The ashram still had its Beatles graffiti. A shrine now. No incense burned beneath it but they grilled and gated it behind an iron fence and placed a straw basket beside a watchful cross-legged yogi whose piercing gaze was enough to disgorge a “donation” from the harassed tourists taking selfies.
“I wonder who scrawled that,” Bill murmured.
“Does it matter? It’s barely legible,” Ann said. “Anyway, I doubt they were really here.”
Bill gave her a sideways look. “The Beatles? Or the Snyders?”
“The Snyders, of course.” Ann’s lips twisted. “The ashram people wouldn’t lie, would they?”
“I suppose not,” Bill said. “Does it matter if the Snyders really came here or not?”
“I’m just sick of their one-upmanship. No matter where we’ve been they’ve always been there first,” Ann said. “For once I’d like them to tell the truth.”
“I think it matters more if the Beatles came here or not,” Bill said.
“Why?” Ann asked. “Who really cares? It’s just something to talk about.”
“I’d like to think I came here for something more than that,” Bill said.
“Like what? A pilgrimage in honor of the Beatles?”
Bill was silent. The people at the ashram encouraged that. Silence. Silence was a space he could occupy where Ann couldn’t intrude. He really didn’t like Ann. She reminded him of a vulture. A vulture circling the dead body of their marriage. He wondered if there were vultures here at the ashram.
It’s easy to imagine lives where sin not only crouches at the door but has entered and taken residence, particularly easy after having completed a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the one which easily inspired not only the random bit of creative writing above but also the chilling tale of American Psycho.
For as terrifying as the latter may be, only a Christian writer can write true horror. Exhibit A: Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground (1864). Reading it is like sitting in a confessional listening to a despair as unrepentant as if had been the testimony of a modern-day Cain or looking into a heart of darkness so profound that even the prison bars of hell must be bulging to contain it. To Nietzsche it was “the voice of the blood,” and if by that he meant the voice of a supremely isolated soul cut off from God and man, he was right.
More frightening than a Stephen King novel, it left me shaken, as if through this first-person narrative I had brushed shoulders with a monster who was at the same time disturbingly familiar. He remains nameless throughout because, as one critic suggests, “‘I’ is all of us.” Or, as every honest Christian would say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I have no doubt that if we could read a paper trail of “notes” or confessions posted from the “underground,” they would all read alike, uniform in their hatred of God and their fellow man, bound by their self-destructive passions and chained to their tortured pride.
So who is he, this underground writer? And who is he writing to?
He addresses those like him, his fellow intellectuals, the ones who consider themselves the elite of society who are uniquely “conscious of all the refinements of ‘everything beautiful and lofty’”¹ (p.9). Politically they number themselves among socialists who know what is best for all mankind, prize no one’s liberty but their own, and pursue absolute power to impose their vision of what is good on their fellow man – creating their paradise or “crystal palace” (p. 33) or tower of Babel, if you will. Says the writer: “You believe in a crystal edifice, forever indestructible; that is, in an edifice at which one can neither put out one’s tongue on the sly nor make a fig in the pocket.” Freedom of speech, even thought, are strictly curtailed according to what is politically correct.
But as the underground writer comes to discover in the course of his life, such an ambition simply furthers the “sickness,” the corruption within him. Indeed, the first line of his “confession” is “I AM A SICK MAN … I am a wicked man.”
From there you read of the self-indulgence that is his life (“I stand for caprice”), his petty exercise of his bureaucratic power, his bitterness and self-hatred as well as his overweening pride and self-acclaimed nihilistic superiority where, from the abyss of the underground, he mutters, “But what’s to be done if the sole and express purpose of every intelligent man is babble – that is, a deliberate pouring from empty into void” (p. 19). The totality of his existential alienation is devilishly summed up in his closing confession when his self-justifying narcissism and power-hungry caprice shatter a fragile young woman’s attempt at a new life, driving her back into the gutter and driving him further on to the fringes of humanity.
But true confession comes with repentance. What he writes is only a pseudo-confession, throwing back the curtains on his internal evil, his “sickness.” He is a miserable and unhappy man. But being miserable and unhappy, or knowing the extent of your own depravity, is not repentance. Self-knowledge is not repentance as despair is not repentance. For a picture of true repentance, read Psalm 51 where sorrow over his sin and knowledge of his innate corruption drives David to cry out to God for mercy, acknowledging that before the holiness of God, the only redemption to be found is not in himself, but in God’s grace alone, the source of forgiveness and righteousness: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51: 17).
Scripture tells us that the history of man since the Fall has been one of the conflict between good and evil, between heaven and hell, played out in the human heart. The first death was also the first murder which followed on the heels of Cain’s anger and God’s warning: The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:6-7).
No one escapes this struggle. And it is a daily one. Before we became Christians we were once as unregenerate as Cain or the underground writer: “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). But through the justifying work of Christ Jesus on the cross, we have been saved by His grace from the power of sin to dominate us. We can fight the sin crouching at the door, keeping it from entering in and taking residence by daily repentance and the assurance of God’s steadfast love, “not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7).
Once we too were children of darkness—living underground, as it were—but now we are children of light. “So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light”(Romans 13:12).
¹Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground, translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky; Everyman’s Library, 2004. All references to the text are from this edition.