Friday, June 14, 2019

On Reading Well

Finding the Good Life through Great Books
by Karen Swallow Prior
2017 / 267 pages

This is a really good read for English teachers (like me), for sure, but it's also a really good read for anyone who has read any of the books Karen Swallow Prior discusses and still wonders what the point was. Prior starts by defining what she means in the subtitle by the good life - and it's not the easy life, the fulfilling life, or the prosperous life. Instead, she discusses the power of the word good in a way similar to how God describes His creative work in Genesis 1 - doing the right thing, echoing in our lives the beautiful order that God Himself gave to the world He made (and still upholds).

Prior insists that the purpose of great works of literature is to point us toward virtue, to warn us away from vice, to demonstrate the path of the golden mean between extremes. Literature cultivates virtue both in the examples it provides and in the type of reading it demands.

Prior categorizes three types of virtues: the cardinal virtues extolled in the ancient world (prudence, temperance, justice, and courage); the theological virtues that can only be developed by the work of the Spirit (faith, hope, and love); and the heavenly virtues that contrast several of the seven deadly sins (chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility).

Let me just highlight some chapters each section to show you the depth of insight Prior offers. Her analysis of A Tale of Two Cities highlights how both London and Paris demonstrate the lack of justice that often governs human affairs, as well as the need for something that satisfies our sense of justice even when it is not fair - the Christlike sacrifice of one of the major characters. Her discussion of The Road domonstrates how hope functions in a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction that is even bleaker than the dystopian fiction that dominates the reading preferences of many young adults. What she says about Ethan Frome makes me wish I had read the novel already, in her discussion of how chastity both nourishes community and requires it. Her enthusiasm for George Saunder's short story "Tenth of December" also introduced me to a new author in a look at the virtue of kindness.

If you've ever wondered what's so great about the other stories that Prior examines -
  • The History of Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding;
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby;
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain;
  • Shusaku Endu's Silence;
  • The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy;
  • John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress;
  • Persuasion, by Jane Austen;
  • Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge"
her look at these works is equally illuminating.

A couple cautions: Prior, though herself a Baptist, seems to be writing from a very broadly Christian perspective. Reformed readers might find her frequent references to both classical authors and Catholic thinkers like Thomas Aquinas somewhat problematic. I was not personally convinced by her outlook on Silence, a novel about the 'hidden faith' of an apostate Catholic priest - an analysis that seemed to suggest that faith could be felt deeply even when not showing outwardly.

If you think that Karen Swallow Prior can help you find the good life through great books, you can get it here, or here in Canada.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Call

Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life
by Os Guinness
2003 / 292 pages

I picked up The Call because I had read a reference to it in another book I reviewed in this blog. I admit that I did not find Os Guinness an easy read (see Caution # 2 below), but he did get across the crucial distinction between our primary calling and our secondary calling. It is so easy to get caught up in trying to discern "God's will for my life," as if He is obligated to provide us with a road map showing our spouse and/or our ideal career, that we forget that God's first call on us is to follow Christ as Lord.

In a life lived following Christ, Guinness reminds us, we walk before "an audience of One," and so we are freed from concern about what others think of us. A life lived in Christ is also free from endless self-improvement, and instead focuses on the power of God to make us like Him. Finally, Guinness concludes over twenty chapters of reflection with his own inspiring call to follow Christ until we reach the final call that welcomes us into God's presence.

Two Cautions
  1. At least one of the historical anecdotes mentions some disgusting behaviour by one famous but arrogant artist that makes this book not suitable for immature readers. The use of such anecdotes is another reason for limiting the reading of this book to discerning readers, since Guinness includes anecdotes about non-Christians that do not always condemn their failure to understand and respond to God's call.
  2. The book is set up more as a series of essays than as a single connected argument; it is also not a "how-to" book. It is intended to be read slowly, a chapter a day, to provoke reflection rather than giving you a list of steps to follow. I recommend that you read a chapter one day, then the study guide questions and recommended Bible passage the next day. Reading it this way makes it a fruitful source for Biblical self-reflection.
If you believe that Os Guinness's book can help you find and fulfill the call of Jesus on your life, you can get it here, or here in Canada.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Janet's Thingamajigs

by Beverly Cleary
32 pages / 1987

While I thought this book made a good case for the beneficial application of spankings – both of these kids could have used one! – my Grade Oner thought this was a really good read. So here is her book report.

*****

Thingamajigs was a word that Janet's Mother always used when she was excited or in a hurry. When Jimmy, Janet's twin brother skinned his knee, Mother would always say "Where are the thingamajigs? What happened to the thingamajigs?" 

Janet wanted to know what she meant so she found things like a red paper clip, a little wheel, and a shiny bead. She would ask her Mother, "Are these thingamajigs?" And her Mother would say, "Those could be thingamajigs."

I liked this book because I just like the word thingamajigs. Janet is a really fun character because she is a little bit silly. I also think that Janet is very creative. I like that Jimmy just doesn't give up about taking Janet's thingamajigs.

This is a good book. You should read it!


Sunday, April 14, 2019

Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl

Wide-Eyed Wonder in God's Spoken World
by N. D. Wilson
2009 / 203 pages

The world is a wild ride, isn't it?

The fun starts already in the title of N. D. Wilson's book. Those of you who have ridden the Tilt-a-Whirl will recognize the analogy to our own spinning planet with an axis that is 23.5 degrees off the vertical.

Of course, the world is not just physically askew; it is off-kilter in just about every way you can think of. The presence of evil in the world is the argument that is typically thrown at Christians whenever we affirm God's claims on all of us. Wilson makes some important points throughout his book that undo (or cut through) this Gordian knot.

First, he asserts that evil is not a "thing," not a noun; rather, it is an adjective describing that which displeases God. Because He is good, whatever displeases Him is evil. Secondly, in response to those who then wonder why the world is still such an unpleasant place, Wilson does not use the oft-quoted answer that this is the best of all possible worlds; rather, he says, this is the best of all possible masterpieces, the best of all possible stories - and we are not, in our egocentricity, the best of all possible critics.

Rather than setting ourselves up as critics of God's story, Wilson insists, we need to learn to be good characters - to approach life with wonder, to laugh at ourselves and our often gloriously ridiculous place in the story - to glorify the Author, rather than to try to rewrite His work.

What makes Wilson's work so amusing is that he is willing to follow his own advice To give just two examples:
  1. When Wilson's son gets his wish of having a butterfly land on him, but Wilson warns him that "lightning does not strike twice" - that the butterfly will not be coming back, Wilson enjoys how God makes a fool of him by sending the butterfly to land on his son's shoulder a second time.
  2. Wilson laughs just as much when he trips over the step that he is sure must have moved as he does when the seeming squashed frog inexplicably springs back to life.
In the end, Wilson reminds us that it is the end that we have to cope with - our own earthly end, and the end of all current earthly things when the Author (the same one who became a Word in His own story) returns to wrap up the current chapter with His judgments on His cast of characters.

This is far too brief a look at a book that spends as much time mocking Christian sentimentality as it does attacking atheist defiance of our Author, but if you think Wilson can help you better understand and cope with our crazy, tilted world, you can get it here, or here in Canada.


Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Man in the Dark

by Douglas Wilson
258 pages / 2019

Some books only merit a quick read, others should be slowly savored, and a select few are so good you just have to read them out loud to your wife. This is that third sort!

Savannah Westmoreland, a self-assured school teacher, finds herself in the middle of a love triangle of sorts. Except that it wouldn't be accurate to call what the town's biggest businessman feels for her love – desire, hunger, lust, but no, not love. And while the church's newly arrived pastor is interested, and seems a worthy sort, he can't get past the walls Savannah has set up.

But events, and friends, conspire against Savannah, putting her repeatedly in the pastor's company. And even as uses these moments to make a good case for his marriable merits, Savannah is still actively discouraging him. Why? Something from her past still has a hold on her. The pastor is trying to get around this obstacle, but the businessman is trying to discover exactly what happened, so he can use it to control her.

This is Douglas Wilson's third novel, but first romance. It is the second of his books that I've read out loud to my wife, the other being Flags out Front. That's really the highest praise I can give a book. But lest you think Wilson is only a two-hit wonder, I'll share that his other novel, Evangellyfish, won Christianity Today's 2012 best fiction award. He knows how to tell a story.

As you might suspect of a book written by a Reformed pastor, there is a lot of theology in the book, from the dinner table conversations, to the metaphor underlying the whole story. But conversations about God are a great way to learn about God, and even though the book has a pastor, right in the mix, this is not, a sermon disguised as a story. This is, instead, great fiction telling something true. And if you think the ending a tad contrived, I might agree with you. But I'd also invite you to consider what the author is saying about this God of wonders that we serve.

And speaking of truth-telling, I should own up that as much as I enjoyed reading this out loud to my wife, she didn't get to hear the whole story. She fell asleep, and, well, I had to keep on reading.



Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Giver (graphic novel adaptation)

by Lois Lowry

adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell
2019 / 176 pages

My brother Jeff has done a great review of the book this is based on, so I'm not going to spend much time on the plot, and will instead focus on what makes this graphic novel different from the book

The story takes place maybe a hundred years in the future, and war has been eliminated by muting mankind's emotions and by eliminating the conflict that comes when we have to make choices. Not only are everyone's jobs chosen for them, so is their spouse, and even the kids they will raise. 12-year-old Jonas has been given a unique role, being trained by The Giver to know and understand the past, so he can use that knowledge to advise the community in times of crisis. But as he becomes the best-informed citizen in his community he discovers things that horrify him – choices are also being made for the citizens as to who will live and who will die.

The graphic novel version

Most graphic novel adaptations are much shorter than the source material they are based on, in part because all the descriptive passages in the book can become pictures instead, and also because the plot is usually simplified. But this one is every bit as long as the original, with every scene in the book included.

Jonas's discovery of color is a big theme in the novel. In the muted world in which they all live, citizens have lost the ability to see color, but as Jonas learns more about the past, he gains insight into the present and starts gaining the ability to see reds, and greens, and yellows. So first, adapter P. Craig Russell shares Jonas' muted world by depicting everything not simply in black and white (that would be a bit boring) but also with subtle splashes of blue. And as Jonas learns how to see more, we begin to see increasing flashes of vibrant color, to show his growing awareness of just how exciting and intriguing a place of discovery the world can be. It's fun to see in pictures this transition from dull to brilliant. In these sections, the comic might even be better than the book.

But pictures also present challenges. It can be hard to visually depict what's going on in someone's head. To make up for that Russell carries over a lot of the text from the book. But he can't use all of it, which is why in the original the characters are all a little deeper, a little more realized.

Cautions

And sometimes showing is more problematic than telling. In one scene in the book Jonas helps bathe the elderly. In the comic Russell uses just the right angles to ensure all we see are the knees down, or the shoulders and up.

Nudity of a sort comes up in one other scene, which is the book's most troubling, even without the visual element. [SPOILER ALERT] Jonas discovers that unwanted babies are killed via lethal injection, and even in muted pictures it's quite horrible. Russell is restrained, but the idea of murdering infants is so unpleasant that any pictures, even muted ones, just add to the horror. That said, the scene is not at all graphic. I'll also note that the baby is shown fully naked, with scant detail, but enough to tell that it is a boy.

Conclusion

This is every bit as good as the novel, though both have their different strengths. I'd recommend this to teachers as a slightly easier way for reluctant readers to access this book. But like the novel, and the film too, this comic needs to be discussed. Its teen audience needs to wrestle with the warnings given in this story – the danger of governmental control, the false compassion of euthanasia, the potential and peril of emotions – but they'll most likely need help. So this is a great conversation starter, but a guide will be needed.


Thursday, March 14, 2019

Do I Know God?

Finding Certainty in Life's Most Important Relationship
by Tullian Tchividjian
212 pages / 2007

Billy Graham is the only explicitly Arminian preacher I know of, and he wrote the Foreword to this book, but his grandson Tullian Tchividjian attended Reformed Theological Seminary. From that Reformed perspective, he deals with the issue that vexed many Puritans (another brilliant part of our Reformed heritage), as well as many Christians today - Do I Know God?

Tchividjian has a deep personal connection with the topic, as a returned prodigal, and as a minister who deals not only with people who lack assurance of their salvation, but with those who have a false assurance - hypocrites. He starts by exploring what he learned in his young adulthood - that knowing God means having a real relationship with Him. He describes the danger of various kinds of false assurance of salvation: merely praying the "sinner's prayer," making a "decision for Christ," being "religious," and being "spiritual." While all of these may demonstrate some level of understanding of God, none are sufficient to establish the certainty of a real relationship with Him. Neither is being a "good person" or claiming faith without responding in grateful obedient love.

Instead, Tchividjian stresses the importance of believing God's promises, particularly of fellowship with Him in Christ. That fellowship leads to both assurance of the truth of right doctrine about Him as found in His word and a joyful communion with Him. Both our belief in God's truth and our communion with Him then bear fruit in an obedience that makes "our calling and election sure." Obedience is not the ground of our salvation, but it is the fruit of it.

Tchividjian makes a useful distinction between our relationship with God, which is grounded in Christ, and our fellowship with God, which can be disrupted by sin. Either that sin, or God's care for us, can drive us straight through "the dark night of the soul" toward a deeper dependence on Him. Finally, Tchividjian urges us to hold on to our relationship and fellowship with God in Christ in the hope grounded in the knowledge from God's word that "the best is yet to come."

In addition to the insight revealed in the eleven chapters of the book, the study guide leads the reader through thoughtful, challenging questions and Scripture references that make the book ideal for either personal or group study.

Sadly, one strong caution: Tchividjian's own conduct has undermined the power of his insights. If he truly has a relationship with God, his fellowship with God must be very troubled, since he has been implicated in extramarital affairs in two of the churches he has pastored. While, clearly, all men sin, including sexual sin in our hearts, the leaders of God's people are called to a higher standard of purity.

If you, or someone you know, struggles with whether you truly know God, and you can separate the writings from the writer, you can get Do I Know God here and here in Canada.


Thursday, March 7, 2019

Why is dystopian fiction worth reading?


In dystopian fiction we get a glimpse at some sort of looming, foreboding future: maybe it's humans devolving into separate castes (H.G. Wells' Time Machine), mass infertility threatening the end of mankind (P.D. James's The Children of Men), a domineering government repressing all but the elite (Glenn Beck's Agenda 21), or maybe killer robots overrunning the planet (Terminator).

The word dystopia is coined from Ancient Greek and means simply "bad place." What makes this a genre worth considering is because the best dystopian fiction is prophetic in nature, warning us of the dangers of a particular ideology (or practice) by showing us the "bad place" we will end up at if we adopt it. Thus there are as many sorts of dystopian novels as there are ideologies.

But not all of the warnings given are…credible.

The Canadian "classic" novel and current Netflix hit The Handmaids Tale warns of a world in which the government uses the trappings of the Christian religion to sexually enslave women. That is so far from where we are, or could conceivably head, that the book isn’t useful – the author is completely wrong and there are no insights to gain from her. (That hasn't stopped the Left from embracing the novel, pretending that Trump's presidency is its very fulfillment.)

That lack of credible threat is a problem with many of the teen fiction dystopian series (The Maze Runner, Divergent, and The Hunger Games) that have appeared over the last decade. They might be entertaining, but they aren't prophetic. If we look hard enough we might be able to find something, like The Hunger Games and its warning against folks killing and getting killed for the entertainment of the masses. That has relevance in a world in which brutal MMA fights are now watched by millions (including ones in which women pummel women) and the NFL remains must-see TV even though it leaves most participants crippled in one way or another. But does that make The Hunger Games worth reading? No. Most teens aren’t likely to make that connection. More importantly, the books present a dilemma that's likely to confuse its teen audience – the "hero" seems like she will have to either murder others or be murdered herself. Mature Christian will understand that it is better to suffer evil than to commit it, but will younger readers?

So what books do warn of credible threats? The top two would have to be:
  • 1984 - Author George Orwell warns of the State using authoritarian power to so totally subjugate us that, if they insist, we'll say that 2+2 is 5. If the idea of the State reconditioning people to spout obvious lies sounds too extreme to be believable, just consider what's happening to people today who say there are only two genders, and there's no switching from one to the other, and you need one of each for marriage. Obvious truths, one and all, but if you say them – and we must – Big Brother will want to have words! And if it's like that now, how might things look in ten years time?
  • Brave New World - Aldous Huxley warns of the State enslaving us not by force but by pleasure. Pain is taken away via the drug soma leaving the population in a generally happy stupor. Some clear parallels can be made to our meek, sheep-like society. Our cradle-to-grave State care leaves us dependent on the government to run more and more of our lives and that's how we like it. And our smartphones, Netflix accounts, opioids, and Twitter feeds leave many citizens in a soma-like stupor – celebrity-aware but politically-illiterate. 
These two books cover both sides of how we’re being hit today – the carrot and the stick. As Neil Postman put it:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. 
As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that our fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.
The credible threat here isn't from one approach or the other, but from both together.

While both books have sexual content, in 1984 it is brief and boring. A great G-rated 1954 film-version does away with even that. This black and white film, or the book, could be shared with older teens with little worry. But Brave New World, with its focus on the enticements of pleasure, has more sexual content, and while it's still not explicit, it might be something that a hormone-riddled teen boy could struggle with. The rating site Common Sense Media (family-friendly, but not specifically Christian) suggests that 1984 is for 16 and up, and Brave New World would be for 14 and up, but I would reverse those and maybe even hold off Brave New World for college-age and up. (Interestingly, the kid's reviews on Common Sense Media also rates Brave New World as more problematic than 1984).

In the other books, and films, that fill out this genre, the most common threat is probably killer robots (2001: A Space Odyssey; Prey; Terminator; The Matrix; etc.). Technological advances mean there’s a legitimate reason for concern here, but it shouldn’t be our principal concern. We differ from the world in that we understand that we should not fear “them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28). Our true battle is:
not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12).
What Paul means here by “flesh and blood” is Man and all his deadly weapons…including killer robots. But if that’s not where the real battle is at, then where should we focus our attention? Our concern is the Devil and all the means he uses – including false ideologies and philosophies – to confuse our understanding of God, or pressure us to reject Him, or try to keep us from learning about Him.

With that in mind some credible threats worth considering include:
  • Lord of the Flies - William Godling warns us not to be naive about our sinful nature; Man, left to his own devices is no angel. 
  • The Giver - Lois Lowry warns again enforcing sameness in the name of equality (it is aimed at young readers, but adults can enjoy and be challenged by it too). There is a great graphic novel version (which probably takes just as long to read as the original).
  • Time Will Run Back Henry Hazlitt warns against Communism specifically, but socialism in general. This would be for older teens, not because of problematic content (this is far "safer" than Brave New World or 1984) but simply because of the depth and breadth of the ideas therein. This is my own favorite dystopian novel because I found it by far the most educational. 
  • Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury warns of censorship, though I wonder if the type of censorship he warns us about is far less likely than the creeping political correctness we actually face. There is content here too problematic for younger readers to handle. 
  • Winterflight – Joseph Bayly takes us to a not-so-distant future in which abortion for disabled children is mandatory, euthanasia is compulsory soon after 75, and Christians are so confused about Romans 13 they think God wants them to submit to even these demands (the Christian confusion in this book is almost too spot on to take).
  • Fatherless, Childless, Godless - James Dobson’s 3-book series warns against abortion’s results - a shrinking population. (One thing that bothers me about this series is how it occasionally takes God's name in vain. That happens in other books listed here too, but they aren't by Christian authors, and I expect more from Dr. Dobson.) 
This is a genre well worth exploring...with care and caution. It's like a big blank canvas that insightful writers can use to paint pictures of futures that they hope – by giving their early warning – may never come to be.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

God made me and you

Celebrating God's design for ethnic diversity

by Shai Linne
illustrated by Trish Mahoney
32 pages / 2018

Reformed rapper Shai Linne has written a children's book about racism. And it's really good! As those already familiar with his albums know, Linne loves to delve deep into God's Word, and his insights are not only profound, but he knows how to present them powerfully. This picture book is no different.

