Room of Marvels (Expanded Edition)

Reviewed:

G. Connor Salter, Professional Writing alumnus from Taylor University, Upland, IN.

Title:

Room of Marvels (Expanded Edition)

Author:

James Bryan Smith (foreword by Dallas Willard)

Publisher:

 IVP Formatio (an imprint of InterVarsity Press)

https://www.ivpress.com

Publication Date:

November 3, 2020

Format:

Paperback

Length:

192 pages

OVERVIEW

Tim Hudson used to be a confidant Christian. He even wrote books about God’s goodness. Now that he’s lost his mother, best friend and daughter in a short period of time, he’s not so sure what he believes in. To refresh and maybe get some answers, Hudson goes on a five-day silent retreat at a monastery. On his first night, he has a bizarre dream which takes him to a land he doesn’t expect, to meet those he lost and other important from his life. His conversations with these people bring him face to the face with the questions he’s struggled to ask, and answers which are so crazy they just might be true.

Smith writes in the afterward that while the central plot is fiction, he based many of the characters on real people. Fans of his previous books will be able to tell who some of these characters are based on. Readers familiar with The Magnificent Journey will remember Smith’s description of meeting a monk who wore jogging shoes, much like the “the jogging monk” Brother Taylor that Tim Hudson meets. Readers familiar with Rich Mullins: An Arrow Point to Heaven will note that Wayne Ogden is almost a carbon copy of Christian musician Rich Mullins, from his clothing style to his tragic death. Of course, C.S. Lewis fans will immediately recognize who the tweed-suited man called Jack is.

After Mullins, Lewis is perhaps the most obvious influence on this book. The basic idea of putting real people into a plot where they talk about life, death and evil is similar to Plato’s dialogues where Socrates debates philosophical topics with various characters. But the idea of a story taking place in a corner of Heaven with people teach a traveler how to find freedom in God, is quite similar to Lewis’ book The Great Divorce. There’s even a scene where Tim Hudson describes touching lilies which “felt as if the petals were made of iron,” much like the super-hard blades of grass that Lewis’ unnamed hero discovers in Heaven’s fields.

Ultimately, Smith doesn’t have the descriptive abilities that Lewis had. The way he describes surroundings and objects is decent but never great. However, once Smith’s characters get talking, their personalities and ideas draws readers in. Many of these characters have an earthiness to them, a willingness to admit their foibles and to dive without shame into good and joyful activities. Again, this quality is reminiscent of Lewis’ work, where the true heroes are humble and not afraid to enjoy good things even if they look a bit silly doing then.

These characters’ honesty and joyfulness makes them not just real but “realer than real,” which is important to the kinds of themes that Smith is talking about. Smith addresses the need to forgive oneself, the assurance of life beyond death, and the freedom that comes with showing one’s true self. None of these concepts are easy to describe; they can easily seem cheesy or counter-intuitive (“something that good can’t possibly be true”). Characters who seem professional and faultless wouldn’t communicate them in an effective way. However, the kind of characters that Smith describes, people who comfortably admit their foibles as well as their joys, can make those ideas seem real. In effect, they tell the hero (and the readers), “Oh, no? Well here’s something crazy: those things really are true.”

Whether or not this book works well as a novel, it does quite well as a philosophical dialogue about doubt and faith.

One part C.S. Lewis, one part Socrates and thoroughly compelling, Room of Marvels will help many readers find deeper answers to hard questions.

ASSESSMENT

Rating (1 to 5 stars)

4 stars

Suggested Audience

Christians interested in novels/philosophical dialogues similar to C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce that address questions about spiritual doubt, forgiveness and the problem of evil.

Christian Impact

James Bryan Smith creates an interesting plot where the main character has a dream where he encounters important people from his life again, and talks with them about death, the problem of evil, and the freedom that comes with forgiveness. Smith uses this plot to help readers understand the seemingly scandalous reality of grace, heaven and other ideas which seem too good to be true but which Scripture affirms are true.

Some plot elements may bother readers, although Smith makes a point to place those ideas in a context that makes them at least plausible from an orthodox Christian perspective. For example, one character is a Christian who committed suicide and went to Heaven. Scripture doesn’t explicitly state whether suicides go to Heaven, which means while the idea may bother people, it is possible. Smith creates a scene where the main characters asks the suicide victim about their faith and the person explains they struggled to find hope in the dark place, and blesses the main character for continuing in the face of struggle. There’s also a scene where the main character talks about crying out a prayer that he might have assurance that a recently deceased friend is in Heaven, and getting a response. Smith makes a point to describe this event as God answering a prayer by letting the friend say something briefly, which puts it within the plausible bounds of Christian theology.

Room of Marvels: A Story about Heaven That Heals the Heart


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