Friday, November 12, 2021

Nicky & Vera: a Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued

by Peter Sís
2021 / 64 pages

Nicholas Winston never set out to be a hero but he also knew what needed to be done. When the Germans were taking over Czechoslovakia in chunks, before World War II has officially begun, Jews in the country were trying to get their children out. Winston knew how to get this done, pushing the paperwork, bribing the right people, and arranging for families in England where the children could stay.

He ended up saving 669 children, most, or all of whom, were Jewish, and he didn't have to brave bullets to do it. That is the important lesson of this book: that there are quiet ways to do vital work. It was quiet work, but no less life-saving than what Allied soldiers did fighting to end the Nazi reign.

And in its quiet manner, Winston's is more like the important work we are called to do today – our fights are not in the trenches, but writing our MPs, or making donations to the right organizations. We can, for example, save lives by donating to pregnancy crisis centers, and do so at no risk to ourselves. 

Winston was not Christian, so far as I can tell (it doesn't come up in the book) but his example is still one we can benefit from. This would be a great picture book for a school library, to be pulled out and showcased around Remembrance Day each year.

Monday, November 1, 2021

The Peacemaking Pastor

by Alfred Poirier
317 pages / 2007 (2nd edition)

Any officebearer who wants to apply the Biblical peacemaking principles explained in Ken Sande`s The Peacemaker will appreciate the depth of the discussion in The Peacemaking Pastor. 

Alfred Poirier approaches the issue of conflict within congregations from a Reformed and Presbyterian perspective. He shows how we are all part of the problem of conflict because of our desperately deceitful hearts (Jeremiah 17:9), and how peacemaking is a basic part of the message of reconciliation between God and His people, and among God`s people. 

Finally, he makes clear how proper church discipline should support and promote peacemaking. A book worth study by consistories and anyone who knows how sin breaks down peace, and how our forgiving God is a God of peace.



Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Phantom Tollbooth

by Norton Juster
1961 / 255 pages

What kind of book is suitable for study in the Fifth Grade, and in First-Year university English too? It's got to be some kind of weird and wacky wonder to pull that off!

The Phantom Tollbooth is a classic, old enough to have been around when I was a kid. It's also famous, so I may have seen it displayed prominently in the kids' section at the local library, but back then I would have been put off by the title – I wasn't into ghost books. I've seen it many times since, but only got past the title when I noticed it among the offerings at the Westminster Theological Seminary bookstore. They're not really about fiction (or ghost stories) so I had to give this a closer look.

It turned out the title tollbooth was a phantom only in the sense that it mysteriously appears in the boy Milo's bedroom. For those that might not have run across them – there don't seem to be many of them anymore – a tollbooth is a small building, usually large enough to fit just one person, where people pay to make use of a bridge or road. The author says of Milo "Nothing really interested him – least of all the things that should have” but even his curiosity is piqued to want to test this out. He drives up in his electric toy car, deposits some coins, and suddenly finds himself outside his room, driving rapidly down a road.

Among the first people he meets is a watchdog that can talk. And, more importantly, he can tick – Tock is part dog and part pocketwatch! The dog demands to know what Milo is up to.

"Just killing time," replied Milo apologetically. "You see–"

"KILLING TIME!" roared the dog – so furiously that his alarm went off. "It's bad enough wasting time, without killing it." And he shuddered at the thought.

Milo soon learns he is in the Kingdom of Wisdom, a land divided after the old King died. His two sons have set up two cities – Dictionopolis and Digitopolis – with one devoted to words, and the other to numbers. The only thing the two sons could agree on was to banish their two sisters, the princesses Rhyme and Reason, and as you might expect, where neither Rhyme nor Reason can be found, craziness abounds.

I was almost a quarter of the way in before I started to get a feel for what sort of book this was. There's some Alice in Wonderland here, with Milo meeting odd sorts speaking confusing but clever things, in a country beyond normal maps. There might be a bit of Pilgrim's Progress too, with Milo learning his lessons by first treading down some wrong paths, and then meeting personifications of troubles he has to contend with. It's not a Christian book, but it is trying to teach a moral – Milo is here to learn that he has lots to learn, and that life is only boring to those too lazy to start exploring.

Cautions

While there aren't any ghosts, parental eyebrows will be raised when the demons make their appearance. But they aren't that sort of demon. They live in the Land of Ignorance, and have names like Gross Exaggeration, and Horrible Hopping Hindsight. Overbearing Know-it-all is:

"a dismal demon who was mostly mouth...ready at a moment's notice to offer misinformation on any subject. And while he tumbled heavily, it was never he who was hurt, but rather, the unfortunate person on whom he fell."

