Though some will try and deny it, everyone loves a good story. Being fashioned in the likeness of the God who scripted the story of life, we by consequence find both identity and delight in stories. We have, after all, been written into the grand tale, playing a vital part in its unfolding, moving it toward (by God's good providence) it's appointed end. And now, as men and women who have received the story of the gospel as the story, we have a duty to memorize our lines and pay attention to the plot sequence--creation, fall, and redemption. Mimicking our heavenly Father, we have been charged to carry out our commissioning as sub-storytellers. Thus, we employ our imaginations in the constructing of sets, the writing of scripts, and the development of characters. Indeed, each Christian, in his or her own way, participates in the divine drama and is thus called forth to write likewise.
Being a student of C.S. Lewis at the University of Oxford, Harry Blamires understands this charge all too well. Following in the footsteps of his mentor, Blamires has written christianly on an astonishing number of subjects. From cultural critique, to literary theory, to novels; Blamires has attempted time and again to set forth a Christian vision of the world.
Many were first introduced to Blamires in his first book, The Christian Mind. The impact of this work on the Christian consciousness of the 1960's would be hard to overestimate. Troubled by the growing irrelevancy of Christianity in his day, Blamires challenged evangelicals with a gentle but educated honesty regarding the dismal state of Christian thinking about the world. His keen-sighted assessment was a welcomed exception to the watered down propaganda which dominated the Christian scene.
With now more than thirty books to his credit, Blamires has extended the Christian story in a number of different directions, faithfully retelling the only story to be told--the gospel. And now, at the age of eighty-nine, Blamires continues to make waves in the Christian community with his pen, this time with a kind of allegorical novel entitled New Town.
Different from some of his more famous works, New Town centers on the experiences and personal encounters of a single man, Mr. Bernard Dayman. The book begins with Bernard drifting off to sleep, only to find himself moments later striding down a street in the run down, decaying city of Old Hertham. Bernard begins to explore the possibility of settling down and purchasing a home almost immediately. It becomes quite clear, however, that the housing market in Old Hertham is far from ideal. So, through the help of "Godfrey and Son" real estate, Bernard attempts to purchase a new, undamaged residence in New Town. But acquiring a home in New Town is not as easy as it appears, for there are certain criteria to be met and specific references to be obtained before proceeding. Disheartened but not defeated, Bernard makes bold attempts as meeting the stated requirements. But with all sorts of trials and temptations standing in his way Bernard slowly realizes throughout course of the book, that he will never meet the requirements necessary to become a resident of New Town, which (in a strange paradox) is why he's a perfect applicant! For the only qualified residents of New Town, are those who recognize their lack of qualification. It is this realization which expedites the process of purchasing a house in New Town. And in the end, everything seems like it's going to work out. Until...Well, I'll let you read the end for yourself.
Written as a Christian fable, the story accurately (in terms of content) portrays the message of Christianity. This is clearly a work of "Christian fiction," and in the end, one does hear the gospel.
Discouraging, however, was the lack of real artistry in the writing of this novel. The characters lacked the kind of humanness which is essential to the believability of the story, often feeling more like caricatures or cartoons (as the book cover indicates) than real people. In addition (or by consequence) the conversations between characters were caption-like, verbal props on which "the message" of the novel was stamped. It was, then, largely predictable and formulaic. I found myself knowing the lines of communication before they were even spoken.
In addition, Blamires commitment to anacronisims I found distracting. For instance, Bernard's first encounter in Old Hertham is with an estate agent, "Dr. Fisher," (hmm...) who works for the agency "Godfrey and Son" (hint, hint). In his initial meeting with Dr. Fisher, Bernard comes to realize that "purchasing" a house in New Town is not as simple as an exchange of money for property; he must first gain the "fitting references" and join the "Society of Waiters" (wink, wink) before he could be considered as an applicant. In the meantime, Bernard can continue to live in Old Hertham, but only so long as he holds a "Resident Inhabitant Permit" (yes, RIP).
This code language imbedded in the prose undermined the possibilities of the narrative. Instead of entering into the characters experiences, thoughts, and feelings the reader was left hunting for clues, caught in a kind of literary "hide and seek" game. This trick may not have been necessary if the characters had been allegorical in nature, but since the theological message so structured the narrative, the use of such anachronisms was, in the end, off-putting.
Taking into mind all that was stated above, the overarching weakness of this novel centered on its inability to embody in the lives and experiences of the characters a believable and beautiful portrayal of creation, fall, and redemption. Rather, meaning was typically spoken by the characters of the book, as something we (the readers) ought to believe. It was, then, an evangelistic tract wrapped in fiction. There were welcomed exceptions to this in the course of the book, and that should be duly noted. But on the whole, the characters were means for instruction--mouthpieces through which a certain way of thinking, or approach to truth/reality was being filtered. Writing a novel in this way makes it difficult to enter the narrative and fails (in my opinion) to consider the potential of fiction to accomplish something quite unique from the theological treatise. For all its "true content," Blamires commitment to tell rather than show may be the chief reason this story is hard to believe.
Harry Blamires - Grand Rapids: Revell, 2005
Review by Nate Shurden