It’s a novel first, a science-fiction novel second: in other words, it has rich characters, a compelling plot, and leaves you with much to think about. The SF element is done seamlessly well with good hard science and coherent thinking about another world and how it might work.
The plot is all about a Jesuit mission to another culture, what happened there, and how it affected the hero, a Jesuit priest and translator.
I suspect Mary Doria Russell gave her story an SF context only because on earth, most of the strange tribes have already been encountered, if not by Jesuits then by their Protestant missionary cousins.
Underlying the whole tale all are deep questions about God, about faith, redemption, surrender and devotion.
It really is a wonderful book, and shows perhaps how hollow much of the rest of the SF universe really is. (Not that that stops me enjoying it: it’s just that this book is so much richer.)
It rightly won prizes. This is the only SF book I would recommend my wife should ever read. It’s a wonderful novel, not to be missed.
First light: it isn’t dark: the sky is brightening, day is inevitable. But it isn’t day either, because the Sun has yet to rise in all its glory, transforming everything.
When the Sun rises, it touches the mountaintops first. The church is very like these mountains. We are positioned there in the night-time landscape. We ourselves are a mixture of darkness and light. But what makes us different is that without any merit on our part, without us even particularly doing anything, the Sun is shining on us.
Here in the night-time, we are already enjoying the day-time. God brings a little day-time to us, and through us a light is cast on a twilit world.
Something real has happened to us if we turned to Christ. The New Testament boldly states that when Christ gives someone a new heart, it’s a piece of the world to come: ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!’
Then—like that sunlit mountain—we are a sign of something, and an example of something, to the world around.
As has been often observed, the old paradigm in the West is Christendom, and it’s disintegrating.
We now need to rethink this new day. But we have help.
The prophet Jeremiah also saw two paradigms in his own lifetime. He saw the idea of God’s-people-as-a-country, with its surface-mounted devotion, corrupt and hollow, collapse — the end of one paradigm.
At the same time he called on Jewish exiles in Babylon to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7).
This was astonishing. God’s people are no longer a nation, Jeremiah was saying. They were to be more like a network. In his way, Jeremiah was as radical as Moses, radical enough to see what of Moses to scrap.
No more separation from the non-Jewish people around you, Jeremiah told the people of God: get stuck in. Keep your faith, but build a good city along with them.
No more Promised Land: now the God of the Promise, present with God’s people in every land.
No longer propping up an abandoned structure: now they were starting a new build. No longer a national focus: now a global one.
This echoes down into the New Testament, and is our call now.
… It’s a place of welcome and laughter, of healing and hope, of friends and family and justice and new life.
‘It’s where the homeless drop in for a bowl of soup, and the elderly for someone to chat to. It’s where you’ll find people learning to pray, coming to faith, struggling with temptation, finding new purpose and a new power to carry it out.
‘It’s where people bring their own small faith and discover that when they get together with others to worship the true God, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. No church is like this all of the time. But a remarkable number of churches are partly like that for quite a lot of the time.’ (p 105)
Many of our churches have a habit of investing too much in the next big growth-delivering, soul-saving, church-renewing spiritual product, often backed by a handbook and set of videos from some wealthy church somewhere a long way from where God has placed us.
This is all good, but in my experience doesn’t quite work as well as advertised on the tin. Most church-renewing spiritual products, it seems sometimes, haven’t met my church.
When Jesus first taught the Sermon on the Mount to his disciples, it must have been a shock. It’s still a shock today. What he majored on was not technique, was not slick and didn’t need a workbook.
Blessed are the poor in spirit … those who mourn … the meek …
those who hunger and thirst for righteousness … the merciful … the pure in heart … the peacemakers … the ridiculed (or persecuted). (Matthew 5:3-12)
Instead, these Beatitudes are all these things:
grounded in a deep need of God
affecting all of life
undergirding and rising above any specific plans
concerned with our hearts, not our skillset
encompassing sadness and setback
using the materials to hand, and
successfully helping us and our works to be a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the total transformation of the world in Jesus.
A spiritual strategy, in other words, for the rest of us.