Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Spirit Well. Day Three of the October 2012 CSFF Blog Tour

The Spirit Well, by Stephen Lawhead
Day Three of the October 2012 CSFF Blog Tour

One of the intriguing developments of Quest Three is the appearance of the Zetetic Society. Cassandra Clarke, a paleontologist working on a dig in Arizona in her pursuit of a Ph.D., is drawn into the world of ley travel and ends up in Damascus, Syria, circa 1930s. Through a poster she becomes aware of the Zetetic Society who promise they can help those who are ‘lost, lonely, and looking for something to believe in.’ Fascinating how that seems to describe Cass. All the more so since the posters cannot be seen by everyone, only by those who are ready and willing to see it.

There are three striking personalities associated with the Society: Brendan Hanno, Mrs. Rosemary Peelstick, and Tess, though the latter comes in rather late. Brendan and Rosemary eventually get around to explaining the mission of the society in earnest. Here is a rehash of the dialog which I have stripped of its beauty, rhythm and homeliness:

Brendan: “It is not too much to say that the future of humankind may depend on the work of the society. We are engaged in a project of such importance to humankind that its success will usher in the final consummation of the universe. . . Our aim is nothing less than achieving God’s own purpose for His creation.”

Cass: “And what purpose would that be?”

Rosemary: “Why, the objective manifestation of the supreme values of goodness, beauty, and truth, grounded in the infinite love and goodness of the Creator.”

Brendan: “Human beings are not a trivial by-product of the universe. Rather, we--you, me, everyone else--all humankind is the reason the cosmos was created in the first place.”

Cass: “I am familiar with the anthropic principle. The theory that the universe was designed to bring about human life--that the universe exists not only for us but because of us.”

Rosemary: “We go further. We extend the principle to say that the universe was conceived and created as a place to grow and perfect independent conscious agents and fit them for eternity.”

Cass: “Human beings, you mean.”

Rosemary: “Yes, dear--human beings.”

Brendan: “What is the aim, the purpose for such an elaborate scheme? [It is] to promote the formation of harmonious communities of self-aware individuals capable of knowing and enjoying the Creator, and joining in the ongoing creation of the cosmos.”

Cass: {Confused, uneasy}

Brendan: “The Omega Point is. . . the point at which the purpose of the universe is finally and fully realised. When the universes reaches the point where more people desire the union, harmony, and fulfilment intended by the Creator, then the balance will have been tipped, so to speak, and the cosmos will proceed to the Omega Point--that is, its final consummation. The universe will be transformed in an incorruptible, everlasting reality of supreme goodness.”

Cass: “Heaven?”

Rosemary: “Yes, but not another realm or world. This world, this universe, transfigured--the New Heaven and the New Earth. It will be a place of eternal celebration of God’s love and goodness where we will live and work to achieve the full potential for which humanity was created.”

Cass: “Which is?”

Rosemary: “Human destiny lies in the mastery of the cosmos for the purpose of creating new experiences of goodness, beauty, and truth for all living things.”

Brendan: “And extending those values into the rest of the universe at large. You see, the universe as it exists now is but Phase One, you might say--it is where living human souls are generated and learn the conditions of consciousness and independence. The ultimate fulfilment of the lives so generated, however, will only be found in the next phase of creation--a transformation we can hardly imagine.”

There are some things I really like about this. One is that the purpose of the creation (in part) is that human beings might know and enjoy the Creator. The other is the corollary to that, that this knowing and enjoying will take place not in another dimension of which we have no point of contact, but in this world, this cosmos--albeit transformed.

But virtally everthing else is wrong. Before I appeal to scripture, let me say that I do so because the Society apparently does. The reference to the New Heaven and New Earth is from Revelation 21, as well as 2 Peter 3:13, Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. And as we will see, Brendan cites Saint Paul.

The significant thing that Peter says about the new heaven and earth is it is where righteousness dwells. It is not so for the old heaven and earth. Paul says that the whole creation is groaning now because of the death and corruption that descended upon everything when Adam sinned (Romans 8:22; Romans 5:12), and it awaits the day when it will be delivered from this corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God, Romans 8:21. Revelation says that nothing will enter into the new creation that will defile it.

What is missing in the Zetetic Society’s eschatology is that the end point is not simply the betterment of humankind, but its rescue from sin into a sinless world. That is what Paul’s eschatology is all about. And it will not take place at a tipping point where mankind seems to wake up and realize its purpose. Mankind will not do that precisely because of its deadness in sin. Men, women, and children are deaf of ear and blind of eye to their sin because they are dead in it, Ephesians 2:1. Man on his own will never wake up to anything spiritual. If he does so, it is only of God’s doing, and it is always a waking up to his own sinfulness and God’s condemnation because of it. He is awakened to a heart-rending awareness of his sin and loathes it. He is aware of God’s mercy and grace in the sacrifice of Christ for his sin, and flees to it. None of this is in the Zetetic Society’s eschatology, anthropology, soteriology, or cosmology.

Brendan appeals to the references of “our guide” Saint Paul, that our conflict is not of flesh and blood, but with “the spiritual hosts of evil arrayed against us in the heavenly warfare.” [p 302]. How much better it would be if Brendan and the society listened to everything their guide had to say.

The Society smacks of universalism. . . it is difficult to see any sign that it is not.

“Human destiny lies in the mastery of the cosmos for the purpose of creating new experiences of goodness, beauty, and truth for all living things.”

That statement sounds like one out of a universalist’s handbook. One of the key passages the Christian Universalist appeals to is 1 Cor 15:22, For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. That reference is in the middle of an exposition by Paul that reveals exactly how the so-called Omega Point will be reached. A proper explanation of that text not only refutes universalism, but also corrects any notion that there is a tipping point.

The Zetetics sound more like an eclectic cult than a Christian society.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Spirit Well for review on the October, 2012 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Spirit Well, Day Two of the October 2012 CSFF Blog Tour

The Spirit Well, by Stephen Lawhead
Day Two of the October 2012 CSFF Blog Tour

My original intent for day two was to do something that I had done for The Bone House, and that was try to lay out the lines of development sequentially for the principle characters of the story.

I began, and all seemed to be going along just fine, but when I was a good ways into Wilhelmina’s adventure, I got lost.

After Wilhelmina is warned by Lady Haven Fayth that Lord Archelaeus Burleigh has devised a plan that will likely put Mina in jeopardy, Mina decides it is best to leave medieval Prague for a while. Among other things, it will give her some time to look for Kit. She decides she must first go to her mentor, Brother Lazarus and enlist his aid.

On page 96, the back story of how Wilhelmina first came to meet Brother Lazarus begins and continues on for pages and chapters, so excessively that I’m not sure if or where Mina’s tale returns to the point where the back story began. It just seemed that for Wilhelmina the pieces no longer fit together.

Now I am going to assume that on closer inspection, I will find that they do, but the fact that I’m running into such a problem now may indicate that the method Mr. Lawhead has taken up may not be the best after all. Perhaps the story should be told in a more linear fashion for each character. The intersection and coincidence of individual stories prohibit a pure linear tale, but I think I’m ready to say it could be improved upon.

