09 December 2010

The Unwritten Code

In Tolstoy’s 1869 novel War and Peace, a story of early nineteenth-century Russia under threat of invasion by Napoleon, an unimpressive second lieutenant named Boris Drubetskoi searches out the socially significant Prince Andrei. Requesting the prince’s whereabouts from other officers, Boris receives only condescending snubbing from these military superiors. Boris enters a room and discovers Prince Andrei impatiently listening to an older, much-decorated Russian general who wants desperately to win Andrei’s attention and favor. The prince, however, is finding himself bored with this over-eager general and, upon noticing Boris, promptly leaves the general and, with relief on his face, sidles over to Boris for a more enjoyable chat.

Tolstoy writes:
Boris at this instant clearly understood what he had suspected before, that in the army there was, above and beyond the fact of subordination and discipline as laid down in the code, and which they in the regiments knew by heart, and which he knew as well as anyone else—there was another still more essential form of subordination, one which compelled this anxious general with the purple face to bide his time respectfully, while Captain Prince Andrei, for his own satisfaction, found it more interesting to talk with Ensign Drubetskoi. More than ever Boris decided henceforth not to act in accordance with the written law, but with this unwritten code.
It does not require military experience to know exactly what Tolstoy is describing. The 'unwritten code' offers acceptance, welcoming, approval. Such approval is powerfully intoxicating when extended and painfully crushing when withheld.

In the gospel of grace, the power that this unwritten code exerts on all of us is unmasked and exposed as the fraud that it is. For the gospel declares that we are, already, and apart from any social prerequisite we bring to the table, in. This is poignantly clear in Luke's Gospel, where time and again the outsiders of the day are welcomed by Jesus and the insiders of the day are alienated. What Boris needed was not the unwritten code; he needed the Gospel of Luke. As do we.

--Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (trans. Nathan H. Dole; 4 vols.; New York: Crowell, 1932), 1:301; HT: C. S. Lewis, 'The Inner Ring'

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