Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Summer Book Report: From the Trenches of Fantasy Literature

Most of my friends know that I'm a fantasy literature fan. It started with C.S. Lewis and grew into a love of the Tolkien works. I'm particularly drawn to the genre of epic fantasy, and have spent countless hours in the works of Terry Brooks (Good, but not as good as I wanted), Christopher Stasheff (great), Robert Jordan (started well and then became abysmally dull), Dennis McKiernan (really entertaining, though preachy at times), and JK Rowling (is any commentary really needed here?)

This summer, I took a break from some of the heady theology, and dipped back into the fantasy genre. Part of my thinking was that the Harry Potter series was ending, and I wanted to find something to take it's place. The nice thing about contemporary fantasy literature is that most of it is a really quick read (try jumping from Calvin or Augustine to this stuff .... you feel like the pages fly by!), so I've been able to enjoy a lot of it this summer. Here then are some mini-reviews for your consideration.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Yes, I waited in line. Yes, I read it within 3 days. Suffice it to say I found the ending to this epic very satisfying. Rowling worked in some very nice Christian imagery and worked out the various conflicts in the plot well. Of course, in terms of imaginative energy, this series has been running on steam that was built up since book 4...very little of the verbal cleverness that characterized books 1-3. But the spirit was there, and that's what counted for me.

His Majesty's Dragon

This was recommended to me as "Master and Commander....with Dragons." Think Napoleonic wars...think British stiff upper lip and "God save the Queen" and all that rot. Then throw in dragons as though they were giant bombers with aviation crews. It's a clever idea. The writing was brisk and the adventure was crackling good. Even so there was something missing. This wasn't really an epic as much as it felt like a historical romance novel without any kissing. Heavy on plot, light on insight into human character. Author Naome Novis gives a fun first read, but I'm not sure this is going to make my "I've got to read the series" list (there are, by the way, two follow up novels thus far).

The Lies of Locke Lamora

I mostly enjoyed reading this caper novel...and that bothers me. Set in a fantasy city modelled on Venice near the cusp of the renaissance, this story focuses on the extraordinarily brilliant con man, Locke Lamora, and his band of thieves. There is magic in the book, but it's very subtle. The imaginative world is rich and detailed and the characters are vibrant in their individuality. But it's all dark. The characters are all theives, cutthroats, charlatans, powerhungry aristocracy, or something worse. Author Scott Lynch is not squeamish about depicting cruelly enacted bloodshed, nor does he flinch at killing off major characters. About the only virtue in the book is that of loyalty to friends. The ethos presented hearkens back to darker pagan days...the ethos of Odysseus the trickster. Quite simply, I felt oily after reading this book. Lynch plans a 7 book series....he's a talented writer, but I think I'll pass.

Slaves of the Shinar

This debut work from Justin Allen (indeed, all of these, except Harry Potter, are debut novels) hasn't received much attention...but it should. This isn't strictly fantasy per se. It's actually an imaginative story set in the distant legendary past (those familiar with the land of Shinar will recognize it as taking place in the antediluvian world...indeed one of the minor characters turns out to be the father of Noah). So we see here Allen's imaginative understanding of who the Nephilim of the Old Testament they prepare to sweep across Shinar (ancient Mesopotamia) and conquer it all. This book shares many things in common with Locke Lamora...unflinching violence, many of the main characters are thieves and cutthroats. However we see glimpses in this text that there is something worth fighting to preserve. There are ordinary citizens of the Mesopotamian towns who are interested in being peacable and not shafting others. Indeed, out of the epic conflict with the Nephilim, many of the theiving and hard bitten characters begin to grope toward something like civilization. It's a good read...not exactly uplifting, but neither is it cynical.

but the winner is....


Imagine the typical epic fantasy story... the young hero from a backwater village is summoned forth. He's told that the prophecies speak of him... and that he is the one to defeat the evil overlord.

