|(illustration by William Sharp)|
In an essay in The Times’ Sunday Book Review this week the writer Paul Elie asks the intriguing question: Has fiction lost its faith? As we are gathered here today, let us consider one of the most oddly faithful of all fiction writers, Fyodor Dostoevsky. More specifically, I’d like focus pretty intensely on what some consider to be the key moment in his greatest novel — arguably one of the greatest of all time — “The Brothers Karamazov.” (Elie himself notes the 1880 masterpiece as an example of the truly faith-engaged fiction of yore.) I speak in particular of the “Grand Inquisitor” scene, a sort of fiction within a fiction that draws on something powerful from the New Testament — Jesus’s refusal of Satan’s three temptations — and in doing so digs at the meaning of faith, freedom, happiness and the diabolic satisfaction of our desires.
First a little biblical background.
Scene 1 – In which Christ is sorely tempted by Satan
After fasting for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert, Jesus is understandably a little hungry. Satan appears and tempts him. The temptation takes the form of three questions. The first involves food. The Devil says, and I paraphrase, “If you are, as you say, the son of God, then turn these stones in the parched and barren wilderness into loaves of bread. Do this, not so much to feed yourself, starved as you are, but in order to feed those that might follow you, oh Son of God. Turn these stones into loaves and people will follow you like sheep ever after. Perform this miracle and people will happily become your slaves.”
Jesus replies, “Not on bread alone shall man live, but on every word proceeding through the mouth of God.” In other words: “Eat the bread of heaven.” Jesus refuses to perform the miracle that he could easily carry out — he is, after all, God — in the name of what? We will get to that.
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