Monday, November 1, 2010

November 2010 CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2: The Skin Map

November 2010 CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2

The Skin Map, by Stephen R. Lawhead

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Skin Map for review on the November, 2010 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

As a writer of Christian fantasy, it is my concern to write precisely that, Christian fantasy. Christian fantasy is only ‘Christian’ if it centers on and flows out of the gospel. The gospel is the good news that the Second Person of the Trinity became man and through his death and resurrection accomplished the redemption of his people who were chosen before the foundation of the world. This redemption is a salvation of the sinner from his sin and sinfulness; it is forgiveness accompanied by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to his account on which basis God judicially declares him just; it is sanctification, a steady forward growth in holiness and separation from a sinful life-style through the work of God’s Spirit in the heart; it is glorification, the final, permanent transformation of the saint into the likeness of the glorified Christ, physically and spiritually, in which it is no longer possible to sin and in which service and love to God is without flaw. This is the gospel, and a fantasy that is proffered as Christian fantasy is not faithful to its namesake if it does not clearly convey these truths.

This does not mean that a Christian writer is bound to write his fiction or fantasy in this way in order to be a faithful and God-glorifying writer. However, whether writing for mere entertainment in which the salient truths of the gospel are absent, or whether writing to reveal those magnificent truths, the Christian must always work under the dictum that he is to glorify God in all that he does. He does this by consciously writing as an image-bearer in which he crafts a world and story that does not violate God’s holy commandments; he does not write a story that panders to and glorifies sinful philosophy and behavior; rather, just the opposite.

Is it necessary that the whole spectrum of gospel truth be included to earn the classification of Christian? I would say no for two reasons: (1) There is enough in any one of these articles of truth to occupy a single novel, perhaps even a series. Granted, it would be difficult to focus on only one truth without implying at least one or more of the others. But even if that were possible, so long as the singular truth that is present is clear and undiluted, it makes the story distinctively Christian. (2) There is so much in the collective set of these articles, it would be difficult to have them all presented exhaustively except in a series of such epic proportions, it would take the lifetime of the author to complete.

Where does The Skin Map fit? It is entertaining, to be sure. However, the gospel is absent and as such, disqualifies it as ‘Christian.’ I say this because there is no mention of the bad news that must become painfully obvious before the good news will make any sense - and that bad news is the sinfulness of man, which merits God’s wrath. This does not ignore the characterization of Lord Burleigh as very evil. Pagans and Christians alike assess Lord Burleigh’s actions as wrong because each has a non-relative standard of right and wrong in mind, though only the Christian can articulate that standard with any degree of accuracy and authority. Lord Burleigh does represent the evil in the Good-versus-Evil dilemma of human experience, a dilemma which cannot help but enter in and become a regulative factor of any fiction. But Lord Burleigh’s behavior is not explained as the inevitable result of a man who, like all of us, is dead in trespasses and sins, has a heart in rebellion against God, and would destroy God if he could.

The character of Lord Burleigh does have its value. It reminds the reader that there is evil and that it is a problem. On the other hand, it runs the danger of the reader superficially observing, “That fiend, how could he be so despicable!” The truth is, and only the Christian knows this, we all could be so despicable, and merely characterizing that evil does not articulate the truth that “there is none good, no, not one.” Hence, for such reasons as this, The Skin Map is not Christian fiction.

I want to be fair, however. The Skin Map is book one in the Bright Empires series. The series as a whole may prove to be very Christian even though one or more of the books in the series would not be classified as such.

The Skin Map does have its characters who make statements that have profound theological implications. The reader encounters this first when Kit and his great grandfather Cosimo come into the lecture hall where Lord Henry is in the final stages of an address. The lecture reveals much about the storyline itself, and it contains a pronouncement that makes us wonder what the theological foundations of Lord Henry are. I am going to quote at some length to provide ample context (and mood which though less important is written so well, I don’t want to leave it out; it may even encourage you to buy the book):

    Kit glanced up to see that they had come to stand before a large and imposing grey stone building with a wide flight of steps leading up to a set of brassbound doors; two oily black torches fluttered on either side of the entrance. They ascended the stone steps and entered a grand vestibule with a sweeping, carved oak staircase leading to a balustraded balcony. Doors opened off the vestibule in three directions; Cosimo chose the one in the centre and, laying a finger to his lips as a caution for Kit to keep silent, quietly opened the door and slipped in.
    Kit followed and found himself at the back of a handsome and very old-fashioned lecture theatre filled row upon row with bewhiskered men formally attired in sober black gowns and plain white neck bands. The room was lit by the lambent glow of innumerable candles in sconces and massive brass chandeliers suspended from the ceiling. By Kit’s rough estimate there must have been upwards of two hundred men in the audience, and their attention was wholly directed to the platform at the front, where a very tall, lean man in a long black gown and black silk skullcap was speaking. Below a trim, spade-shaped red beard erupted a veritable fountain of intricate lace. The great silver buckles on his high-topped black shoes glimmered in the light from the row of candles along the front of the stage; his pristine white stockings were perfectly tight and straight, and he was holding forth in a dramatic, stentorian voice.
    “What language is he speaking?” whispered Kit after listening a few moments and failing to make heads or tails of what the energetic fellow was saying. “German?”
    “English,” hissed Cosimo. “Just let it wash over you.” He raised his finger to his lips once more and slipped into an empty chair, pulling Kit down beside him. The room was warm and hazy with the fug of candle smoke and body heat.
    Kit listened to the flow of the speech and, with a considerable amount of concentration, began to pick out, first, individual words, then separate phrases. A little more effort and he was able to piece together whole sentences. The fellow seemed to be banging on about some sort of new theory of energy, or something - but in the most convoluted and stilted manner possible.
    “You will appreciate, my lords and gentlemen all, that there remain many unanswered queries in the diverse, but nevertheless intimately related, fields of natural mechanics and animal magnetism. The subtle energies of our earthly home are even now beginning to surrender secrets long held and jealously guarded. We in our present generation stand on the cusp of a new and glorious dawn when mastery of these energies lies fully within our grasp as secret yields to inquiry, which yields to experimentation, which leads to verification and duplication, which, in the final course, leads to knowledge.”
    He paused to allow a polite smattering of applause to ripple through the auditorium.
    “In conclusion, I beg the indulgence of this body in allowing me to reiterate the central premise of my lecture this evening, to wit: that an expedition shall be made to undertake the experiment outlined in your hearing this evening. The experiment will commence as soon as an expeditionary force numbering not fewer than five, nor more than eight, Royal Members in good standing has been selected and proper arrangements can be made for travel, lodging, and matters attending. Therefore, it is with the greatest anticipation that I look forward to addressing this august assembly once again in the near future to divulge the results of the aforementioned experiment.”
    There were shouts of “Hear! Hear!”
    The lecturer took a few steps toward the other side of the stage and resumed. “My friends, esteemed colleagues, noble patrons, and honored guests, I leave you with this: when next you turn your eyes to the vast reaches of heaven, gentlemen, you would be well advised to remember that not only is it far more magnificent than the human mind can fathom, it is far more subtle. All the universe is permeated, upheld, knit together, conjoined, encompassed, and contained by the Elemental Ether, which we recognise as an all-pervading, responsive intelligent field of energy, eternal and inexhaustible, which is nothing less than the ground of our being, and the wellspring of our existence - that which in ages past and present men have been pleased to call God.” (pp. 53-56)
Is Sir Henry a panentheist? Is he a believer in the Force? Whatever he is, this statement does not place him in the category of a biblical theist. I do not know what Lawhead has in mind here; what kind of God is the One in whom his characters live, and move, and have their being? Is this a tenet that is foundational to all that will take place in the Bright Empires series? If so, though it is entertaining, it is based on a non-biblical theism.

The question then is, can a Christian write this way in good conscience? What are the factors that would make a story ethically wrong to publish and propagate?