The only caution needed is to remind children that demons do exist, and the real ones aren't so funny.

Conclusion

While this is studied in Grade 5, and my youngest in Grade 2 is quite enjoying it, this is not a book I'd recommend for younger readers to tackle on their own. It is 60 years old, and some language – like "tollbooth" – is unusual today, in need of explanation to pre-teens. And there are puns galore, many of which only a kid who enjoys playing with language will spot on their own. But that shouldn't be a problem, because this is a book that mom or dad could enjoy too, as they read it aloud to all their young charges.

So, two enthusiastic thumbs up for any and all who are twelve and up.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Listen! Six men you should know

by Christine Farenhorst
161 pages / 2021

The six men we get introduced to here are given 25-30 pages each which is enough space to get a very good feel for them. It's also short enough that it avoids completely the indulgence evident in many a bigger biography of telling us what the subject ate for lunch on the third Tuesday of October, one hundreds years ago.

The half dozen that author Christine Farenhorst introduces us to are:

  • Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Albert Schweitzer
  • Rembrandt Dutch
  • Samuel Morse
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Norman Rockwell

I enjoyed the eclectic nature of the selections – these six holding little in common outside their fame and influence, but all worth knowing better. I was more curious about some of them than others, particularly the very first, the American icon, Martin Luther King Jr. But after learning a little about his thoughts, and the political and cultural battles of his time, I skipped ahead to the profile of Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud who spent most of this life in Europe, and died when King was just 10. I'd read biographies on both men previously, but Christine's solidly biblical perspective brought new light to both subjects.

For the four others, I knew little more than their names – or their artwork, in the cases of Norman Rockwell and Rembrandt – and I enjoyed this opportunity to delve into their backgrounds, their age, and place. I enjoyed learning about Samuel Morse in particular, as he is the only one of these six who was clearly a Christian. Christine shows that some of the others, like Freud, clearly were not, while Rembrandt, had, at best, an odd relationship with his Maker.

Overall, this is a very quick enjoyable read – I think I finished it in a day. It was sad reading about many of these men's outright rejection of God, so I might recommend reading the profiles out of order so that you can conclude with Samuel Morse, and end on a happy note! Children who enjoy history, and reading, would likely enjoy this as young as 12. The short, 30-page profiles, would also make this a great title for adults who want to know their history, but are put off by the tomes that some historians publish.

You can order Listen! Six men you should know at many online retailers.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

50 "Great Books"


What are the “Great Books”? There is no one list, but the term is meant to describe a compilation of classics from Western Literature. Some lists are very long, topping hundreds of books, while others limit themselves to as little as 50, but the idea behind all of them is that these are foundational books – read these and you will have a better understanding of some of the key ideas or events shaping the world today. A Christian list would look different than a non-Christian, though a Christian list should contain non-Christian books. Placement is as much or more about a book’s influence as it is about its genuine insight, so pivotal infamous books do make their appearances. 

So what exactly might be on such a list? Here is an example:

  1. The Unaborted Socrates by Peter Kreeft
  2. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
  3. Everyone's a Theologian by R.C. Sproul
  4. Macbeth by Shakespeare
  5. Death by Living by N.D. Wilson
  6. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
  7. The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
  8. The Heidelberg Catechism
  9. Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
  10. Time Will Run Back by Henry Hazlitt
  11. Vision of the Anointed by Thomas Sowell
  12. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
  13. The Grace and Truth Paradox by Randy Alcorn
  14. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  15. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  16. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
  17. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  18. Christianity and Liberalism by John Gresham Machen
  19. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  20. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  21. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  22. Art and the Bible by Francis Schaeffer
  23. Desiring God by John Piper
  24. Aesop’s Fables by, well, Aesop
  25. Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
  26. City of God by Augustine
  27. Flags out Front by Douglas Wilson
  28. The Prince by Machiavelli
  29. 1984 by George Orwell
  30. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  31. 95 Theses by Martin Luther
  32. Knowing God by J.I. Packer
  33. The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  34. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  35. Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt
  36. The Koran by Mohammad
  37. The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
  38. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  39. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
  40. The Gospel Blimp (and other parables) by Joe Bayly
  41. Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation by Ronald Reagan
  42. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  43. The Westminster Confession of Faith
  44. Competent to Counsel by Jay Adams
  45. Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
  46. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
  47. Hamlet by Shakespeare
  48. A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift
  49. Ivanhoe by Walter Scott
  50. Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Museum Trip

by Barbara Lehman
2006 / 40 pages

In this wordless wonder, a little boy on a class trip to the museum stops to tie his shoe and loses track of the others. He then discovers a small door in the wall that leads to a room with 6 small mazes on display. Next thing, we see a little version of him running through each maze, one by one. Has he actually shrunk, or is this him daydreaming and just imagining he’s running through them? Either way, readers in Grade1 and preschool will enjoy working through each of these simple mazes. As the boy makes his way to the middle of the last maze we get a glimpse of him having a gold medal hung around his neck. Right afterward, he’s big again and manages to track down his class. So was his maze adventure just a daydream? Well, on the final panel, as the class leaves the museum, we see the boy discover he does have a gold medal around his neck...and we see the museum director has one around his neck too!

Kids who enjoy the mystery of this tale will enjoy the author’s Red (2004) and Red Again (2017) wordless stories which are more mysterious still. They should be bought as a set, with the ending of the one serving as an introduction to the next, and vice versa (or as my one daughter put it “They’re a circle!”).

More mysterious still is secret box (2011) in which generation after generation of children going to the same boarding school discover the same box, with a treasure map that allows them to meet up with the children who have discovered the map before. Some wordless books are too mysterious, such that it's hard to know what on earth is going on. This almost crosses the line, but Lehman's friendly, detailed drawing ensure this is still a fun one. 

Less mysterious, but lots of fun, (and still wordless) is the author’s Trainstop (2008) where a girl goes on a train ride and encounters little people in need of a big friend. Another favorite is Rainstorm (2007) about a boy wandering his big house all alone who finds a key that unlocks a truck. The trunk opens into a very long tunnel under his house which leads to… well, you’ll have to get the book to find out!

Parents might think wordless books are good ones for their pre-reading or still-learning children to "read" on their own, but that's not so. These are books best experienced with a parent along for the ride, to help them learn the skills of deciphering story from visual clues. It's loads of fun for child and parent!

Saturday, August 21, 2021

In the hall of the Dragon King

by Stephen Lawhead
1982 / 370 pages

This is an old-fashioned fantasy tale, with a loosely Christian underpinning. Quentin is a young man who has had a quest thrust upon him. He was going to spend his life behind the walls of a temple, so this turn of events isn’t unwelcome. But he has to figure out how he can see the queen. And someone needs to rescue the king. Oh, and there’s a dark wizard that needs to be dealt with. Is this really a job for a young former priest-to-be who doesn’t know one end of a sword from the other?

The young Quentin, looking for help, meets a hermit of sorts, who serves not the gods, but the one God. That’s an ongoing theme throughout, as author Stephen Lawhead is trying to point readers to the true God.

Cautions

However, Lawhead sometimes gets it wrong. Quentin is told that God leads by “hunches and nudges” and “very rarely by direct command.” But our God does give us clear direct commands, in His Word, though some who profess to be Christians reject His Word in favor of hunches. Also, when a soldier is dying and asks how to go to heaven, the hermit tells him to just believe, but doesn’t mention anything about God being holy, the man being sin-stained, and the need to ask God for forgiveness.

Conclusion

While those are notable flaws, and worth bringing up with younger readers, they amount to only a few paragraphs in a rollicking adventure. There is a true and proper villain who had delved deep into the dark arts – he's a necromancer even! – which sharpens the contrast with the hermit, who has turned away from magic to serve his Lord.

One feature I really appreciated is that, while this is the first book of a trilogy, it is a full and complete story – this is not the sort of trilogy that is actually one story split over three books. But readers can look forward to Quentin's further adventures in The Warlords of Nin and The Sword and the Flame. 

Like any great children's book, this will be a great read for adults too – I'd recommend it for 12 and up.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Jesus on Every Page

10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament
by David Murray    2013 / 246 pages

This book is really good enough for me to use as a resource in my Bible courses (and possibly even as a textbook).

David Murray explains how he first witnessed, and shared in, the discomfort that many Christians, including preachers, feel when confronting the Old Testament - not because of any disagreement with what they saw as its message, but because they wanted to proclaim Christ, not just God's ongoing relationship with His often disobedient people. He then reveals how he found the answer to this problem in the words of Jesus Himself, and in the words of His servants Peter, Paul, and John: that the Old Testament, just like the New Testament, is the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Murray shows how to find Jesus in the Old Testament as He is manifested in
  • creation,
  • the lives of His people,
  • His appearances to His people,
  • the law,
  • history,
  • prophecy,
  • typology,
  • His covenants with His people, and
  • wisdom literature. 
Murray makes his insights more accessible with study questions (some of which make excellent focuses for personal devotions) and references to both Old Testament and New Testament passages. I found his work so inspiring that I was slightly disappointed that I am not teaching anything from the Old Testament in the near future.

If you want David Murray to help you see Jesus on Every Page of the Old Testament, you can download it for free here, as long as you set up a free account, or you can order it from Ligonier Ministries.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

David Wiesner: weird and wonderful

Super creative? Ultra creative? Mega creative? Every good picture book author is imaginative, but somehow David Wiesner (1956- ) manages to be all the more so. His living clouds, flying frogs, and artistic lizards always provide a surprise – a reader starting one of Wiesner's stories will never be able to predict how it is going to end.  That's a joy for parents to experience right along with their kids: a children's story that isn't predictable!

And since several of Wiesner's works are wordless, they can also be great books for reluctant readers to tackle alongside mom or dad. Wordless doesn't mean it's an easy "read" but together parent and child can put their detective skills to work to figure out all that's going on!

What follows are my family's recommendations – our favorites – and then a few that we've read but which for this reason or that, I'm not going to recommend like the rest. Finally, there are three that really aren't worth bothering with.

RECOMMENDED

Free Fall
1988 / 32 pages

A little boy falls asleep and we get to come along in his dream. As dreams often are, this is wordless throughout, one page streaming into the next as the boy goes from meeting a dragon to growing giant-sized, to flying home on a leaf. It makes sense only in the ways that dreams do. But the smart-eyed reader will be able to spot on the last page, when the boy wakes up, all the objects in the room that inspired the different parts of his dream. This is one to “read” slowly and enjoy every picture.

Hurricane
1990 / 32 pages

Two brothers are worried about a coming hurricane. But when the lights go out, and the family is still together, the boys realize it's not so bad after all. It even gets quite good the next day, when they discover a huge fallen tree in their neighbor’s yard. In the days that follow the huge trunk becomes their spaceship, and the branches a jungle, and the both of them together, a pirate-hunting sailboat.

Tuesday
1991 / 32 pages

The only words we see tell us the time, and that it is a Tuesday. For reasons that are left entirely mysterious, at around 8 pm, a swarm of frogs suddenly starts flying (or is it their lily-pads that are doing the levitating?). They flock into town, chase some birds for fun, watch a little telly, and then, just as they are heading back, dawn breaks, and the sun's rays seem to sap their flying powers. That leaves the whole lot of them hopping back to their pond. This is silly nonsense and kids are sure to love it.

Sector 7
1999 / 48 pages

A boy on a field trip to the Empire State Building meets a rambunctious cloud (he discovers that clouds are people!) who takes him back to “Sector 7” high up in the sky where the clouds get their orders about what shape of cloud they should be. But the clouds seem a bit bored with these shapes and appear to ask the boy to draw them up some alternatives. And what fun to see clouds mimicking the sea creatures he draws! Eventually, the rambunctious cloud returns the boy to the Empire State Building, but his visit to Sector 7 might have some lasting impact, as the clouds quite like being fish-shaped. This is another of Wiesner’s wordless books and another one that parent and child will have pouring over to see all that the pictures have to say.

The Three Pigs
2001 / 40 pages

When our middle daughter discovered this one she just had to share it with her younger sister right there and then. This is a creative spin on the old tale as the Big Bad Wolf blows the pigs right out of the story and into some others (including Wiesner's own The Loathsome Dragon). As they travel from storybook to storybook the pigs decide there is no place like home, but also decide to bring along a guest from another story – a dragon! – to give this pesky wolf quite the surprise. 

Art & Max
2010 / 40 pages 

This might be my favorite picture book. It involves just two characters, which makes this one easy to read out loud to the kids, and there’s so much energy on each page that performing it becomes so easy to do. Art knows how to paint, and Max desperately wants to learn. (Both are lizards, but aside from the fun way they look, that doesn't really matter.) But who should Max paint? When Aurthur suggests himself, Max literally starts to throw paint on Art. And that’s when it gets wacky! As Max tries to clean the paint off Art, he starts to clean all the color off him. Art is see-through; he’s just lines! Then, when that line starts to unravel, Art becomes just a scribble. Fortunately, his friend Max is on it, and proves, as he turns that scribble into a work of Art, that he has some mad skills too.

I Got It!
2018 / 32 pages

Once again David Wiesner lets the pictures do (almost) all the talking, When a long flyball is hit into the outfield, a boy declares, “I’ve got it!” which are the only words in the story. But does he really have it? One dropped ball is followed by another, and it’s almost like there are obstacles (getting bigger and bigger) just reaching out to trip him up. His repeated drops have his teammates moving in closer to catch it for him, since he can’t. But then, in one last stretching leap, our boy in red jumps past the obstacles and beats his teammates to the ball for a wonderful game-winning catch. This is a very fun story, but I could see some kids needing a little help to understand what’s going on. But hey, reading together is fantastic!

TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT

The Loathsome Dragon
1987 / 32 pages

An evil queen/stepmother casts a spell which turns a princess into a loathsome dragon. Along comes a brave prince who has to kiss the dragon three times to break the spell. The only twist in this tale is that the brave prince is her brother, and not a husband-to-be, but that’s not enough to make this seem fresh. I should add that while I was unimpressed, my girls liked this a lot more than I did.

June 29, 1999
1992 / 32 pages

A young girl, Holly, sends vegetable seedlings into the ionosphere for her science project just to see what might happen. Soon after giant vegetables – house-sized and bigger! – start floating down from the sky. But wait! Some of these vegetables are not the sorts that she sent up. So where did those come from? At book’s end we discover the giant vegetables came from a giant alien chef accidentally losing his ingredients while flying above Earth. Very fun to see the giant vegetables all over the landscape but I think it would have been better without the aliens tacked on at the end.

Flotsam
2006 / 40 pages

When a boy discovers an old-style underwater camera washed up on the beach, he brings the film in to be developed. There he discovers pictures, seemingly taken by underwater creatures themselves, and the world that they live in when we aren’t looking is certainly something to behold: little mermaids and mermen, robotic fish, giant turtles carrying shell cities on their backs, and even what looks like aliens taking rides on the guppies. Done without any text at all, each picture is another discovery. The very last snapshot is of a girl holding up a picture. And in that picture is a boy holding a picture of a girl holding a picture of a boy. A look through a magnifying picture shows this goes deeper still, and further back in time. The boy’s microscope reveals more still layers to the photo. This is inventive and fun, with the only cautions being that the young target audience may have to be informed that though the photos look quite realistic, the aliens and mermen are fantasy, not fact.

DON'T BOTHER

Mr. Wuffles

Tiny tiny aliens have landed, but unfortunately for them, their ship attracts the attention of Mr. Wuffles, who thinks it’s one of his cat toys. To repair their ship the little aliens recruit help from ants and bugs – their treasure trove of lost marbles, pencils, loose change, and paperclips turn out to be just what the aliens need to fix things up. There's some vague religious-type imagery written by the bugs on the house walls that, along with the aliens, makes this one I'd rather just skip.

Fish Girl

Wiesner’s only graphic novel is the story of a mermaid girl kept captive in an aquarium by the owner who she believes is the god Neptune. It’s odd all the way around, and that she is swimming around topless for most of its 192 pages (though always with strategically placed hair, or fishes) makes this another good one to skip. 

Robobaby

Robots get their babies in a box, with some assembly required. This story has its quirky charm, but when Mom and Dad, Uncle Manny, and even the Robobaby tech service can’t assemble Junior properly, but the child amongst them knows just what to do, this become just one more adults-are-dumb-and-kids-know-everything story that we can really do without (Prov. 20:29, 22:15).

CAUTIONS

David Wiesner is an incredibly imaginative picture book author, which makes him very fun to read, but it's that same active imagination that seems to lead him into a bit of over-the-top weirdness now and again. I couldn't figure out what Wiesner's worldview/philosophy is, and it'd be a bit much to conclude he must not be Christian just because he features aliens on occasion, though aliens (at least the intelligent sort) would seem to be incompatible with Christianity (but demons masquerading as aliens would not be). However, there's nothing in his books that would give us reason to conclude he must be Christian. In lieu of evidence one way or the other, that's good reason for parents to approach his future output with some caution.

CONCLUSION

If you have a creative kid, Wiesner's best could be just the spark they need to think bigger and bolder. And if you have a not-particularly-creative kid, Wiesner might be an inspiration for them too, showing them how there are all sorts of possibilities to explore and fresh ways of looking at things.

Finally, if you have a reluctant reader, Wiesner's wordless books – Freefall, Tuesday, Sector 7, and I Got it! – might be an encouragement for them to page through, especially if mom or dad comes alongside.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

God's Big Book of Animals

edited by Shirley Rash
248 pages / 2019

Did you know that baby elephants drink three gallons of milk each day? Or that “woodcock” means “roosters of the forest” And did you know female great white sharks are actually larger than the males? 

God's Big Book of Animals is GIGANTIC - it's bigger than any other book I've read. It is filled with amazing information about intricate animals – like the great white shark! – all created by God. Each of the 60 animals are given 4, bright, beautiful pages full of descriptions, fun facts and pictures. Plus each animal has their own 14 x 10 inch full-page photo. 

More fun fact examples include: 
  • “Turtles do not have teeth. They have strong, jagged jaws that help them take bites.” 
  • “Komodo dragons are also called monitor lizards.” 
  • “Elephant… trunks are heavy, and can weigh over 300 pounds! 
  • “A group of butterflies is called a kaleidoscope of butterflies, a swarm of butterflies, or a rabble of butterflies.” 
  • “Baby octopuses can hatch in different colors. They can be orange, red, yellow, or different shades of blue.” 
I think kids 7 and up would love this! But even kids younger would like the many pictures inside. 

– Sophia Dykstra

Monday, July 12, 2021

The Last Disciple

by Sigmund Brouwer and Hank Hanegraaff
2004 / 428 pages

It’s the year 65 AD, and Gallus Sergius Vitas is one of the last principled men in Rome. He’s also a confidant of Emperor Nero which means his daily life is conducted on a knife’s edge: indulging the emperor’s perverse demands might keep Vitas safe but would compromise the man that he is; yet to openly oppose the emperor would lead to his immediate introduction to the Coliseum’s lions.

Our story beings with Vitas attempting this balancing act once again. Nero has dressed as a beast, his outfit comprised of lion and bear skins, complete with collar and a chain held by a servant. His night’s entertainment is to terrorize a group of prisoners while playing the part of a beast. Enjoying their fear, the emperor quickly works himself into a killing frenzy. Vitas sees this all from the shadows and can’t let it happen, knowing, though, that to oppose the emperor is to die. So Vistas yells at the chain-holding servant instead: “If the emperor knows you are involved in illegal torture, he will have you destroyed!” It is, as Brouwer writes:

“an all-or-nothing bluff, pretending that he did not know Nero was inside the costume. Trusting that Nero would be too ashamed to admit it. Now. Or later.”

Vitas’ bluff works, but not just because of his daring. An earthquake sends Nero scurrying away, convinced that the shaking ground is a sign of divine judgment.

It’s a great opening, highlighting the depth’s of the emperor’s perversity, the heights of Vitas’ courage, and the certain presence of God even in these pagans’ lives. In less talented hands, the earthquake’s unlikely timing could have come off as cheesy, since in real life God more often uses “ordinary means” (like doctors’ talents or wise friends’ advice) than miracles to accomplish His ends. But miracles do occur, and Brouwer makes it believable. It’s a good thing too, as this is but the first miracle in a story that’s all about how God used miraculous means – the prophetic words in the book of Revelation – to warn his Church to flee the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

What Brouwer and his writing partner, theologian Hank Hanegraaff, have done here is write an alternative to Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ popular Left Behind series. Where Left Behind places the beast of Revelation 13 in our near future, Brouwer and Hanegraaff place him in the first century, in the near future of those who first received John’s letter. And they identify the beast as Nero and the bloody empire he led. This “partial preterist” (partial past) interpretation of Revelation holds that the book was written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the city’s fall is a partial fulfillment of much of the prophecy in Revelation.

This, then, is fiction meant to teach as well and entertain, and it does both brilliantly. Brouwer has crafted a story that takes us all around the Mediterranean, with Jews, Romans, and even troubled Christians wrestling with the question of “Who is Jesus?” There’s also political plotting, assassination attempts, sieges, gladiators, and just a touch of romance.

The slowest bits are when theologian Hanegraaff has characters take a page or two to teach Vitas and others what a particular passage in Revelation means. If you’re reading it only for the story, these sections might drag, but they are well spaced out. And if you’re interested in learning about the partial preterist interpretation of Revelation, these will be your favorite passages.

Cautions

One caution: Nero’s depravity, though described with restraint, still means this is not a book for younger teens.

If The Last Disciple series has you eager to read more of Sigmund Brouwer’s work, be aware that he is a proponent of theistic evolution, and also an Arminian. That doesn’t come up in this series (or his best book, Innocent Heroes, a treat for kids, teens, and parents alike) but it does come up in some others.

Finally, readers should be aware that partial preterism probably isn’t the majority view in Canadian Reformed churches (though I’m not sure what the majority view might be, as Revelation seems to be only rarely discussed). Some do hold it though, and it's also held by Reformed pastors outside our circles such as RC Sproul, Douglas Wilson, and Jay Adams.

Conclusion

The Last Disciple is a great book, kicking off a great series. The cast of characters is large, so if you’re like me, make sure you get the whole trilogy – The Last Disciple, The Last Sacrifice and The Last Temple – right away, because if you wait too long between books, you may start forgetting who is who.

I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction – Sigmund Brouwer has got skills. And if you’d love to have partial preterism explained, well, this is the most entertaining way you could ever learn about it!

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

The Bark of the Bog Owl

by Jonathan Rogers
2014 / 248 pages 

Our hero, Aidan Errolson, is a medium-sized twelve-year-old with dreams that are far bigger. When we join his story he’s just putting the finishing touches on a letter: 

My Dearest King – 

You will be glad to learn that I am still available for any quest, adventure, or dangerous mission for which you might need a champion or knight-errant. I specialize in dragon-slaying but would be happy to fight pirates or invading barbarians if circumstances require. I would even be willing to rescue a fair maiden imprisoned by evil relatives. That would not be my first choice, since I am not of marrying age. Still, in peaceful and prosperous times like these, an adventurer takes whatever work he can find… 

For Aidan, it’s all that peace and prosperity that’s the problem. While his father was a great warrior, and his grandparents carved out a settlement on Cornwald’s wild eastern frontier, Aiden’s only excitement comes from the imagined foes he fights in defense of the flock he’s been tasked to tend. 

However, things quickly take a turn. 

First, Aidan hears the bark of the Bog Owl, a creature that has never been seen. Then the Bog Owl turns out to be one of the feechiefolk, who are no less the stuff of campfire stories, akin to impish elves, or fierce boogeyman, and like them both, entirely made-up. But this feechie boy is anything but… and he wants to wrestle. 

Second, Bayard the Truthspeaker makes an unannounced stop at the Errolson farm to see, so he says, the “Wilderking of Corenwald.” And Bayard declares that it is none other than little brother Aidan. That’s quite the surprise, and quite awkward too, because Corenwald already has a king, and the Errolson family are his most loyal supporters. 

Now, if you’re a bit quicker than me, this last bit might be ringing some bells, reminding you of Samuel’s visit to the house of Jesse (1 Sam. 16). This is where my middlest caught on, but I needed several more chapters. I finally figured it out when Aidan fights a giant. With a sling. And five stones.

In my defense, this is only very loosely based on David – Aidan has to deal not only with a giant, but cannons too, and there’s no feechie folk in the original either. That it is inspired by, but does not pretend to be, the story of David is part of what makes this so intriguing. While there’ll be no confusing the two tales, Rogers’ account will have you reflecting on what a tough position David was in, the king not yet crowned, loyal to, and yet chosen to replace, the failed king. 

Requirements 

I usually list any possible cautions for the book being reviewed, but there are none for Bark so I’ll list one requirement instead: this absolutely needs to be read aloud. The feechie folk dialogue, as it is paced and misspelled, will have you speaking with the most delightful accent, without even trying. Jonathan Rogers makes it easy for a dad to sound good. 

Conclusion

I really can’t praise this one enough. I started reading it on on my own, and had to stop midway and start again with my girls because this was simply too good not to share. The Bark of the Bog Owl has been compared to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, not so much for story similarities, but because both are clearly Christian and utterly fantastic fantasy. Bark of the Bog Owl is a book that, if you do read it to your children, you can be sure that one day your grandkids will hear their own parents reading it to them too. 

The two sequels – The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking – complete the story. This is really one epic tale split into three parts, so be sure to buy the set. You can preview the first 2 chapters here. And for a second opinion, read Hannah Abrahmason’s take at Reformed Reader.