I hope to eventually get it all straightened out, but it is doubtful that will happen before the tour will end. At any rate, when I do, I’ll post it.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Spirit Well for review on the October, 2012 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

The Spirit Well, Day One of the October 2012 CSFF Blog Tour

The Spirit Well, by Stephen Lawhead
Day One of the October 2012 CSFF Blog Tour

The Spirit Well is the third quest of the Bright Empires series. The saga began in The Skin Map which introduced ley travel and Arthur Flinders-Petrie or The Man Who is Map. It continued in the second quest, The Bone House, where the Well of Souls (The Spirit Well) was briefly encountered in its climax. And now, the third quest which advances the saga further wherein the threads of the first two continue to grow and bifurcate – an expected consequence of a story of ley travel.

Ley travel may be taken as a mistaken synonym for time travel but it is really a journey through space and time together. As such, the ley travelers of our story (and the number is growing) take the entranced reader backwards and forwards in time as well as hither and yon across the globe.

Ley travel reminds me of a rather primitive computer game I wrote for my daughter once (she was twelve then). Written in Commodore Basic for the Commodore 128, it allowed two players to compete by controlling their individual figures (best described as a disc) across a grid-like screen. The goal was to snatch and possess as long as possible a green diamond shaped object. The longer you carried it the more points you scored. If your opponent managed to intersect your object, he gained control of the green diamond and began to rack up the points. This was well and good but was too predictable. It needed some randomness, so I placed holes here and there in the grid; as the game progressed, more holes would appear. If your opponent was hot on your tail and you could make it to a hole in time, you could duck into it and come out at another hole whose location was unpredictable. Sometimes that helped, other times it did not – you might pop out right in the path of your pursuer and lose the diamond. My daughter and I enjoyed it for hours.

The popping into a hole and randomly popping out of another is like the ley jumps of our story. You may be in the United States one moment, and somewhere in the Middle East the next, and very possibly in a different decade or even century. Such was the experience of a new comer to the story. Cassandra Clarke, a paleontologist and hopeful Ph.D. is swept from her dig in Arizona and lands in a vast monochrome plain which has the feel of prehistory. Attempting to return the way she came, she is transported to Damascus where she has ‘the sensation of having wandered onto a movie set of a film about the 1930s.’

The Spirit Well is a cast of many characters, most of them introduced to us in the first two quests. Kit Livingstone, parted from his girlfriend (Wilhelmina) by the trickiness of ley travel, has ended up in the stone ages where he has taken up with primitives who have the uncanny ability to communicate telepathically. One wonders over the significance of that. He’s the one who has had a glimpse of the Well of Souls, transported there by ley travel, having slipped through the solid dirt floor of a house of bones the shape of an igloo. What he saw at the Well is significant and certain to play prominently in the grand quest.

Wilhelmina herself, a fussy and rather colorless personality, has ley traveled to medieval Prague, where she has become an enterprising and charming woman who has taken up a partnership with a likable baker. She introduced the coffe house to history and makes a fortune at it. She befriends some of the court of the mad emperor Rudolph and surreptitiously gains the possession of what she calls a ley lamp – a device that can detect ley activity, much like the gizmos of Ghostbusters which detect the paranormal activity of the spirit world. Through much practice, she learns to come and go as she pleases. In this third quest, she finds Brother Lazarus (aka Father Giambattis Becarra), an astronomer in Spain who himself is a ley traveler, a secret he was able to keep until Mina’s arrival. Mina poses as a nun, and learns much from Brother Lazarus about the mystery of the electromagnetic energies that allow one to pop in and out of space and time. He has a theory that one’s departure point along a ley line determines the time period of a traveler’s destination. Get that down and theoretically, one may travel to any point in history.

Lord Archelaeus Burleigh is a ruthless dealer in antiquities who has gained some expertise in ley travel (he is much the genius behind the device for astral exploration, i.e., Mina’s ley lamp) and thereby has obtained countless treasures by which he has made a fortune.

The fate of Arthur Flinders-Petrie and his son Benedict is revealed. Arthur, the original expert of ley travel, who had discovered something marvelous but kept the secret to himself, mapped his travels and discoveries through tattoos on his skin. This map was removed from Arthur’s body and made into a parchment; the details of how this happened are explained in this quest.

Charles Flinders-Petrie (son of Benedict), whose faults and vices are not to be overlooked, turns out to be a somewhat compassionate and discerning character. He manages to do something with his portion of the Skin Map that keeps it out of the hands of his shady and dangerous son, Douglas – for the time being at any rate. Douglas, a college drop out, has his own interests in the Skin Map and does some terrible things as a result of it.

The swelling tide of the story reaches a high point with the revelation of the Zetetic Society and two of its colorful and charming members, Brendan Hanno and Mrs. Rosemary Peelstick. These take Cassandra into their confidence and reveal the purpose of the society. Cassandra seems to undergo a conversion of sorts and is inducted into the Society, the first in over a hundred years, and now the youngest living member.

The Spirit Well, the Skin Map, the Zetetic Society, Arthur’s secret discovery are what the quest of the Bright Empires series is about. This third book, in all of its byzantine threads, carries the reader through ancient Egypt, medieval Europe, and places of the relatively modern day. The customs, traditions, architecture, medical and business practices, legends and myths of eras past are exquisitely woven together with such vividness and pertinence to the story that one has the feel of being there in the middle of it all – and that is the mark of a great writer.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Spirit Well for review on the October, 2012 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

The Spirit Well 
Stephen Lawhead's Website

Stephen Lawhead on Facebook
CSFF Bloggers for this tour

Monday, May 21, 2012

Matthew 13:36-43 and Universal Salvation

After Jesus had delivered the parable of the tares and the wheat,[1] (Matt 13:24-30), his disciples came to him and asked him what it meant:

37 He answered and said to them: "He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man.
38 The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one.
39 The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels.
40 Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age.
41 The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness,
42 and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
43 Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

The Christian Universalist (CU) believes, as all orthodox evangelical Christians do, that all men are saved only through Christ [2] because of Christ’s atonement for their sin. They also believe that (a) all men will be saved, and (b) some men will die unrepentant and faithless and therefore suffer the punishment of hell. The two views are made compatible by their view of hell, that the punishment is not retributive or eternal, but rather corrective and temporary. Therefore, all men who die in their sins will eventually come to their senses in hell and repent and believe. At that time, the penitent sinner in hell will be rescued and brought into the kingdom and share its glory and blessing with those who died in faith and received that kingdom on the Day of Judgment.

How might a CU respond to the parable of the wheat and the tares? As Christ explains it, the kingdom has two kinds of members, those who are the sons of the kingdom (the wheat), and presumably, those who claim to be sons of the kingdom, but in fact are sons of the wicked one (the tares), having been sown by the devil himself. As such, there are at work two opposing agents, God and the devil. Both are sowing seed in the world. The one sows wheat while the other sows tares respectively identified as the children of God and children of Satan. The one who presides over the kingdom has ordered that the sons of the wicked one will be allowed to grow up side by side with his own true children until the end of the age at which time they will be separated. The destiny at the time of separation for the sons of the kingdom will be glory as they will shine as the sun in their Father’s kingdom. The destiny of the wicked is to be cast into the furnace of fire accompanied by weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I suspect the CU will stand unflinchingly before this text and deny that it has any power to persuade him away from his universalism.