In response to racism Christians typically talk about how we all come from the same two parents so there is, in fact, just one race – the human race. Linne builds on this point, even as he makes another – yes we are all alike in one way, but in others, we are wonderfully different.

And as you would expect a rapper to do, he makes this point in rhyme. The book begins with a teacher arriving late to her class just as a couple of boys are making fun of other kids for their hair, clothes, and skin color. After telling the boys to ask for forgiveness, she teaches the class a lesson about how diversity is a testimony to God's greatness. She says:
In Genesis 1, what we see in each verse
Is God made a world that is REALLY diverse. 
The sun and the moon,
the planets and stars,
Saturn and Jupiter,
Venus and Mars... 
Each one is different...
Class, why did God make this?
He made it to show off
His beauty and greatness.
And just as the variety and diversity in the rest of creation speaks of God's greatness, so too the diversity in Mankind.
He gave some curly hair
while others have straight.
It pleased God to fashion
each wonderful trait. 
Brown eyes and green eyes,
hazel and blue,
Each in their own way
works of art we can view. 
Some that are deaf
and some that are blind
All have great worth
in God's sovereign design. 
This is a morality tale, and sometimes this type of Christian books can be quite forced – more sermon than story – but the rhythm and rhyme of God Made Me and You carries us along. There so much to love in this fantastic book, from the much-needed message, to the bright colorful pictures kids will love, to the fun bouncing rhymes that make it great fun for mom and dad to read out loud. So two very enthusiastic thumbs up!

Linne has released a children's album, Jesus Kids, along with the book, and one track shares the same title as the book. You can hear some of the song in the book trailer below. You can also check out a 10-page excerpt from the book here.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Zoe's Hiding Place: When you are anxious

edited by David Powilson
illustrated by Joe Hox
32 pages / 2018

Children get anxious. This picture book, from the Christian Counseling and Educational Fund (CCEF) will help parents teach children how to deal with their fear and worry.

The story is about a little mouse named Zoe who's worried about a school trip to the art museum. The last time the class went, she became so fascinated by one painting that she lost track of where the rest of the group went. Then, when she looked up, no one was around, and "It felt like I was alone forever!" She's scared it will happen again. So now she's retreated to her hiding place – under the covers in her bed.

How can Zoe deal with her fear and worry? Her mom begins by listening. That's a good start. Then she explains to Zoe that what she is feeling is understandable. But when worry makes us feel like we're all alone, that's not true – God is always with us, and will never forsake us. Mom tells Zoe she can "turn each fear into a prayer" because God will help her. Her mom also helps Zoe think through ways she can stay with the group and not get separated.

 In the back of the book, the moral of the story is developed further with a two-page message to parents on "helping your child with anxiety." There the editor of this book, David Powilson – a very well-respected biblical counselor – has included a list of 10 "things to remember that will bring comfort to you and your child." Thoughts include:

  • Recognizing that in this world "We have good reason to be anxious and worried."
  • The most frequent command in the Bible is 'Don't be afraid.'
  • Reminding your child that the Lord has listening ears.

This is a wonderful book, meant for kids, but helpful for adults too. And the absolutely stunning pictures make this a pretty special morality tale. Yes, this is more an educational tool than an entertaining read. But it is a pretty entertaining read too. And the pictures are so fun to look at, a couple of my daughters have been paging through it regularly.

Two others

There are two other books in the CCEF's "Good News for Little Hearts" series.

Buster's Ears Trip Him Up is about dealing with failure. Buster is a speedy rabbit who thinks that winning is everything, so when his long ears trip him up and he loses the big race, he doesn't know how to deal with it. Fortunately, he has a big sister, and a wise father, who both know how to help him deal with failure. They remind him that God loved us before we had ever done anything so it really isn't about our accomplishments, but rather what Jesus accomplished on the cross.

Jax's Tail Twitches is about when we are angry. Jax is a squirrel whose big brother is pestering him and that makes him mad. What's worse, the neighbors next door are taking their nuts without asking, and that makes his dad mad. But even when there is good reason to be angry, our anger is, most often, the wrong response to that wrong situation. This is a lesson that mom and dad can certainly benefit from, even as we share it with our children.

