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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Imagination, Formation, and the Theological Novel

Published Friday, January 1, 2021 By Greg Peters

Theology seems to have a rather bad reputation these days. By the late Middle Ages, she was the “queen of the sciences,” but today she is no longer the queen. In fact, theology is no longer even in the royal family but a kind of awkward stepsister to subjective personal opinion and a third cousin once removed from off-the-cuff social media posts. I do not doubt that many pastors today have heard a parishioner say, “Why do we need to let all of this theology get in the way? We must reach the lost, feed the poor, and be missional.” It does not matter, to this sort of person, that it is precisely the discipline and practice of theology that gives these very practices not only a framework but also a justification as godly endeavors. Doing is more important than thinking to this person, so theology is nothing more than a heady waste of time that gets in the way of really making a difference in people’s lives.

This way of thinking has become so common as to be satirized in clergy conversations. But it is even more unfortunate that this mentality has taken hold in those very same clergy circles. Theology was a subject in seminary, not something to be pursued throughout the duration of one’s ministry. I once heard a pastor boast that he had not changed one iota of his theology since seminary. My guess is that he had not read a theology book since seminary either, which is why he had not changed his theology one jot. What he perceived as laudable sounded lamentable to me. Theology is somewhat passé these days or, at best, tolerated, in that it is given due lip service but quietly (and quickly) pushed aside in favor of more pragmatic concerns.

The “Theological Novel”

But theology is not the only thing that is out of fashion; so is the “theological novel.” Sure, there are plenty of contemporary novels that deal with theological themes. In fact, if one understands “theology” to be the “queen of the sciences” and therefore the telos to which everything points, then one could argue that everything is, in some sense, theological; thus every novel is theological in its own way.

In 2012, evangelical theologian Roger Olsen blogged that many modern novels contain “religious-theological themes,” especially the theme of “God and the problem of evil.” But even Olsen admits that these “are not books of high theology.” [1] This is unfortunate, given that novels used to be “books of high theology.” Of course, not all novels were such, but many were, including many of the world’s classics. Most novels today are written to be consumed and then passed along to the next consumer. You read them on an airplane, but they do not find a home on your bookshelf so you can return to their theological themes again and again. A quick glance at the best-selling fiction books of the past decade demonstrate that there is a fairly weak religious-theological element to modern novels. But this was not always the case. In fact, I would be so bold as to claim that between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, the theological novel would have been a sufficient source for studying theology for the layperson and many pastors. That is to say, if a person read the right novels, they would receive a robust theological formation. Although the novel did not replace Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions or John Calvin’s Institutes, it did entertain while offering a robust theological education.

In a world devoid of television, computers, and all forms of electronic entertainment, novels were historically a primary means of amusement. Telling stories was a common form of group recreation in the early modern/modern era. For example, in 1816—famously, “The Year without Summer” due to major volcanic activity—Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1797–1851) and her soon-to-be-husband, Percy Shelley, were traveling around Europe. Forced inside by the rain one day, the two of them, along with three other friends (including the poet Lord Byron), spent the day reading a book of ghost stories. Lord Byron then suggested that each of them should attempt to write their own horror stories. Though it took her two years, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, itself a theologically rich novel.

An example even more to the point comes from the pen of George Eliot (i.e., Mary Ann Evans; 1819–80) in her Scenes of Clerical Life. In the third part, “Janet’s Repentance,” we meet the newly installed minister Reverend Edgar Tryan. Though unpopular with some members of his flock, Tryan has supporters nonetheless. One supporter, Miss Pratt, a widowed “old maid” owned about five hundred books and was judged “competent . . . to conduct a conversation on any topic whatever.” In possession of a booklist made by Tryan, Miss Pratt’s judgment regarding this list supports the contention above that novels can both entertain and educate theologically:

Upon my word . . . it is a most admirable selection of works for popular reading. . . . I do not know whether, if the task had been confided to me, I could have made a selection combining in a higher degree religious instruction and edification, with a due admixture of the purer species of amusement. [2]

Notice that it is taken for granted by Tryan that his parishioners will read for pleasure, so the books on this list will amuse but also instruct and edify. Of course, this is likely how Eliot thought of her own novel: that it would both entertain and educate, since it too plumbs the depths of human depravity while exploring the nature of God’s redemptive activity.

Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy: Examples of Theological Novelists

But perhaps the most obvious examples of this kind of novel come from the pens of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–81) and Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). Both of these writers were deeply religious. Dostoevsky was always a practicing Russian Orthodox Christian, even if his “Christianity was profoundly idiosyncratic.” [3] In his Diary of a Writer (1873), Dostoevsky says that he came from a pious family and knew the Gospels from earliest childhood. Malcolm Jones explains that in Dostoevsky’s 1877 diary,

He describes how before he even learned to read, his imagination was fired by events from the lives of the saints, providing models of asceticism, compassion, suffering, humility and self-sacrifice, based on the example of Christ. [4]

At the Military Engineering Academy in St. Petersburg, Dostoevsky’s classmates called him the “monk Fotii” due to his deep piety.

Tolstoy’s religious commitments evolved in his lifetime. Although he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, he remained committed to a theology of love founded on Jesus’ Great Commandment (cf. Matt. 22:35–40) for the rest of his life. [5]

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were influenced by the religious commitments of the Slavophilia movement, which was centered, in particular, on the lay theologian Aleksei Khomiakov (d. 1860). Given these religious commitments, it is not terribly surprising that both authors incorporated overt religious themes in their writings. What is surprising, however, is the depth of these theological themes and their rootedness in the historical Christian tradition. Former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says about Dostoevsky what is true of both authors:

Terrorism, child abuse, absent fathers and the fragmentation of the family, the secularization and sexualization of culture, the future of liberal democracy, the clash of cultures and the nature of national identity—so many of the anxieties that we think of as being quintessentially features of the early twenty-first century are pretty well omnipresent in the work of Dostoevsky, his letters, his journalism, and above all his fiction. The world we inhabit as readers of his novels is one in which the question of what human beings owe to each other—the question standing behind all these critical contemporary issues—is left painfully and shockingly open, and there seems no obvious place to stand from where we can construct a clear moral landscape. Yet at the same time, the novels insistently and unashamedly press home the question of what else might be possible if we—characters and readers—saw the world in another light, the light provided by faith. [6]

One obvious example from Dostoevsky is the figure of the monk Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. Malcolm Jones concludes that Dostoevsky “wished The Brothers Karamazov to serve as a vehicle for the vindication of the Orthodox faith,” [7] with Zosima and his “Testament” in Book 6 intended to refute the views of the infamous “The Grand Inquisitor” section in Book 5, which is the most excerpted section of the novel. With this section’s important, fundamental role in the theological message of the novel, Dostoevsky makes Zosima’s “Testament” an indispensable theological treatise. It is the theological response to Ivan Karamazov’s attempt to undermine and dismantle the Christian faith.

Importantly, it is in this section of the novel that Dostoevsky’s choice of John 12:24 as the epigraph of the novel is illuminated:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” 

In one place he quotes the latter half of this verse to the monk Alyosha Karamazov, followed by the words, “You will go forth from these [monastery] walls, but you will sojourn in the world like a monk.” [8] In this instance Alyosha the monk is the grain of wheat that will fall to the ground and die; that is, his monastic vocation in the monastery will “die” so that his monastic vocation in the world can thrive. It appears that he will do more good outside the monastery than he can do inside the cloister.

Later, also in Book 6, we learn that Zosima was once visited by a “mysterious” man who confessed to the elder that he had, in the past, killed a woman but the murder was pinned on another man, who subsequently died in prison. The actual killer was now living a successful life but tormented by his sinful actions. Zosima’s advice was to “go and tell,” for in doing so the guilty man would fall to the ground and die but then bring forth much fruit. The theological message here is about dying to self so that others may live. It is overtly christological—in imitation of Christ. Everyone must die in order to bring forth good.

At the heart of “The Grand Inquisitor” section is the contention of the fictitious Roman Catholic inquisitor that humans, particularly Christians, do not want freedom, “For nothing has ever been more insufferable for man and for human society than freedom” (252). The inquisitor says that Jesus’ main mistake during his temptation by Satan in the wilderness (cf. Matt. 4:1–11) was that he did not take the bread offered him by Satan. Jesus rejected it, says the inquisitor, because he did not want to deprive humans of free choice. But humans themselves do not want this freedom, for they would rather be fed than be free and starve: “No science will give them bread as long as they remain free, but in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us: ‘Better that you enslave, but feed us.’” And they will say this, he continues, because they “will finally understand that freedom and earthly bread in plenty for everyone are inconceivable together.” And in surrendering their freedom for bread they will look upon those who feed them “as gods, because we, standing at their head, have agreed to suffer freedom and to rule over them” (253).

The inquisitor continues to drive the point home by referencing freedom no less than twenty times in this section. The solution, says the inquisitor, is that the church (in this case, the Roman Catholic Church) has stepped in and told its adherents what to do and it puts to death, literally, those who do not want to surrender their freedom. In fact, Jesus himself is on trial in the fictional account of the inquisitor. By doing this, the inquisitor insists, the church “corrected your deed” (257), though she has done so by being in league with Satan!

This is the theology/philosophy that Father Zosima’s “Testament” and teachings are meant to correct. Dostoevsky lays out before his reader a deep and troubling theological knot that puts the very existence of Jesus Christ as God in jeopardy alongside the corruptibility of the church. For many readers, this theologically rich and probing section would not only prove to be challenging to read, but its existential consequences are a matter of life and death from a soteriological standpoint. Yet Dostoevsky’s response to the inquisitor is no less challenging. Simply put, as a monk, Father Zosima has a reputation for holiness, thus highlighting his unusual command to Alyosha to leave the monastery and become a monk in the world, for it is highly unusual for a presumed saint to discourage one’s monastic vocation.

This advice is further called into question upon Zosima’s death. Oftentimes, in the Orthodox Christian tradition, one’s holiness is attested to postmortem by the absence of decay and the smell of rotting flesh. Zosima “the saint” (351), however, stunk: “little by little, but more and more noticeably, an odor of corruption had begun to issue from the coffin, which . . . was all too clearly evident and kept gradually increasing” (330). This led those present to start asking, “Why is he considered so holy?” Before long, “the gradual repetition of that one question finally generated a whole abyss of the most insatiable spite” (331).

For Alyosha, this “putrid odor” (359) led to existential angst. Should he stay in the monastery or heed the words of a man whose whole monastic life and perceived holiness are now called into question? Alyosha’s decision proves the inquisitor wrong in that Alyosha does exactly what Zosima told him to do: he leaves the monastery in spite of the “putrid odor” and problematic advice of his elder. Alyosha exercises his own freedom despite the fact that the “odds” were not in his favor, if you will. Dostoevsky depicts this christologically, again in line with the novel’s epigraph from John 12:24, as a death and resurrection:

[Alyosha] fell to the earth a weak youth [i.e., death] and rose up a fighter [i.e., life from death], steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy. . . . Three days later [i.e., as in Jesus’ own resurrection on the third day] he left the monastery, which was also in accordance with the words of his late elder, who had bidden him to ‘sojourn in the world.’” (363)

Not only did Dostoevsky tackle a difficult theological topic, but he also provided a deeply sophisticated theological response. He took the “riddle” of human free will and divine sovereignty, which are usually pitted against each other, and joined them into one act of human-divine agency (à la Jesus, who is both human and divine) that defeats Ivan’s (and the Grand Inquisitor’s) greatest challenge to the Christian faith. Hence, the highly deserved appellation “theological novel.”

