This post is featured in the CAPC Magazine, August 2016: Dabbling in Other Gospels issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. Subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and receive a host of other benefits, too.

In The Last Station, an adaptation of a 1990 novel chronicling the last year of Leo Tolstoy’s life, an earnest young secretary Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) arrives at the commune started by Tolstoy’s followers and is shocked to find that one of the young female disciples adheres to very few of the principles of Tolstoyism (most notably, celibacy). This young woman, Masha, tells Valentin (after she seduces him) that following Tolstoy isn’t about the rules; it’s about love.

That’s the sort of watered-down fluff you’d expect from Hollywood, right? And yet, the day after I saw The Last Station, I heard a sermon with much the same message as Masha’s diatribe.

The film opens with the quote “Everything I know, I know only because I love,” attributing it to Tolstoy (rather than to his character Prince Andrei, who speaks this line in War and Peace). It’s a sentence that can be either profound or shallow, depending entirely on what is meant by “love.” Unfortunately, in its weaker moments, The Last Station settles for a definition of love that’s indistinguishable from infatuation. Masha and ultimately Valentin buy into a false dichotomy between “love” and “rules,” ignoring the fact that rules are present in all human relationships, and that they help to keep us from hurting each other.

However, it’s hard to see why anyone would follow the teachings of the film’s Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer)—even he doesn’t believe anything he’s written, it seems. I’ve always been somewhat troubled by the little I know of Tolstoy’s beliefs about sex after his conversion to Christianity: in his rejection of the body’s goodness, he’s always seemed more Gnostic than Christian to me. If the film is similarly troubled, however, it decides to eliminate any tension by simply having Tolstoy disavow his professed beliefs. In a conversation with Valentin, Tolstoy recalls an affair with a woman in the Caucasus and laughs lustily when Valentin begs him, “Please, don’t torture yourself.” Contrary to Valentin’s expectations, this earthy Tolstoy suffers no remorse for sins of the flesh, presumably because they were committed in “love.”

Robbing Tolstoy of his convictions has the unfortunate effect of rendering him an unsympathetic and inexplicable character. If Tolstoy falters in his convictions, in regard to celibacy or poverty, then why is it so important to him to write a new will that leaves the rights to his written works to the Russian people, rather than to his family? This is the central conflict of the movie for Tolstoy and his wife Sofya, who, quite understandably, objects to the new will. Sofya may be a little childish and melodramatic (in one of the best lines of the movie, Tolstoy tells her, “You don’t need a husband—you need a Greek chorus!”), but because we have no evidence of real moral conviction on Tolstoy’s part, and because Sofya is played by Helen Mirren, viewers have no choice but to side wholeheartedly with her.

Based on my limited knowledge of Tolstoy’s later-in-life philosophy (everything I know, I know from his influence upon Gandhi) and on one brief line in the film, I can guess that Tolstoy’s motivation for the will was guilt over his privileged life and his prosperity. That’s something I can understand and admire. If we could see the film’s Tolstoy wrestling with such guilt, we could sympathize, even if disagreeing with his decision. For some reason, though, the film seems to have decided that a deep, internal conflict between the love of mankind (although Valentin does get the nice token line, “I’ve never seen mankind!”) and the love of the human with whom you’ve become one flesh is less interesting than a conflict featuring an external villain. Enter Paul Giamatti as a mustache-twirling Chertkov, the disciple who wants to form the Tolstoyan movement in his own image.

If Tolstoy is not motivated by conviction, his decision to leave his wife Sofya and die in peace and quiet seems like nothing but the foolishness of a grumpy, selfish old man. In essence, though the film doesn’t seem to realize it, Tolstoy is doing what Masha claims he’s all about: loving without rules. If you love without rules, then what’s to keep you from leaving your wife of 48 years when you are frustrated with the challenges of married life? What’s to keep the passion between Valentin and Masha from changing to hatred or indifference in an even shorter period of time?

Back to that sermon I mentioned. We’ve all probably heard or read something similar: it was along the lines of that cringe-worthy mantra, “It’s not a religion—it’s a relationship.” First of all, I hate the negative use of the word “religion,” a word with possibly the same root as “ligament,” implying being connected and tied to something. Religion and relationship are not mutually exclusive words. Furthermore, if we focus on the relational aspect of our Christian faith without acknowledging the commitments upon which any meaningful relationship is forged, we end up with something as superficial as the infatuation between Valentin and Masha. If our faith is based on emotional highs of feeling connected to God, then we have little to hold us steady in times of suffering or doubt.

The Last Station wasn’t a great movie, but it did bring into stark clarity how much contemporary Christians are parroting the popular messages of our culture. You’ll hear from many evangelical pulpits today the assertion that we should forsake “religion” and get back to the basics of Jesus’ teachings. Ironically, this is what the real, historical Tolstoy believed himself to be doing when he rejected the Orthodox church in favor of a simpler, more “authentic” Christianity—and yet, how easily that simple faith began to draw in elements from Buddhism, Gnosticism, and more. So often, when we claim to pare down the gospel to its basics, we begin borrowing from other, less worthy sources, because we have abandoned the framework of religion that keeps us tied to a deep, fulfilling orthodoxy. This, I fear, is the ultimate fate of any purely relational approach to Christianity.


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4 Comments

  1. From time to time, we hear about surveys and studies that supposedly show Americans (particularly young Americans) today are less “religious” and more “spiritual” than at previous times in our history. I find such surveys to be inherently flawed (at least inasmuch as their interpreters claim they represent a rejection of organized religion, a rejection of orthodox Christianity, an embrace of “New Age” beliefs, or, really, anything else) because, as you point out, evangelicals themselves have been “religion-bashing” for some time now. How do we know if the survey respondent who says, “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual” is really saying, “I don’t think it matters what you believe as long as you believe something,” “I’m born again and have a relationship with Jesus Christ, so I don’t follow a religion of works-righteousness anymore,” “I’m a disillusioned ex-Catholic/ex-Lutheran/ex-Episcopalian and don’t go to church anymore,” “I enjoy meditation and yoga,” or something entirely different? “Religion,” unfortunately, has become a bad word, at least for the time being, and I wonder if we are better off putting it aside for now (as much as I, like Carissa, would like to defend it), and instead delving deeper into the question of what we mean by relationship, what a relationship with Jesus looks like (i.e., it clearly means being in relationship with His other followers), and whether relationships do need to have rules.

    – KPE

  2. It seems like any word that’s been used in it’s traditional capacity for more than 10 years is becoming a bad word, so that the writer or speaker can rescue us from it’s tyranny with the new, freeing terminology. I had a text for class a few weeks ago that actually turned the word “teacher” into a pejorative. Apparently the major problem with colleges is that professors are “teachers” when they need to be “designers of learning experiences”. The book turned out to be really good, but that whole section drove me crazy.

    People with platforms to speak from should be much more careful with their wording, and stop turning helpful terms into bad words, but I like to cut the guys at the bottom some slack. You know that these preachers all have some vocal portion of their congregation banging the Relevance drum behind them, or they feel like their scaring people away, or some other insecurity is eating at them. It’s hard to defend orthodoxy when you’re unsure of yourself. What we need more than preachers who are shrewd observers ready to defend traditional things is preachers who get their confidence from God, so that when these issues pop up they can buck the trend and speak the truth – which can be as simple as false vs. true religion, instead of religion vs. some other thing.

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