The Shadow Lamp by Stephen Lawhead – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 1


shadow lamp coverThis month the CSFF Blog Tour is featuring The Shadow Lamp, fourth of Stephen Lawhead‘s Bright Empires series. I’ve been a fan of these novels, moving from tepid to hot over the first three, and I’m no less a fan after having read this fourth installment. Lawhead has me hooked. But I have to admit, this one took a step back from the awesomeness I’d predicted for the series.

Today I’ll address what I consider the hard part. Better to get it over with, I think.

Science And Pseudo-science

Of the four Bright Empires books I’ve read, this is the only one that has what I consider didactic sections. Interestingly the “preachiness” has less to do with God than it does science. Coming in book four as it does, this caught me off guard. (Orson Scott Card has a rule for science fiction that pretty much says, establish the rules and move on). I had accepted the premise that the multiverse exists (in these stories), that travel along ley lines took the characters from one place and time to another, similar to but not the same as time travel.

How this supposedly works was not one of the burning questions on my mind, but apparently it was one on Mr. Lawhead’s mind. How much he believes of what he had his characters explain is impossible to know. I expected some illumination because he included an essay at the end. He did not expound further on multiverse theory, however, but considered the role of Christianity as it has related to science.

Towards the end he included this paragraph:

When a loudly outspoken evolutionary biologist declares absolutely that religion is a mental delusion . . . or a prize-winning physicist claims to have proven there is no God . . . we might take a step back and reflect that these men are simply repeating Galileo’s mistake: pontificating on matters outside their field and beyond their understanding. And when religious fundamentalists refuse to consider evidence that challenges the likelihood of a preposterously young universe . . . or ignore perfectly credible fossil evidence . . . we might pause to consider that creating pseudo-science to support dogmatic beliefs does give violence not only to realities that are ultimately beyond time and space, but also to any reasonable ability we might ever have to comprehend them (pp 377-378).

While Mr. Lawhead seems fairly charitable toward scientists speaking against God, stating simply that they are out of their realm, he seems peculiarly strident in his remarks about “religious fundamentalists” who scientifically support a young earth theory. They refuse to consider some evidence and ignore a body of archeological findings. Their theory is preposterous and they use pseudo-science to support their dogmatic position.

Certainly I’m aware that there are Christians who have a dogmatic position about creation. Whether that makes them “religious fundamentalists,” I can’t say since I don’t know what Mr. Lawhead meant by that term. There is an evangelical denomination which includes the term “fundamentalist” in their name. Is that who he’s talking about? If that were the case, then he’s speaking about something I don’t have knowledge about–I am not schooled regarding that denomination’s views on creation.

The people I know who hold to a young earth position are hardly dogmatic. They are also not scientists, but I dare say they have heard what various scientists have said, as I have, and believe that there is a body of evidence pointing to a different conclusion from the currently favored evolutionary theory.

Is this “pseudo-science”? What makes science “real” and what makes it “pseudo”? Is it real if it agrees with an old earth view and pseudo if it supports a young earth theory?

There’s an astrophysicist, for example, named Dr. Hugh Ross who was part of a panel that looked at recent scientific discoveries which “buttress the case for a biblical creator while continuing to erode the foundation for the evolutionary paradigm.” Am I to assume that this astrophysicist is pushing pseudo-science simply because of the conclusions he’s drawing?

Unfortunately Mr. Lawhead doesn’t elaborate on his comments any further except to say that the Roman Catholic Church has “continually pursued a policy of active involvement in scientific inquiry and advancement, quite notably through the Vatican Observatory” (p 38).

I’ll likely have more to say on this subject since the science of this science fantasy pushed its way to the forefront in The Shadow Lamp.

Take time to see what the other tourists have to say about this thought-provoking book. As usual, check marks link to tour articles.

CSFF Blog Tour – The Spirit Well by Stephen Lawhead, Day 3


After discussing several aspects of The Spirit Well by Stephen Lawhead these past two days as part of the CSFF Blog Tour, I can, at last, give my review.

Unlike many books, the hardest part of this review is summarizing the story. For one thing, it’s nearly impossible to talk about this one without referring to the previous two of the five-book Bright Empires series.

And secondly, the story is … not linear. I may as well give a SPOILER ALERT now. I don’t know how to do this review without referring to plot details, some critical.

The Story. Kit Livingston, having transported inadvertently along a ley line to the Stone Age at the end of The Bone House, is adapting and learning, not just about survival, but about community.

Mina, his former significant other who has found herself as a small business owner in medieval Prague, realizes she is in danger from Lord Archibald Burleigh who wants the Skin Map–a coded mapping of the ley lines that shows where the Spirit Well is located–and will stop at nothing to find all its segmented parts. Consequently, Mina decides to go into hiding, setting off a lengthy flashback recalling how she became a student of the ley lines which allow travelers to move from one dimension to the other.

