Thursday, January 8, 2015

Book Review: Room of Marvels

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Room of Marvels
Author: James Bryan Smith

Author's web page:
Date: 2004
Publisher: Broadman & Holman
ISBN: 0-8054-2784-8
Length: 154 pages
Quote: “When bad things began happening to me, I was sure God was punishing me.”
First the sermon: We all come into the world with different physical equipment. This includes our different brains. Some of us do things about which we feel guilty and imagine that all kinds of things are our “punishment.” Some of us simplify our lives by not doing things about which we feel guilty. This does not mean that we never make mistakes, or have to deal with the consequences of those mistakes. It doesn’t mean that the invitation we ignored may not be the last one that person would live to make, or that the mechanical problem we didn’t fix sooner may not cause us “accidental” injury. It doesn’t mean that we don’t, over time, collect a long list of natural consequences our mistakes could have had, but didn’t, for which we give thanks. It means that, beyond the natural consequences of human error, we don’t see every other bad thing that happens as a “punishment” and chalk it up to that nagging sense of permanent guilt...we don’t have a nagging sense of permanent guilt. We face up to what we’ve done, and just say no to things when we know we don’t want to face up to their consequences. 
This levelheaded view of ethics has interesting effects on our thought processes, as it had for the characters in the Bible. A cosmic force that dumps bad things on good people without a reason is not “God.” If bad things have happened to us for no reason, and people try to hide behind the kind of arguments Job’s friends used, such as finding fault with us or insinuating that God may be capriciously cruel, we have to regard them as being used by the Evil Principle...even if, like Job's friends, they are sincere.
The resolution of the elaborate arguments is the most useful part of the book of Job, and it’s always a surprise to see how many of us ignore it today. After all their arguing, Job and his friends see a vision of God’s glory. Job verbally repents of his doubts and questions. Job’s friends, whose sin is greater since they have been finding fault with both Job and God, prepare sacrifices and beg Job to pray for them. These “sacrifices” were not little emotional tokens. For the ancient Hebrews a sacrifice was a material gift to a whole group of people, usually a meal; one or more animals would be slaughtered, the dripping would be burned as a “sweet smell unto the Lord” while the meat was roasted, and other foods were also shared between the priest and other people. So after receiving a substantial amount of material wealth from his shamed and sorry friends, Job prayed on his friends’ behalf, and then health, wealth, and long life were restored to him. Christians who are still living in the guilt zone may need more encouragement to think about this.
Anyway, this disparity between a guilt-dominated and a guilt-free perspective explains why reading Smith’s book felt to me like reading someone else’s letters. Now you’ve been warned. It would be interesting to find out whether there’s any consistent pattern to the reactions Christians have to Room of Marvels.
Anyway, the book is written as fiction. A man goes on a silent retreat, shuts himself up in a cell,and wonders why God let some of his friends and relatives die. He then dreams that he’s discussing the matter with several departed friends, including people he didn’t know in real life. C.S. Lewis, who imagined meeting his favorite writer (George MacDonald) for the first time in Heaven, is fair game and makes his appearance in Room of Marvels. Other people, including departed acquaintances for whom the guilt-ridden narrator had forgotten doing good turns, also console the narrator, and he leaves the retreat feeling comforted.

For the kind of book it is, Room of Marvels is readable, with relatively few cringe-inducing passages, and is recommended to those who feel sympathy with its point of view. As a Fair Trade Book it'll cost $5 plus $5 for shipping. Shipping charges are per package, not per book, and you could fit some additional books--e.g. The Great Divorce--into a package with Room of Marvels. Regardless, if you buy this book online here we'll send Smith or a charity of his choice $1 for each book sold.