Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Sword (Chiveis Trilogy #1), by Bryan M. Litfin


The unthinkable has finally happened.  The world as we know it has been destroyed by the one-two punch of a worldwide pandemic and nuclear war.  Much of the earth is uninhabitable, and the population has been decimated.  Yet hundreds of years after this 'apocalypse', there are still pockets of survivors attempting to rebuild their lives out of the rubble, albeit without the benefit of modern technology.  One such community is a pseudo-medieval kingdom known as Chiveis.  Nestled in the safety of an alpine valley, Chiveis is fairly prosperous--a state of affairs the people attribute to the power of their gods, Elzebul (god of dung), Vulcane (god of fire), Pon (god of the forest), and the almighty Astrebril (god of the sky).  The Chiveisians know nothing of the gods of the 'ancients', and the high priestess of Astrebril is determined to keep it that way.  After all, the gods of Chiveis are jealous and must not be upstaged by other gods--particularly the unknown 'God of the Cross'.  Such religious matters are of little interest to Captain Teofil of the royal guard (and part-time history professor/linguist), but when he crosses paths with the lovely and spirited farmer's daughter (and poet) Anastasia, the two of them are swept up in a quest that could cost them their lives . . . and just might change the kingdom forever.

While people disagree about who Jesus was (and is), it is my understanding that the influence of the Christian faith on what is known as the medieval period is unanimously acknowledged.  The Middle Ages were positively steeped in religion, and that religion was Christianity (or some variation thereof).  But what would the Middle Ages look like if the influence of Christianity were removed?  And how would the people react to the introduction of the 'God of the Cross'?  These are the questions that Wheaton professor Bryan Litfin, an expert in church history and the ancient and medieval periods, sets out to answer in the Chiveis Trilogy.

This first installment sees the discovery of an old (to the Chiveisians) manuscript of what we know as the Old Testament.  It is in French, and thus is unintelligible to all but those versed in the 'smooth tongue' of the ancients.  Fortunately, leading man Teofil just happens to be an expert in that particular language.  He remains a skeptic as to the substance of the manuscript, but the beautiful Anastasia, disillusioned with the cruel and immoral gods of the kingdom, responds to this new god 'Deu' with ardent devotion and unwavering faith.  Before long, a small community has sprung up, gathering in secret to pray and read the words of Deu as translated by Teofil.  (I was most definitely convicted by their hunger to hear the 'words of Deu', which they treasure as if it were, indeed, a pearl of great price.  Would that I responded to God's Word with such fervor.)  This state of affairs is highly unacceptable to the high priestess of Astrebril, who is determined to do whatever it takes to eliminate this new religion and its followers.  Face with her external threats of physical violence and social and economic ruin (and, in a tidy nod to the Gnosticism that has plagued the Church for centuries, the internal threat of disunity and false teaching), the tiny 'house church' seems doomed to fail.

The characters here are, at times, laughably implausible.  Of course Teofil is both a champion guardsman and a professor of history and an expert in French.  Of course Anastasia is a crack shot with a bow, plucky as all get out, a humble farmer's daughter, a gifted poetess, a passionate woman of faith, and the hottest chick in Chiveis.  Of course the boorish bad guys have names like 'Rothgar' and 'Red-Beard'.  Fortunately, the theological substance more than makes up for the lack of nuance in his characters.

In this book, the characters have access to only the Old Testament (as I understand it, the second book in the trilogy focuses on their attempts to locate a copy of the New Testament).  As such, they have no idea why this Deu is called the 'god of the cross.'  Nonetheless, Litfin tries to keep the theology gospel focused, which requires a bit of theological gymnastics.  After all, the Israelites had no idea that the cross was coming.  Now that we have the whole story, we look back and see that the Old Testament is positively riddled with gospel foreshadowing.  But I don't know that you get there with just the Old Testament.  Litfin tries to circumvent this obstacle using the story of Abraham and Isaac, from which Anastasia is able to discern that Deu demands sacrifice for sin but that He also provides the sacrifice.  Tricky, no?  Plus, the characters don't actually have the whole Old Testament.  I mean, they have it, but during the course of the book Teofil only has time to translate part of Genesis, some Psalms, and the book of Ruth.  So, you know, no Isaiah or Exodus or other books rich with gospel imagery.  Still, what they have is enough to lead them to the following conclusions:  Deu is good; Deu created everything; people are sinners; Deu demands sacrifice for sin; even commoners can pray to Deu; and the people of Chiveis need to hear about Deu.  Not too bad for a bunch of medieval heathens.

Litfin also handles the subject of God's sovereignty with a fair amount of subtlety.  He does not simply bring God in as the victorious king who sweeps all before Him in the final showdown.  Instead, Litfin looks at the history of the church and uses it as a pattern.  This fledgling gospel is spread not through crowded arenas and proclamations from powerful rulers, but by the daily faithfulness of those who believe it, and their willingness to risk everything for the God they serve.

Which leads to something of a rude awakening for the main characters, who expect mighty Deu to show up and obliterate the competition, Mount Carmel style.  When [SPOILER] things don't exactly work out that way, they are confused and discouraged, but still express faith in Deu and try to trust His sovereignty.  I was pleased that Litfin's version of a "Christian" story preserved this element of God's work in our lives.  After all,  His ways are higher than our ways, and much of what He does is hard for us to comprehend. (Is. 55:8-9)

The audiobook is narrated by Ray Porter, who has narrated quite a few audiobooks in his day, and who I remember from his work on Hell House.  He does a good job, but makes some rather amusing accent choices.  Teofil's mentor, the wise professor Maurice, sports a full-on Sean Connery accent, while an evil priest utters threats in an inexplicable Russian accent.  This in a land where a) they all descended from the French and/or Swiss, and b) they are very insular and super isolated from the rest of the world, such as it is.  So, not a lot of opportunity for varying accents and dialects.  It ended up sounding kind of silly, is what I'm saying.  I mean, the accents were decently done, and I love me some Connery, so I didn't mind.  But it did make me chuckle.

At the end of the day, the story and characters are just sort of fine, but the theology is some of the best I've come across in my (admittedly limited) experience with Christian fiction.  I look forward to seeing how Litfin handles the rest of the series.

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