Friday, December 14, 2018

I Will Maintain: Volume 1 of the William & Mary Trilogy

by Marjorie Bowen
1993 (originally 1910) / 383 pages

This is not a new book, but it is a new topic for me, and it's a really good look at a particularly turbulent time in Dutch history.

One of the Williams in the House of Orange is (justly) famous in Dutch history for rescuing the Netherlands from the tyranny of Spain, but this novel depicts the rise of William III, who ultimately became more famous in English history as the one who liberated that country from the domination of the Catholic King James II. In this first volume of the William and Mary Trilogy, Marjorie Bowen takes to the very beginning of William's reign, when the Stadtholders (kings) of the Netherlands have been swept out of power by the enthusiasm for republican rule, and the country is ruled by John de Witt, the Grand Pensionary (the Dutch equivalent of a Prime Minister).

What makes the novel so compelling, in spite of what some reviewers on goodreads.com feel is overdescription, is the fact that for much of the novel, Prince William is seen through others' eyes. John de Witt has taken charge of William's education, seeking to compensate him for his family's fall from grace, as well as to make him fit for a role in service to (rather than in charge of) the States General (the republican government).

Many people are less optimistic that Willem will be willing to take on anything less than full rule of the country. One man, in particular, Florent Van Mander (a secretary of John de Witt), who seeks nothing but his own advantage, at first schemes with the French to help William back into the Stadtholdership. As the story continues, Van Mander's scheming is displaced by his sincere desire to follow the Prince wherever he bids. Meanwhile, we as readers also eagerly follow William's fortunes to find out if and how he will gain power, and whether he is willing to betray his country to get it.

William is not a modest man, but it becomes very clear that in spite of his faults, he can be used by God to defend and promote the Reformed faith against the designs of the Catholic French King Louis XIV, who is willing to use any means - including intrigue, assassination, and outright conquest - to extend his power over France's neighbours. Whether William is willing and/or able to do so is tested by the invasion (over both land and sea) of the Netherlands by the French army and French and English navies. The ensuing war shows the skill and courage of many in the Dutch armed forces, including Ruard de Witt, John de Witt's brother.

Which brings us back to the De Witts, and Florent Van Mander. Bowen does not flinch away from the fact that anyone's rise to power brings others down, and as in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, this story also shows the fearsome and chaotic power of the mob. William neither courts nor discourages the rabble who call for his restoration as Stadtholder, and so, as we may wonder when we watch Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, the questions arise as to whether you can trust anyone whom the people love quite so much, and whether you can trust the people themselves.

If you want to maintain your grasp of Dutch history, you can get Marjorie Bowen's book for free as an e-book or an online free read (also with links to print versions).

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Life in the Father's House: A Member's Guide to the Local Church

by Wayne A. Mack and Dave Swavely
2006 / 280 pages

I reviewed a similar book a couple months ago, but this is a really even better read about being what the Heidelberg Catechism calls "a living member of" the church.

Wayne A. Mack and Dave Swavely write from a Presbyterian perspective on how you and I can build up our local congregation. They deal with, first, realizing the importance of the local church and therefore committing ourselves to church membership, basing their argument on the Bible's stress on the local church, and quoting Chapter XXV of the Westminster Confession, Jay Adams,  and Charles Spurgeon.

After nailing down these foundational issues, they deal with how to choose a good church, expounding the importance of such traits as devotion to the apostles' teaching, a God-centered focus, and a loving concern for the needs of people (including the need for church discipline). The traits they enumerate fit very closely with the Belgic Confession's list of the marks of the true church.

As far as life itself "in the Father's house" is concerned, the authors deal with the following:
  • relating to church leadership;
  • fulfilling our roles as men and women in the church;
  • participating in worship services;
  • using our spiritual gifts;
  • confronting one another in love;
  • preserving unity in the body; and
  • praying for one another.
The conclusion deals with the all-important issue of motive, what they call "The Heart of the Matter" - gratefulness to God in Christ, and service to Him and our neighbor. The following features increase the book's value: 
  • the introduction by John MacArthur;
  • a study guide that goes beyond just the details in the book to challenge us to demonstrate our love for the body of Christ; and
  • an extensive Scripture index. 
If you think that Mack and Swavely can show you how to live a fruitful, God-glorifying life in the Father's house, you can find it here for US readers, and here in Canada.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Luther

by Rich Melheim
illustrated by Jonathan Koelsch
2016 / 72 pages

I've reviewed other "comic biographies" and never enjoyed one more. Luther is scripted like a movie, has witty dialogue with actions scene interspersed, and the artwork is of the same sort you would find in Marvel or DC comics – it is fantastic!

