The Novelist as Theologian

Dostoevsky
Language, Faith, and Fiction
Rowan Williams
Baylor University Press, $24.95, 290 pp.

One of the problems with Dostoevsky is that too many readers have read into his novels the ideas they wanted to find there, so that for secular readers he was an early existentialist who argued for an anguished agnosticism, while for many believers he was a kind of Christian apologist. Neither reading does him the courtesy of seeing that he was above all a novelist—a believer, yes, but one who wanted to explore in depth the consequences of unbelief, in a way that someone who wanted to make an apologetic argument would find uncomfortable.

Rowan Williams insists that we see Dostoevsky first of all as a novelist, one whose religious faith and profound moral convictions formed the direction of his fiction. Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction is a demanding, difficult, and excellent work. Far from being an introduction to the novels and the novelist, it should probably not be attempted by anyone unfamiliar with the major novels (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, The Brothers Karamazov). But for those who have read Dostoevsky and want a serious engagement with his fictional method and the theology that informs it, the book is deeply helpful, even illuminating.

No one I can think of is better suited to undertake this sort of profound examination. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, is himself a poet and gifted writer, fluent in Russian, familiar with Dostoevsky’s original texts, conversant with all the relevant critical...

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About the Author

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.