CSFF Blog Tour: Proceeding by Inquiry

When the Bright Empires series began with The Skin Map, I found the religious element to be scant. It grew stronger in The Bone House, a quiet but steady undercurrent throughout the novel. In The Spirit Well, religion has a stronger presence yet. This comes mainly from the Zetetic Society, a group devoted to exploring the multiverse. They are the Questors spoken of in the first book – whom I had, I confess, clean forgotten.

In one scene, the Questors Brendan and Rosemary try to persuade a young woman named Cass to join their society. Brendan declared to her, “Our aim is nothing less than achieving God’s own purpose for His creation.”

When Cass asked what purpose that would be, Rosemary responded, “Why, the objective manifestation of the supreme values of goodness, beauty, and truth, grounded in the infinite love and goodness of the Creator.”

You would think that a sentence with so many nouns would have more meaning.

A little later in the conversation, Brendan expanded on his theme: “When the universe reaches the point where more people desire the union, harmony, and fulfillment intended by the Creator, then the balance will have been tipped, so to speak, and the cosmos will proceed to the Omega Point.”

And Rosemary elaborated, “This world, this universe, transfigured – the New Heaven and the New Earth. … 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.”

I don’t really know what they’re talking about. But I know this: The Bible also speaks of a new heaven and earth – but not this universe transfigured. This universe, this world will be destroyed. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus Christ declared, “but my words will never pass away.”

Much is obscure in the Bible’s end-times teachings, but this is clear: When God makes everything new, it will not be because “more people” want it. And I at least am suspicious of any philosophy that holds that it is the destiny of humanity to create new experiences of goodness and truth for all living things.

C. S. Lewis once said that no creature is so bad as something that is going to be human and isn’t yet. And I would contend that no religion is so bad as one that is going to be Christian and isn’t yet. I wondered if the Questors’ talk was so much psuedo-Christian jabberwocky. But I can’t say that it is, and for two reasons.

One is that some of what they say is solid. The other is that I can’t understand the rest of what they say. Their language is esoteric enough to create unease, and vague enough to create confusion. It confounds understanding. Their words are lofty, up in that airy region where the line between being high-minded and being fuzzy-minded is exceedingly fine.

The heroes give other signs. Brother Lazarus, a Catholic monk, joins with them; Mina finds the “daily office” (of praying) to be meaningful; Kit is moved to offer this prayer at the death of a primeval hunter: “Creator of all that is and will be, we give you back one of your creations. His life in this world was taken from him, but we ask that you receive him into the life of the world that has no end.”

None of this makes me trust the Questors more, but it does make me trust the author more.

The Zetetic Society gives other reasons for unease. Toward the end of The Spirit Well, Cass meets a Questor named Tess. Tess derides religious dogma and revivalists, and says, “Anyone who tells you he knows the mind of God is selling something.”

She’s not bad at selling things herself. She gives Cass her first mission: searching for Cosimo Livingstone, another Questor and the man Tess almost married. This, Tess assures Cass, is why she came to the Society. “There is no such thing as coincidence.”

They often say that in the Bright Empires series, and usually it has a noble ring. But not here. In this context – You are here because we need someone to look for my old flame; nothing happens by accident! – it seems more than a little self-serving.

“Zetetic”, by the way, is a real word; it means “proceeding by inquiry; investigating”. Samuel Rowbotham founded a number of zetetic societies in America and Britain at the end of the nineteenth century. Their purpose was to promote the belief that the earth is flat.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Spirit Well

There are certain things you know. The ground is solid, death is death, yesterday is past, and tomorrow is coming. But if ever you cross the ley lines and slip into the muliverse, you may end up deciding that you never really knew anything.

In The Spirit Well, Stephen Lawhead continues the grand adventure of the multiverse. New explorers join on the trails, others slip – or slink – into the background. The villain puts in a subdued role; what little we see of him shows mostly how he got to the point of menacing all the heroes. In the present – and I use the term loosely – he mostly grouses.

There is a sense, in this novel, of watching the characters becoming. Sometimes we see how they came to be what they are; sometimes it reveals more clearly what they are now. (I always knew there was something wrong with that Douglas person.)

More rarely, we get a glimpse of what they will be. Kit Livingstone, the protagonist, finally begins to grow decisively away from who he used to be. So often the victim of events, he gets a turn at being the instigator of them. The development is welcome, and I hope Stepehen Lawhead persists in it.

The Spirit Well is shorter than the previous books, coming in at less than four hundred pages. I thought the pace was brisker, though it was never fast. All of Lawhead’s books that I have read are works of breadth rather than speed.

The religion of the series grows stronger and more specific in this book, though still not fully discernible. You would need a whole post to do justice to this point, and I plan to give it.

Ancient Egypt remains a favored historical milieu, but here it departs from strict history. I have heard of Akhenaten and his attempt to supplant polytheism in Egypt with the religion of Aten. I have not heard that it had anything to do with the Habiru who lived in the Gesen and worshiped El.

Like The Bone House, The Spirit Well backtracks to events that took place during the first book – or before it. I gave it some thought and decided that the series still makes more sense if you start at the beginning. But not much more. This, like the omniscient style Lawhead uses, is something people will like if it’s the sort of thing they like.

The Spirit Well is the third book in the Bright Empires Series. It is still, for me, a happy discovery. These are books of incredible richness, incredible fullness; there is a world in those pages you will never reach the end of. Compelling, unique, and ultimately satisfying, The Spirit Well is a journey worth the effort.

And now, curious readers, your links:

The Spirit Well on Amazon;

Stephen Lawhead’s website and Facebook page;

and always most enlightening, the blog roll:

Jim Armstrong
Julie Bihn
Red Bissell
Jennifer Bogart
Thomas Clayton Booher
Thomas Fletcher Booher
Beckie Burnham
Brenda Castro
Jeff Chapman
Karri Compton
Theresa Dunlap
Emmalyn Edwards
April Erwin
Victor Gentile
Jeremy Harder
Bruce Hennigan
Timothy Hicks
Janeen Ippolito
Becca Johnson
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Emileigh Latham
Rebekah Loper
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Anna Mittower
Joan Nienhuis
Lyn Perry
Nathan Reimer
Chawna Schroeder
Rachel Starr Thomson
Robert Treskillard
Steve Trower
Dona Watson
Shane Werlinger
Phyllis Wheeler

And: In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.