Cassandra, a PhD candidate working on an archaeological dig in Arizona, inadvertently stumbles upon a powerful ley line. In an effort to replicate and document the experience, she becomes lost in twentieth century Syria. When she discovers a society of fellow or former travelers, she becomes a member and accepts their first assignment: to find Kit and his great-grandfather.

The story ends with Kit and Mina, still the character in her flashback, reunited but back in the Stone Age all because Kit stumbled upon what everyone is actually looking for: the Spirit Well. He believes he can return there, but there’s a problem. His access point that opened to the Spirit Well dimension is blocked.

Strengths. I may have lost some of you with that last paragraph. Mina, on her way to hide, thinks back over her years of learning how to travel the ley lines and the help she received and the events that occurred. One of those events was connecting with Kit of story-time present.

I almost missed this, thinking I’d read carelessly and overlooked where the flashback ended. But at one point Kit speaks of Mina rescuing him in Egypt, an event that occurred in The Skin Map, but Mina informed him that for her, in her current dimension, that event hadn’t happened yet.

How is this a strength? It illustrates to me how brilliantly Stephen Lawhead is handling the multiple strands of this plot–past and present and their intersection.

The thing that impressed me the most was that I never felt lost. Once or twice I had to remind myself who some of the minor characters were, but whenever a chapter (frequently) began with a different point of view character, I quite easily fell right into their plight and setting, just as eager to learn more as when Mr. Lawhead took us away from them.

This is a major accomplishment, I think, because I generally complain about books with shifting point of view characters and back-and-forth story threads. The thing that was different in The Spirit Well, as I saw it, was that the story itself called for this format. This was not a whimsical approach, an author showing off his cleverness for the sake of impressing his readership. No. This story is better, or perhaps, requires, this interweaving of characters and places and times. Mr. Lawhead does it brilliantly.

In addition, in The Spirit Well the characters come alive, largely because they grow and change.

Thirdly, the spiritual ramifications of all that’s happening come closer to the surface. There’s much here to explore in the next two books, but God is not hiding, and the characters are more aware of Him than they have been in the previous two books.

One more. The settings are rich. Mr. Lawhead did a remarkable job bringing these various places, and times, alive. All his talents as a historical novelist are on display.

Weaknesses. I don’t have anything. Some people on the tour mentioned the slow pace. I never found it so. Kit is thrust from the Stone Age and is in immediate danger, Mina must flee her home in Prague or be captured, Cass follows her scholarly curiosity and becomes lost in another dimension with no way of knowing how to get home. Meanwhile, Arthur, the man who tattooed the ley line locations to his body, is killed, the map created, and divided. There’s betrayal and manipulation, suspicion and death. There’s also hope and help and healing. It’s an incredible story, masterfully told.

Recommendation. I’ve liked the previous Stephen Lawhead books CSFF has toured. This one is a cut above the others. In addition, this feels important–like Mr. Lawhead is showing in his story great spiritual truths. Some worry that these “truths” may turn out to be falsehoods. I have no reason to believe that to be so. I could be wrong, but at this point, I think the direction of the Bright Empires series is up.

It’s a mystery inside a science fantasy, with characters who are developing into people I care about. This is a must read for Stephen Lawhead fans and for those interested in time travel stories or multidimensional stories. I highly recommend it to people who enjoy historical fiction or fantasy. It’s the kind of book anyone who considers themselves a reader would enjoy. But my recommendation is to start with The Skin Map and read them all. This is a series you won’t want to miss. Also be sure to tell your friends. (They might be ticked off if they find out you were sitting on this one without telling them. 😉 )

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher which in no way colored my review.

CSFF Blog Tour – The Spirit Well by Stephen Lawhead, Day 2


Is it Christian enough?

Inevitably when a group of bloggers begin to discuss a book by a Christian author, labeled Christian fiction–such as those participating in the current blog tour for The Spirit Well by Stephen Lawhead–some form of this question surfaces.

As a matter of fact, the spiritual themes have indeed begun to surface, but I can’t help wondering if we aren’t asking the wrong question, especially of a book that is the middle of a five-book series.

First, the story is ongoing. It’s pretty hard to determine what exactly the entire weaving will reveal about the world when we’re at the half way point.

Second, to a large extent the idea of “Christian enough” is suspect. Does every Christian novel need to lay out the plan of salvation if it is to be Christian enough? Or take a character from new birth to a mature life in Christ? Must it be overt rather than symbolic or subtle?

Most Christians don’t apply the “lay out the plan of salvation” standard to their pastor’s sermons, so why should we find a need to include this pivotal event in every Christian novel? Yes, pivotal. A person coming to belief in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ is pivotal. But must we continue to show the pivot over and over rather than showing the result of the pivot or the need for the pivot?