One response of the CU might be to accept everything as explained by Christ but ask the question, What bearing does that interpretation of the parable have to do with whether or not the wicked will remain in the furnace forever? How does it prove that there is no redemption from hell for the resident of hell? It explains how they get there but it does not prove that they will stay there forever.

Another response might be that of Thomas Talbott who, in his treatment of the parable of the sheep and the goats, insists that parables are not to be taken in their detail.

“. . . Jesus never intended for anyone to take the details of a parable literally; the details merely provided a colorful background for the main point, which itself is not always easy to discern. So as a first step towards understanding the parable of the sheep and the goats, we must try to discover its main point.”[3]

Within the context of Christ’s own explanation of the parable, there are observations that would indicate the aforementioned CU responses are not adequate to oppose a non-universalist interpretation of the parable.

The first observation is that Christ’s explanation of the parable takes on great detail. Talbott’s point that a parable should not be taken too seriously in its detail does have validity to it. Nevertheless, when we see Christ’s own explanation of the parable, we find that there is much weight given to the particulars. Christ commences to interpret the parable by identifying precisely what the elements of the parable represent: the field, wheat, tares, harvest, reapers, and furnace. None of these details are insignificant. They all must be given their full force in order to understand the meaning of the parable.

Such details reveal that there are two agents in opposition to each other and whose purposes are contrary. The agents are the Father and the devil. The Father’s purpose is to produce sons who are righteous in this age. The purpose of the devil, who is explicitly identified as the enemy, is to produce his own sons who are wicked and as such, oppose the kingdom and the sons of the kingdom. The former’s purpose is to produce a kingdom of holy ones, the latter’s intent is to infiltrate that kingdom with unholy ones, thereby undermining its work in this world. The ultimate goal would be to destroy the heavenly kingdom.

The emphasis on the distinction between the wheat and the tares at every point of the parable is given greater relief by the fact that there is no attempt to work out an arrangement of co-existence. At first, it may seem that that is the very idea of the Father since he commands to let both grow up together until the harvest. However, the Father’s purpose in doing so is not to bring the two in a harmony or peaceful agreement with one another. Rather, it is that the wicked will manifest themselves as the wicked and thereby become readily identifiable at the harvest where they are finally separated from the righteous. The contemporaneous existence of the two is temporary and has always in view the harvest, the time in which the Father’s purpose toward the true sons of the kingdom are fulfilled, namely, their confirmation in glory. It is also a time in which the Father is going to confirm his kingdom collectively in holiness and in doing so it will require the removal of the sons of the wicked one.

Another aspect of this distinction is the obvious. The tares are biologically different from wheat and cannot be transformed into wheat. So it is with the sons of the wicked one. They cannot be transformed into wheat. One may argue, Are we not all tares and some of us have been transformed into wheat? I would say that in terms of the identity of the tares in this parable, the answer is no. It is true that Paul says that Christians were all children of wrath by nature when God, because of his great love with which he loved them while dead in trespasses and sins, made them alive together with Christ (Eph 2:1-5). But that is not the lesson of the parable. The parable does not contradict Paul. But its purpose is to show that from the beginning, there are certain ones whom the Father has planted in his kingdom, and that they are there because of his doing. If they are not planted by the Father, they are not his. And it is certain that there are those in the kingdom who are not there by the Father’s planting. They are not true sons of the kingdom and never will be because it is impossible for them to be transformed from sons of the wicked one to sons of the Father. The impossibility for transformation resides in the fact that the Father’s intent is to produce no miracle of transformation for the tares. The tares are to remain tares during this age until they can be purged out of the kingdom. That is their destiny, not by chance, but by the good pleasure of the owner of the field, the Father.

The purpose of the separation at the end of the age is to facilitate the removal of the tares from the kingdom in such a way that the wheat will not share the same destiny of the furnace of fire. The wicked will be readily distinguishable at the time of the harvest. As such, the tares only will be rooted out and banished from the kingdom. This complies with other NT teaching, particularly Paul who warns that evildoers who practice all manner of sinful deeds shall not inherit the kingdom of God, Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 4:3-6. The destiny of the tares is not an inheritance in God’s kingdom. They are rejected because they are wicked. Their destiny is the furnace of fire.

This distinction stresses another point. There is absolutely no mention in the parable of its reversal, not in this age, nor in the age to come. There is not the slightest hint of delivery of the tares from the furnace. The silence is so potent that it suggests strongly that the furnace is the final, irrevocable destination of the tares. As a parable about the kingdom, if deliverance from the furnace were ultimately true, its exclusion here is baffling. Granted, a parable about the kingdom is not expected to say everything there is to say about the kingdom. But the inclusion of such a dimension of the kingdom, that is, ultimate universal delivery from the furnace, if it were true, would fit appropriately, even expectantly.

An argument from silence, it is said, is not a valid argument. But when there is complete silence, it stands as a weighty argument. And there is nowhere, in this parable, or the New Testament that explicitly identifies the children of Satan as ever being transformed in such a way that they are removed from their condition as residents of the furnace. If there were such an essential element in the redemptive historical purpose of God, one would expect at least one overt reference to it in the body of revealed truth deposited in the scriptures. But there is none. Instead, the book is closed on them, so to speak, Revelation 20:15.

The universalist would counter that there is no explicit statement of the Trinity in the Bible. Should we therefore cast doubt on its veracity? If the CU is referring to the absence of a formulaic expression of the Trinity or even simply one that covers the traditional elements of the expression as it occurs in the Church’s creeds, the answer is obviously not. However, the creedal formulas of the Trinity are derived from mountains of New Testament evidence that refer to the persons of the Trinity and their relationship to one another such that the only conclusion one may come to is that God exists as a Trinity of Persons.

But the CU cannot offer any explicit scriptural evidence that those in hell will repent and be saved. When the damned in hell come under the scrutiny of the New Testament, nowhere is there any suggestion that they will ever be delivered from their condition. There is always a foreboding sense of finality when speaking of those who are condemned at the final judgment.

Christ’s emphasis on the details of the parable informs us that (a) there is a distinction between the wheat and the tares that persists not only in this age, but also in the next, (b) there is no intent to transform the tares so that they may become wheat, (c) these is no suggestion that the tares will ever be rescued from the furnace. Because of this, the teaching of this parable argues against a universal notion of salvation.

ILG        The Inescapable Love Of God, by Thomas Talbott. Universal Publishers/uPUBLISH.com, 1999, 235 pages.

CUCD  Christian Universalism? The Current Debate, Edited by Robin A Parry & Christopher H. Partridge. Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2003.

EU         The Evangelical Universalist, by Gregory MacDonald. Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon, 2006, 204 pages.

[1] The disciples refer to it as the parable of the field and the tares, Matt 13:35.
[2] “. . . there is what we would call ‘Christian Universalism’. Although this is a wide family of views, they share in common (a) the commitment to working within a Christian theological framework and (b) the claim that all individuals will be saved through the work of Christ.”  CUCD, p xvii.  Gregory MacDonald, a Christian univesalist, writes, "The universalist will happily concur that reconciliation is only for those who are in Christ through faith. There is no salvation outside of Christ, and one is included in Christ through faith. However, the universalist will also maintain that, in the end, everyone will be in Christ through faith." EU, p 47.
[3] ILG, p. 85.  

