Monday, 5 September 2016

Review: Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith

Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith by Donald S. Crankshaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I explained this book briefly to a friend as follows: "Aslan is not a tame lion."

I'm a Christian, but I don't usually read Christian fiction. This is largely because I expect it to be trite, shallow, neat, and preachy. The stories in this book are none of these things; in fact, some of them are very disturbing, all of them are thought-provoking, and all of them are well written. A number of the authors have impressive publication credentials in the fantasy and science fiction field.

I hope nobody is put off by the conventional tone of the acknowledgements from reading through to the introduction, which lays out the project: an anthology of good-quality fiction which deals with the mysteries, uncertainties, and difficult questions of the Christian faith, featuring Christian characters and themes in an authentic (and not necessarily comfortable, tidy, or doctrinally "pure") manner. Some Christians won't like it at all. Some non-Christians will find it, I think, approachable and interesting. And, of course, vice versa.

Let's go story by story.

"The Monastic," Daniel Southwell: an Irish-American priest who has taken up a hermitage on an island in Lake Superior must figure out how to relate to the mythical creatures he encounters there. Beautifully described and deeply characterised.

"When I Was Dead," Stephen Case: reminding me of C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce , a story of something between Heaven and Purgatory, but with some interesting twists in terms of what it's like to speak to someone who went on before you.

"Forlorn," Bret Carter: a horror story, with beautifully handled suspense.

"Too Poor to Sin," H. L. Fullerton: a dystopia run by merciless angels, where sin and forgiveness are a kind of currency, used to manipulate humans into serving in the angels' war.

"Golgotha," David Tallerman: a disturbing encounter for a missionary to the South Seas, told by a sailor who witnessed it. Has a touch of Mythos about it, but just a touch.

"A Lack of Charity," James Beamon: another horror story, set either in a nightmare trans-dimensional landscape or in a real world horribly transformed by being seen through the lens of insanity. Disturbing themes of murder, serial murder, and rape, alongside forgiveness or the lack thereof, revenge, and the demonic.

"Of Thine Impenetrable Spirit," Robert B Finegold, MD: post-cyberpunk science fiction, addressing the age-old questions of mind, soul, and their relationship with the physical form. I didn't feel that it brought anything really new to the idea, and I found the premise unconvincing, though the protagonist's motivation (love for his son) was well portrayed. The lady-or-the-tiger ending was, I think, justified, for purposes of provoking thought in the reader; though this can easily be a gimmick or a way of avoiding writing the ending, I didn't think it was in this case.

"A Good Hoard," Pauline J. Alama: fantasy humour, well executed and with a clear, but not heavy-handed message about materialism.

"Yuri Gagarin Sees God," J. S. Bangs: one of those stories that plays with urban legend and questions it, in this case effectively.

"Confinement," Kenneth Schneyer: angels seem to be where a lot of people go when they think "Christian speculative fiction," and this is one of a number of stories in this book which use the idea. Each of them treats it differently, though, and this one (the angel bringing a woman to face something about herself) is well done. May be politically distasteful to some readers.

"The Angel Hunters," Christian Leithart: another, completely different take on angels as interdimensional aliens, drawing on the visions of Ezekiel, but through the POV of a tough female mercenary with a troubled past.

"Cutio," F. R. Michaels: told in a series of emails, an encounter with an automaton from an earlier century, and another exploration of the idea of soulless machines and judgement without mercy.

"St. Roomba's Gospel," Rachael K. Jones: a whimsical, lyrical story about a cleaning robot that does, apparently, possess both a soul and faith.

"Yuki and the Seven Oni," S. Q. Eries: an unusually thorough rewriting of "Snow White," not only in a different setting - Japan under the Shogunate - but with a very different plotline, though most of the classic non-plot elements are there (notably excluding the prince, unless Christ is implied to fill this role). It works well, and the Christian character shows great compassion and courage.

"A Recipe for Rain and Rainbows," Beth Cato: a nice bit of Southern American weird fiction, with a satisfying theme of revenge versus forgiveness.

"This Far Gethsemane," G. Scott Huggins: sets up a situation of a human unbeliever dealing with a missionary-converted alien on a remote planet - so, putting a science-fictional gloss over a classic storyline, but here using it to address ideas of violence, nonviolence, and friendship. I didn't find its resolution entirely satisfactory, but I think it was supposed to be messy rather than neat.

"Ascension," Laurel Amberdine: a story of finding faith through a miracle, but I liked how the character chose to deal with the miraculous object and the symbolism of it.

"Cracked Reflections," Joanna Michal Hoyt: a difficult story of the historical immigrant experience in America around the time of World War I, with resonances for our own time in the nativist propaganda and fear of the Other. The fantastic elements are slight; it's more of a gritty real-world historical, dealing with pacifism and the cooption of faith to patriotism (here, out of fear of being othered).

"The Physics of Faith," Mike Barretta: post-apocalyptic, dark and disturbing (in other words, not to my personal taste), with a strange fantastical element that I assume is some kind of reference to the idea of the Rapture.

"Horologium," Sarah Ellen Rogers: deeply researched, deeply felt, but for me the plot wasn't strong enough, and it came closest of any of the stories in the book to preaching. The fourteenth-century mystics are interesting to me, and I did enjoy the story, but I felt it needed more development and some editing down.

In summary, a wide variety of stories, both in terms of belonging to many different fantasy and science fiction subgenres and in terms of what kind of Christian elements they choose and how they develop them and use them in the stories. Angels and demons feature in more of the stories than any other single element, perhaps unsurprisingly, though there are also a couple of stories involving missionaries, a couple involving pacifism, several about coming to faith in one way or another, and several about forgiveness. Three stories deal with the question of machines and souls, two concluding that they can't have souls and one that they can.

While the dark and gritty tone of some of the stories was beyond the level I personally prefer, it also thoroughly dispels the stereotype of Christian fiction as happy fluffiness. There's some deep emotional, spiritual and philosophical territory being explored here. I don't know that any of the stories really attempt to explore theology, as such, though, apart from perhaps the last one. They take Christian ideas and themes as a starting point and take them in interesting story directions, without necessarily asserting that this is how the cosmos actually is, even metaphorically.

The book misses out on my "well-edited" tag primarily because it uses "ok" rather than "OK" or "okay" (resulting in the odd-looking "Ok" at the start of a sentence), and because it uses "alright" rather than "all right," a usage that a few publishing houses now permit, though the major style guides don't (and nor do I, when I'm editing). There are a few minor glitches, as well, which I'll pass on to the editor for future correction (Hebrew is read right to left, not left to right, for example). On the whole, though, the quality both of writing and of editing is excellent.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book for purposes of review from one of the editors, who is a fellow member of a writers' forum I belong to (along with several of the contributors).

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