Educational comics, as a genre, are valuable in that they make learning history a lot less painful. But very few of these graphic novels are the sort of comic that a teen would just pick up and start reading. Luther is the exception. I don't want to over-hype it – a kid who reads nothing but superhero comics will still find this a bit of a stretch – but it really is as good a comic as you will find.

Cautions

Since this is intended for teens, I'll note a few cautions about language. The word "crap" is mentioned three times, "ass" once, and "old fart" once. But when you consider this is a comic about the notoriously potty-mouthed Luther, this is really quite tame.

I'll also note that a depiction of Christ shows up on the inside back cover of the book. It is not part of the story, but rather part of an ad for other comics by the same publisher.

Teens should be told that while the general storyline follows real events quite closely, specific details are often made up. For example, while we know Katharina von Bora was a self-assured woman, it seems doubtful that she popped the question to Martin Luther. Also much of the dialogue is made-up. Some of it is made up of quotes or near quotes from what Luther did actually say. But since most of Luther's day-to-day conversations were not recorded, these parts had to be made up.

One final caution: the comic treats as fact that famous, but unconfirmed, conclusion to Martin Luther's speech at the Diet of Worms, where he is said to have declared, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen." There is good reason to doubt he said these words.

Conclusion

The comic has several strengths including the overall picture it gives of the happenings going on in the broader world that made it possible for Luther to both spark this Reformation and live into old age and die a natural death.

Another strength is that while this account is sympathetic, it notes (briefly) one of Luther's weaknesses: that sometimes Luther's pen got the best of him and he could write some "terrible and hateful words" denouncing Jews, Calvinists, and Anabaptists alike.

Overall this is a comic that teens and adults (who aren't embarrassed to be seen reading a comic) will certainly enjoy.

I've reviewed another graphic novel on Luther's life, and I think the two of them perfectly compliment each other. This Luther is the more exciting of the two, but it plays a little looser with the details. Meanwhile Luther: Echoes of the Hammer is a more reliable history lesson, but it isn't nearly as dramatic.

If you buy Luther (or anything else) at Amazon.com here or Amazon.ca here you can support this site at no cost to yourself.

Other reviews related to Martin Luther

Another solid comic about his life Luther: Echoes of the Hammer
A comic about his wife Katie: Mother of the Reformation
The 1953 Oscar-nominated film Martin Luther
The short biography The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther
The children's picture book about Luther teaching The Barber Who Wanted to Pray


Sunday, October 14, 2018

Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion

by Jonathon Van Maren
2017 / 171 pages

As an English teacher, I have compiled a list of about 70 books that I consider to be really good reads for high school students. I thought that the list was finished... But Seeing Is Believing is really good enough not only to make this blog, but to join my list of all-time really good high school reads.

Why? Because Jonathon Van Maren, a front-line soldier of The Culture War (another of his books), makes a compelling case for the use of abortion victim photography – for the use of  graphic pictures. 

His argument is based on not only its current effectiveness, but on the history of social reform movements that have been successful because of their proponents' willingness to bring the ugly truth of oppression and injustice before the public, even at the cost of criticism and controversy.

That long sentence pretty much summarizes the book, but let me work it out a little further. Van Maren demonstrates, in Chapter 1, how four different reform movements – targeting slavery, oppression in the Congo, child labor, and civil rights abuses in the U.S. – used visual evidence of these evils to influence not only minds, but also hearts. The next chapter describes how photographs of abortion victim effectively re-stigmatizes abortion. Chapter 3 zeroes in on how abortion particularly traumatizes those who work in the abortion industry. 

Chapter 4 addresses the objections of pro-lifers to abortion victim photography, while the next chapter responds to more general objections to abortion victim photography. Chapter 6 gives a series of specific examples of people whose views of abortion, or potential decisions regarding abortion, have changed due to abortion victim photography.

Finally, the conclusion refocuses us on the real reason for using graphic visuals – the unborn child whose life is saved when his or her mother changes her mind about having an abortion.

Two appendices from other writers give the history of graphic images in pro-life work and a statistical analysis of the effectiveness of abortion victim photography.

If you think that Jonathon Van Maren can help you convince others that "our culture must face the victims of abortion," you can order it here, or here in Canada.

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Great Cake Mystery

by Alexander McCall Smith
73 pages / 2012

Precious Ramotswe must ranks up there with some of the best-loved fictional detectives of all time, rubbing elbows with Hercules Poirot, Cadfael, and Father Brown. But as beloved as she is among adults, did you know that the star of Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is also popular among children? McCall Smith has written a series of mysteries for children, featuring Precious when she was just eight years old.

For those who don't already know, Precious lives in Botswana. In The Great Cake Mystery Precious doesn't think of herself as a detective yet, but her dad thinks she has it in her. So when a classmate is accused - without any proof – of eating someone else's sandwich, she is upset. Precious, you see, is a kind girl who wants to help others. In this case helping means setting a trap to catch the real snack stealer.

SPOILER ALERT: Precious bakes a cake full of glue, covers the whole thing with icing, and places the cake outside the classroom "on the shelf where the children left their bags." And not too long afterwards the whole class hears the howling cries of the little thieves - monkeys! Precious has saved her friend from the mean accusations of their classmates. And, this being a old-fashioned sort of book, those classmates are truly sorry for what they thought and said.

This is a charming book, made all the more so by the folksy illustrations throughout, at least one on every two-page spread. McCall has written four other children's mysteries starring the young Precious, with The Great Cake Mystery billed as "Precious Ramotswe's very first case." (In a confusing twist, that same billing is shared with at least one edition of another book in the series, Precious and the Monkeys. Whether The Great Cake Mystery is the first or not, it serves as wonderful introduction to the young detective-to-be.)

CAUTION

We've read two other "young Precious" mysteries so far, and our daughters have loved both The Mystery of Meerkat Hill and The Mystery of the Missing Lion. I had a slightly different take. While I loved the former, I thought the later was marred by a insertion at the end where they treat a lion as if he were a person. Precious ends up giving a brief lecture about how all lions should live free, including the missing tame lion they'd just recovered, and all the adults side with the child.

It is, on the one hand, no big deal - it is only a few pages in an otherwise enjoyable story. But it rankled me because this childish "feel-good-ism" is rampant in our culture, and I don't think we need to be feeding any of it to our undiscerning children. The fact is, a tame lion would most likely die in the wild and a well-treated tame lion is not an oppressed lion. So what Precious proposes is both completely unnecessary, and quite likely very harmful to the very lion she wants to help. We're taught that good intentions are what really matters, but God says otherwise (Prov. 27:14) – if our well-meaning efforts cause damage, then we need to stop doing this well-meant damage!

CONCLUSION

My wife and I didn't know about this brief lecture until we came across it in the audiobook with the kids listening along. It wasn't objectionable enough to stop listening to the book we were already three-quarters of the way through, but if I was buying this series for a Christian school library I would get The Great Cake Mystery and The Mystery of Meerkat Hill, but give The Mystery of the Missing Lion a pass. There are two others in the series but we have yet to read (or listen to) them.
       
I should note that the audiobook version are truly remarkable, with the reader delivering all sorts of wonderful accented voices.

Oh, and if your kids like this series, they might also enjoy a five-book series McCall Smith wrote about Akimbo, a boy who lives on a game reserve in Africa. I've reviewed those here.

All, in all, these are books that children even as young as 5 may really enjoy listening to, and 9 year-olds and up could really enjoy reading. Our whole family was thoroughly charmed.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Far Side Of The Moon: The story of Apollo 11's third man

by Alex Irvine
illustrated by Ben Bishop
64 pages / 2017

Everyone's heard of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. And many of us know the name Buzz Aldrin too, the astronaut who accompanied him, and who was the second to walk on that cratered, barren, surface.

But did you know the Apollo 11 mission actually shot three men into space?

Who was the forgotten third man?

In this short graphic novel we get to experience the moon landing from the perspective of Michael Collins, the third man in the capsule – best known as one who "didn't get to walk on the moon." He travelled the same 200,000 miles through space right along with them, but someone had to stay behind in Columbia, the orbiting Command Module, while Armstrong and Aldrin headed to the surface in The Eagle, their Lunar Lander. Collins stayed behind, circling the Moon 14 times as he waited for their return.

Far Side of the Moon seems intent on conveying both how remarkable his story is – he flew to the moon! – and how melancholy – he never got to touch it. The muted pallet of black, white and spot color purple, creates just the right mood.

That muted pallet also means that even though the drawings are solid, this isn't a visual feast, and it isn't likely to grab the eye of a young reader. But if a boy, maybe 10 and up, already had any sort of interest in space-exploration, then they'd be sure to enjoy all the details about Michael Collins' training and about the different spacecrafts he flew. It might need a teacher's or parent's involvement; they might have to put it in his hands. But if they got started on it, I think most tween and even teen boys, and some girls too, would find this a really enjoyable book.



Wednesday, September 19, 2018

AUDIOBOOK: Sir Malcolm and the Missing Prince

Lamplighter Theatre
120 minutes / 2009

"This isn't a phone; this is a duck."

It's not the most relevant piece of dialogue in this audio production – the bulk of the story is set in pre-phone feudal times. But this bit of goofiness, popping up in the opening couple of minutes, serves as a pledge of sorts that what's coming is going to be fun. And that promise is kept!

Sir Malcolm is actually a story within a story. The "outer story" involves a harried businessman Thomas arriving at a mysterious bookstore looking for a phone. His car won't start, his cellphone is dead, and he needs to call for a tow truck. The kindly shop owner, Finnian, is happy to direct him to a duck-shaped phone, and then, as Thomas waits for his tow, Finnian helps by asking the businessman some pointed questions about just why he is so harried.

It turns out Thomas has a rebellious teen son back home. And Thomas feels too overwhelmed at work to do much about it.

That's when the story within the story begins: Finnian hands him a book called Sir Malcolm and the Missing Prince and from then on we jump into the soon-to-be missing prince's world. The young Prince Hubert has no respect for the peasant people he will one day rule, so the king turns to his most trusted advisor, the wise Sir Malcolm, to devise a plan. And quite a plan it is. Sir Malcolm is convinced that the prince could learn to sympathize with the peasants' plight if he was forced to live as one!

The king loves his son but he loves his people too, and knows that something must be done to refashion this unworthy prince. So, reluctantly, the king hands his son over to Sir Malcolm.

The fun begins when the spoiled Prince Hubert is dropped at the doorstep of a quiet, and quite poor, peasant woman named Dame Martha. There is fish out of water scenario: Hubert doesn't know a thing about living in such humble surroundings. When he won't do his share of the chores – due in equal parts to his arrogance and to his general cluelessness about what hard work really entails – Dame Martha doesn't push him or punish him. But as he sees her working hard, and as the boys his own age shame him for his laziness, the boy prince does start taking some tentative steps to becoming a servant king.

That's the gist of the story, but it doesn't capture the wonderful production values. This is Lamplighter Theatre’s very first audio production and they went all out for it, even enlisting John Rhys-Davies (Gimli from Lord of the Rings) to serve as the host. The story is based on Sidney Baldwin's 1931 children's book Young Prince Hubert, which has been wonderfully updated here.

CAUTIONS

The only caution I can think to add is that in the story that surrounds the story, Thomas is encouraged to fight for his son. This is only a couple minutes worth of content in the two hour production, but it is content aimed at parents, rather than children. And it isn't so much problematic – it won't do children any harm to hear parents encouraged to make time for their children – as it is just somewhat odd to have this bit of parental encouragement inserted into a children's tale.

CONCLUSION

We were so delighted with this audio adventure, we went looking for other Lamplighter Theater (Lamplighter.net) material at our local library. While the production values were always high, and the morals were what we'd hope for (Lamplighter Theatre does seem to be a Christian company) we haven't found another one of their stories that really grabbed our girls like this one did. I suspect that when they get older (our oldest is just 8) that might change.

But family members of any age will be able to appreciate Sir Malcolm and the Missing Prince. Two very enthusiastic thumbs up!

Friday, September 14, 2018

What Is a Healthy Church Member?

by Thabiti M. Anyabwile
127 pages / 2008

In ten short chapters, Thabiti Anyabwile lays out ten marks of a “healthy church member.” His list is one well worth considering.

The first three marks Anyabwile discusses parallel the Belgic Confession's statement that Christians must submit to the instruction of the church. Anyabwile focuses on healthy members being:

  • "expositional listeners" (taking seriously the expositional preaching of the Word)
  • "biblical theologians" (studying the gospel systematically)
  • "gospel-saturated" (orienting our hearts and lives around the gospel)

In breaking these three points down, Anyabwile outlines: four benefits of expositional listening, seven ways to become a Biblical theologian, and five ways to saturate ourselves in the gospel.

Anyabwile's next three points compel us to consider whether we are merely nominal members of our church or true Christians:

  • Are we genuinely converted?
  • Do we earnestly desire others to be converted?
  • Are we committed to God's people? 

Like a good, hard sermon, Anyabwile may thus make us profitably uncomfortable and provoke necessary repentance.

Anyabwile then deals with some major ways to demonstrate our commitment to our local church: seeking discipline, and being "growing disciples" and "humble followers." Finally, Anyabwile deals with what the Heidelberg Catechism calls "the most important part of our thankfulness" - being "a prayer warrior," discussing why, how, when, for what, and for whom we pray.

