I Am Sophia by JF Alexander (Review)

Who Should Read This Book – Readers who enjoy a well written story. If you like science fiction, stories with faith elements, or both, that is a bonus!

What’s the Big Takeaway – Your understanding of God is probably too small.

A Quote – “By design, the unfolding of human history has continued to reveal a bigger and bigger world, a world of previously unimaginable abundance. In recent centuries, your horizons were rapidly expanded by the scientific method, technology, and the cross-cultural exchanges they made possible. You found out that the universe is much larger, older, and more complex than your forebears dreamed. These revelations scared many people. . . It was part of the plan for humanity to encounter a large, diverse, and constantly evolving universe: a realm of immense space, deep time, and mind boggling multiplicity; a vibrant, interconnected web of life; a complex dance of human histories and cultures. These truths do not oppose or undermine God. They reveal God’s nature as wellspring and lover of abundance” (146-147).

This is a delightful, inspiring and thought-provoking story set in the not-too-distant (or, maybe distant?) future. In this future the entirety of the Christian church is down to 11 people, led by a reluctant and doubtful young bishop. His life, and that of his church, is rocked when a homeless woman begins camping out on in front of the church building. Is she a crazy person? Is she a visitor from God? She’s Sophia.

I was hooked onto this book from page one. Alexander is a great writer so even if you are not someone who usually enjoys science-fiction, or even stories about faith, I think you could enjoy this. That said, the sci-fi elements run throughout the story. There are hints sprinkled throughout of what this world is like and how the world we live in at present became this world. In other words, though the world seems a bit foreign, it is not far-fetched. For example, one of the corporations that runs the settlement of Mars is “The Independent Nation of Amazonis.” I imagine in this future, Amazon became its own independent nation, which is actually not hard to believe.

As I read, I wondered why people were not more connected to screens. In this way, the world seemed too similar to ours – shouldn’t the future be full of virtual reality (like Ready Player One?). Here too Alexander drops hints, eventually talking about how at one point in the past (our future) people became so addicted to screens that a movement away from living totally in a virtual world occurred. Addiction to virtual reality is still a thing (“stim addiction”) but recognizing the addictive elements keeps the story in the real world. Overall, I almost felt like I was reading a Doctor Who story at times, with Alexander as the Doctor and the reader as the companion along for the ride, being thrown into a future world with hints of familiarity and dissimilarity all at once.

This combination is also apparent in the faith element in the book as well. It is hard to imagine Christianity dwindling to a dozen people, but given enough time, its possible. Alexander future world is no sunny post-Christian utopia. Instead, members of society with little to contribute are called “lowcontribs” and abuse runs rampant. What would a future world that totally throws off the shackles of religion look like? Certainly we can be good without God, but move far enough away from God and the inevitable question of ought we be good or what does the good look like must be put on the table. This story presents a world that has continued to change in light of these questions. Its important to note Alexander is not writing pro-Christian propaganda here. Instead, the existence in the story of the “International Christian Capitalist Club” illustrates that this is a world where the marriage between Christian and Capitalism ended with the term “Christian” losing all meaning. I recently finished David Bentley Hart’s book The Dream Child’s Progress and Other Essays, which includes a few essays on Christianity and capitalism, and I’ve read works by Eugene McCarraher, Daniel Bell and others who are critical of Western Christianity’s comfortable compromise with Capitalism. Alexander, in story form, imagines what the future may hold and its not too hard to believe.

As the book moves closer to the end and Sophia begins to teach Peter more lessons, the book becomes a bit more preachy. There is a tenuous line in works of fiction like this one. On one hand, the author wants to tell a good story. On the other hand, the author clearly wants to offer some wisdom and teaching within the story. There are stories where the wisdom is deeper beneath the surface, such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. And there are stories where the wisdom is on the surface, more clearly allegorical, such as Lewis’ Narnia series or William Young’s The Shack. There is nothing inherently wrong with either type of story.

That said, the fiction reader in me wanted more story. I was intrigued with this world and wanted to explore it more. How did global climate change affect the politics? How did the church shrink over the years? There were even a few terms Alexander did not really define. Religion is called “metafiz” and I’m curious where that term came from. There are still male and female, but the prefix “ro” is added which hints at wider cultural acceptance of gender diversity. I think, as the story Alexander wanted to tell goes, the world-building was sufficient. My personal preference is that I wanted more.

I’d say Alexander’s book is more on the Narnia/Shack side of the divide. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this. Alexander’s book rises above much of what goes under the name “Christian fiction.” I imagine most readers of Christian fiction would suspect Alexander of heresy or questionable theology at least. Its not a book for the Left Behind and Frank Peretti fans of the world (a statement which, I guess, betrays my own limited knowledge of Christian fiction today). Its more imaginative and Alexander pushes the boundaries of what’s traditional and accepted; this is the whole point of Sophia’s teaching. You might say this is Christian fiction for more progressive Christians who usually balk at “Christian fiction.”

Overall then, this is an engaging book. Both the story itself and the lessons within are great. I wish there had been a bit more to the story, but that’s personal preference.

Postscript – I feel I have spent my adult life working in churches and ministries always on the brink of ceasing to exist. I am part of a tiny campus ministry organization that yearly struggles to raise enough to pay all our salaries. I grew up in a small church and the church I go to now has shrunk from its peak a few years back. I sometimes look to more established churches and wonder why I’m not them. In this, I resonate with Peter and I think anyone who has felt like a failure or part of a failed movement would especially resonate with Peter.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

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