Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Substance Hoped For: A Journey of Faith by Jeffrey H. King

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 448 pages

Publisher: Authorhouse, 2006

Price: $30.99 (paperback: $15.99)

ISBN-10: 1425925960

ISBN-13: 978-1425925963

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the essence of things not seen.”

— Hebrews 11:1

Every time a reader opens a book to begin reading its pages, it is an act of faith. Somewhere tucked inside those lines of print on page after page will be a message, we hope, that moves us. Perhaps the message will teach us something we need to know to live better and fuller lives. Perhaps we will close the book at its end more enlightened than when we began it. In a good book, or at least in one that resonates for us, the readers, there is something that mirrors what lives inside of us, a part of our human condition: a mixed bag of wonder, hope, doubts, curiosity, and faith. Whether any conflicts arising from this mixed bag are resolved is usually far less important than an accurate reflection. Faith moves mountains, says the Bible, and so does common wisdom. Without faith, we sink into despair. Without faith, all hope fades, and our tomorrows stretch out bleak and without promise. Without faith, we become a self-fulfilling prophecy of an empty life.

Jeffrey H. King, a first time novelist from Toledo, Ohio, knows something about faith — and his novel is his expression of faith in sharing it with us, his readers. King’s background is in theatre, but his heart, it seems, belongs to his church. He serves as usher, church elder, and Sunday school superintendent at Trinity Lutheran Church in Toledo. With The Substance Hoped For—A Journey of Faith, King examines the path of an agnostic, Tom Snyder, to a sustaining Christian faith.

When first opening the covers of this novel, my own faith was perhaps tainted with cynicism. That is, I recognized the book as being self-published, and my past experience with most self-published books has been less than inspiring. Let’s face it, if a book is truly worthy of print, usually a traditional publishing house will pick it up. Why this Christian-based book would not have been picked up by traditional Christian publishing houses like Zondervan or Tyndale, I wondered. My wonderment only increased as I read the first pages, the first chapters. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the writing, the sound structure of the unfolding storyline, and the author’s ability to draw me in.

The novel opens with a mysterious “they” undertaking a journey to an as yet unknown destination. We soon realize “they” are the biblical Wise Men, seeking the newborn Christ. But we also soon realize that “they” are, or can be, each and every one of us, all seekers of wisdom and grace.

“They were wealthy men. And wise. These were qualities which they knew set them above other men. However, they did not allow their knowledge to warp them with pride… They used their wisdom to learn more of the world and its workings. They brought organization and planning to their country, and it grew. In this way they worked with the world as it is seen by men.

“But they also knew that there was more. There was an unseen world which overlaid the one they saw and understood. It was a world of god and spirits… Worldly fortunes grew, but those paled to the growing thirst to know what the ancients knew… They hoped there was a god. Otherwise, the knowledge they held, the riches they enjoyed, the civilization they called home was all without meaning. There would only be the rule of might. There would be no right or wrong, only opinions.”

As the story unfolds, the familiar one of the birth of the Christ child, alongside it develops the contemporary story of Tom Snyder, a good man who is not sure about the basis for his goodness. His goodness seems more of an opinion than an absolute, yet his longing and curiosity for the absolute that gives meaning to goodness leaves him restless enough that he mixes with those whose faith is strong. Like many of us, he has his doubts, but he also has that pull, part heart, part intellectual, that makes him wonder: is there or is there not a God? Tom is something of a modern day Wise Man, on his own journey to find faith.

On an evening when Tom is invited to share in the Christmas festivities at a church, which he attends not without a degree of reluctance, interesting exchanges take place between the faithful and the faithless, the self-righteous and the agnostic. The conversations the reader is allowed to overhear are similar to the ones we often overhear, and share in, in our own lives. The author maneuvers us through them skillfully. If there is a premonition of a factor that may just sway our hero agnostic to the faithful, it may just be through the warm interest expressed — and returned — with a romantic interest he develops at the church party. After all, our hearts are often opened to the divine via the human heart, when the love between two is an expression of what God wants us most to learn: to love others as we love ourselves. But then, tragedy hits. Or at least, it seems to be a tragedy. Tom Snyder is killed in a car accident after leaving the party.

Or is he?

A trick of time travel takes place, or perhaps it is a stroke of otherworldliness, as a guardian angel scoops up Tom Snyder, that fence-sitter who now faces the afterlife not having made a commitment to God, and transports him back across the centuries to the time of Christ’s birth. What better way to challenge a man’s faith than to have him meet the Holy Family? If at first disoriented and uncomfortable, which surely anyone would be, Tom finds himself working for Joseph the Carpenter and befriending his wife, Mary. He even becomes the favorite “Unca” of the Christ toddler.

Somewhere around this point in the storyline, I start to understand why this novel may have had to go the self-published route. My own faith in the solidity of this storyline begins to waver. To write convincingly about time travel is a difficult feat. To write about a time so many of us have read so much about it, and to infuse it with divine personalities, is even more difficult. That requires mastery, surely, and a theological knowledge few have. It’s been done and done again, in print and in film, but we have seen more failures than successes. When King takes on scenes of Tom Snyder feeling homesick on his birthday, and the Holy Family and friends decide to throw him a birthday surprise party that may remind him more of his own traditions, the suspension of disbelief required to carry this off is broken, never to be fully repaired. While I admire the author’s daring to try to pull it off, he may have been wiser to not have tried. Traveling over time as well as over such disparate cultures can’t be so easily overlapped. It’s not just a matter of time and place. Language and expression must be altered. A thousand cultural mores must blend. Customs cannot be ignored. Sensibilities may not be able to absorb what is normal in one time when transferred to another. The overall effect is one of losing the reader’s faith in the author, and that is costly in any novel.

By novel’s end, I had gone from pleasure at finding self-published treasure to a bit of a let down that a strong beginning did not lead to an equally strong finish. But King is not an author without talent, if perhaps too daring in his plots than, at this point in his skill level, he should have undertaken. If his message of faith is a strong basis for a Christian novel, he must not forget to also sustain the reader’s faith in a storyline, to know and remain within his own reach. When King writes of our contemporary world and contemporary people in various stages of their search for meaning in life, he does best, and one might hope his second novel will deal less with journeys over time and more with journeys into our own hearts.