The Nephilim

In keeping with last week’s review, here is a biblical exposition on the Nephilim. The author includes quotations about the Nephilim from Apocryphal books, and those who have read the Kingdom Wars series will recognize a few of the details.

John Otte once criticized Nephilim in Christian SF, finding their portrayal lacking both artistically and theologically. And he commented:

That, perhaps, is why I’m having such a negative reaction to Nephilim. Whenever they’re portrayed, it’s almost always the angel/human hybrids. It’s further evidence of the unfortunate homoginization of Christian fiction (and not just speculative fiction) where doctrinal positions that don’t fit into certain molds get thrown out completely.

Maybe. But I have my own guess as to why the angel/human hybrids interpretation is so popular in Christian SF: It is (1) sort of fantasy-ish, and (b) sort of Christian. Angel/human unions, and the resulting offspring, lend themselves more to fantasy than do good human/bad human unions (and the resulting offspring).

I believe this is the primary motivation. I don’t think we can even be sure that every publisher and author responsible for these books really does believe that the “sons of God” (Gen. 6) were angels. After all, how many people have written about aliens while believing they don’t exist?

Review: Kingdom Wars II: Tartarus

In the first book of the series, Jack Cavanaugh showed evil come behind a beautiful face. In Tartarus, it comes with a smile. And a comedy routine!

The book kicks off with the discovery of an ancient manuscript, a false gospel now unleashed on the world. False gospels have been seen before, but nothing like this one. The Gospel of Thomas didn’t provide directions to find the gifts of the Magi, or a description of advanced physics. But even that is quickly overshadowed when Jesus descends on Mount Olive with a heavenly host and declares, “It was a joke, people!”

While the false Messiah throws Christendom into upheaval, Grant Austin’s life is being thrown into upheaval by angelic visitors. This is what comes of being 1/4 angel: Rebel angels show up in your life, smooth-talking or trash-talking, with questionable proposals involving trips to Sheol. Faithful angels show up, too, friendly enough to help you discover your Nephilim powers, not friendly enough to keep you from falling off a “cosmic cliff” (or to repeatedly bash your head against the wall as part of said training). Grant would rather be the poster boy for normal. Most urgently, he’d rather go to heaven.

As one of Cavanaugh’s characters says: His Nephilim blood condemns him. This is the prevalent view among Christian novelists, and Cavanaugh himself goes at least halfway to accepting it. But he mines deeper into the issue than many authors, asking questions of justice and mercy. Cavanaugh doesn’t hesitate to assert that the unholy union of humans and rebel angels had unholy consequences, yet his handling of the Nephilim is neither one-dimensional nor unsympathetic.

One’s theology of the Nephilim is interesting but unimportant. Christians are divided over whether the “sons of God” – and thus their offspring, the Nephilim – really were angelic. And even if they were, the Bible tells us so little about them, and places them so decisively in the ancient past, that it is a moot question. We probably can’t know the answers, and we certainly don’t need to. What is, theologically, of more concern is Cavanaugh’s account of what immediately followed Jesus’ death: He went to Sheol, preached to the souls there, defeated Satan and his forces, and, “The triumphant Son led his captives and the saints of the past … into the courts of heaven and presented them to the Father.”

This invokes a doctrine called the Harrowing of Hell (some of these doctrines really need to be re-named in modern terms). That belief is stated, among other places, in the Apostles’ Creed: “He descended into hades [hell or Sheol].” A few elliptical passages in the Bible are its basis:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. (1 Peter 3:18-20b)

For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6)

Cavanaugh’s reference to captives probably comes from Ephesians 4:8-10.

This is another old debate in Christendom, and I bring it up to point out that whether Cavanaugh is correct or not, he is grounded in the opinions of many orthodox Christians.

The false Christ of Tartarus is, if not a unique idea, at least a unique portrayal. The ruse Cavanaugh invents for his villains is clever and original. Its effectiveness is depressingly realistic. That Hideous Beauty expressed the idea that evil can be beautiful. Tartarus expressed the idea that evil can be genial and even funny. Many have tried to discredit Christianity by making it out to be a lie. Making it out to be a joke, and even a funny one – that is a remarkable touch.

I enjoyed the first book – that’s why I picked up the second – but I was surprised at how much I liked Tartarus. The writing seemed smoother and, somehow, deeper. Characters showed new complexity, their dilemmas took on greater urgency. Like the first book, this one shows imagination and humor. The plot is good, the solutions unexpected and satisfying. It has my recommendation.

