May 202008


What does this photo have to do with Anna Karenina, you may ask? (Or not.)

The photo is from last weekend’s bike ride, and is also posted over at The Spokesrider. I was listening to Liza Knapp’s lecture on Giants of Russian literature while slogging into the wind on the day I took that photo, but that isn’t exactly the connection I had in mind.

What I was thinking of was the part where Knapp describes Anna’s death. Anna made the sign of the cross just before her suicide under a train, and it was a redemptive moment. The act of making the sign brought back a flood of connections from her youth, and she asked forgiveness in that moment.

Although I’m a Lutheran Christian, I do not go in for making the sign of the cross, or a whole bunch of other ritualistic and ceremonial stuff other than the two sacraments. And I probably wouldn’t do those if they weren’t a direct command. I was brought up in more of a puritanistic version of protestantism that avoided emphasis on external rituals and ceremonies. I didn’t encounter the more liturgical type of Lutheranism until college.

But I find it fascinating how our religion is very materialistic, and not exclusively spiritual. There are material things like bread and wine in the sacraments. We’re taught to pray for daily bread. We’ve taken a technological invention (writing) and made something sacred out of it.

And Liza Knopp’s explanation of that part of Tolstoi’s work showed me another connection between the material and the sacred. I don’t think I’ll start making the sign of the cross myself at this point in my life, but I can now be more than merely tolerant of those who do it, and respect what such actions can do.

I do not know if Liza Knopp is a Christian, but she certainly has a good understanding of the Christian aspects of Doestoevsky, Tolstoi, and (in a way) Chekov. (I’m just now getting to her lectures on Chekov.) I wish I had had her as a literature instructor back when I was in college — a Lutheran college. The instructors I had were good enough, but she has some insights that would have been a great addition to the kind of religious education a college like mine was trying to provide. (I still am grumpy about the fact that I never learned about C.S. Lewis until years after I graduated. I should have learned about him and his type of apologetics in college. And now I’m learning from Liza Knopp about other things I should have learned then. But better late than never, etc.)

Oh, I almost forgot to explain the connection with an Amish small engine shop. Well, the sign is one that maybe can correct a common misconception about the Amish and technology. The Amish aren’t against technology. They are always adopting new technologies. But they are very careful and deliberate about it — careful about the effect they may have on family, social, and spiritual life. That’s where the connection is. It’s another arena in which a material thing  (in this case a gasoline engine) has an impact on spiritual life.