Kevin Archer, |
In Lieu of Heaven
In Lieu of Heaven is a metaphorical, deeply provocative novel that I cannot help but address on two different levels, one literary and the other religious. The whole novel is framed in the mists of spirituality, as we meet one character traveling through lonesome woods in a quest for some kind of truth -- ostensibly, his is a quest to find God. Out in the middle of nowhere, he comes across a beautiful garden and meets another man, one who will take his ambiguous quest in a completely new direction. It is difficult to review this book because the identity of the man in the garden is essential to the story, yet I cannot reveal his identity without giving too much of the story away.
The man in the garden tells a tale that is impossible yet, somehow, strangely feasible, and the "truths" unleashed from the man's lips send the traveler into a spiritual whirlwind. He is forced to question the very tenets of his beliefs, and it makes for a soul-jarring experience. The old man's message is that God is the world's chief villain, a jealous, neglectful father responsible for all the woes of mankind. This revelation is couched in the sacred writings of the Bible itself, which makes it all the more telling on the traveler's heart and soul. In terms of the book as literature, it is a great success; it turns the kind of moralistic writing Nathaniel Hawthorne (as one example) excelled at completely on its head, proving very effective indeed. Emotions run high throughout the two men's extended conversation, and we see into their hearts and minds in really quite provocative ways.
What makes In Lieu of Heaven such an extraordinary novel to me, though, is the fact that Kevin Archer is actually a former Christian missionary. As such, his knowledge of the Bible is impressive and lends extra strength to his arguments. From my perspective as a conservative Southern Baptist, there is a definite shock value associated with reading this novel. I think this is just what the author intended, however, and that in itself is a further sign of the impressive literary character of the story. Obviously, I do not agree with Archer's condemnation of God as the ultimate Bad Guy in human history, but my disagreement on this point should not (and hopefully does not) color my review of the novel. If everyone already agreed with the author's own conclusions, he would never have written such a provocative novel in the first place. My own familiarity with the Bible actually makes Archer's argument all the more impressive; I can see just how knowledgeable he is and can pick up on the almost relentless references he makes to biblical passages. Each reference is footnoted as well, so interested readers can go to the Bible passages themselves, if so inclined, while reading the novel.
One can read almost anything into the Bible, as human history has shown. I admire the fact that Archer has documented all of his references; this tells me he is not forcing his own interpretation upon the reader, although he is obviously sincere in his condemnation of God. Just as he rebelled from the strict Christian upbringing of his youth, I do not think Archer would expect any reader to merely take his word for everything he says. "Question everything" is one of many messages I take from this novel. I think the author wants readers to examine the relevant Biblical passages and themes alongside the interpretation he is offering here; only then should the reader come to a conclusion of his own. However you look at it, the emotions Archer evokes from his two main characters definitely make for an emotionally strong challenge to orthodoxy.
I would recommend this novel to Christians and non-Christians alike. Living in such a chaotic world, it is healthy for the soul and healthy for one's peace of mind to search for eternal truths about man's purpose, both individually and collectively. Clearly, though, the author and I are sitting on opposite sides of the playing field. I would hope that non-believers would be exposed to the Bible through this novel and go to that ultimate source before making any spiritual decisions inspired by the reading experience. As for Christians, I have always believed that we should challenge our beliefs if we are to grow stronger in our faith, and In Lieu of Heaven does make for a formidable challenge.