joy, beauty and pain, and in which truth ultimately shines through (whether in triumph of good or in punishment of evil) – those I can (and will) read.
So I am reading my very first Russian novel, Anna Karenina. I’m only a fraction of the way in, but I can already see shadows encroaching on the pages. But I know that true reality (love, glory, justice and peace) will ultimately win out in the end. Even if it’s not a pretty end, as long as the truth shines through the darkness, it will be beautiful.