The Master and Margarita
The Master and Margarita is acclaimed, by those in the know, as the greatest book of the 20th century. However, most people have never heard of it and I was one of them. It is a surreal masterpiece that parodies life in Moscow under the cruel and heavy-handed Stalin regime. I realise that sounds rather gloomy and not a lot of fun, but the book is light-hearted, crazy and pure genius. To read it is to travel into the mind of a madman and scholars have spent years unpacking its symbolism and metaphors. To amateur readers like me, it is still a fun read, and though it’s probably not a book for everyone, I believe both Christians, and society more widely, need more stories like it.
Introducing the Devil
The gist of the novel is that the Devil (aka Stalin) and his entourage arrive in Moscow and perpetrate all kinds of dark magic. As a result, everyday citizens find themselves naked in public, locked up in asylums and many just disappear. Various characters in the novel are based on real life personalities that were well-known to Moscovites during this period. As the tale unfolds it draws attention to the paranoia and fear that permeated every relationship and conversation in Stalin’s Russia.
If 20th Century Russia isn’t enough to think about, the book contains a sub-story that explores what happened to Pilate after he had sentenced Jesus to crucifixion. Yes, we’ve switched to Jerusalem now! Pilate is portrayed as tormented by his remorse, friendless and unable to find any peace. He too is going mad and is desperate to rid himself of his guilt. As a Christian I had never considered what happened to Pilate and reading it was a helpful reflection on the power and consequences of guilt.
The Master and Margarita’s author, Mikhail Bulgakov, spent 12 years writing his manuscript in secret. He knew the contents were so subversive that if the novel had been discovered in his lifetime, it would have been destroyed and he could have been locked up, or worse. It wasn’t until 30 years after Bulgakov’s death that the manuscript was published. Russians loved it immediately.
So why was the novel so well received?
Firstly, I believe ordinary Russians found solace knowing that other Moscovites found life under Stalin so perverse and frightening. Their bewilderment and anger at Stalin had found a common and comic voice. Bulgakov also demonstrated that in the most bizarre and cruel situations there is still opportunity for love and compassion, it is the story’s heroine Margarita who demonstrates this. Ultimately, Bulgakov offered hope through his novel and this was desperately needed in a society plagued by fear.
[Incidentally, if you, like me, were left feeling that Nicolae Carpathia, the baddie in the Left Behind series was insipid and trite then the book is definitely for you. The Devil in The Master and Margarita is cruel, callous and dissident. He is weirdly both compelling and repulsive. It wasn’t until I started hanging out with conservative Christians in the US that I realised the United Nations is loathed so much by them; some of them really do think it is evil and I once attended a bible class that pointed out everything that was wrong with the UN Declaration of Human rights (mainly because it doesn’t protect the interest of small businesses). I then realised why Nicolae Carpathia had been portrayed as head of the UN in the Left Behind series. More recently, Donald Trump ceased funding for the WHO, another example of an international body that is mistrusted by right-wing Americans.]
The power of storytelling
Novels such as The Master and Margarita hold a mirror to the societies and lives of the people they describe. There is so much ‘noise’ and opinion available to us through the internet nowadays, yet stories touch our emotions and powerfully address our hearts. That’s why I believe we need more stories. Jesus must have thought this too, and that’s perhaps why he told parables.
At this time when people are so divided by politics and we can pick and choose our news, when conspiracy theories are flourishing at frightening speed (Did Bill Gates start coronavirus or was it foul play by China? What should we make of QAnon?), rather than offering critique and condemnation could we as Christians point to the hope we have through Jesus by means of a well written tale. Perhaps you already know of a book that does this, in which case I would love it if you could please let me know, I long to read it.
More stories that hold a mirror up
I can think of two other books that speak powerfully to society. The first is Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. He drew attention to the plight of the working poor in Victorian England and through a gripping storyline called on employers to do more to help and protect their staff rather than exploit them. I find it interesting that both Dickens and Bulgakov use beings with magical powers to enlarge our perspective on events and point out the folly of society’s ways. It seems as if ghosts and demons can get away with stating painful truths that may demand a change to how we live.
The second novel is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (the book not the TV series) which is an enormously challenging story for Christians. Through the book Atwood delivers a scathing attack on organised religion and the treatment of women by men through misguided beliefs. I feel enormously sad that she views the church in this way, but we should take note of her critique, even if her views are extreme. Churches need to be places of optimism and love. Jesus tells us that his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. Women in church should be flourishing, not exploited, and at the very least societies based on Christian values must be safe places for us.
The din of opinion
I realise I am adding to the din of opinion by writing this blog, and on two occasions I gave up writing anything for almost a year, however I hope my ideas are useful to someone somewhere. My aim is to provide encouragement and I would love to pray for anyone who may be attempting to write a book that speaks to our culture. Especially if you have spent 12 years authoring it like Bulgakov!
Dislocated Christians exists to create and support a community of like-minded people. Our prayer is that you’ll find some echoes of your own dilemmas with church and culture in these articles and it will encourage you to know others have the same struggles. Please like, comment on or share our articles if you’ve found them helpful. We’d be especially grateful if you could follow us, just click towards the bottom of the page.
Just as we are each works in progress, so too is Dislocated Christians. Sometimes we’ll get things wrong and we hope that when that happens, you’ll forgive us and continue to stick around.