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Night of the Living Dead Christian, by Matt Mikalatos. March 2012 CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3

The author identifies a disturbing problem so prevalent in our churches today, and that is the disjunction between so-called faith and the evidence of that faith through works. He brings this out near the end of the novel, after the werewolf’s quest for a cure has come to a successful conclusion:

...it suddenly hit me that our churches are full of these people. Faith with no deeds. We believe in Jesus, we go to church, we lead semi-decent lives, but we aren’t being transformed. We aren’t changing. We don’t think the deeds matter, because we have the “fire insurance.” We’re going to get into Heaven just fine, so we can keep lying and stealing and sleeping around and murdering and being selfish and whatever else it is we’re doing.

  But what James seemed to be saying was that a faith like that was a problem. It’s not the deeds or lack of deeds that’s a problem, it’s that something is wrong with our faith if it’s not producing actions. It’s ineffectual. It’s the sort of faith that fills a pew but leads us to a moment when we are face-to-face with Jesus and show him our works and he says, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (p 217)

Can we identify the reasons for why this problem exists? Obviously, it has been present with us since the beginning of the New Testament church as evidenced by the letter of James, “So also faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead,” 2:17). Part of the reason is the natural tendency of our depravity to misunderstand the implications of the gospel. Paul sensed this as well, and, like James, may have had to defend against it: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” Rom 6:1,2.

Mr. Mikalatos understands this aspect of the gospel, that genuine saving faith produces good works, and he brings the reader face-to-face with it. There is a great need for that in our Christian writing, and Mr. Mikalatos has not shrunk from that.

Yet, there is a serious flaw in Mr. Mikalatos’s theology, and it can actually contribute to the problem. The flaw is this: he does not believe in man’s total depravity, and one's stance on total depravity  has a direct bearing on his preaching and evangelism which in turn affects the response of the unconverted. Let me explain.

In a conversation with Robert (a zombie) and Lara (a vampire), who are despairing of their conditions, Mikalatos points to the image of God in them as a reason for hope. Robert counters by asserting we are totally depraved and if we are a reflection of God, bearing his image, then God himself would likewise have to be completely depraved. Mr. Mikalatos responds:

“I don’t think so. It might mean that we’ve misunderstood what it means to be sinful. Or that we’ve emphasized it so much that we’ve simply lost sight of the fact that in our deepest, most horrific actions, some piece of us is still outside of that, some part of us is made in God’s image, and that’s not something we can ever completely eradicate.” (p 220)

A little later, Matt relates a story for Robert and Lara about a symphony he and his wife once attended, and how the music filled the concert hall with magnificent beauty, and how it revealed that, as an image-bearer,

“...a man can take what is in his mind and scratch it out on paper, and others can fashion instruments, and still other sacrifice their lives to learn to bring pleasing sounds from these instruments.” (p 222)

And then, later again, while observing other nameless men and women who had attended the symphony, and reflecting on the players of the symphony, and the conductor, that for all of them and us,

“... we need not be captives to our base selves, because by God’s grace there stirs a deeper desire to be like the one who made us.” (p 223)

Now, I believe that we are made in God’s image and appeal unhesitatingly to that fact as a reason to pursue writing as a conscious effort to reflect our Creator through the creation of our own story-making.

But being made in God’s image does not mean that there lies within the sinner a spark or tiny island or a small reservoir by which he wants to be like the one who made him. If this notion of an inherent sensitivity or openness or searching for God is at the bottom of one’s anthropology, I maintain that one’s understanding and explanation of the gospel is going to be affected adversely. If there is somewhere deep in the heart of every person a desire to be like God, then the appeal to that person will be merely to become a follower of Jesus. And that is not what the gospel calls us to do. We cannot call sinners to become followers of Jesus because sinners do not want to be followers. Sinners want to be sinners.

The New Testament appeal to the sinner is this, “Repent and believe.” Jesus saves us from our sins. He frees us from our sins. If there is any hope for change, it does not spawn from a fractured remnant of the image of God that resides in us as a deep, innate stirring that seeks to be like the one who made us. We are called to look away from ourselves and turn wholly to the one who has the power to set us free. By the work of regeneration, the Spirit of God awakens us to our sinfulness, grants us repentance and faith to turn to the only one who can free us from our sin - its penalty, power, and someday, its presence. And that will not happen unless the sinner is faced with the truth of his sinfulness and his complete helplessness to do anything about it.

Regrettably, the gospel call often is misconstrued to be a call to follow Jesus. Mr. Mikalatos himself presents the gospel in this way as one may conclude from videos of his speaking engagements. Such a call assumes that the one called actually has the power to follow Jesus. A call to follow Jesus presumes that if the sinner looks within himself he will realize that following Jesus is the only thing that makes sense.

The response to such a call is disastrous. Instead of the sinner repenting and turning to Christ to be delivered from his sin and thereby enabled to do what he cannot do in himself, he takes courage in his own ability to follow Christ, having a false sense that he has the power to do it, and that all he needs is to give in and let Christ show him how. It does not address the root of his problem, his slavery to sin and inability to do anything but sin. There may be change, but it is not the transformation that the New Testament speaks of. The sinner remains at heart an unchanged sinner.

Thanks to Saltriver (Tyndale House Publishers) for kindly providing a copy of Night of the Living Dead Christian for review on the March 2012 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Matt Mikalatos’s Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants

Night of the Living Dead Christian, by Matt Mikalatos. March 2012 CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2

Night of the Living Dead Christian has a mix of reviews on Amazon.
The lowest rated review was a single two-star in which the person simply said he could not get into the book, which happens, of course. I’m sure there are many out there who would find it hard to get into the Harry Potter books, though I suspect they are related to Charles Winchester III.

I read several of the three star reviews. They generally came down on the favorable side, but often just barely. Questionable use of zany humor, an odd presence of werewolves and zombies, and an incoherent flow of the story were some of the reasons proffered for the unenthusiastic ratings. Regardless, there is one thing that they all seemed to get from the story, and that was the need for transformation.

I agree with that. Transformation, and more precisely, transformation that comes only from Christ is the essential message of the book.

But there are some serious problems. In a post for a previous blog tour I argued that a novel is robustly Christian only if it brings the salient truths of the gospel into the story (October 2011 Tour, Day Three – The Bone House. I restricted the scope of those truths to the reformed doctrines of grace defined by the acronym, TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints). I believe the doctrines of grace are a correct and therefore biblical understanding of what the gospel is. As such, they are the measuring rod for what makes a story Christian. In my estimation, Night of the Living Dead Christian fails to meet that standard.

The failure is at the point of Total Depravity. Total Depravity is simply this, that every person born into this world is a sinner. Each of us are conceived in sin (sinners from the moment of conception) as David testifies, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me”, Psalm 51:5. There is nothing good in us, nothing that seeks after God or his ways. There is nothing in us that enables us to seek him because the spiritual things of God are things the natural man is incapable of understanding, 1 Cor 2:14. It is not that he tries to understand them but for whatever reason, fails to. It is that the things of God are foolishness to him and he does not want to have anything to do with them.

The werewolf Luther Martin, the character that the story centers on, is not like this. We catch this early on, in the werewolf’s own words:

None of use desire to remain wolves. All of us desire to remain wolves. It is the nature of the werewolf to be both man and wolf, and for many years I was satisfied – no, pleased – to be both man and wolf. (p 47)

The imagery (or allegory, if you will) of a werewolf as representing the unconverted man is wrong. Here is the picture: the base, amoral animal nature of the wolf represents the bad of human nature while the intelligent, sane and moral nature of the man represents the good. But the sinner from birth does not have a good side. In fact, a werewolf like the one in our story, who has two conflicting natures at war with each other, can only be true of the Christian, for the Christian alone is the one who has been freed from his sin which seeks to regain mastery over him –

For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do (Gal 5:17).

Luther Martin is no such Christian. Though he grew up in the home of a Lutheran minister, he rejects any claim to be a Christian. He paints some of the integral doctrines of the Christian faith in farcical terms. The reformed doctrine of Unconditional Election is treated this way, as well as the significance of the atonement:

Thus we come to the likewise ridiculous Christian sentiment that he [God] has “chosen” or “elected” us to be in relationship with him, and that he loves us and adopts us as his progeny. It is like saying I have tipped over an anthill and selected certain ones of them to be my children. Not merely that, but I have chosen to sacrifice my human child so their accursed anthill can be spared destruction, and that I am making this handful of ants the heirs of my vast estate – of my house, my car, my food, my clothes, my money. Certainly this comparison does not even begin to scratch the surface of the ridiculous claims of the Christian faith. (p 156)

This underscores that the gospel is foolishness to the sinner, and Luther Martin is such a sinner. Matt Mikalatos’s use of a werewolf to represent the condition of human beings without the grace of God in Christ is simply wrong.

One might counter by saying that any allegory is going to breakdown at some point and that you cannot expect a one-to-one correspondence between the allegorical character and the real-life one which it represents. I agree, but the werewolf was chosen because, in Mr. Mikalatos’s theology, the sinner is not totally depraved, just as the werewolf is not totally animal.

That is a serious flaw in the theology that underlies Mr. Mikalatos’s novel, and it has serious implications. I will address this more in my third post.

Thanks to Saltriver (Tyndale House Publishers) for kindly providing a copy of Night of the Living Dead Christian for review on the March 2012 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Matt Mikalatos’s Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants
Night of the Living Dead Christian on Amazon.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Night of the Living Dead Christian, by Matt Mikalatos. March 2012 CSFF Blog Tour, Day 1

Matt Mikalatos, the author and first person protagonist, has assumed the responsibility of neighborhood watch. On the particular evening in which the story opens, Matt comes across Dr. Culberton, the stereotypical mad scientist who, especially at this first encounter, has a remarkable resemblance to Dr. Emmet Brown of Back to the Future. Culberton is assisted by his android, The Hibbs 3000. Together they are in search of werewolves, not to kill, necessarily, but to study and cure if possible. Their mission, in the words of Culberton, “is both a spiritual and a scientific endeavor.”

Though I have never read Imaginary Jesus, what I have heard, especially in the endorsements for that novel, Matt Mikalatos (the real one, that is) is noted for a zany humor, which not only makes the reader laugh but also facilitates the conveyance of the message. Obviously, I am not against humor, I like to laugh as much as the next person, and because of that, I have a fondness for some zany characters that some might raise an eyebrow at – Spongebob Squarepants, for instance. Humor can do many things for a story, the most important of which is to enhance its friendliness. In Night of the Living Dead, it often worked well, but sometimes it got in the way. With such a humorous tone, I think a reader’s tendency is too often to look for the next laugh and miss the message. A rereading of the book might be necessary to scoop up what eludes the first time round. It also poses several general questions about humor’s contribution: Is it natural? Does it underscore? Does it detract? Can it be overbearing? Can it be monotonous?

But it is not the humor that I am concerned about.

Monsters wend their way in and out, representing loosely allegorical situations and phenomena of the way Christianity is perceived and practiced. For me, and it may be because I’m rather thick-headed when it comes to allegory, I did not make what probably should have been obvious connections until the author was kind enough to tie pieces together at the end. The fact that I wasn’t getting it as I was reading was a little frustrating, but I knew that was mostly on me, and I was pretty confident that the author suspected there were some boneheads like me out there, and that he would help us out.

Regardless, it is not the allegory that I am concerned about.

I did not miss the most obvious connection, and that is the werewolf the story settles onto, and more particularly the quest for a cure. The predicament of the werewolf was that he became something that he could not help to become, something vile and violent and offensive, which destroys the most intimate human bond he had – his marriage. To be cured is something the werewolf wants to do, and at the same time, does not want to do. That antinomy serves as a premise that underlies the theology of the novel. The werewolf is the quintessential allegory of the book. The message and theology of the story center on him. If you understand the werewolf, you understand what the novel is trying to say about the gospel.

I think many are of the same mind as Chris Fabry (Almost Heaven), whose endorsing remark succinctly states what the reader of NLDC is faced with. Chris writes:

“Matt Mikalatos gets what the gospel is all about. It’s not about reform or spiritual cosmetology. We’re dead, we’re monstrous, we’re enemies of God. But because of his great mercy, he desires a relationship. He wants us to become like him”

I agree with the part about our condition as dead and enemies of God, but the werewolf of Mr. Mikalatos’s story is not really like that. The second part about what God desires is iffy as well. How so? And what is at the root of the theology of Matt’s book? Those are things I want to get into with tomorrow’s post.

Thanks to Saltriver (Tyndale House Publishers) for kindly providing a copy of Night of the Living Dead Christian for review on the March 2012 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Matt Mikalatos’s Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants
Night of the Living Dead Christian on Amazon.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Contract With the Reader? What's the Intrigue About That?

Sally Apokedak, a participant of the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour, recently published a blog titled, Contract With the Reader in which she challenges others to submit the first 150 words of their story’s opening. The purpose is to allow peers to review and critique the writing from the perspective of whether or not they fulfill the ‘contract with the reader.’ Unfortunately, the blog does not provide a precise definition of what that contract is. Rebecca Luella Miller responds in a comment, "If I’m understanding correctly, the contract is more about tone, character, and conflict."

What is this contract? Ed McBain (an accomplished author whom Stephen King thought highly of, and that’s saying something) wrote an article, Nature of the Beast, in which he delineates what he means by a contract with the reader, and is well worth a look. He states the contract as follows:

I know all the rules of mystery writing, and I promise that I will observe them so long as they provide a novel that will keep you fascinated, intrigued, and entertained. If they get in the way of that basic need, I'll either bend the rules or break them, but I will never cheat the reader. Never.

He goes on to explain how that contract works from the perspective of a mystery writer, that is, what it will take for him to keep the reader “fascinated, intrigued, and entertained.”

It was interesting to read the observations made on Sally’s post in response to the several 150-word entries, and it seems to me that most of them were off point. They questioned POV (too omniscient for some), were preoccupied with whether or not the reader could discern the genre, made judgments about the pace the story would likely take on, worried over bringing the character to life, and so on.

I think it is much ado about nothing. Now, I’m not disparaging the importance of the opening, the initial paragraph(s) of a story. They are extremely important. Really, they’re a matter of life or death, figuratively speaking, of course.

What must they do?

Hook by intrigue. Whatever the purpose the author may be investing in these initial lines for the rest of the story, they must above all intrigue the reader. In contradistinction to the concerns expressed by many over the 150 word entries, intrigue is not dependant on signaling what kind of story you’re getting into, introducing the protagonist or antagonist, promising action and fast pace, jerking the heart strings, and so on. It is simply coherent writing that begins a story from point zero, where absolutely nothing is known, and creating an impression that has enough fascination that will keep the reader going because it’s not boring.

I've grabbed two books within arm’s reach, C. S. Lewis's, Out of the Silent Planet, and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and in them I find the first 150 words hooking the born reader from the start. They aren’t action-packed scenes; they don’t dazzle with wondrous description, offer any certainty of the importance of the characters, or relate interior monologue. They start out small, as they must, but they pique the interest.

Consider Lewis's Pedestrian. He’s just evaded a drenching by taking shelter under a tree, and is concerned to get to a place where he can stay the night (as evening is coming on) having been denied accommodations in the town he just passed through. The POV is omniscient, the Pedestrian is the protagonist, but we have no clue that that is so, yet. We can't tell if this is going to be a mystery, a fantasy, or a historical novel. Who cares. It's intriguing! It's slow, but again, who cares? The intrigue is the hook and the bridge to what follows.

Rowling's opening starts out with the Dursley's. They’re probably important, but there is no certainty as to what role they will have. All we know is that they are a bunch of fuddy-duddies who, if we knew them, would never expect them to be involved in anything strange or mysterious. Now, that in itself is a strong hint that the story's going to be about the unusual, but you don't know if it is going to be fantasy, science fiction, or simply a series of ordinary events that taken together turn out to be extremely odd. She devotes much to a description of Vernon and Petunia (though we don't know their names yet), which props up their persona as prim and proper, ne'er-do-wrong, snobs. They’re intriguing characters, and you can’t help but keep reading to satisfy that gnawing eagerness to see what’s going on.

Regarding the first 150 words, regardless of what kind of contract you think you have with the reader, the thing you must do is intrigue him with the first sentence or two, and build on it.

Here's Lewis's first sentence:

The last drops of the thundershower had hardly ceased falling when the Pedestrian stuffed his map into his pocket, settled his pack more comfortably on his tired shoulders, and stepped out from the shelter of a large chestnut-tree into the middle of the road.

No power-packed action or breathtaking description. Simple, picturesque, and curious.

Here’s Rowling’s first sentence:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

My reaction: a smile and the thought, Whoa, this ought to be good.

Here are more examples where I think intrigue is at the heart of the opening lines. Some give a strong sense of what the genre is. Only two give it with any certainty.

Janner Igiby lay trembling in his bed with his eyes shut tight, listening to the dreadful sound of the Black Carriage rattling along in the moonlight.
--Adam Peterson, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness.

From a snug in the corner of the Museum Tavern, Douglas Flinders-Petrie dipped a sop of bread into the gravy of his steak and kidney pudding and watched the entrance to the British Museum across the street.
--Stephen R. Lawhead, The Bone House.

It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.
--J. K. Rowing, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
--J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Most everyone in Utah remembers 1896 as the year the territory became a state. But in Adenville it was celebrated by all the kids in town and by Papa and Mamma as the time of the The Great Brain’s reformation.
--John D. Fitzgerald, The Great Brain.

This is the story of an idea and how it played about in the minds of a number of intelligent peoples.
--H. G. Wells, Star Begotten.

Keryn Wills was in the shower when she figured out how to kill Josh Trenton.
--Randall Ingermanson, Double Vision.

“On a post. In a pond.”
Delaney said the words aloud, not because anyone could hear him but because the words needed saying.
--George Bryan Polivka, Blaggard’s Moon.

The year 1866 was marked by a series of remarkable incidents, and a mysterious phenomenon that excited people everywhere.
--Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.
---A. A. Milne, The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh.

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms.
---Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

February 2012 CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3 The Realms Thereunder, Ross Lawhead

At least one member of the blog tour (none other than RLM) found the episode of Daniel in Elfland the most interesting. Frankly, there is so much that one can choose from. I also found the tale delightful. It was an interesting twist in the book. Daniel does not go back to the zany subterranean world of yfelgopes, cranky wizards, and blind women on an island in a dried up ocean, stone cities, and such. The contrast could not be starker.

As soon as Daniel arrives he is aware of a potent difference, even from the normal world he had come from; it seems to be the expansiveness of the place (and as we learn later, the time too) - there is the sun in the sky, a forest on the distant horizon, a lone mountain on the other, and a vast uninhabited, unobstructed green meadow. One has the impression that there is a powerful presence there, not apart from but immanent in the world. How immanent?

Daniel heads for the forest (a contrast to the stone under-world of Niðergeard) where he is approached by Kay Marrey who informs Daniel he is in Elfland - the Faerie realms. Daniel’s experiences in this land are loaded with anticipation for the further unfolding of the story itself. Kay explains that in the Faerie realms, objects have ownership. To put it in unvarnished terms, the inanimate has personhood! The paper that Daniel was given at St. Michael's church, just before he passed through the lych-gate into Faerie land, turns out to be a leaf. 
   Kay reached into the front pocket and pulled out the slip of paper that Daniel had been given. Except now, when Kay held it, Daniel saw that it was a leaf. A large yellow oak leaf.
   “Where did that come from?” Daniel asked.
   Kay Marrey held it upright by the stem, between his thumb and forefinger. “You were given this, yes? In your world. Did you know what it was?”
   “At first, I thought it was money.”
   Kay nodded. “It is a leaf of a different wood. It was taken to your world as a way to mark and snare you.” (p 115) 
Interesting. Given that the material stuff of Elfland holds the immaterial quality of ownership, it looks as if the leaf was used by someone not to merely send Daniel to that world, but to make him a permanent vassal there. Why? And how did the one who passed it to Daniel in this world, at the church, get it? That’s important as we learn that person's identity to be one of those critters that Daniel runs into at the beginning of the novel, who obviously would be entirely out of place in Elfland - not a native inhabitant. Are there insiders there cooperating with outsiders?

There is something about Elfland that is disturbing, however. The notion of ownership by the inanimate is disturbing enough. But it goes even deeper. This comes out when Daniel reveals to Kaeyle (the stoic charcoal maker) and his wife, Pettyl (love that name!), that he has made an arrangement with the merchant, Reizger Lokkich, by which he would return to his (and our) world. Kaeyle is doubtful. 
   Kaeyle ... said to him. “Daniel, don’t do this new deal. Stay with us for the next few days and take the surer, more natural route home.”
   “No, I have to get back soon. I’ve heard my friend’s voice calling me--twice now. I just feel--I need to get back as soon as possible. She needs me.”
   “It may not be in the plan that you reach her so soon.”
   “Plan? What plan?”
   “The plan of the universe. The natural order that instructs all things, that guides the hearts of all living things.” 
Daniel is skeptical of the ‘Plan.’ Pettyl tries to explain. 
   “Don’t think of it as a plan--think of it as all of the created worlds working in an ideal state. Nothing is set, but things have a best course. Within this we may stay on our course, or travel a different one. If we go this other way, then we have made things disordered, and it may be difficult to correct after that. More, it may knock others out of alignment.” (p 308) 
This has the feel, though not the humor, of Dr. Emmett Brown warning Marty McFly that if they’re not careful they might disturb the space-time continuum and destroy the universe.

What is behind this? Deism? Panentheism? Open theism? Daniel follows the logic. 
   “...it seems to me like the universe needs a little helping hand to correct things. And if I can, then why shouldn’t I? Is it the ‘ideal state’ that good people suffer?”
   Daniel felt his blood warm and skin tingle. Things were falling into place now; it was getting clearer. “I was brought to this point by the universe--by God. This has happened to me before. Here I am, further away from my ‘ideal state’ than I’ve ever been. I’ve been put in an almost impossible situation, once again, and I know that I have the ability to win through and set things right. If there is a universal plan, then there’s no way I’m not a part of it. I’m probably the only one in this world who can fix things and the universe knows it--that’s why it brought me here. First I’ll fix this problem and then I’ll go back and fix my own.” 
There is a confusion of a personal God with an impersonal universe. Daniel is quite confused here and though there is a soul-zinging moment of clarity for him, an epiphany, and as dramatic as it is, it is an epiphany of delusion. I’m not chiding Mr. Lawhead at this point. On the contrary, it has great potential to bring the truth of the Triune God into bold relief. This is the precarious nature of Christian fantasy. It can sound like the author is advocating a pagan, non-Christian world-view, but he is not. He is setting it up for the truth to come thundering in, in due time. We will see what Mr. Lawhead does with this opportunity.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Realms Thereunder for review on the February 2012 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Ross Lawhead's Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants
The Realms Thereunder on Amazon

Monday, February 20, 2012

February 2012 CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2 The Realms Thereunder by Ross Lawhead

There are several places in Mr. Lawhead’s novel that impinge directly upon the metaphysical and theological. Fantasy does that. Especially Christian fantasy wherein it is difficult to avoid conveying at least a minimal message to the reader. Perhaps even a subliminal one. As this is done by using the make-believe to tell us something about what is real, some Christians oppose fantasy: 
It becomes very difficult to separate fantasy from reality, especially in the minds of children. There was an interesting article in The Newhall Signal (newspaper) in light of this. Noting one of the teachings of the popular fantasy games, "Death is usually seen as a temporary state with characters returning 'from beyond' to play again..." -- from Christian Fantasy: Biblical or Oxymoron? 
I’m not sure what a fantasy (roll playing?) game has to do with the fantasy of literature, but the implication is that, especially for children, the ability to discern between fantasy and reality is difficult. In the article cited above, this point is made in the context of a broader assumption that fantasy contributes to a distorted discernment of the real. 
While God told us to continually communicate truth to our children (Deut. 6:5-7), today's culture trains children to see reality through a global, earth-centered filter. This "new" mental framework distorts truth, stretches the meaning of familiar words, and promotes mystical "insights" that are incompatible with Christianity. – ibid.
 I’ve written a brief article defending the case for the literary genre of fantasy and its use in imparting Christian truth, and it is not my intent here to present an apologetic for it.

But however one may come down on the issue, the writer of Christian fantasy has to concede that, by definition, the story must proffer elements of a world-view that simply does not exist. For me, as a writer and supporter of Christian fantasy, not only do I not see that as a contradiction of Christianity and biblical truth (the only kind of truth there is), but that it is well suited to do exactly the oppostie, convey biblical truth in a way that cannot be done through regular fiction or non-fiction. This places a great responsibility on the Christian writer to ensure that the story-world he creates (reflecting his Creator’s image in doing so) does not by negligence promote a non-Christian, pagan perspective of reality.

Freya, a key character of Mr. Lawhead’s novel, who has experienced the ‘reality’ of a fantasy world, struggles with the attitudes of those who would pooh-pooh that which they do not understand and have not experienced. After causing a scene by confronting the veracity of a lecturer’s position who began her talk with the opening words: 
“‘The Matter of Britain’ is the name that we give to the works that form up the early pseudo-histories of Britain...” (p 18)
 Freya wrestles with her conscience and motivation on the matter: 
“Why did she do it. What did it matter what people thought and believed, even if it was a lie? What right did she have to burst the fragile bubble of unreality [italics mine], what does it matter if they live a lie? Ignorance is blessing. It was futile to try to wake people up, so why did she do it? (p 22) 
Interesting this – an illustration of the educated scholar rejecting what cannot be proven historically or in the lab. The fantasy world created by Mr. Lawhead is part of a larger reality that includes both worlds, the one we live in and the one that only a few from our world have had the privilege of experiencing. And those who have not experienced it are unbelievers to the core.

Did Freya have the right ‘to burst the fragile bubble of unreality?’ Absolutely, because she knew the truth, she had experienced it first hand. She not only had the right, but the obligation.

Is this not what the Christian is to do? Is he not obligated to burst the bubble of unreality of those whose eyes have not been opened, and perchance God would use that bursting to open their eyes. Taking it into our arena as Christian writers of fantasy, should there not be at least some motivation to take that special gift God has given us and use it to manifest the real through the fantastic, in particular, the reality of the most fundamental biblical truths that center on Jesus Christ and his gospel?

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Realms Thereunder for review on the February 2012 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Ross Lawhead's Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants
The Realms Thereunder on Amazon

Sunday, February 19, 2012

February 2012 CSFF Blog Tour, Day 1 - The Realms Thereunder, by Ross Lawhead

The two characters, Daniel and Freya, in the first book of the Ancient Earth trilogy, are played out in two different worlds (modern day England and a presumably Middle Ages fantasy world), at two different times (present day and eight years prior), and of two different ages (as teens and then as young adults in their early twenties). Ross Lawhead could have told the story in a more sequential manner, perhaps with book one strictly as the story of the fantasy adventure eight years prior. I suspect he may have contemplated that when the tale first started rattling round in his head, but as one thinks upon it, there are good reasons as to why it came out as it did.

For starters, there would have been no way around the fact that Daniel and Freya are not native residents of the fantasy world, that they had their origin in modern day earth, and that Lawhead would have had to get them from here to there anyhow. So there would have been an unavoidable merging of the two worlds from the start. Once there, if he had kept them there for the duration of the book, how much more he would have had to spend on that world. Which would have been appealing, seeing that the extra attention would likely have given the world more substance and development, and it probably would have made the story ten times easier to follow. But after having had the experience of tracing the back and forth of his father’s novels (The Skin Map and The Bone House) I really did not have much to complain with this regard.

There are really two stories to be told. Though the main characters Daniel and Freya are in both adventures, the world-view and maturity of the two are starkly different in each; the early experiences had a discernable affect that continues into the present day. Freya was a happy-go-lucky girl while Daniel was a school-hater with an unhappy home life, and a yearning for recognition. The present day Freya is an obsessive, nervous college student trying to avoid the past; Daniel lives on the streets in order to carry out a mission that understands and faces the past.

In the early tale Daniel and Freya discover a hidden crypt of sorts in a church they are visiting on a school field trip. This houses two knights who have been lying there for centuries, who awaken and play a substantial part in the rest of the story. Not able to leave the church and return home from the crypt, Daniel and Freya are forced to follow the two knights, Egcbryt [ETCH brit] and Swiðgar [SWIDTH gar], back to their world. Through the friendship and protection of these two, the youngsters are spared the devilry and murder of yfelgopes [EE fehl GOHP as] and eventually arrive at their destination, Niðergeard [NI thur gayrd], a subterranean city under threat of attack by the armies of Gad. From there the tale goes on to reveal what they must do to return home and how they accomplished that. It is laden with trial and danger.

The later story of Freya and Daniel in their early twenties involves a return by Daniel to that other world, and of Freya having to contend with influences and entities from that world in this one. What happens to each has a direct bearing on the outcome of the other, which unites them in the end.

Along the way the reader encounters a number of tantalizing creatures and personalities: Ealdstan [ee ELD stan] a cranky ancient wizard in Niðergeard; a wood burner (charcoal maker) in Elfland; eight blind women on an island in the (now dried up) Sleeping Ocean, whose labor is a constant weaving of a tapestry on which the continuous history of the world is embroidered; Neiman, a despicable yet pitiable half-faerie who causes women to become infatuated with him; the merchant Reizzger Lokkich who has murderous plans for Agrid Fiall, a greedy, merciless moneylender; a young dragon and two dead trolls (feasted upon by the dragon), and more.

The writing is quite good, though there are a few places in which some lines made me cringe, being reminiscent of some of my least favorite Christian fantasy writers. The style was not consistent throughout, I thought. It assumed a manner at times (not persistently, though) that was more for young teens in those parts where the story was actually about young teens, that is, the earlier tale.

One of my favorite characters, who did not appear much in the book yet held key scenes, was Alex Simpson. Lawhead’s writing created a remarkably tangible crescendo and spike in the revelation of his role (p. 166); for me, that alone made the reading satisfying.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Realms Thereunder for review on the February 2012 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Ross Lawhead's Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants
The Realms Thereunder on Amazon

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Reading, Meditation, and Christian Writing

I suppose I am like a lot of Christians. I have a hard time keeping a regular, habitual practice of reading the Bible. Why is that so? I am a seminary graduate (Westminster Theological Seminary, MDiv, 1979) and if anyone should have regular Bible reading down by now it should be a seminary student.

The typical excuses I find cropping up with me - too rushed, not always convenient, too many other things that need to get done, etc., etc. Yet I do like to read, all topics and a variety of genre. I can sit for hours and persist in a novel. Biblical and theological books can hold my attention for a long time as well, even some of the heavier ones. But I find trouble devoting the same amount of time for the Bible, that is, to sit down and read, and read persistently!

I think, for me, the biggest problem, which should also be the biggest motivation (and it is) is that the Bible is not just another book. It is the inscripturated Word of God, the means by which God speaks to us today. It must be read carefully, prayerfully, meditatively. I don't do that with a novel, and the only time in which I come within a mile of doing so is if the novel is written in such a way that the great truths of the Bible are profoundly exposited either in the narrative, character(s), or action. Not many novels, even so-called Christian novels, are like that.

This reveals the first obstacle to persistent Bible reading. It is not easy because it is not entertaining. A contrast: The Harry Potter books. The ingenuity of J K Rowling and her superb writing ability (true, she doesn’t write in the same style as J R R Tolkien, but I would place her skill side by side with his) provided a series of books whose entertainment value, for me, has few equals. The Wingfeather Saga, by Andrew Peterson, is another. The latter is considered Christian fantasy while the former is not. Now I think the latter qualifies as Christian fantasy only in an anemic way, that is, it does not bring out the gospel prominently and forcefully. And whether that is good or bad is another question and deserving of an article in itself. But it is fascinatingly entertaining, far more so, and far better written than any other young adult (children’s) fantasy of the last dozen years or more. I love to read them (Rowling and Peterson) because they entertain and captivate; I find myself in the middle of the story, like a holodeck.

Not so the Bible. The closest I come to encountering such an experience are in the historical books of the Old Testament, the gospels, and Acts. Yet, these do not have the entertaining power and sway as do the modern day examples I mentioned above. Which leads to the second reason why it is so hard to read the Bible.

The Bible requires work, even the easier historical narratives. The work is this: I am a Christian and as such I want to understand what God is saying through the pages of Scripture in such a way that it changes me. I want it to make me pursue holiness and seek first the Kingdom of God. I want it to change my heart so that I love as I ought. I want to get a glimpse of the glory of God, and be transformed by it. To do that, I have to read the Bible carefully, even meticulously so that I get the meaning right. If I don’t understand what the plain words of the Bible are saying through the logical and grammatical construction that they come in, even the Spirit of God cannot help me. So, when I read the Bible, I do it slowly and carefully, making sure that I understand what it is saying. If I have to, I’ll stop, think about it (sometimes for a long time) consult a commentary or a sermon if available, check it out in the original language (again, if available), and then move on. Sometimes it takes me days to get through a handful of verses. Some passages, I keep coming back to time after time, still trying to sort out the meaning of it. It’s hard work, and hardly ever fun.

When I ponder (meditate) on Psalm 1, often I am convicted:

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night.

I confess, I do not go through the process I described above day and night. If I did I would neglect other things that I, as a Christian, ought not to neglect. But here is what I do find. The Scriptures follow me. After having painstakingly worked through a biblical text, I find that it keeps interjecting itself into my mind while I am away from it. Sometimes it comes in a verbatim recollection, more often in a paraphrased truth that is succinct and apropos. Often, I wish it were more often than not, without trying, I am analyzing my situation or a situation that affects me or others important to me, and I am doing it from a perspective that comes from the remembrance of scripture. In other words, I am thinking, meditating, applying the scriptures without their being open before my physical eyes. I think this is as much as what is meant by meditation as the traditional understanding.

Psalm 1 is one of those passages that I return to time after time, and the meaning of that word meditation is something that I am still working on, not merely a sterile definition of it but a flesh and bones experience of it. What does it mean for me (or anyone, David included) to meditate on the Law of God? It is important because it is the means by which I am going to prosper in this life; and to prosper (another word of the passage), I think, means to prosper in holy and godly living not in material things (the context of the first verse establishes that). In other words, my spiritual well-being and progress is directly related to a proper understanding of meditation and a proper practice of it, both in the immediate contact with the written page, and also in the mediate recollection of it as I confront daily life.

In light of all this, and harking back to the anemia of much of our Christian writing, it is better (though not an absolute requirement by God) if the Christian writer takes on the role of not only entertainer but also expositor. Entertain by all means, but in the doing of it, teach, so that the product of his pen analogously follows the profitability of scripture which is 'profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness,' 2 Tim 3:16.