Dr. Price is the host of the popular “Bible Geek” and “The Human Bible” podcasts and the author of many popular books about Christianity, including Deconstructing Jesus, The Case Against the Case for Christ, and many others.
“Novels of ideas” run the risk of becoming top-heavy with exposition. This one takes the risk and succeeds marvelously.
Set at the time of the turn-of-the-century San Francisco earthquake, the novel constantly but inconspicuously invokes the period so that the reader feels both at home in the era and pleasantly aware he is visiting someone else’s time. In this respect it is almost as if we are reading a novel actually written in the period. The story follows the ups and downs in the lives of four major characters all experiencing existential aftershocks from the earthquake.
Woven into a tapestry are the issues of loss of faith and shifting personal relations, both romantic and filial. The central thread is to set forth the arguments for and against the Christian faith and theism in general. We hear very convincingly and sympathetically portrayed the views of fundamentalists, Roman Catholics, Buddhists, and atheists. Somebody does win the argument ultimately, but no one is made a straw man in the process. One cannot help thinking of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, only author Seidensticker brings to the showcasing of ideas the sure hand of a novelist.
The book is full of surprises of many sorts. It is intellectually stimulating and emotionally touching, avoiding cliché and melodrama. The presentation is, if anything, understated since the underlying ideas and characterizations are so compelling. One thinks of the claims of health food mavens that vitamins lose their potency when taken in the form of pills but must be assimilated from the foods in their natural state. That is what Seidensticker gives us: piercing and striking ideas delivered through a page-turning narrative featuring many colorful and convincing characters who are motivated by and even embody the competing opinions. Characters, not caricatures.
The portrait of the Reverend Samuel Hargrove, for instance, is quite impressive, even attractive: a bombastic dynamo of a man buoyed up by his rhetorical talents and lion-like energy. In his we see a lifelike yet larger than life figure whose zeal for the Christian gospel and its vindication through apologetics is so intricately interwoven with his personal agenda of ambition and self-aggrandizement that it is easy to see how he cannot tell the difference. The Apostle Paul said “We preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ,” yet sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. Has one become so invested in the gospel that one’s selfhood is indistinguishable from it? Or is such seeming (even to oneself!) self-abnegation really an appropriation of the gospel as one’s own crown and scepter?
Hargrove’s opposite number, Jim Emerson, is the voice of freethought and atheism. He is an eccentric, a homebound agoraphobic, an engineering genius, an autodidact, and one of those health food mavens. How true to life, if one has ever known many outspoken atheists. These two characters form the poles between which the other pair of protagonists, Athena Farber and Paul Winston, can be charted in their post-earthquake soul-searchings.
As for the arguments of both Christian apologists and atheists, they are presented with remarkable clarity, force, and economy. There is much to underline if that is your habit. There is a real beauty of expression here, remarkable for the depiction of what are, after all, abstract notions. You will want to give copies of this book to friends and acquaintances. Careful, though: it may be like tossing onto the table the Apple of Discord. Stand back and be ready for anything that ensues. Might be an earthquake.
— Dr. Robert M. Price