I think so long as a story’s purpose is not to promote a non-Christian epistemological and ontological philosophy, though it may be heavily laced with such philosophy, it is not wrong. Though a fiction or fantasy takes place in a world that is non-biblical, that does not mean that it is by definition wrong. So long as it is clear that the intent of the story is not to promote such a world-view, it is not a dishonor to God. Such tales whose sole purpose is to entertain likewise reflect the creativity of man as image-bearer of God, and the entertainment itself may be viewed as a gift from God for his people to enjoy.

That’s how I take The Skin Map, a gift for our enjoyment produced through the exceptional imagination, creativity, and excellent writing of Stephen R. Lawhead.

Stephen R. Lawhead's Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants
The Skin Map on Amazon


  1. Thomas,

    The question as to whether or not The Skin Map is "Christian" has to do with intent of audience. SRL's intent is to reach a broad audience, which means that he is not writing strictly for "churched" Christians.

    Therefore, to me, this description of God is interesting, and may, in fact, reach and speak to people outside the church as to God's attributes.

    "All the universe is permeated, upheld, knit together, conjoined, encompassed, and contained by the Elemental Ether, which we recognise as an all-pervading, responsive intelligent field of energy, eternal and inexhaustible, which is nothing less than the ground of our being, and the wellspring of our existence - that which in ages past and present men have been pleased to call God."

    If you ignore two phrases "elemental ether", and "field of energy", I find nothing disagreeable in what is said. If anything, it is quite explicit that God created everything, upholds everything, is the living, supreme intelligence over all, etc., etc., etc.

    Why were the two phrases put in? (a) Sir Henry is speaking to "scientists" (and so is Lawhead!), and (b) Sir Henry is from the past, when they actually spoke like that when trying to understand God in a modern, philosophical, way.

    No, this is not Biblical language, but I don't have a problem with it because it cleverly disguises the more important truths so they can slip in and take root.

    Anyway, you bring up some important issues, so let's keep discussing them.


  2. Robert,

    First, I am not condemning Lawhead in this depiction of God. It fits probably with the non-Christian so-called scientific thinking of the time. If Lawhead is trying to establish that kind of philosophical/theological context for his story, that is fine. My point is that, so far, the story is not Christian. There is really nothing in it that is distinctively and explicitly 'gospel' which is what distinguishes Christianity from all other religions. Merely, acknowledging God or even having a somewhat sophisticated explanation of God does not make anything Christian unless it is the God of the Bible.

    Second, your observation proves my point this is not a Christian novel. You can't simply ignore God's identity as the 'Elemental Ether' and a 'field of energy,' it's part and parcel to Sir Henry's (and apparently the 'august' group to which he is speaking as well) world and life view. I agree with you that it does 'cleverly disguise the more important truth' but the effect is to not lead one toward the God of the Bible but away from it. It's an example of Romans 1:18ff in which man suppresses the truth of God's deity and power though it is clearly (emphasize clearly) seen by the things he has made.

    Again, I don't believe this is Lawhead's position (else he needs to go back and check his faith) but an element of the story, the setting of the world he has crafted. He's not attempting to teach pagan philosophy. Also, we don't know what Lawhead has in mind with this. It may be that Lawhead is trying to illustrate the truth of Romans 1:18ff, which if this turns out to be the case, I would have to say in hindsight that The Skin Map is, in fact, a Christian novel. It may be that Sir Henry's world-view will change (assuming that you know what happens, I don't want to spoil this for the one who hasn't read the book).

    Thanks for the comment, I appreciate your opinion.


  3. Thomas,

    I think you and I have different opinions as to what makes a novel "Christian" ... which is fine, and interesting, because I do like the way you focus on the gospel, and the necessity to lead toward God.

    To me, the question is about how best to do that and still reach a secular audience outside the CBA/"Christian" market.

    I wrote an article on this topic, and if you have time, could you read it and comment? I'd like to know your thoughts.

    Here's the link: