Tuesday, October 25, 2011

October 2011 CSFF Blog Tour, Day Three

The Bone House, by Stephen R. Lawhead

I ordinarily do not read the postings of others on the CSFF blog tour until the tour is over. That is so that my postings remain as original and unaffected by the other participants as possible. However, this time I have read a few, and there is one that has encouraged me to consider the absence of God in The Bone House.

In other blogs for the tour, as well other postings on my blog, I have contended that Christian fiction/fantasy is not Christian unless it conveys in a pointed way at least some elements of the Gospel. To be clear, my theological persuasion is reformed and therefore I hold to what are known as the five points of Calvinism succinctly stated in the acronym, TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints). I have no doubt there are many CSFF blog tour participants who disagree with at least one of these points, and my intent is not to go into an exposition of these, or begin a dialogue over them. I only want to clarify that I believe the five points of Calvinism are biblically sound and represent the true gospel found in the scriptures. As such, when I hold that Christian fiction/fantasy should convey at least some elements of  the gospel, these five points are what I have in mind primarily. 

I think I am ready to refine my position on this as follows. Christian fiction/fantasy is of two fundamental types: anemic and robust. Anemic Christian fiction will contain elements that comport with a bona fide Christian world-view, that there is a God who is gracious and merciful and saves sinners. But these elements are not stringently Calvinistic nor are they dominant. Robust Christian fiction leaves no doubt of the fundamental truths of the Gospel, that God sovereignly saves a people for himself and for his glory through the death and resurrection of Christ applied through the work of the Spirit without which none of his people would recognize their sinfulness and need of salvation, and henceforth repent and trust in Christ to save them from their sin.

If we look at most so-called Christian fiction today under the robust lens, we find little that qualifies as Christian. On the other hand, there is much that qualifies anemically. Where does The Bone House stand? In one of my posts for The Skin Map tour, which I hope the reader might take the time to consult, I make the following observation after advocating that "Christian fantasy is only ‘Christian’ if it centers on and flows out of the gospel:"

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.

On the other hand, a novel written by a Christian, but which does not qualify as ‘Christian’ is not wrong. I wrote:

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.

As far as I can tell, Stephen Lawhead is not trying to promote a non-biblical worldview, and, as I observed then:

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.

We now have book two of the series, and there is no noticeable effort on Lawhead’s part to bring in the salient points of the Gospel. What if this persists until the series is finished? I would have mixed thoughts. On the one hand, I can recognize quality when I see it, and the Bright Empires series thus far ranks very high both for the story and for the writing itself, which in my estimation are of equal importance. On the other hand, as a writer of Christian fiction and fantasy, and as a supporter of it, I would like to see quality like this also be true to what makes Christian fiction, Christian. The combination of the two would be powerful, and all things considered, would have a greater impact for the Kingdom.

That is why I am so adamant in pressing for a stringent definition of Christian fiction. I want the genre to distinguish itself precisely where it needs to the most, in the gospel. This can be done without being preachy or soppy. It allows the specially talented Christian writer to pursue an evangelistic and apologetic labor in a way that very few are capable of doing. Such writers and writing is needed, and I find it disheartening that those who could do a superb job are not doing so.

And yet, I don’t want to disparage such writers either. Writing, for whatever purpose, if done consciously as a labor to and for God, is pleasing to God. If Bright Empires is such a labor, I cannot complain. It is worthy and God-honoring entertainment. But I will be disappointed if it does no more than entertain.

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

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Bone House for review on the October, 2011 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Monday, October 24, 2011

CSFF Blog Tour - October, 2011, Day Two

The Bone House, by Stephen R. Lawhead

Stephen Lawhead includes a short excursus at the end of his book titled, “Quantum Physics and Me.” In it, he comments on Thomas Young, a 19th century scholar who has a significant role in this second book. Thomas Young was truly a phenom of his day, of any day for that matter. Would that I had a tenth of the brain he did.

Young proved light had the characteristics of a wave, which countered Isaac Newton’s prevailing theory that it was a particle.

It was an experiment of classical simplicity. He [Young] made a small hole in a blind and placed it so sunlight would pass through onto a card with two pin holes. The light from the pin holes formed an image on a screen behind in a series of curved bands. This was proof that light had acted wavelike and had spread out or defracted. If light had been a particle stream then only two spots of light would have appeared on the screen. [1]

In another experiment, Young proves how the eye focuses:

At the time, there was considerable dispute on whether the eye focused through the cornea or the crystalline lens. Young reasoned that if the eye is immersed in water, we no longer see clearly because there is liquid both inside and outside the cornea and it ceases to function as a lens. He found that if he placed a lens of equal power to the cornea in front of his eye he could see clearly under water. By this very simple experiment he had proved conclusively that it must be the crystalline lens that does the focusing. [2]

What is so remarkable is the simplicity of these experiments; so simple, they could be performed by any one of us. The lack of modern day technology did not stop men like Young who not only evidenced their genius by their ability to contemplate and deduce, but also to demonstrate it so that the man on the street can understand the principle through an experiment that uses equipment he is perfectly familiar with. I suspect that all men of such great genius are able to do that. Einstein is reputed to have said, "If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself." Not sure about that, but I get the point. We should strive to reduce demonstration to its most simple elements without destroying its ability to demonstrate.

The novelist to some degree or another is faced with the same problem. Not that he is necessarily trying to prove or disprove something, but he is trying to make a point. If there is no point behind the novel, I’m not sure it is worth writing, and I’m definitely sure it is not worth reading.

I’m referring to something more profound than the simple point to entertain. Certainly, entertainment is an element that every novel must have, but that is not the point of the novel. Its point is to convey an insight about something the reader has an interest in.

What does The Bone House do in this regard? Well, for one it brings to life Dr. Thomas Young and places him in a believable situation. By believable I mean, as an example, he is engaged in archaeological work, which is an enterprise that can be believed in. Granted, the object of search is a thing of fantasy, but the endeavor to find it is believable. What Stephen Lawhead has done for us is to make it a point to flesh that out with as much authenticity as possible so that we get a feel for what is involved without being bored with mundane detail.

I think this was accomplished with the movie, Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark. I was so awed by the movie that I saw it on the silver screen eight times before it went to the second-run theaters. The romantic element, that is, the notion of an intellectual with a PhD taking on the quest for the fantastic and elusive in the context of pending world war was irresistible. But it wasn’t just the romance. It was the raw truth that there is discoverable stuff out there to be discovered. I suspect this planted a seed in some scientists today who may look back on that film as the point where their journey began.

This was the experience of Carl Sagan, who devoured science fiction early on. At the age of ten he read Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Princess of Mars. I'm not claiming a one-to-one correspondence between me and Sagan, but I read Burroughs’ novel The Gods of Mars at age eleven. Obviously, either Burrough’s stories didn’t have the same impact on me as it did Sagan, or I didn’t have the intellectual prowess of Sagan; most likely, both are true. Sagan did become dissatisfied with the science fiction of his youth because much of it was written with disregard to actual science. I suspect that his novel, Contact, was written not only to make the point that extraterrestrial intelligent beings plausibly exist, but also to rectify a trend in science fiction which ignored science.

Stephen Lawhead has devoted time to making his story authentic by not ignoring the science that is behind archaeology and even the fringe speculation of ley travel (that is, the concept of more than one universe). Rather, he exploits it liberally. One has to tip his hat.

[2] ibid. 

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

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Bone House for review on the October, 2011 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

CSFF Blog Tour - October, 2011, Day One

The Bone House, by Stephen R. Lawhead

Warning: This is a complete spoiler.