I’d rather ask a different question about a novel: is this true? I don’t mean is the story factual. It’s a story and hence, largely the facts are made up. Nevertheless, stories should be true.

For example, according to God’s Word, mankind is to love his neighbor as himself. So a story that portrays friendship as dangerous, self-reliance as preferable to community, and sacrificing for others as weak, would be a story that is not true.

It can be interesting, even entertaining, but as Christians, our standard should not be determined by whether or not a story made us laugh or cry. It should also be based on more than whether or not the way of salvation is clear.

Honestly, in real life, I love to hear how people came to Christ. I think the power of God is evident when we share how God works in each life.

But coming to Christ is birth. Stories about birth are fine, but I have to think there are also good stories about life after birth. What does a community of believers living in a culture of unbelievers look like?

As I see it, Stephen Lawhead has given us a glimpse of just such a situation in The Spirit Well. Is a “glimpse” enough to make this book Christian?

I go back to the question I prefer to ask–is it true?

As I see it, the further we journey along Mr. Lawhead’s ley lines, the truer the story becomes. Perhaps the greatest truth that shines out of The Spirit Well is that there are no coincidences. Or accidents, hence no big bang as some evolutionists would have us believe.

In Mr. Lawhead’s multiverse, clearly, no coincidences suggests design and order, created by a Designer who must be omniscient and powerful. The author doesn’t have to spell it out for that truth to be evident. Even in a “what-if” make-believe.

– – – – –

For a lighthearted, creative “interview” with the Bright Empires antagonist, see Robert Treskillard’s Day Two post. For a thorough and thoughtful review, check out Julie Bihn’s Day Two article.

CSFF Blog Tour – The Spirit Well by Stephen Lawhead, Day 1


The Bright Empires series

This morning I posted my regular Monday article over at Spec Faith, and I couldn’t help but think of The Spirit Well, third in the Bright Empires series by Stephen Lawhead, the CSFF Blog Tour’s October feature. In “The Success Of Fantasy By The Masters” I take a look at why Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth became popular, even with people who would not identify as “fantasy readers.”

Ultimately, I have to agree with Dr. Michael D.C. Drout, author of EXPLORING FANTASY LITERATURE, in saying that these books mediate between contemporary readers and the authors’ fantasy creations–often built on the backs of earlier myth and legend.

As I looked at the divergent methods Lewis and Tolkien used to forge the bridge that would give readers access to the fantastic, Stephen Lawhead came to mind. In his current series, The Bright Empires, he also mediates between the reader and the world of what-if which he created.

What’s interesting to me as a writer is that he employed a “reluctant hero,” much as Stephen Donaldson did in his Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series.

Tolkien’s first hero, Bilbo, wasn’t so very different. He, too, was reluctant–until he wasn’t. At the bottom of Bilbo’s heart was an untapped desire for adventure.

In Stephen Lawhead’s primary protagonist Kit, there is perhaps curiosity and a desire for validation, but I don’t see a desire for adventure.

Another difference is that Bilbo had a happy life. He lived securely and was content for the most part, especially if he could avoid those certain relatives that annoyed him.

Kit, on the other hand, came across in The Skin Map, the opening book of Mr. Lawhead’s series, as a discontented, contrary young man, unwilling to move beyond his comfort zone, even to help a long lost relative.

My point is that Bilbo induced a certain amount of sympathy. I felt put out for him, having unwanted and unexpected dwarfs show up at his door and intrude upon his quiet. I also felt a little annoyed that Biblo wouldn’t be more forceful with them and send them packing. But once they left without him and he went running after them without his hat and all, I realized, at his core he wasn’t really reluctant.

Kit is much more truly reluctant. What he doesn’t want is to be duped. He wants to know that his venture into another realm was real, so he looks for validation. In this regard, he’s more like Lucy Pevensie in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She also ventured into another realm, only to return to the scorn of those who didn’t think she was telling the truth.

In some ways, Lawhead utilizes a combination of Lewis’s and Tolkien’s methods of bridging the gap between contemporary readers and his speculative world. He employs a type of portal but also characters with whom the reader can identify–flawed characters, not fitting into their contemporary world, or rather, into our contemporary world. Their problems are our problems, and their accidental escape into past dimensions that end up strengthening them and refining them might resonate with readers who have longed for a simpler time.

But how simple can it be when opponents are tracking you from one ley line to another, intent on killing you to take what you both prize? Clearly, Lawhead’s appeal is not solely due to an attractive, slower lifestyle. Rather, he builds a solid and convincing bridge that gives twenty-first century readers access to his speculative multiverse.

I’ll give my review of The Spirit Well later in the tour, but for now, take time to visit the other participants who have also posted articles about this book and see what they think.

%d bloggers like this: