Evidence of Things Unseen

Review of Evidence of Things Unseen, by Marianne Wiggins

I picked this book up because of the title. It’s a phrase from Hebrews, chapter 11: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, evidence of things unseen.” (KJV). Non-believers sometimes cite it as logical bootstrapping, but it’s not. Other translations get away from the philosophically slippery meaning of “substance,” to say that our belief in the unseen is a matter of degree. Moreover, it is not the faith itself that is “evidence of things unseen,” it is the subject matter of that faith, the “things hoped for.”

We have independent warrant for believing that the things hoped for are true, and our conviction derives from that, not from wishful thinking. The subject matter of our faith is that “the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.” In other words, the origin of stuff is mind, not matter; “skyhooks,” not “cranes,” to use atheist Daniel Dennett’s scoffing terminology in his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

I’m giving this little sidebar exegesis so as to explain why I found this book disappointing, despite the promise of its title. Wiggins’ meaning of “things unseen” is only physical things. She dangles this Biblical phrase referring to supernatural unseen things, but delivers only the danger of unseen physical things, like radiation and man’s misuse of science, as with the atomic bomb.

At times there is the tease that maybe we’re going to get to “the substance of things hoped for,” but we never do. The male protagonist’s best friend goes rogue, prompting surprise: “you think you know a man.” The Manhattan Project scientists work secretly on a way to bring a speedy end to the war, only to bring to reality the terrors of the nuclear age. Calvinist total depravity? Individual and collective scientific hubris? Are these the big ideas Wiggins is weaving into the book? And if so, what about it? She doesn’t say. Her plot doesn’t tell us. Her characters don’t. There is a turn at the end of the book that might have been an attempt to wrap up some ideas, to bring resolution, but it doesn’t work. The author overstayed her welcome.

It became apparent long before the end of the book that there would be an element of disappointment, but I pressed on for one reason: Wiggins is a strong line-by-line writer. I’ve remarked elsewhere that I’d be content to read the back of cereal boxes if the writing was good. I can commend Wiggins’ book to you if you appreciate the same features of writing that I do. I’d be quick to add, though, that I’d prefer a marriage of good writing with ideas that are more than narrative for the sake of narrative.

If the odor of self-satisfied sanctimonious progressivism does not penetrate your olfactory faculties, I suppose you’ll like this book. If you’re interested in a colorful description of rural and medium-sized town life (Knoxville, Tennessee) in the early decades of the 20th century, this is a good read. If you’re interested in the Tennessee Valley Authority and the sunny optimism of New Deal triumphalism of the decades between the wars, you might find this a good read. If you’re satisfied with a well-written array of details of individual lives but bored with the proposition that there really are “things unseen” beyond those lives, then the disappointment I felt might not visit you.

This book could have been so much more.

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