Book Review: Peter Kreeft - "An Ocean Full of Angels"



There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

-Shakespeare, Hamlet


Philosopher Peter Kreeft has given us a great many books (over 50) in his 30 years of writing, including I Surf Therefore I Am, The Philosophy of Tolkein, Socrates Meets Descartes, and The Sea Within, just to name a few. When he is not writing, he is lecturing, debating, or surfing; but always, in all things Kreeft, philosophy is part and parcel of the operation.

So it is without much surprise or regret that Kreeft's debut full-length novel, An Ocean Full of Angels, is an unconventional love story for poets and philosophers.

Ocean is "about" as many topics as Kreeft's pen has tackled in his non-fiction, if not more. In an online interview, he gives us a partial list: "The connection between Jesus Christ, Mohammed, dead Vikings, philosophical Muslim surfers, Jewish mother substitutes, post-abortion trauma, Russian prophets, the beauty of islands, and the end of the world." And this list is only partial.

The book is narrated in journal-form by one 'Isa Ben Adam, a young Muslim studying philosophy at Boston College in the 1970s. Since we see 'Isa's world through his philosophical and theological lens, sporadic discussions about the enigmas of the sea, the universe, the nature of God, religion, and Christian dogma inevitably sprout up in the narrative frequently.

'Isa's admiration (to a point) of Christian theology is reflective of the author's own attitudes toward the teachings of Islam. Kreeft has commented before (and not without attracting some controversy) that 95% of the Qur'an is almost straight out of the Bible. He has even written a book with the subtitle: "What Christians Can Learn From Muslims." To be sure, 'Isa's enriching dialogues are a welcome reminder that there is a great deal to learn from the practices and teachings of Islam, lessons we shouldn't let go obscured by the terrible shadow of violent extremism in recent years.

After a series of bad breaks, this mindful and gentle Muslim finds himself living in "The House of Bread," a unique little orphanage for lost souls in Nahant (just northeast of Boston) populated with wildly fun and unique characters, and run by a wise "Mother," who insists on there always being someone there present to welcome new guests in need of her help. Fans of The Shack will find much to enjoy in sections of the novel situated in this home, particularly those in which 'Isa finds himself in verbal and intellectual combat with the other guests or with Mother herself.

But what truly sets this novel apart is not the philosophy-fueled dialogues, which is well-worn territory for Kreeft - rather, it is the deft dramatization of that wonderful Hamlet passage above. Kreeft has referenced this quote before, but never have we seen him so skillfully illustrate the point; and just as Mother expresses shock at 'Isa's loss of his "mental edge," so too will the reader familiar with Kreeft be shocked to find our philosopher leaping from the rigid and talky disciplines of metaphysics and logic, and out into the airy realms of poetry and mysticism. Symbolic dreams and an awareness of strange "connections" are an especially important part of this process; but even more important than both of these is 'Isa encountering the great love of his life, Mara.

'Isa's love for Mara (clearly Kreeft's Beatrice) is the centerpiece of the novel, and is most beautifully expressed in the chapter "Book of Love." As they become closer, passionate and erotic spiritual encounters fueled by playful dialogues only intensify 'Isa's love for Mara who, like 'Isa (for reasons the reader will discover) is determined to remain chaste before marrying.

Mara becomes inextricably linked in 'Isa's mind to the great depth and beauty of the sea (in fact, even the two names are linked, mare meaning "sea" in Latin). Soon after, 'Isa takes to surfing, and begins to see the joy and release of surfing waves as somehow linked to his islam (or literally, his submission to God's will).

Kreeft, preparing to surf the Jersey shore*

After a pivotal moment, 'Isa's tightrope between these two oceans, his two great loves, which he previously walks with great strength and control, comes crashing down - and his faith is brought head to head with a maelstrom of loss, suffering, and self-destruction. A true jihad or spiritual struggle unfolds, one that is so tragic and heartbreaking that it threatens to destroy not only 'Isa's faith, but 'Isa himself. At the center of both the conflict and solution is 'Isa - and he is, like every reader who encounters this story, "a mystery."

Kreeft's testament to the world with this big, messy story of a lifetime is that a lifetime is a big and messy story; and while reason and logic are important and useful guides to help sort the mess, they will never take us the extra mile, or give us a complete picture of life. For always and everywhere, there are undeniable signs of a greater tale of suffering and love unfolding beyond our reckoning.


*Picture from: http://www.kindlylight.org/2011/06/29/the-jersey-shore-with-peter-kreeft/

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't recommend highly enough the many audio lectures that are posted on Dr. Kreeft's website (link: http://www.peterkreeft.com/audio.htm) There you will find, among others, several lectures on the works of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien's Lord of The Rings. Also Matthew, in case you weren't aware, there is a brand new lecture on the website "If Einstein Had Been a Surfer!"

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