If one tended to think the first book of the Bright Empires Series (The Skin Map) was convoluted, he will undoubtedly think the same of the second book, The Bone House. Like The Skin Map, the explanation for this tortuous route through the novel in part is due to the nature of ley travel, if it were true, of course. In fact, the way the book is laid out, vacillating between alternate space and time locales as it does, the reader gains a sense of what the world of ley travel would actually be like. I found it both distracting and tantalizing at the same time. I would not change it.

The best way to relate the story may be to follow threads separately, which requires one to move in a non-sequential manner through the chapters. Here is my attempt to do that.

Kit Livingston

Kit and Giles (Lord Henry’s coachman) are rescued by Wilhelmina from the tomb of Anen in Egypt. (Wilhelmina was Kit’s former girlfriend in the here and now, whom Kit unwittingly sent into 17th Century Prague via a ley jump that went horribly wrong as related in The Skin Map). Wilhelmina (also known as Mina) directs Kit to split up; he is to ley travel to Luxor, Egypt of another time and pick up a package at the Winter Palace Hotel. Kit departs not knowing where Wilhelmina and Giles have gone. Mina promises to catch up with Kit.

Kit arrives at Luxor, finds the hotel and obtains the package. A note, handwritten by Wilhelmina directs him not to open the package but to take it to Dr. Thomas Young who, in Wilhelmina’s own words, is ‘the last man in the world who knows everything.’ An old Egyptian guides Kit to Dr. Young’s work site. Kit presents the package to Young who opens it to find articles that prove Wilhelmina’s claim to be a traveler from another time.

Wilhelmina and Giles

Before ever ley traveling to Egypt, Wilhelmina learned the art through trial and error and a device built by the emperor’s assistant alchemist (whom Wilhelmina has befriended) who said it was for ‘astral exploration.’ Wilhelmina called it the ‘ley lamp.’ It was a stone with blue lights and a dial; the blue lights lit up and became brighter as she neared an active ley line. In time, Wilhelmina became very good and accurate in ley travel.

After leaving Kit in Egypt, Wilhelmina and Giles ley travel to Edinburgh, Scotland where she visits Dr. Thomas Young and speaks of the tomb of Anen, which the doctor, the world’s leading authority on Egypt, informs there is no such tomb. Wilhelmina reveals the scholar will yet discover it; she knows – she is from his future.

After apparently informing Dr. Young of Kit’s pending visit, she and Giles ley travel back to Prague and her coffee house, and to her good friend and baker, Etzel. There she learns from a downcast Gustavus Rosenkreuz (the assistant alchemist) that he is directed to drop all his work for the sake of building another device for astral exploration; this one is better. Again, Gustavus promises to make a device for Wilhelmina.

Wilhelmina and Giles ley travel to Egypt and the site of Dr. Young’s excavation of Anen’s tomb. Kit assists Wilhelmina’s inspection of the tomb where they discover figures indicating Arthur Flinders-Petrie, known as The Man Who Is Map, i.e., the one who had the symbols that aided in mapping ley travel tattooed onto his upper torso. They also discern that the skin map must have been divided up in such a way as not to destroy any of its symbols. Having seen all this, Wilhelmina, Giles, and Kit return to Prague, 1607, where Wilhelmina’s coffee house and importing ventures are flourishing.

Wilhelmina, Kit, and Giles

While in the coffee house, Haven Fayth (Lord Henry Fayth’s niece, who seemingly betrayed Kit and Giles at Anen’s tomb and departed with Lord Burleigh) comes in. Lady Fayth sternly warns them to leave as Burleigh is in town (he is the one who has instigated the building of the ‘astral exploration’ device). There is distrust toward her, but Wilhelmina deems it wise for Kit and Giles to hide upstairs and later to leave in stealth, accompanied by Wilhelmina. However, Burley men discover their attempt to escape, alerting Lord Burleigh and giving chase. Wilhelmina gives Kit the ley lamp and sends both him and Giles running to escape by a ley line not far away. Kit escapes on Burleigh’s horse (who has been thrown off) and barely makes it to the ley line and escapes. Burleigh has wounded Giles with a gunshot. Wilhelmina, with the help of Lady Fayth, retrieves Giles from Burleigh and nurses him at the coffee house. Her intent is to send him ‘home.’