Harry Potter vs. Gandalf

In the Harry Potter wars, a common attack by the anti-Potter forces is that the books are sometimes sold alongside occult material. A common defense by the pro-Potter troops is that that decision is made by the bookstores, not the author or publisher. Again, a common attack of the anti-Potter crowd is that some people have turned to the occult after reading the books; a common defense is that anyone who reads Harry Potter and then proceeds to the occult obviously has more serious problems than Harry Potter.

My purpose here is not to join the long debate/argument/internecine warfare over the Harry Potter books. It’s to stir it up again for no good reason. No, actually, I bring the matter up to make a point: There is a reason why nobody ever sold occult material alongside The Lord of the Rings; there is a reason why no one ever joined the occult as a result of reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

There is an assumption among many people that Harry Potter, Narnia, and Lord of the Rings are more or less the same thing, and ought to be treated more or less the same way. To call one good, and another bad, is considered hypocritical or inconsistent. Some people are convinced that Harry Potter is bad, and thus turn against Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia. Some are convinced that Lewis and Tolkien’s fantasy books are excellent Christian works, and thus have a lax attitude toward Harry Potter. I am convinced that whatever position you take on any of these, there is no need to take the same position on all of them.

Steven Graydanus wrote an excellent essay on how Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling each thought of and used magic. The short version can be found here, the extended version here. A quotation – a sample, if you will:

In principle, Christians on both sides of the Harry Potter debate ought to be able to agree on this much: According to Christian teaching, in the real world, it is wrong, potentially dangerous, and contrary to true religion to engage in any form of attempted magic (for example, the use of spells and charms, attempted astral projection, or the superstitious use of crystals), or to attempt to engage, summon, control, or otherwise interact with occult powers (as by consulting with mediums, astrologers, psychics, card readers, witch doctors, or any other kind of divination or fortunetelling).

Historic Christian opposition to practices such as these is categorical and decisive. This opposition has been most recently authoritatively restated by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2115-2117), and is found in the sources of Christian faith, sacred scripture (e.g., Deut 18:9-14) and sacred tradition (cf. Summa Theologica II-II,96,2, 96,2).

Christians have long recognized that these practices are not only based on mistaken concepts of reality, they also render the practitioner vulnerable to deception and harm by evil spirits. Furthermore, they nurture an unhealthy attraction to the gnostic lure of hidden, esoteric knowledge and power accessible only to special elites or adepts.

At the same time, many Christians on both sides of the Harry Potter debate will also be willing to acknowledge that Christians may accept and enjoy at least some fictional works that involve the depiction of magic, and even of “good” magic — magic imagined to be both real and lawful, performed by good characters specializing in good magic: good wizards, sorcerers, and the like. As noted above, many of Rowling’s sternest critics are also passionate devoteés of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Nor are many Christians today likely to mount campaigns against Glinda the Good Witch or Cinderella’s fairy godmother.

CSFF Blog Tour: Random Notes

This is the last day of the tour, and I’ll close with a few random notes. (1) and (3) have spoilers.

(1) The Christianity of The Skin Map is like the secularism of many popular books and movies: It’s there, but a lot of the time you can’t really tell. Every once in a while, though, there will be a comment or attitude or action, and you’ll see it.

I say this as an observation, not a criticism. There is no degree of religiosity every novel must have. The broad assumptions of The Skin Map are Christian, and there are moments where it really shines through. Take this exchange between the villain and one of the heroes:

“For the love of God, Burleigh,” shouted Cosimo. “Let us go!”

Burleigh stopped in midstep and turned around. “There is no God,” he said, his voice flat and hard. “There is only chaos, chance, and the immutable laws of nature. As men of science, I had thought you would know that. In this world – as in all others – there is only the survival of the fittest. I am a survivor.” He turned again and began walking away. “You, apparently, are not.”

“You are wrong,” Cosimo called after him. “Utterly, fatally, and eternally wrong.”

“If so,” replied Burleigh, moving to the doorway, “then God will save you.”

I quote this because it goes a long way to showing where the book is, philosophically, coming from. I also quote it because it’s good dialogue.

(2) After noticing so much the British style of the book, I was surprised to learn that the author is natively American. He has been living in England for a long time, though.

