Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Shadow Lamp - Day Three of the November 2013 CSFF Blog Tour

All good writing requires craftsmanship. Excellent writing approaches a work-of-art status. Without a doubt, Mr. Lawhead’s writing falls in this latter category. The Shadow Lamp is exemplary of that. For some on the blog tour, The Shadow Lamp was somewhat difficult to get into, it seemed to drag a little, or it had too many different points of view and contained narrative or scenes that were not pertinent to the story. I disagree with them all! How Burleigh got his men was pertinent because it added more depth to the villainy and genius of the character. Overlooking the theology, I reveled in the delivery of the didactic discourse of Gianni; it had me on the seat of my chair, figuratively speaking. I could see and hear him; I liked the scene and the discourse.
The only thing that I did not like, at first, was the two page moment by moment description of the contents of Mrs. Peelstick’s tray crashing to the floor. It was a slow-motion scene, and I’m not sure how else it could be delivered except in the manner of Mr. Lawhead’s. But it fit perfectly with the moment. The End of Everything was microcosmically represented, and I suspect that if EoE were witnessed from the outer edges of the cosmos, it might actually take on the qualities of a slow-motion scene in a movie.

Notwithstanding the superb quality of Mr. Lawhead's writing, I must ask, Should a Christian write what he intends to be ‘Christian’ fiction but also portray an unbiblical world-view? If you have read my Day 2 post, you would understand the rationale behind the question. When I say an unbiblical world-view, I do not mean a fantasy world or a science fiction world. There are those who would regard fantasy of any kind to be unbiblical, but they overlook that the Apocalypse itself makes use of fantastical (make-believe) creatures to convey the revelation of Jesus Christ to the seven churches of Asia Minor.

I should also define what I mean by a writer who is a Christian. Such a writer is one who has had a work of grace within such that he has repented of his sin and turned to Christ alone for salvation from that sin—its penalty, power, and someday its presence. Such a Christian holds to the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the authoritative Word of God, which means they are the final authority in all matters of faith and life, what he believes and how he lives. It means that though the story he writes is imaginary, it has its roots in a biblical cosmology over which there is a God who is truly sovereign and is glorified not only through his attributes of grace, mercy, and love, but also holiness, justice, and wrath.

If that definition of Christian is accepted, then it is difficult to see how a Christian can write a saga that does not reflect a biblical view of God, and still call it Christian. Perhaps Mr. Lawhead does not intend to proffer the Bright Empires series as Christian fiction, though I think he does. But I would not classify it as such. I would be able to read the series without angst, or at least a different kind of angst, if the author were a Dan Brown, Stephen King, or Stephenie Meyer—I would expect such an abiblical cosmology.

There is a metaphysical aspect to all fiction, and verily by definition, Christian fiction, to be truly Christian, should have a Biblical one.



Stephen R. Lawhead's Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants
The Spirit Well on Amazon - Hardcover   Kindle

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Shadow Lamp for review on the November, 2013 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

The Shadow Lamp - Day Two of the October 2012 CSFF Blog Tour

Those who were troubled by the hazy theology of The Spirit Well (Book 3 of the Bright Empires saga), are undoubtedly seriously  alarmed by The Shadow Lamp. My own concerns were expressed in Day 3 of the October 2012 tour. They were tentative giving the author and the series the benefit of the doubt. I was holding out for the hope that the questionable theological trail the book was heading down might make a turn and settle on something that we can truly call Christian.

The problem centers on the philosophy/theology that underlies the thinkers of the Zetetic society, and especially one of its newest members, Giambattista Becarria, or Gianni. Gianni is a close confidant of Cassandra Clark, a paleontologist whose father Tony Clark has newly arrived in 1930’s Damascus where the headquarters of the society resides. Gianni is also a priest and a scientist. That combination wrapped up in one character represents a solution to a perceived incompatibility between science and theology. That solution for Lawhead, I think, is the quintessential motif that lies at the bottom of the story. The essay at the end of the novel gives weight to that idea, for there he draws on the example of Galileo who infuriated both the scientific and religious elite of his day by the heliocentric cosmos theory he was proffering. An appeal to the Galileo issue undergirds, perhaps covertly, the idea that entrenched old and ultimately false tenets tend to inhibit clear rational thinking – which for the most part is probably true. As we all know, Galileo was right, the church was wrong (on the geocentric/heliocentric controversy only). Today, the continuing effect of that episode marks one who holds to a creationist or intelligent design position as obscurantist, anti-intellectual, and utterly unscientific. Gianni represents what is supposedly a reasonable resolution of the tension. The problem is that the theology of Gianni is outright horrible. It is theology ex nihilo.

The Alpha Point
Gianni’s address to the Zetetic members includes this explanation: “We are the beneficiaries of complex processes that began before the Big Bang—the Alpha Point, yes?—processes that were put in place to produce active and independent conscious agents able to respond to their Creator in love. Thus, it follows that we are the reason for the Creation’s very existence. Consequently, the destiny of the cosmos and human destiny are bound closely together from before the beginning—the Alpha Point.” (p 324)

I personally do not have a problem with a Big Bang beginning so long as the Big Bang came out of (or perhaps into) nothing and was the result of God speaking it into being. By nothing, I mean truly nothing, a nothing that is inconceivable. The moment we conceive nothing we have conceived something, which attains physical attributes, even if such attributes include zero dimensions. The Alpha Point is before the Big Bang and therefore in terms of an ex nihilo Big Bang, the processes of the Alpha Point were concurrent with nothing – and that makes it a logical contradiction.

Logic aside, it is bad theology. It is deistic at its best. We get the feel that the processes are put in motion and allowed to run their own course with the full hope that they produce ‘active and independent conscious agents.’

The Omega Point
Gianni continues, “As there was a beginning, so there will be an end. In this, we believe that the Creator desires for time to run its course and not merely end at some arbitrary point short of the final completion He desires—a  destination known as the Omega Point—which is the perfected, harmonious, and joyful unity of all Creation in Him for the purpose of engaging in the ongoing creative activity of a redeemed and transformed universe—forever.”  (p 324-5)

I like this, but I suspect that my picture of this Omega Point (which I think is an accurately Biblical picture) may not be the same as Gianni’s. I’m very suspect of Gianni to be a universalist. Now, it is true, the final end of the universe is a recreation in which there will be perfect harmony and joy. The problem is that the Alpha and Omega Points are not rightly identified as the Son of God who is ‘the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last’ (Rev 22:13). The implication of that appellation is that the cosmos exists for Him and not for us, and that is precisely what the Scriptures tell us (Col 1:16).

But this is not what Gianni holds to; rather, we are the reason for the Creation’s existence. Granted, this is true in a formal way. The creation must exist so that we, the conscious, independent agents have a venue in which to respond to the Creator in love. But its ultimate purpose is not that there be a harmonious, joyful unity of a redeemed creation for its own sake. That unity is likewise secondary. The ultimate purpose of everything is to glorify Christ and to make him the focal point of praise and honor of every sentient and insentient thing (Ps 98:4-9; Is 55:12-13; Rom 14:11; Phil 2:9-11).

A more blatant flaw in the physicist priest’s theology regards the question as to whether or not the Creator controls the “illimitable interactions of conscious human beings with their individual environments, circumstances, and conditions, and in concert with their fellow humans.” (p 326) His answer is, “No....It is my belief that the future is not controlled in any way. To control the future would impose a deterministic outcome on the created order, thereby destroying both the freedom and independence of the freely interacting creatures it is meant to produce and, likewise, negating the very purpose for which the future and even time itself was created!” (p 327)

In Gianni’s eyes, creation is absolutely free from any control whatsoever by God. God made the creation, but has no say in its future. Imagine if that were true. It would mean the moment God brought the world into being, he had no clue what was going to happen from that very moment on. The best that he could do, he had already done, and that was to build into the creation potential for moving in the direction he would like it to go. At that point he could only sit back and hope that all would turn out well.

But it went south from the beginning. First Lucifer, then man. And it happened as a surprise to God, because he had no clue that it was coming. After all, having created a world so complex even at the quantum level and working so beautifully, how could all those ‘complex processes’ that were to enable the conscious agents to respond in love to their Creator fail? It was unthinkable! And yet, it was not good enough. Man could not keep one teeny requirement, and failed. God had failed. The world became a real mess, and mankind, all of it, was on its way to hell. What a pickle. God must have spent most of his time since the beginning of creation wringing his hands hoping things would get better.

But we see that God has intervened from the beginning at the point of man’s failure to live up to that potential. And the first action was not grace, but justice. God cursed man and the whole creation, which is still groaning under that curse. But no sooner had he pronounced the curse, he pronounced hope, the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15. And God could not make such a pronouncement in faith unless he were going to do something that meddled in the affairs of men.

Gianni’s God is not truly sovereign. He is befuddled by the work of his own hands. One might object and say that God voluntarily took his hands off the wheel, and he did so because he was sovereign. Such a suggestion ignores the overwhelming evidence of Scripture, and a true Christian whose faith is based solely on the Scriptures must reject it. So should have Gianni. Sovereignty is not true sovereignty unless it controls in every detail from the smallest subatomic particle to the remotest galaxy. As such, it would be impossible for God to relinquish any control, it would be counter to who and what he is. To do so, would cease to be God.

But then one would say, If God controls absolutely everything then it was his purpose that Lucifer and man would fall;  if God does everything that is good, how can he be responsible for evil? Evil in itself, by definition, is not good. But the existence of it is good, because through it God brings the most glory to himself. His holiness, justice, and wrath are revealed as well as his grace, mercy, and love in a way that could not otherwise be known, and the expression of all of these attributes redounds to his glory.

Gianni may be an intelligent priest, but he is a theological fool.

Stephen R. Lawhead's Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants
The Spirit Well on Amazon - Hardcover   Kindle

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Shadow Lamp for review on the November, 2013 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Shadow Lamp - Day One of the November 2013 CSFF Blog Tour

The Shadow Lamp, book four of the Bright Empires saga, continues the tortuous ventures of Kit Livingston and Wilhelmina Klug who ley jumped into an alternate universe in the inaugural book, The Skin Map. With the introduction of so many characters along the way, and the many plunges into an alternate world, the story becomes nearly as difficult to follow as the plot of The Maltese Falcon, unless one has a photographic memory or keeps a meticulous log.

Having said that, I found The Shadow Lamp a relative breeze compared to the previous three installments. Even so, I won’t attempt to summarize the story and provide a track of its individual characters. Jeff Chapman, who I hope is participating in this tour, typically outshines us all in that effort and I will defer to him.

Lawhead’s development of his characters is without question superb. To give two or three characters a personality that is noticeably distinct from one another, and to keep them consistent throughout the tale, is challenging. But to have so many as this saga has, each one recognizably unique and coherent, are marks of a very talented writer. It is true that there is a large amount of narrative in the story, which to a large part tells rather than shows. But the narrative provides an indispensable framework that enhances the interaction of the characters and the attendant dialogue. The interweaving of the two is smooth and a loss of one or the other would degrade the story.

Mr. Lawhead has conveniently provided a list of characters at the beginning of the book, which provides a reminder of who is who and a sense of what they are like. That list with a synopsis of what has taken place in the first three volumes is invaluable, even for those who have read the entire saga from the start.

One character on the Who’s who? list refers to Mina’s associate venturer in the Grand Imperial Kaffeehaus in Prague.

Engelbert Stiffelbeam – a baker from Rosenheim in Germany, affectionately known as Etzel.

Happy day (and alternate reality) it was for Mina, who very shortly after she screamed herself silent when she landed in fifteenth century Prague (unbeknownst to her at that moment), gathered her wits, and as Providence smiled, encountered Engelbert handling the reins of a mule drawn wagon slowly making his way into the city. Engelbert gave her a lift, and as she sat beside him, she took to assessing her newfound friend, and though she did not know it yet, her future business partner. But that first meeting – how quaint it was, and so full of promise that things might turn out well for Mina after all.

As the vehicle drew nearer, she realized that it was not, as she had first imagined, a simple field conveyance, but a much more substantial vehicle: a large, high-sided affair with a cloth top drawn over curved hoops to form a round tentlike covering. The wagon was pulled by not one but two rangy, long-eared mules, and sitting on the driver’s bench was a very plump man in a baggy cloth hat. She stopped and allowed the vehicle to meet her, whereupon it slowed and rolled to a halt.
“Hiya!” she called, putting on a chirpy voice in the fledgling hope that her damp and bedraggled appearance might be overlooked.
Guten Tag,” came the reply, which sent Wilhelmina instantly back to her childhood and her German Grandmother’s kitchen.
The unexpected oddity of encountering a Deutschsprachigen on the road only served to deepen her already fathomless confusion. Bereft of speech, she could only stare at the man.
....the traveller put down the reins and stood, leaned over, and indicated the iron step ring projecting from the base of the wagon bed behind the front wheel, then reached down his hand. She placed a muddy boot on the step and accepted the offered hand, and was pulled effortlessly up and onto the wooden seat....
They proceeded in silence, rocking over the uneven road. Now and then, she stole a glance at the driver of the wagon.... The plump fellow presented an altogether unremarkable appearance—save for his face: smooth, pink as a baby’s, round, even-featured, with pale blue eyes beneath pale eyebrows, and ample cheeks that glowed in the brisk autumn breeze beneath the fine haze of a thin, stubbly blond beard.
It was the sweet-natured face that made him, she decided, for the countenance with which he faced the world wore an expression of benign cheerfulness—as if all that met his gaze amused and delighted, as if the world and everything in it existed only for his pleasure. He seemed to exude goodwill. (The Skin Map, pp 80-82)

Mina and Etzel became business partners of a thriving Kaffeehaus of the late middle ages. They become close friends as Mina’s first instincts about the man proved true – so true that Etzel remained ever faithful to her in the most trying circumstances that unfold in our present novel:

... He [Burleigh] moved into the room and lowered his voice. “Your associate has involved herself in my business and I want to know why. I want to know everything.”
Concern wrinkled the baker’s placid brow. “I do not understand.”
“My German is not so good.” Burleigh stepped closer. “I will try to explain. The Fraulein is interfering in my affairs. I want to know why. In fact, I want to know everything.”
“I think you should go now,” replied Engelbert, crossing his arms across his massive chest....
“We are not finished,” said Burleigh. He called to Tav.... “He refuses to talk. See if you can loosen his tongue.”
“Right, Boss.” Tav quickly took up a position in front of Etzel....With catlike quickness, his hand flashed out, seizing his victim by the throat. “Listen, you ignorant oaf,” he said, his voice a grating whisper in the startled baker’s ear. “My boss here asked you a question. I suggest you tell him what he wants to know. Or this could get messy....”
Engelbert fell back rubbing his neck. “I will tell you nothing, he said. “You must leave now.”
The words were barely out of his mouth when Tav’s fist smashed into his jaw, snapping his head to the side.
“As I have explained,” said Burleigh, “you will tell me what I want to know.”
The baker, glaring at his attackers from below lowered brows, rubbed his jaw and shook his head. “I will tell you nothing.”
“We shall see.” Burleigh nodded at Tav, who reached into a coat pocket and produced a set of  brass knuckles, making a show of fitting them to his hand and making a first.
“You think to hurt me?” said Engelbert. “You think maybe that if you hurt me this will make me tell you something? Is that what you are thinking?”
“I give you one last chance....”
Tav slammed his fist down on the wooden tabletop....
“Shame on you,” said Engelbert, with a defiant thrust of his chin. “I will tell you nothing.”
Tav lunged forward plunging his fist in the big man’s stomach. Engelbert staggered back, hit the oven, and fell onto his hands and knees. The Burley Man lashed out with his boot, striking again at the baker’s round stomach.
Etzel loosed a gasp of pain. He gulped air and held his side. “Yes, you can hurt me,” he said, his voice tight and strained. “Still, I say nothing.”
....His next blow caught the baker on the side of the head, opening a gash  above his eye. Blood spurted from the cut and splashed down the baker’s round, cherubic face....
“You can knock me down until I get up no more,” Etzel said, dragging himself upright. “But still I tell you nothing....”
“As Wilhelmina has placed her trust in me, I place my trust in God.” He cupped his broken chin. “God is my refuge and strength.” (The Shadow Lamp, pp 288-290)

And on it went. What a faithful friend. What an inspiring character.

Stephen R. Lawhead's Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants
The Spirit Well on Amazon - Hardcover   Kindle

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Shadow Lamp for review on the November, 2013 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.