The Idiot: How to be a Man

I always enjoy telling people that my favorite book is entitled The Idiot. It’s a fun title, one that reminds me of middle school insults. But the story is seriously incredible.

The book has a simple mission. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in a letter, explains that his purpose in writing the story is “…to depict a thoroughly good man. In my opinion, there can be nothing more difficult than this, above all in our time.” Dostoyevsky wants to tell a story conveying what it would be like if a perfect man walked the Earth in 19th century Russia. His conclusion is stunning. The perfect man is the idiot.

Russland, Moskau, Basiliuskathedrale

Red Square, Russia

The book centers around Prince Myshkin, who travels to St. Petersburg to receive a sizable inheritance. He falls in love with a woman, Aglaya, while simultaneously experiencing deep feelings for another woman, Nastasya, whom he deeply desires to save from a guilt-sodden and revenge-driven life. The story revolves around these people and their surrounding circles of friends.

I first read this book about two years ago, during a season of life in which I spent a lot of time thinking about biblical masculinity. I focused on deciding what kind of man I wanted to become as I grew older. I remember The Idiot being a definitive player in this season of life, if not the definitive player. This was for one reason: Prince Myshkin, (the “Idiot”) was a complete reversal of what I thought it meant to be a man of God. Before reading the book, I hadn’t realized how much I had bought into the American perspective of masculinity‒the perspective telling me that I needed to be someone who was strong and in control, cool and collected.

dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky

But the Prince, this “thoroughly good man,” was none of these. He was socially awkward, manipulated, trodden over. He bore his emotions on his face, blushing frequently, unable to hide what he was feeling. He was, to put it in a single word, weak. And I’m convinced that he is a closer model of Christ than whatever image of perfection we have constructed in America.

Jesus Christ was the utter reversal of the Messiah that the Jews were expecting. The Jewish people expected a Messiah who would come and overthrow the Romans. But Jesus did not do this. Instead, he died on a cross. And in that crucifixion, where Christ is weak and vulnerable, we are reminded that our definition of strength is different than God’s. The pinnacle of godly strength is not running a business, providing for a family, or even fighting in the army (though these are all good things). The pinnacle of godly strength is the ability to live a life that is defined by sacrificial love for others, the ability to suffer for the glory of God and the betterment of man.

When the world sees this type of love, they call it weak. But Christ is risen, proving that it is Jesus who defines what it means to be strong, not the world. We thank Jesus that he has gone before us and set the example of how to love, worship, and be strong.

I am rereading the book now. I am challenged again to see where I have tricked myself into thinking that biblical masculinity looks more like a conquering general than a crucified savior. Perhaps biblical masculinity, and just as much biblical womanhood, is weaker, more vulnerable, and less like America’s superheroes than I might be comfortable with.

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