Room of Marvels, by James Bryan Smith

I didn’t write while in transit yesterday. I was packed up early, so I ate my salad and let my dad drop me off at the airport early, about two hours before my flight boarded, looking forward to a bit of solitude in the midst of busyness. In fact, except for the Southwest Airlines gates the El Paso airport is mostly empty, and it was peaceful where I sat after buying a large cup of coffee from Starbucks. Just sitting and looking out the large windows felt good, so I did that as I drank the coffee.

Side note: As I bought the coffee I noticed the biscotti at the cash register, and on a whim bought one. It was fine, and I don’t exactly regret buying and eating it I would prefer not to have done it. Aside from fruit it’s the first sweet I’ve had in four months. I bought it partly to practice not being a slave to my diet, and it did that. I was also glad to discover that there was no flood of relieved-from-deprivation feeling accompanying it—I’ve never really craved sweet baked goods, but although I enjoyed it for what it was I could go a long time without eating another cookie or piece of cake or whatever. (Candy, ice cream, and such are never a problem—it’s the grease and flour that attracts me.) My regret was that it messed up my eating for the day after a fashion. I hadn’t planned on it and wasn’t sure how to rearrange. I was looking forward to the cheese sandwiches, so I ended up forgoing the banana. I could have passed on the apple as well as far as hunger was concerned but would have felt unbalanced as a result, so I ate it.

I had with me a paperback copy of Dallas Willard’s The Great Omission, a collection of short pieces, so rather than writing or thinking I dipped into that. I read the introduction (excellent) and the afterword (even better, a very short piece on how to proceed in one’s life after being persuaded of his point). And then glanced at the very last piece in the book, an afterword contributed to the book Room of Marvels by James Bryan Smith. That intrigued me enough to look for the book in the Kindle Store—which kindly told me I had purchased it the last time I had read Willard’s book, so I made sure it was downloaded and decided to spend the trip reading.

Room of Marvels is the fictional account of a trip to heaven, although even in the fiction the trip itself is a dream. Very much in the vein of The Great Divorce, something that Smith freely acknowledges, though the story itself isn’t much like it. The writing isn’t as good, either, but who can reach that standard? It’s not bad, and improves as you read. The details of the dream are partly autobiographical—the purpose of the dream is to comfort the writer about three recent deaths by giving him a deeper understanding of heaven, and Smith draws upon his own recent experiences in crafting those aspects of the tale.

The book is not difficult reading and maintains a light tone even while dealing with weighty subjects. I’m mostly sympathetic with Smith’s view of God’s economy, so I didn’t find much objectionable about his portrayal of heaven, and it isn’t worth speculating on how “accurate” the portrayal is—that wasn’t Smith’s goal, anyway. Folks who like to mire themselves in biblical or theological detail would probably hate the book. Folks who would like to feel the reality of God’s economy a bit more deeply should get some benefit from it. I wouldn’t say I learned anything new, but it did make some things about eternal life feel more present to me.

I only had one objection to Smith’s understanding, which is actually an objection to a commonly held modern view, and maybe not even an objection. Smith portrays the protagonist as a very works-oriented, people-pleasing, controlling person who needs to give all that up and become his “authentic self” before he can move into higher/deeper levels of heavenly understanding. I don’t disagree that those characteristics can be serious impediments to living a proper Christian life.

But there is an implication, not just from Smith but from nearly everyone who writes on this topic these days, that these characteristics are more or less universal afflictions for less mature Christians—and, worse, that the remedy is to somehow “let go and let God”. In my experience, this just isn’t true. Each one not only approaches the table with a unique collection of these, given their nature and history, and they are best treated individually and deliberately. Some folks have little if any trouble with being controlling. Those who do, to the extent that they do, need to do the necessary things to put their controlling nature to death, which will almost certainly be more than simply turning it over to God.

As I said, though, this may not even qualify as an objection. I definitely agree with Smith about the seriousness of the problem and the difficulties it can cause a Christian. My quibble is that I don’t think this is the human condition, but rather a condition dear to our therapeutic age, one made nearly universal by our addiction to therapeutic thinking, and one that is better solved by something other than the talking cure. But the important thing is that we agree it is critical for Christians to solve it somehow.

That saw me through half my trip. During the other half I worked on Dark Places, Gillian Flynn’s second novel. I don’t read much fiction, but a few months ago I stumbled across a nice deal for Kindle versions of her three books and bought it. I loved Gone Girl—not so much for the writing, which was good but not my favorite style, but for the well-crafted story, and for the unreliable narrators, one of my weaknesses. Dark Places is not as good—how could it be?—but it tells an involving story, and has a grittiness that keeps me slightly unbalanced and slightly uncomfortable.

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