Thursday, February 10, 2011

Noted Review: Christian Fiction

Litfin, Bryan M. The Sword: A Novel (Chiveis Trilogy, Book 1). Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010. 412 Pages. $15.99. (N)

At its heart The Sword is a tale of good versus evil.  Overall, The Sword is a fairly good read.  Not an exceptional read, but a fairly good read for a cold winter’s night.  As it is Book 1 of a trilogy, I have the earthly hope that Dr. Litfin’s next two works will be better.

The prologue begins in the year 2042 with a deadly pestilence known as the “X-virus.” Countless millions died from the X-virus.  Then in the global collapse that followed came nuclear warfare.  The X-virus was unstoppable and the nuclear destruction that followed reaped all the havoc, death and disruption mankind has feared since the first atom bombs were deployed at the end of World War II.  Civilization, as we know it today, was no more.  The Sword takes place in a kingdom named Chiveis, which arises from the destruction.  The story begins “in the twenty-four-hundredth year after Jesus Christ (though few on earth knew it as such) . . . The world of cars and guns and computers had become once more, a world of horses and swords and scrolls.  History had been rewound and was playing itself out all over again” (p. 19).  The story takes place in the future, but it is as if the past has become our future.  Many have said, and I would agree, that the veneer of civilization is very thin.  What would civilization look like in America if the electrical power grid went down for a month or six weeks?  The Sword reminds us of that reality in the Prologue, but then moves on to a rebirth of a sort of civilization as we are brought into Chiveis.  

The Kingdom of Chiveis was founded by a man named Jonluc Beaumont about 325 years before our story begins.  Beaumont gave the “gift” of 4 traditional gods to Chiveis.  Astrebril, Star of the Morning was chief among the 4.  The other three are below Astrebril.  They are “Vulkain, the sulfurous god of the underworld; Pon, the debauched god of the forest; and Elzebul, the filthy god of dung” (p. 60).  These are the only gods the people of Chiveis know.  Though there is vague remembrance of a god of the ancients who had something to do with a cross.  Officially the people of Chiveis have religious freedom to worship whichever god they desire – King Piair states:  “The people of Chiveis have the freedom to follow the gods of their own choosing or no gods at all” (p. 87).  In reality the god of the cross is seen as the enemy by the real power behind the throne – the High Priestess of Astrebil. 

 Part One of the book, Discovery, concludes with the two main characters – Teofil (Theophilus from Luke-Acts) of the Royal Guard, 5th Regiment, and Anastasia of Edgeton finding part of an ancient book hidden in a cathedral in what I take to be France of the ancient times.  Teo (as he is usually called in the book) is also a learned scholar who is able to translate this book in the language of Chiveis.  As the book is translated and read, it then begins – if I may put it this way – to do its work.  Part Two of the book, Community, reveals a community being formed around the ancient book.  Part Three, Sovereignty, concludes with Teo and Ana (Anastasia is her full name from anastasis in the Greek – resurrection), after a losing climatic “battle” between Astrebril and Deu (the god who has revealed himself to them through the ancient book), fleeing certain martyrdom into the Beyond. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that the author expects the reader to suspend – to some degree – what he or she knows about Christianity.  As the reader does this, he or she tries to see the “discovery” (revelation?) of Deu and the newly rediscovered faith through neutral eyes.  As the characters learn of Deu through the book as it is continually translated by Teo, one tries to learn anew with them.  It is hard to say with certainty, for the suspension of one’s knowledge of the Faith is imperfect, but I think Dr. Litfin does a good job with this.  He works to help the reader see what it would be like to live in an isolated kingdom with almost no knowledge of Christianity.  The reader is asked to grasp how it would be for individuals, and for the “community” (Church), to learn that knowledge in a piecemeal way through the translated parts of the Old Testament.  Their knowledge grows to the point where Teo and Ana learn about confessing their sins (Teo almost committed the physical act of adultery and was at the least an accomplice to murder) and understand “[when you confess your sins,] sacrifice is Deu’s provision to remove [sins]” (p. 301).  A lamb is sacrificed and Psalm 51 is read.  There seemed to be a struggle in the book between the theology of glory and a somewhat subdued theology of the cross.  Teo and Ana try to use human power to dethrone Astrebril and its High Priestess.  In a reenactment of Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Baal, they expect Deu to reveal himself in a powerful display of glory and defeat Astrebril.  Teo tells Ana:  “’you believed, and you made it happen. . . We all took the right actions . . . now we’re seeing the rewards.  We opened the door for Deu and let him in!’” (p. 338).  Teo believes that a dramatic display of Deu’s power will sway the people of Chiveis to believe in Deu.  The subdued theology of the cross is seen most clearly in Maurice, a kind of pastor/shepherd.  As Maurice is dying from a series of beatings because he refuses to deny Deu, Teo expects Deu to rescue Maurice and keep him alive.  Maurice, as he lays down his life for Deu, says, “’It isn’t for us to fight against his will’” (p. 351).  After the duel against Astrebril, Teo and Ana both realize that they tried to manipulate Deu and that he does not work that way (p. 408). 

A QBR reviewer always tries to answer a couple of questions:  should a Lutheran pastor or layperson take the time to read this book?  Like all fiction books, this one transports the reader to a different world.  Dr. Litfin does an excellent job bringing us from the 21st century to the Kingdom of Chiveis four centuries into the future.  The book is a vehicle to think about how the Bible and the Church survive in the future against demonic forces.  The book’s story line is very creative.  As a Lutheran pastor or layperson reads it with Lutheran eyes, he or she can receive much diversion and enjoyment from reading The Sword.  Should you purchase it with your hard-earned money?  Obviously that is a personal question which only you can answer.  But unless Pastor Cain gives me the next volume of the trilogy to read (and review!), I am looking forward to adding it to my library.

The Rev. Peter Bertram is Pastor of Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Chadron, Nebraska and is a regular contributing reviewer to QBR.