Conclusion

I'd recommend Zoe's Hiding Place to any parents trying to help a child through worry or fear. With its firm grounding in Scripture, this will be a real help to both the child and the parent. For a 10-page preview of the book, you can check out this link here.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Finding Your True Identity

Classic Christianity
by Bob George
187 pages / 2010

Vivid
by Syd Hielema and Aaron Baart
130 pages / 2013

The communion of saints is a wonderful thing. First a brother-in-law, then my wife brought me two really good reads about who we are in Christ... and the difference that makes.

Bob George's Classic Christianity reminds Reformed Christians of what we already know, doctrinally - that our salvation is all of grace - but also of something we stress much less - that our relationship with God is about much more than salvation. George tells us that salvation (being saved from God's just judgment) is only the beginning of the story. We are not only given eternal life in the future, but are made alive in Christ's resurrection power right now. Our very identity has changed, because we know ourselves to be not only loved by God, but also unconditionally accepted as His adopted children, freed from slavery to the law, growing in grace.


Vivid makes many of the same points, but puts them in a more specific context - that of who we are not only in our personal relationship with God, but also in our role as workers in His kingdom. Here are some of the more thought-provoking insights:
  • Knowing God through His Son takes us from the counterfeit kingdom of Satan to the blessed kingdom of Christ.
  • Life in the kingdom, at various times in our lives (sometimes on the same day), is like a playground, a workshop, a battlefield, and an intensive care unit.
  • Even as we move through these aspects of kingdom life, God reveals our new identity by changing our desires, our character, our emotions, and our imaginations.
  • Changing our imaginations releases us from the foolishness of the American dream.
  • We can further the work of the Spirit in our transformation by cultivating spiritual disciplines, (which do not come in a one-size-fits-all form).
  • As we continue to be transformed by God, our calling becomes clearer - a calling which is more than a job, a calling which glories in the small things.
  • Like Jesus' original disciples, we are the "sent ones," so let us just go!
The only false note in the book is the use of "Pastor Rita" as one of the examples of life in the kingdom - an example consistent with the denominational background of one of the authors - but not consistent with Biblical revelation on the role of women in the church.

If you think that knowing more about who you are in Christ will make a difference now, and for your future, you can get Classic Christianity here (and here in Canada), and Vivid you can get from the Dordt College library.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Jonathan Edwards

by Simonetta Carr

64 pages / 2014

With Jonathan Edwards Simonetta Carr continues her series of picturebook "Christian biographies for young readers." This is one of 13 so far.

Two hundred years after Luther and Calvin, God used the Connecticut-born Jonathan Edwards to bring a Reformation of sorts to churches on this side of the ocean too. At the time there were many who professed to be believers, but who had no hatred of their own sins, and saw no real need to fight them. Then here came Edwards, preaching about the coming wrath of God against sin. Now, he preached on much more than this, but it was his fire and brimstone sermons that God used to spark a revival and shake people out of their ambivalence.

Edwards' "Sinners in the hands of an angry God" sermon is famous, as is his story about a spider dangling over a fire, which illustrates our own precarious state when we haven't yet reconciled with God. But the rest of his life isn't well known. People think, based on his "angry God" sermon that Edwards was all hell and damnation but as Carr shows, that wasn't at all true. She presents Edwards as a nature-loving young man as curious about science as he was about God's Word. The two, to him, seemed a natural fit.

Carr commissioned a dozen full-page color paintings to illustrate the book and makes use of a couple dozen other pictures to make this a true picture book – every two-page spread has a picture or two. It is also an attractively bound book, making this something that can be passed from one generation to the next. And she has summarized Edwards' life in a clear and compelling fashion.

That said, this is not a book that most children will readily pull off the shelf. It is beautiful, but it's not about cute cartoon mice, and it doesn't have bright garish colors so it will have a hard time competing with everything else out to grab children's attention. But while this one might not be the right choice for a present from grandma and grandpa, it is a book that every Christian school should own and every Church history teacher will be able to put to good use – it is a fantastic educational resource that makes learning about Edwards easy.