The Messy Truth about Leo Tolstoy and Saint Paul: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9



Лев Толстой




— Eh bien, mon prince. Gênes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des поместья, de la famille Buonaparte. Non, je vous préviens que si vous ne me dites pas que nous avons la guerre, si vous vous permettez encore de pallier toutes les infamies, toutes les atrocités de cet Antichrist (ma parole, j’y crois) — je ne vous connais plus, vous n’êtes plus mon ami, vous n’êtes plus мой верный раб, comme vous dites 1. Ну, здравствуйте, здравствуйте. Je vois que je vous fais peur 2, садитесь и рассказывайте.Так говорила в июле 1805 года известная Анна Павловна Шерер, фрейлина и приближенная императрицы Марии Феодоровны, встречая важного и чиновного князя Василия, первого приехавшего на ее вечер. Анна Павловна кашляла несколько дней, у нее был грипп, как она говорила (грипп был тогда новое слово, употреблявшееся только редкими). В записочках, разосланных утром с красным лакеем, было написано без различия во всех:«Si vous n’avez rien de mieux à faire, Monsieur le comte (или mon prince), et si la perspective de passer la soirée chez une pauvre malade ne vous effraye pas trop, je serai charmée de vous voir chez moi entre 7 et 10 heures. Annette Scherer» 3.— Dieu, quelle virulente sortie! 4 — отвечал, нисколько не смутясь такою встречей, вошедший князь, в придворном, шитом мундире, в чулках, башмаках и звездах, с светлым выражением плоского лица.

-the opening paragraphs to War and Peace

I remember sitting in a third year Russian language class and the professor handing out photocopied selections of War and Peace in the original Russian. I was told that we, (about six or seven other people in the room) were going to “read” this together.  I still remember, verbatim, the words that went through my head.  “She expects me to read this, War and Peace, in Russian.”  It didn’t matter this was a Russian class and I’d sat there for two years.  The idea itself seemed intimidating enough.  We opened our packets and there it was, staring right back at us, a huge paragraph in French.  French was taught in the Romance languages department down the hall.  We were in the Department of German, Russian, and Japanese.  We were affectionately called the department of enemy languages.   Thankfully, our professor walked us through it.

It is an amazing way to begin one of the greatest works of Russian literature.  The first paragraph of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (a novel centered on Russia’s early 19th century war with Napoleon) is written in French.  If you, as the reader, wish to fully appreciate the conflicted hearts and minds of Russian nobles who will lead the Czar’s armies into war, we begin in the mind of a French speaking Russian.  At first, it doesn’t make sense.  If these people hate the French, why do they idolize their culture and regard the French language as epitome of knowledge.  To answer these questions, to go beyond these surface levels tensions, we must read on.

Though not nearly as long, 1st Corinthians is the War and Peace of the early church.  Paul’s words paint a picture of the definitive struggle between warring factions, love, hate, peace, and identity that define the church to this day.  Written by a multi-lingual, religiously conflicted genius at war with the culture around him; Saint Paul is a 1st century Tolstoy trying to tell a story of struggle, in letter form, to a divided church in Corinth.

In many ways, I think the two works can inform and shed light on one another.  The opening, the scripture we read this morning, sets the tone for the rest of the letter.  Despite the extreme experiences which are to follow (and there will be many), these words provide the boundaries for every subsequent ballroom dance, battlefield, dinner, worship service, and meeting.  In 1st Corinthians, God’s grace shapes everything.  In the formless void we inhabit, grace creates the divine edges and meaning to otherwise shapeless and meaningless lives.  Paul acknowledges how good we have it; how well off we are.  Like the Russian nobles on the edge of Napoleon’s invasion, we’re blind to our blessings, privilege, wealth, and well-being.  It is only when God’s grace moves in from the edges, providing some correction to our spiritual nearsightedness, do we gain any perspective as to how good things really are.  Paul wants us to realize our blessings now.  It takes Natasha Rostova a journey of 500,000 words to make the same journey.

Paul reminds us that “you were made rich in everything; in all you communication and every kind of knowledge.”  In the same way, “you aren’t missing any kind of spiritual gift while we wait for the Lord to be revealed.”  We are blessed in innumerable ways, are we aware of enough of God’s grace in our lives to appreciate these blessings?  Paul doesn’t think so.  Why do we lack such awareness?  We’ve changed.  The church is Corinth has changed.

Both War and Peace and 1st Corinthians are about people coping with change.  One doesn’t go through these life altering experiences and remain the same.  None of the characters (who survive) are the same people as they were at the beginning of War and Peace.  Paul says will go on to say in chapter 13 being a believer alters your perspective on everything.

Everybody is in the same boat.  We’re all part of the body of Christ with unique gifts to offer.  That’s a central message 1st Corinthians 1 lays the groundwork for.  Tolstoy says it this way:  there is no hero or heroine.  Andrei Bolkonsky is not Tolstoy’s hero nor is Natasha Rostova the heroine, they’re just people caught up in trying to live the best way they know how in strange times.  This is what Paul calls his Corinthian congregation to do.  Live the best way you know how, with God’s grace as the defining feature, in these strange times we call the present.  Paul and Tolstoy both grasp on to this idea I call the “wildness of possibility”.  The possibilities of the present are wild and untamed.   The possibilities of how wild God will be in our lives also hinges on our willingness to engage with God’s doings, happenings, and goings on.  Tolstoy writes his novel from the perspective of one particular observer.  In this way, the story passes from mind to mind.  How would God’s story look if it were only told from one perspective?  Paul says to the Corinthians, “You were called by him to partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord”.  You were called to take up the baton; your turn is coming in a page or two, to tell the story.

Once you get past the uplifting opening, where Paul talked about partnership, it’s going to get ugly.  You’ll read about people doing decidedly unchristian things.  There will be people with unchristian attitudes.  In War and Peace, there are characters I love and characters I hate.  Some people pull on my heartstrings and every ounce of sympathy I can muster.  Natasha is at times likeable at other times she is an insufferable bore.  The Corinthians fighting about who can eat with them and be served communion come across as the pettiest, most juvenile people in the ancient world.  They get on my last nerve.  At other times, I’m bored to tears as Paul writes to them about true love.  I’ve heard it thousands of times.  I roll my eyes.  But like any good work of literature, there are times when I come back, re-read favorite passages, and Natasha isn’t a bore and 1st Corinthians 13 makes me cry.  Paul doesn’t give up on them; God doesn’t give up on us.  We keep reading through the hard parts.

Love comes into the picture.  Love is the circus hoop through which history is made to leap again and again.  To paraphrase Paul, If there are not love stories in Tolstoy and if I write sermons and have no love, I have nothing.  Love binds each word together from the first verse forward.  Without love, there is no story to tell.  The spiritual gifts, the grace, the knowledge; it all originates in love.

You may disagree with Paul at some point.  You’ll certainly disagree with Tolstoy.  At some point, you may start to believe, as I do, that War and Peace contradicts the author himself.  Both Paul and Tolstoy want you to ask good, hard questions about what they’ve written and how it might change your life.  Does history determine our fate or can we live otherwise?  These books want you to argue with yourself before your tie your hands and jump into a box handed to you by the Greco-Roman tradition, Russian aristocracy, or 21st century digital culture.

Back to the opening:  I hated that opening sentence.  It was awful.  I think it is the worst opening of any major novel, ever.  For the record, I think Look Homeward, Angel may the best.   The closing sentence of is also the worst by a country mile.  It’s nonsense.  In the middle, that’s where the greatness lies.  Paul’s great opening, doesn’t clue you into the nasty awesomeness to follow.  The reading stops short of taking us to the meat of Chapter One.  Openings and closings mean nothing, no matter how well written, unless you read the book in between.  That’s where history gets made and lives are changed.