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Room of Marvels [a review]

Nothing shakes us like the death of those whom we love the most. In his recently re-released novel, Room of Marvels: A Story About Heaven that Heals the Heart, author James Bryan Smith journeys through the darkness of sorrow. The story follows Tim Hudson who has been beaten low by the deaths of his mother, his friend, and his two-year-old daughter all within the span of a couple years.

Compounding the hurt is the guilt: how can a Christian who believes in the hope of heaven feel such pain? How can he feel this angry? This depressed? Shouldn't someone who has dished out theological answers to pain believe those answers himself? In desperation, he decides to check himself into a weeklong stay at a monastery. Perhaps the silence and solitude might provide him the space he needs to process his emotions.

When he falls asleep, he dreams that he is in heaven, guided and directed along a path by the many people who have passed away throughout his life. The resulting journey gives Smith a platform to dwell on the things scripture says to us about heaven, our hope in death, and the agony of loss.

The book is not exactly going to win literary awards—the prose is rather stilted and the dialog plastic. I listened to the audiobook version, which also didn't do the novel many favors; it just felt rather dry and sterile for the subject matter. Nevertheless, that's not really why anyone would pick it up. When you feel the pain too, you're not looking for the next blockbuster novel, but for encouragement to keep going, to keep believing that the stories are true, to hear affirmation that someday the sadness will not be the final note.

Stylistically, it sits somewhere between C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce and William P. Young's The Shack (though generally more in keeping with Christian orthodoxy than the latter). Smith does a good job of underlining the sheer messiness of lament: in the sorrow of death, we often feel a sort of anger and disorientation that feels somehow wrong or "bad," yet the way forward is not over or around these emotions, but through them. Confessing our grief and anger and even shame is necessary work if we ever hope to move forward.

Though I would never discourage anyone in their imaginings of heaven, I admit that I was disappointed that the story seems to suggest that our pain is inescapable without a divine vision or dream. It is not until he sees his loved ones face-to-face in heaven that he is able to move on with his life. Certainly God in his wisdom can and does give people visions and dreams sometimes, but we should be careful to guard our hearts against thinking this is somehow normal or to be waited for. Indeed, 2 Corinthians 5:7 reminds us that "we live by faith, not by sight," and Hebrews 11:1 teaches us that though we might hope our deceased loved ones are now experiencing the beatific vision, it is precisely our lack of current sight that is the life of faith. We take Christ at his word, believing his promise is profoundly trustworthy. We take heart from the great cloud of witnesses who have passed these painful paths before us.

Let me be careful to say that none of that is to diminish the pain of death: all the theology and scripture in the world does not make pain less painful. In moments like these, we remember that death is the last enemy waiting to be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26), and we long for that day to come quickly. In this time between times, though, our hope is not that the Lord would give us a vision or a dream, but that he would give us courage and strength through the Church Militant and Triumphant to persevere in faith even when it seems death commands the battle.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.