Kit Livingston (again)

After his escape from Lord Burleigh, Kit finds himself in a prehistoric era and encounters ‘primitives,’ i.e., cave dwellers, who take him into their company. Over time, Kit realizes he has lost the opportunity to make it back by ley travel and becomes a part of the primitive community. Kit masters a small vocabulary of their language and can communicate in a crude way. Kit also discerns that the primitives are able to communicate in some manner of telepathy. Kit meets the cheiftain En-Ul and amazingly is able to telepathically communicate with him. He learns of the bone house, and accompanies En-Ul to participate in a ritual within the structure. While there, the ley lamp becomes active, Kit falls through the floor into a pit and ley travels to a luxuriant paradise. There he comes across a pool of light and witnesses The Man Who Is Map carrying his dead wife into the pool; when they come out, she is alive, and Kit realizes they are at ‘The Well of Souls.’

Lord Archelaeus Burleigh

Gemma Burley gave birth to Archibald Burley the illegitimate son of aristocratic Vernon Ashmole. Spurned by Ashmole, Gemma is forced to raise Archie on her own. Archie is noticed by Granville Gower who takes Burley in to mentor in the antiquities trade. Over time, Archie learns the trade, makes money and learns that a title of high standing will bring great reward. His mentor dies and Archie goes into the business in earnest. He changes his name to Lord Archeleaus Burleigh, Earl of Sutherland. Upon returning from one of his extended travels, he is found to have given himself totally to scholarly pursuits.

Lord Burleigh meets up with Sir Edward Fayth (Lord Henry Fayth's brother) and his daughter Lady Haven Fayth. Haven has no trust in Burleigh, but through a series of unusual events comes to accompany Lord Burleigh on many of his ley travels, in particular to Prague and the royal court of Rudolph II.

Lord Burleigh is behind the development of the device for astral exploration, knowing that the court of Rudolph (who himself is eccentric or perhaps mad) provides the necessary expertise for its construction.

Douglas Flinders-Petrie

Douglas is the great, great grandson of The Man Who Is Map and has plans of his own. With the assistance of a dimwitted assistant named Snipe, Douglas steals a book written in ciphers from the London Museum.

Douglas takes great pains to learn to speak midieval Latin and acquire costumes that would disguise him as a friar of that era. He and Snipe ley jump and meet Roger Bacon who believes he is a visiting monk from another locale. Douglas reveals the stolen book to the Doctor who examines it to announce that the glyphs are of his own making. The book is the Book of Forbidden Secrets. Over three days he translates the work and makes copies of the most important parts. This he keeps safe in his austere dwelling.

Douglas also shows the Doctor the skin map (which he had stolen from Henry Fayth). The Doctor reveals that the symbols are coordinates and provides a sample of the key needed to interpret the symbols. This he does by jotting down several symbols with their coordinate. Douglas acquires this and bids farewell. Meeting Snipe afterwards, he instructs his aid to steal the translation work in the Doctor’s quarters.

Arthur Flinders-Petrie

Arthur Flinders-Petrie (aka The Man Who Is Map and great, great grandfather of Douglas) arrives in ancient Egypt with his Chinese wife who is pregnant. Arthur finds Turms, an Egyptian prophet, priest, and king, who through ritual assures them that the baby is healthy and will be born alive. At a naming ceremony, Arthur inadvertently gives his son the name, Benedict, instead of the intended name of Benjamin. Benedict sticks.

Arthur and his wife return to England. After time, Arthur returns to ancient Egypt with Benedict who is to begin an apprenticeship that is not identified.

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

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Bone House for review on the October, 2011 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.