Safely Home, by Randy Alcorn
[Note: Full disclosure: Tyndale House Publishers provided me a copy of this book for free since I am a member of the Tyndale Blog Network. This has not influenced in any way my review of this book.]
I am both very close and very far from the subject material of this book in ways that are a bit uncomfortable and disorientating in both cases. Like one of the protagonists of this novel, Ben Fielding, I live in Portland and have spent time in Asia (in my case, Thailand, in the case of this novel, China), running afoul of local authorities because of my connection between Christian faith and the practical politics of a heathen country where nominal Christianity has spread rapidly. In my own time abroad as a missionary teacher (in this case in an officially licensed school) I worked with refugees and minority populations, and found that teaching and preaching the truths of the Bibles and the task of political schmoozing (a task at which I do not excel) often do not closely correspond, and that there are dilemmas we must face in obeying God rather than men, with the acceptance that there may be a price for this behavior. Despite the fact that both Randy Alcorn and I live on the outskirts of Portland with similar interests in missionary work, and the fact that I have read one of Randy Alcorn’s books before, his rather excellent work on Pro-Life arguments against abortion , I have no acquaintance with the author nor do we appear to work in the same circles. In a trip to the Mae Surin refugee camps I even used as the text for my sermon message the same reference in Hebrews 11 to the fact that Christians are citizens of the New Jerusalem and not fully at home on earth, a message that is a core aspect of this particular book, and a passage that is specifically given in a sermon in this novel as well .
However, despite the fact that there are many aspects of this book that I can greatly relate to as a result of my own experience as a Christian missionary in Asia, there are also some elements of this novel that are rather alienating, and that I also feel it necessary to mention for the benefit of some readers. Most importantly, there are doctrinal differences between the author and I that make this book seem somewhat presumptuous in its portrayals of the Kingdom of Heaven, which appear too often to mix mythological elements (like the name of Chalcis) and unbiblical elements (the existence of an immortal soul), and in its portrayal of what appears to be an amillennial understanding of the return of Jesus Christ (where I am a premillennialist myself). The frequent interludes where supposedly resurrected characters talk to each other as omniscient or at least more knowledgeable commentators on the action of the novel and on endless speculations as to the identity of the ‘last martyr’ whose death completes the total (something foreshadowed throughout the novel and revealed at the end for those readers who make it that far) are a bit off-putting to me, since we do not share beliefs on the doctrine of resurrections. Readers who share the beliefs of the author concerning the afterlife are likely to find the view of heaven far more inspiring and far less intrusive than I did.
The novel as a whole examines the relationship between two men and their Creator. Ben Fielding is a lapsed Christian who begins the novel as a picture of the postmodern, multicultural, morally debased wealthy American, who is near to achieving his ambitions as the CEO of Getz International but whose life is empty and filled with self-medication by drinking and estrangement from his wife and daughters. Li Quan is a Harvard-educated outcast assistant locksmith on the outskirts of an anonymous Chinese city who has given all of his earthly ambitions away to serve God as a teacher of an illegal house church, still regretful of his cowardice in rejecting God as a teenager despite growing up in a home with a legacy of martyrdom. The novel providentially throws these two men together to give Ben Fielding an opportunity to see the faith of God in action and to come to grips with his own cowardice and treachery while providing a contrast between material and spiritual wealth.
Where the novel succeeds particularly well is in its comparison of the far more overt persecution of Christianity in China with the more subtle persecution by the culture warriors who are offended by any Christian message against sins condemned in the Bible in the name of tolerance. God and mammon are brought against each other in ways that are stark and clear, and the Bible shows that faith in God does not bring certain material prosperity as is often taught by false preachers, but that it often brings persecution and trouble in this world because of the presence of the evil one, whose hostility ultimately rebounds to the glory of God and our purification and moral development. Satan (and his minions) plot for evil but God uses it for His ultimate and inscrutable good. Ultimately, whether one agrees with or disagrees with the specific doctrinal perspective of the novelist, someone with a strong Christian worldview and a commitment to both mercy and justice will find much to enjoy in this book, and Randy Alcorn skillfully paints characters and has a good understanding at the indirect and often deeply ironic nature of God’s workings with mankind. Therefore, while I do recommend this book with some reservations, it is enjoyable to the extent that it is seen as fiction, even though it is fiction that presumes to speak from the point of view of God and the Kingdom of Heaven, places that human beings cannot access as citizens of the “Shadowlands.”
For those readers who have a larger picture of the art of Christian fiction, there are at least a few ways in which one can see Randy Alcorn as being strongly influenced by the writings of C.S. Lewis. As such a person whose thought and writings have likewise been influenced by C.S. Lewis, I was appreciative of the influence of the concepts of the “Shadowlands,” as well as some ideas that seem to spring from “The Great Divorce” within this work. Likewise, the book draws heavily on research by such groups as the Voice of Martyrs and those missionaries (some of whom I have read with great appreciation) who have worked in discovering Christian truths embedded within ancient languages and stories. The greater the extent to which the reader shares these interests and background, the more one’s enjoyment of the deep care and research that went into making this fictional narrative more credible. The multiple layers of this work increase its interest to the Christian reader who is knowledgeable not only about Christian doctrine, but also contemporary geopolitical and economic affairs, even if the book takes very clear and specific doctrinal perspectives that are not likely to be shared with the entire reading audience of this work and that will present some estrangement between the author and those who come to this work with a different eschatological worldview from his own.