Like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy was deeply theological, especially in Anna Karenina. A recurring theme in the novel is death: not just Anna’s but also Nikolai, Konstantin Levin’s brother. At one moment, as Nikolai struggles for breath, Levin lies awake listening to him. Tolstoy tells us that Levin’s “thoughts were most varied, but the end of all his thoughts was one: death.” [9] In rapid succession, Tolstoy drives the point home:

Death, the inevitable end of everything, presented itself to him for the first time with irresistible force. And this death . . . was not at all as far off as it had seemed to him before. . . . And what this inevitable death was, he not only did not know, he not only had never thought of it, but he could not and dared not think of it.

“I work, I want to do something, and I’ve forgotten that everything will end, that there is—death.”

He was sitting on his bed in the dark, crouching, hugging his knees and thinking, holding his breath from the strain of it. But the more he strained to think, the clearer it became to him that it was undoubtedly so, that he had actually forgotten, overlooked in his life one small circumstance—that death would come and everything would end. . . .

[Levin] had just partly clarified the question of how to live, when he was presented with a new, insoluble problem—death. (348–49; my italics)

This experience, however, did not defeat Levin; rather it steeled his resolve: “Levin said what he had really been thinking lately. He saw either death or the approach of it everywhere. But his undertaking now occupied him all the more. He had to live life to the end, until death came” (352). This, though, does not bring an end to all of Levin’s questions and anxiety concerning death.

Near the end of the novel, Tolstoy returns to Levin and the question of death, reminding the reader that it was Nikolai’s death that caused Levin to look at questions of life and death in the first place (785). Now married to Kitty, Levin is expecting his first child but is rattled by Kitty’s difficult delivery. Shaken by the experience of his brother, Levin is convinced that Kitty will die and, at times, Kitty believes the same: “I’ll die, I’ll die!” This exclamation from his suffering wife is too much for Levin:

Levin clutched his head and ran out of the room. . . . [H]e knew that all was now lost. Leaning his head against the doorpost, he stood in the next room and heard a shrieking and howling such as he had never heard before, and he knew that these cries were coming from what had once been Kitty. He had long ceased wishing for the child. He now hated this child. He did not even wish for her to live now; he only wished for an end to this terrible suffering. (715)

Distraught, Levin no longer thinks of Kitty as Kitty; her otherworldly howling and shrieking has made her someone, something else. In despair, he no longer wishes for his child and would have welcomed Kitty’s death as a deliverance from her pain and torment. Needless to say, Levin was no longer thinking Christianly about death, which is not to be feared but viewed as a victory because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross (1 Cor. 15).

Like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy is working within a theological framework that is overtly christological. Kitty’s suffering ends with the birth of a happy and healthy son, but Levin’s suffering, inasmuch as it relates to death, continues. Tolstoy keeps death before his reader’s eyes by placing Anna’s suicide between Kitty’s delivery and Levin’s own near-death experience. In other words, the novel’s tension vis-à-vis death and its exploration of death is heightened in the last one hundred pages, culminating in Levin’s salvific choice of life over death.

Ostensibly, Levin is a happily married man with a healthy son. He and Kitty are living in the country where Levin puts together his ideas on estate management and maintenance. If there was a nineteenth-century Russian equivalent of the “American dream,” Levin appeared to be living it. But his ongoing melancholy suggests otherwise. Kitty concludes that the root of Levin’s torment is his unbelief (784); that is, Levin’s problem is a theological one. Levin, too, comes to see that this is true. Two passages in particular are pertinent:

One thing he [Levin] had discovered since he began to concern himself with these questions was that he had been mistaken in supposing . . . that religion had outlived its day and no longer existed. (786–87)

Besides that, while his wife was giving birth an extraordinary thing had happened to him. He, the unbeliever, had begun to pray, and in the moment of praying he had believed. But that moment had passed. (787)

Though he is not “there” yet, if you will, Levin was clearly undergoing a change, a process of conversion and/or faith formation. In the past, Levin sought answers to his religious questions in philosophers “who gave a non-materialistic explanation of life” (787), such as Plato, Immanuel Kant, and G. W. F. Hegel. But these men could not provide answers to all of Levin’s deep theological questions. So he then turns to contemporary theology, especially the theological works of Alexei Khomiakov. These theological works fail to fully convert Levin; in fact, “this edifice fell to dust just as the philosophical edifices had done” (788). Levin’s “tormenting untruth” (789) is that death inevitability makes life meaningless. Such meaninglessness leads Levin to the brink, à la Anna, of suicide:

Happy in his family life, a healthy man, Levin was several times so close to suicide that he hid a rope lest he hang himself with it, and was afraid to go about with a rifle lest he shoot himself. But Levin did not shoot himself or hang himself and went on living. (789)

He, however, continued to fear suicide (791). Levin’s ultimate conversion is, in the end, a religious one in that he comes to listen to his soul over reason, discerning thereby that to “live [is] not for one’s own needs but for God,” and not to live for self “but for something incomprehensible, for God” (795).

Levin learns this from observing and talking with Fyodor the muzhik, one of the “poor in spirit” (cf. Matt. 5:3). Perhaps it is proper to say that Levin’s conversion was based less on revealed religion and more on the natural religion evident in the world around him. True, this says a lot about Tolstoy’s own unique beliefs, but it is undeniable that this is overtly and profoundly theological. Thus Anna Karenina easily fits into the “theological novel” genre.

Conclusion

Though there are many more examples of authors who “specialize,” if you will, in writing theological novels (e.g., Georges Bernanos, François Mauriac, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien), Dostoevsky and Tolstoy suffice, I think, to prove the point that theological novels can both amuse and theologically educate. I believe it was the late Eugene Peterson who once said that pastors ought to always be reading, not only the Bible and theological texts, but also great works of fiction.

Similarly, Cornelius Plantinga, former president of Calvin Theological Seminary, published a book in 2013 titled Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists. In this book, he recommends a robust diet of theological fiction, including the likes of Shūsaku Endō (Silence), Ron Hansen (Mariette in Ecstasy), and Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner). I would suggest that not only preachers read such works but all Christians serious about theological formation.

There is no substitute for reading and studying Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica or Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, but serious students of theology ought to read theological novels as well. Perhaps more importantly, given that theological novels are exactly that—theological—they should be read by all Christians. If Evagrius of Pontus (d. 399) is correct and everyone who prays is a theologian (cf. Chapters on Prayer §61), then all Christians as pray-ers are theologians who should actively strive to grow in their theological knowledge and formation. What better way to do that, at least partially, than through the entertainment of theological novels? 

Greg Peters (PhD, University of St. Michael’s College) is  professor of medieval and spiritual theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University and the Servants of Christ Research Professor of Monastic Studies and Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Monkhood of All Believers: The Monastic Foundation of Christian Spirituality and The Story of Monasticism: Retrieving an Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality. He is also rector of Anglican Church of the Epiphany in La Mirada, California.

  • Greg Peters


1. Roger Olsen, “Some Good Novels That Include Theological Themes,” My Evangelical Arminian Theological Musings, October 4, 2012, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2012/10/some-good-novels-that-include-theological-themes/.
2. George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000), 206. Subsequent references to this text will be cited parenthetically.
3. Robert Bird, Fyodor Dostoevsky (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), 179.
4. Malcolm V. Jones, “Dostoevskii and Religion,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii, ed. W. J. Leatherbarrow (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 150.
5. See Leo Tolstoy, Lift Up Your Eyes: The Religious Writings of Leo Tolstoy (New York: Julian Press, 1960), for Tolstoy’s religious convictions. Scholars suspect that the character of Konstantin Levin, discussed below, holds religious views in line with Tolstoy’s own.
6. Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011), 1.
7. Jones, “Dostoevskii and Religion,” 169.
8. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 285.
9. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Penguin, 2000), 348. Subsequent references to Anna Karenina will be cited parenthetically.
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