Book Review: Room of Marvels

I was lent this book with much enthusiasm as a useful and helpful read for those struggling to make sense of loss and suffering.  Since it’s hard to move very far without bumping into someone who is dealing with this or has dealt with it in the past, I happily accepted the loan.

Room of Marvels is by James Bryan Smith, who according to Google is a theological professor and author for Intervarsity Press.  The book is short and a very easy read.  From a literary perspective, it’s certainly not posing a threat to Shakespeare.  But my biggest concern with it is that although it purports to deal with God and heaven and the problem of evil, I’m not sure it’s actually Christian.  
Jesus does not form a part of this story, even though it deals with the abovementioned themes.  In fact, if I read it correctly, Jesus isn’t even mentioned until the Epilogue, which deals with the authorial process, and is not actually part of the book.  While the protagonist meets a variety of people and has a number of spiritual revelations, none of them involve Jesus – only a very generic ‘God’.  Issues of guilt and forgiveness are all treated without any specific mention of the atoning Incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Son of God.  I find that interesting.  And dangerous.
In fact the issues of forgiveness are handled rather lightly as a whole.  Much more time is given to a glorification of the protagonist, those moments when he did good things that impacted other people.  This is where the title comes from, and it is intended to be one of the most powerful parts of the book.  It ends up easily sliding more into self-glorification.  Forgiveness and our actual awfulness is dealt with quickly so we can get a better appreciation of our real person – the person who has done plenty of good things that we can better appreciate and focus on when our guilt is removed from the equation.  The emphasis becomes much heavier then on living lives of love that impact others, rather than struggling (out of necessity) with the sin that continues to work its way through our lives.  
It’s a very anthropocentric view of heaven.  Heaven is a place primarily about us and ourselves.  It is suggested rather directly, in fact, that heaven is not really a complete and total cessation of suffering.  The protagonist has a meeting with a long-dead relative who seeks him out during his visionary visit to heaven because of her need for healing and peace.  Not only isn’t Jesus mentioned, He apparently isn’t capable of fully relieving the pain and suffering of those who place their faith in him.  That’s problematic.
The climax of the book is the protagonist’s brief reunion with his daughter who died from severe genetic defects at the age of two.  Again, in the effort to provide healing and comfort, the author rides roughshod over several millenia’s worth of theological and philosophical wranglings on the very thorny problem of evil and suffering.  It all has tidy explanations and God is fully defended from mystery and authority because we can figure it all out for ourselves.  
In this way, the book is problematic in similar ways to The Shack.  Good intentions butting up against very real and powerful challenges and limitations to our understanding of the created order and the God who remains outside of it yet vitally sustaining of it all too easily lead to easy answers that may relieve some anxiety and pain, but don’t truly answer questions in any lasting and meaningful way.  
This is because evil and the problem of our active participation in it and captivity to it is not part of the question, let alone the answer.  There’s no room for a real enemy of humanity in these sorts of theological explanations.  What appears to be awful and bad is really just our lack of understanding about how and why God works.  But if this is the case, then we lose the ability to talk in terms of good and evil at all.  The best we can hope for is more of a Confucian/Daoist concept of opposing forces in fluid play with each other, so that there is no evil – and no good – only a matter of how these neutral powers are perceived.  While this may sound appealing, it isn’t Biblical.  At all. 
I have not suffered the type of loss that the protagonist (a thinly veiled caricature of the author) has.  But I can’t imagine being comforted for very long with the very vague (and unScriptural) conclusions that this book (and others like it) make.  I pray that one day more will be clear to me than is now.  I’m not sure that it will ever be my place to know God’s mind on these things, but I trust that more will be revealed.  
I can’t recommend this book, but I appreciate it being loaned to me!

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