And he fails

What does the world look like after a millenia of domination by the evil overlord? What happens when the peasantry begin to see hope again for freedom from domination? That is the scenario of this book. In some ways, it feels like A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Solshenitzen's tale of living in a Russian gulag), in other ways, it is not unlike the Lies of Locke Lamora -- an incredibly clever thief and his gang work on an outrageous plot to take down the evil emperor. We also have the coming of age element of the young naive hero (or in this case, heroine) who must learn about her amazing powers and discover her place in the rebellion against the emperor.

OK. It's Star Wars in fantasy land. And I mean that comparison in the best sense. I found this book to be rich in both realism about human frailty and optimism that there is indeed something worth fighting for. The story has a strong redemptive theme to it. Here's a series that I look forward to reading more of.



Union In Christ: "Were on a Mission from God"

Purves and Achtemeier begin their commentary with a brief discussion of the title: Union in Christ. Their thesis is that the concept of Union in Christ is the defning characteristic of Christian life, witness, and unity.

Union in Christ is also a key component of our personal identity: “Those baptized into Christ are united with him in a spiritual relationship that now defines them in their core identity.” (9) This statement isn’t supposed to be a statement about the sacrament of baptism – Purves and Achtemeier are assuming the background of Presbyterian understanding of baptism – that it is not the action that is efficacious, but the faith behind the action. However by speaking in terms of sacrament, they’re demonstrating the inseperable nature of faith and obedience. Faith in Christ leads us to obey the call to repent and be baptized – and in our baptism as a response to faith, we are spiritually strengthened with greater faith. That greater faith confirms for us our core identity as belonging to Christ.

The opening verse of scripture from Colossians 1:17 is very telling regarding their purposes – to take our eyes off ourselves and our agendas and machinations and fix them upon Christ: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Without Christ, the authors point out, human life slips back into “chaos and nonbeing.”

These are big claims – and they hinge on the question “Who is this Christ then” – is he the wandering dusty prophet of the skeptics? Is he the radical antiestablishmentarian revolutionary of protest warriors? Is he the uber-peace child of 1970’s musicals?

Achtemeier and Purves make it pretty clear which Christ they speak of: “With the witness of Scripture and the church through the ages we declare….” Their purpose is not to re-envision Christ. Quite simply, their assertion is that Christ has made himself known clearly through Scripture and through the testimony of the saints; it behooves us to listen to them.

There have always been radical voices that reject the historic affirmations about Christ; yet they have done so against the testimony of scripture and the saints of the past. At some point they have said “I don’t care what scripture says” or “I don’t care about the whole counsel of God, I only accept this book as scripture” or “The church has gotten it wholly wrong, and we alone are the repository of truth.” These voices are present in history; they may have even been ascendant for a season of history, yet they don’t accurately represent the Christ as revealed in scripture.

But wait, what of the Reformation? Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing that has happened in reformation and renewal movements of the past. Not at all. Reformation and renewal is at its core a call to return to the scriptures and return to the witness of the saints of the past. The proliferation of denominations, sects, and movements is not necessarily a witness against Christian unity, but rather it can be a witness for it. For it demonstrates that there are essentials on which all Christians must be united, and there are other areas that may organizationally divide us (proper administration of baptism, for instance; or structuring of church government) but we may still be united in our witness of Christ as lord and savior.

It is for this reason that I as a Presbyterian can claim Augustineof Hippo, Patrick of Ireland, Bernard of Clarveaux, John Chrysostom, Teresa of Avila, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Dorothy Sayers, JC Ryle, Fanny Crosby, John Wesley, and a legion of other non-Presbyterians as the saints of the past upon whose foundation I build. I can claim them as my own heritage because we all share the same confession of the same Lord – we all understand the same Christ. It is the Christ of the Nicene Creed; the Christ of the whole scriptures – fully human and fully divine. The second person of the Trinity. The prophet, priest, and king of our confession.

This is the Christ that Purves and Achtemeier talk about in their declaration:

Jesus Christ is the gracious mission of God
To the world
And for the world.
He is Emmanuel and Savior,
One with the Father
God incarnate as Mary’s son,
Lord of all,
The truly human one.
His coming transforms everything.
His Lordship casts down every idolatrous claim to authority.
His incarnation discloses the only path to God.
His life shows what it means to be human.
His atoning death reveals the depth of God’s love for sinners.
His bodily resurrection shatters the powers of sin and death.
They begin with the unusual statement “Jesus Christ is the gracious mission of God to the world and for the world” – At the time of their writing, this was a relatively unfamiliar way of naming Jesus. We think of individuals carrying out a mission, or living a mission or having a mission – But Jesus is the mission. He doesn’t just show they way and proclaim the truth and teach about life. He is the way, the truth and the life. He is the word made flesh. He is the human embodiment of the triune God whose self revelation to Moses was “I am that I am” (exod 3:14). He is the fulfillment of all scriptures (Luke 24:27, Matt 5:17).

This wording fits, because Jesus mission is likely much bigger than simply the salvation of sinners. Certainly that is the part of his mission that concerns us and puts our heart at ease, but that’s not the sum total of God’s mission. The declaration talks about Jesus’ true humanity, Jesus’ authority, Jesus’ victory over sin and death, among other things. And there is more to Jesus’ mission than that. The very glory of God is an end goal of Jesus’ mission: “Truly truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel.” (John 5:19-20) The whole discourse in John 5 speaks of the intimate relationship of God the Father and God the Son and God the Spirit – ultimately pointing to the end goal of the greater glory of the Triune God.

Rightly said then is the statement that Jesus is God’s mission. We could spend a lifetime contemplating the implications of that truth.

Soli Deo Gloria


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Back From Hiatus: On to more reading -- Union in Christ by Purves and Achtemeier

Yes, I've taken a three week or so hiatus from blogging. We've had a number of activities that have left me with little energy for blogging.

Yet the summer reading goes on, and as we bring our Covenant-First summer book clubs to a close, we're starting into Union In Christ: A Declaration for the Church by Andrew Purves and Mark Achtemeier. Thus, it's time for me to get back to the keyboard and think through this concise and well written document. This text is a different kind of document from the other books we’ve looked at this summer. Andrew Murray’s Absolute Surrender was a devotional book distilled from a number of addresses given to general audiences. Meanwhile Torrance’s Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace was distilled from a focused lecture series given to a group of theological students.

Union in Christ is not a series of lectures. It is subtitled “A Declaration for the Church” – the more likely literary parallel is the United States Declaration of Independence. In both, we have a short, pithy statement that is carefully worded and each phrase bears the weight of great reflection. On the other hand, the statement is designed to be intelligible to non-specialists. The language used is deliberately chosen to stir the hearts of readers. Both declarations were authored by small committees to be presented to larger bodies for approval (the continental congress in the case of the US declaration; the Presbyterian coalition in the case of Union in Christ).

However, the Union in Christ text also contains the author’s commentary on the declaration itself – thus we get to see and understand some of the reasoning going into the careful wording, and we’re prompted to greater reflection. In short, with the commentary and questions, a theological document transforms into a devotional piece. Purves and Achtemeier did a great service in continually pointing us to the scriptures that undergird their work. Too often in contemporary theology, scripture reference is an afterthought, lending the impression that the cleverness of the theologian is more important than the foundation upon which he builds. Purves and Achtemeier have no such inclinations. They consistently lead us back to scriptures. They take great pains to show that their teaching is not a new one – it is the foundational teaching of the church rooted in scripture; their aim has been to state the basic truths in fresh ways.

Like all documents, this one is time-bound. However as a declaration, it is designed to address the issues of its day – which continue to be issues within the Presbyterian church and the church at large. The five sections of this declaration deal with: Christology (who is this Jesus), discipleship (what is life in Jesus), authority (who says what’s what), mission (what is the church supposed to be doing), and church unity (what is it that binds us together). Purves and Achtemeier take pains to point out that a declaration, by its nature, is limited in scope. This isn’t a systematic theology. They ask that they evaluate the statement based on what it says about the topics covered, rather than what is left out.

So over the next few days, join me as we explore this document together.

Soli Deo Gloria