(3) Years ago I read an essay by C. S. Lewis where he compared the climax of the novel King Solomon’s Mines to the climax of the 1937 film King Solomon’s Mines:

I was once taken to see a film version of King Solomon’s Mines. … At the end of Haggard’s book, as everyone remembers, the heroes are awaiting death entombed in a rock chamber and surrounded by the mummified kings of the land. The maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake. … No doubt if sheer excitement is all you want from a story, and if increase of dangers increases excitement, then a rapidly changing series of two risks (that of being burned alive and that of being crushed to bits) would be better than a single prolonged danger of starving to death in a cave. But that is just the point. There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement or I should not feel that I had been cheated in being given the earthquake instead of Haggard’s actual scene. What I lose is the whole sense of the deathly (quite a different thing from simple danger of death) – the cold, the silence, and the surrounding faces of the ancient, the crowned and sceptred, dead.

In The Skin Map Lord Burleigh imprisons and then abandons the heroes in an ancient crypt – an obvious similarity. But there is a broader one. The great peril of this novel is dying of starvation or “a plague miasma, a curse” of the Egyptian tombs – not dying in an explosion or battle or blaze of firepower. Like Haggard, Stephen Lawhead gave a chilling danger instead of a thrilling one.

(4) The book – the hardcover, at least – is Deckle Edge. Yes, it’s a little thing, but I like it. The Skin Map is suited to this old-time touch.

CSFF Blog Tour: Spoiler Day

Yesterday I gave a general review. Today I have designated Spoiler Day, where I will show no compunction in giving away plot details.

One of the best characters in The Skin Map is the villain, Lord Burleigh. He’s a smooth villain – intellectual, polished, handsome, entirely willing to work with those who will work with him, and entirely willing to kill those who won’t. After the great explorer who made the Skin Map, he is the most adept traveler of the multiverse. He follows said explorer to old China, ambushes our heroes in modern Egypt, does business in early twentieth century Egypt, and appears in seventeenth century Prague. This ubiquity makes him mysterious. What reality he actually belongs to is impossible to say; he shows up in so many of them, getting something he wants.

Another favorite character of mine is Wilhelmina Klug. Cosimo Livingstone, explaining to his great-grandson how pathetic his life was, said, “You are exceedingly unlucky in love, having invested years in a romantic relationship which, as you know only too well, is neither romantic nor much of a rleationship. In short, you have all the soical prospects of a garden gnome.”

A couple chapters later we get to see the unfortunate couple, as the author calls them, together. Lawhead does an excellent job of introducing Wilhelmina. Her flat is as “clean as a dental hygienists’s treatment room and nearly as cold”. She is “a dead ringer for the undertaker’s anemic daughter”, “dressed in black slacks and a black turtleneck” with a “horrible, ratty, hand-knitted purple scarf”. Her hair is “aggressively short”, and her job as a baker starting work at 4 a.m. keeps her in a state of perpetual tiredness, perpetual yawning.

So we understand when Kit thinks she isn’t much of a catch. But it’s no surprise to discover that Wilhelmina doesn’t think he’s much of a catch, either. When Kit unintentionally lost her in the multiverse, she ended up alone in a bleak, rainy countryside in Bohemia. (He, by contrast, ended up in an old version of London with his great-grandfather.) Naturally she decided it was all his fault and resolved: He’s toast. I’ll murder him in tiny little pieces. But she sruvived and, in time, thrived.

Meanwhile, Kit’s adventures brought him into collusion with a beautiful woman. There is quite the contrast between Wilhelmina’s introduction and Lady Fayth’s. Gone are all references to undertakers and their daughters: “All [Kit] knew was that he was in the presence of a rare vision of loveliness, a goddess, a transcendentally radiant creature who he was wholly unworthy to address.”

To quote a good line from a not-so-good movie: “All he saw was a pretty face, like a fool.” First Kit followed Lady Fayth into an ill-advised adventure, and then he watched her walk away with Burleigh. And after Lady Fayth led him into deep trouble, Wilhelmina led him out of it. (She gave up her plans of murdering Kit into tiny pieces.) I at least found a great deal of satisfaction in this.

Incidentally, beautiful villains and beautiful heroes are both quite common. It’s the poor secondary characters who go unpraised (unless physical beauty is vital to their function, e.g. a beautiful co-worker who makes the heroine insecure).  Minor characters are not, I suppose, worth the investment of writing space, or the attention extolling their looks would bring.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Skin Map

If your great-grandfather, who vanished a century ago, reappeared in a deserted alley and asked you to join him on a mission through parallel realities, would you say yes?

Kit Livingstone said no. Then he went to buy bathroom curtains with his girlfriend, Wilhelmina (!). In an effort to convince her he had a good reason to be eight hours late, he told her he had met his great-grandfather. In an effort to convince her he wasn’t a liar, he took her to the deserted alley. A storm broke over them, and when Kit stumbled out of the alley, he was alone. With a little time, and a lot of help, he came to realize the truth: His great-grandfather hadn’t come into his world. He had gone into his great-grandfather’s. And Wilhelmina, in their tumultuous crossing, had gone into someone else’s.

And so the fun began.

The Skin Map is listed as fantasy. I don’t see it. Nearly everything that could be called fantasy would be even better called science fiction. The premise of multiverse is thoroughly sci-fi. I would be the first to say, though, that The Skin Map is not conventional science fiction. There is nothing futuristic about it – either the sterile future of Star Trek or the wilder future of other imaginations. This is science fiction without spaceships, and even without space.

Kit’s world – our world – is called the Home World. Every other world is at an earlier point of our history (or their version of our history). The story wanders from China under the Qing dynasty to ancient Egypt, from seventeenth century London to seventeenth century Prague. And Stephen Lawhead doesn’t give the impression that we’re only passing through. He really enters these eras, giving his novel a flavor of historical fiction.

Lawhead is primarily fascinated with his multiverse, all the times, places, and opportunities it opens up. He is fascinated by those who travel the alternate realities – the great adventurer, the secret society of Questors, the well-heeled pirate, the novice who lands on his feet and the one who lands on his face. In The Skin Map action is not where the action is. Action scenes – defined as fights or chases – can be counted on one hand and exist solely to turn a plot point, not give a show.

How much anyone likes this will depend largely on his tastes. For my part, I enjoy sci-fi without plenty of action as well as with it. In fact, it was refreshing to read an SF novel that managed not to violently whack half a dozen characters.

A noteworthy aspect of this novel is that Stephen Lawhead writes in omniscient third person. He chooses one character to follow in any given scene, as in limited third person, but the narrator is much louder here. For example, he relates Kit’s thoughts and then opines:

At least this was the track his mind ran along at the moment. In a few days he would discover just how wrong he truly was, but by then this train of thought would have reached a wholly unexpected destination.

Another element of Lawhead’s style is that it is British. The Skin Map is permeated by Britishness. My reading of modern fiction has been limited to American books, so that really caught my notice. References to English history and geography are sprinkled throughout. When these people talk about the Great Fire, they don’t have Chicago or San Francisco in mind. The English speaking style is noticeably foreign. Tube station? Oyster card? Tump? Nobbled? Kerbstone? Sprogs?

The Skin Map is a unique book. It has a sense of solidity, of depth. I reached the end with a feeling of satisfaction and appreciation. Don’t mistake me: Spaceships and aliens and explosions and strange, new worlds are a romp. With the right author, it can be profound, too. But The Skin Map is valuable in its own way – and that way is historical science fiction, a multiverse adventure with modern Londoners besieged by life, Egyptian priests, Bohemian alchemists, and English aristocrats of multiple centuries.

The Skin Map on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1595548041
Stephen Lawhead’s web site – http://www.stephenlawhead.com/

Links to the other bloggers in the tour:

Red Bissell

Thomas Clayton Booher
Keanan Brand

Grace Bridges
Beckie Burnham

Morgan L. Busse

Jeff Chapman

Christian Fiction Book Reviews

Valerie Comer

Karri Compton

Amy Cruson

CSFF Blog Tour

Stacey Dale

D. G. D. Davidson

George Duncan

April Erwin

Tori Greene

Ryan Heart

Bruce Hennigan

Timothy Hicks

Christopher Hopper

Becky Jesse

Cris Jesse

Becca Johnson

Jason Joyner

Julie

Carol Keen

Krystine Kercher

Allen McGraw

Matt Mikalatos

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Nissa

John W. Otte

Gavin Patchett

Sarah Sawyer

Chawna Schroeder

Kathleen Smith

Rachel Starr Thomson

Donna Swanson

Robert Treskillard

Steve Trower

Fred Warren

Dona Watson

Phyllis Wheeler

Nicole White

Elizabeth Williams

Dave Wilson