Room of Marvels
Several readers and reviewers have already compared James Bryan Smith's ROOM OF MARVELS to Dante's DIVINA COMMEDIA and C.S. Lewis's THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, for, like those two great thinkers and writers, Smith has attempted to give a view of Heaven less significant for its literal truth and more so for its metaphorical richness. His protagonist Tim Hudson "has finally arrived at God's address," we're told --- in other words, he's in despair. His beloved and physically challenged toddler daughter has died in a "senseless medical accident" and his closest friend in Christ, a musician, has been killed in an auto accident. Tim has thus found his way to "God's address" in time-honored fashion, through human agony.
Tim is blessed enough and resourceful enough not to wind up staring at the bottom of an empty glass, or worse. Instead, he signs up for a week-long silent retreat at an Episcopal monastery in Massachusetts. When he checks in, he finds he has been assigned a spiritual director --- much to his chagrin. The lean Brother Taylor, sporting sweats and running shoes beneath his habit, rankles Tim, who thinks he can solve his problems by himself, as long as he has some time and space to think about them.
But Brother Taylor not only quickly finds Tim's weakest spots --- he finds a place in Tim's subconscious, too. For one night Tim goes to bed and has a dream different from any other, in which multiple figures (from his imagination, his education and his background) lead him to places of great beauty, meaning and spirituality. A shadowy lion evokes Lewis's Aslan, from The Chronicles of Narnia; Lewis himself (here known by his earthly moniker of "Jack") brings Tim to a new level … and so on, and so forth. A long-lost relative appears, as does his dead mother --- all of which sounds very kitschy and schtick-y.
Yet it's not. Smith, who is Chaplain and Assistant Professor of Theology at Wichita's Friends University, has crafted a deceptively simple and psychologically clever read about the things --- thing, really --- that matter most to Christian faith. Those devoted to denominational dogma and humdrum should check their baggage at Tim's bedside since, like the pre-Protestant Dante Alighieri and the confirmed Anglican Clive Staples Lewis, Smith also cares more about the Christ-centered than the church-centered. Every object, character and sensation Tim encounters during his lucid dream revolves around love: love given, taken, rejected, fulfilled.
Smith's small novel is the work of a big mind. If the comparisons to Dante and Lewis are a bit overblown on the literary front, they may not be on the theological front. There are many sincere Christians who believe that "apologetics" is wrong-minded, either as a defense of a faith (its common definition) or as over-intellectualization of what should come to us from the Holy Spirit. But in the hands of a mature Christian, when apologetics shows one fine person's struggle from the depths of despair back to firm knowledge of God's abiding presence and love --- well, it's a marvelous thing indeed.
Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on January 15, 2004