CAUTIONS

The only caution I can think of relates not to this book itself, but to another in the same "9Marks" book series. Anyabwile's What is a Healthy Church member? is a response and continuation of sorts to an earlier book in the series called What Is a Healthy Church? by Mark Dever. While the series is written from a broadly Reformed perspective, Mark Dever's What Is a Healthy Church? makes mention of the author's opposition to infant baptism, and it also endorses a congregationalist style of church government. As well, readers should note that Dever's list of characteristics of a healthy church corresponds only roughly to the marks of a true church listed in the Belgic Confession.

CONCLUSION

Any one of these ten chapters repays careful study, as they are filled with strong Scriptural backing and life-changing, practical, wisdom. The ten together would make excellent training both for those who are thinking of becoming church members and for long-time members who are willing to examine themselves. If you believe that Anyabwile's book can help you be a healthy member of your own congregation, you can get it here, and here in Canada.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Love That Dog: A Novel

by Sharon Creech
Joanna Colter Books,
2001/ 86 pages

A review of a read-aloud book, to be read aloud

As I started reading the very first page of this book, I thought it was dumb. I’ve never been a fan of poetry, particularly if it was the type of poetry that didn’t even rhyme. And that’s what was in this book.

But I kept reading and found out, on that very first page, that the author agreed with me! The book is by Jack, a boy in elementary school, who doesn’t like poems either. Each day he writes a journal entry, for his teacher Miss Stretchberry, and there on the very first page, in his first entry, he tells her his thoughts on the poem they have just read in school. He writes:

If that is a poem
about the red wheelbarrow
and the white chickens
then any words
can be a poem.
You’ve just got to
make 
short
lines.

It was a book of poetry, by a boy poet, who didn’t like poetry!

So I kept reading, and I started learning. Jack’s teacher showed his class poems. Some did rhyme, some were by famous writers, and some weren’t very good at all. But I started learning, along with Jack, that poetry doesn’t always have to rhyme, or even have a set rhythm. Sometimes it can just be a different sort of way to express your thoughts, to lay them out, so people understand them better.  Poetry can be easier then teachers sometimes make it. And it can be powerful. And it can make you cry. 

I started reading this book, about a boy learning about poetry, and making poems, and expressing beautiful thoughts about his beautiful dog, and by the time I got to the end of it I realized it wasn’t dumb at all.

Love that book.

You can get a copy of at Amazon.com by clicking here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God

by Mark Jones
240 pages / 2017

If you want a free book dealing with this topic, try J. I. Packer's Knowing Godwhich was published 45 years ago. So, why do we need this really good read now (really good enough to be used in a Bible class!)?

Mark Jones's God Is has indeed been compared (favorably) to Packer's book. What Jones has to add is a devotional and systematic look at 26 of God's attributes as revealed in His Word. What makes these looks at who and what God is even more valuable is this insight from Jones's Preface:
"The true and living God is too much for us to bear, to handle, to conceive, to adore, to know, to trust, to understand, and to worship.... However, that the Son became flesh makes our human nature appear lovely to God. But he also makes God appear lovely to us."
This is why each chapter has the following sections:
  • the "Doctrine" regarding an attribute of God;
  • how Christ makes that attribute more beautiful;
  • how our knowledge of each attribute has "Application" to our lives before His face.
What deepens each section's insight, and will deepen our insight and its effect on us, is Jones's use of content from two main sources:
  • most importantly, each section is peppered with Scriptural quotations, which makes it suitable for use in your daily devotions (26 x 3= at least 78 days worth! - more if you simply work through the Scripture references at the back in light of the attributes of God they demonstrate);
  • secondarily, Jones's use of meditations from the Puritans and others in church history connects us in our contemplation of God's awe-inspiring greatness with His people across the ages.
Both the Bible and church history demonstrate how "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8), and Jones shows just how magnificent God's presence in Him is. If you think Mark Jones can help you understand and be awed by who and what God is, you can get it here in the US, and here in Canada.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Take Heart: Christian Courage in the Age of Unbelief

by Matt Chandler (with David Roark)
123 pages / 2018

Why Take Heart, and how - especially as we face "the end of Christendom"? That's Matt Chandler's concern.

Chandler describes three ways that Christians often respond to "the age of unbelief":
  • seeking to convert culture,
  • condemning culture, and
  • conforming to culture.
While each of these has a place in our approach to North American society, the problem with all three is that they are motivated by fear. Instead, we need to approach culture with courage.

Chandler tells us that "the end of Christendom" is a good thing, because the church has always thrived on the margins, as nominal church members leave the fold and those left have a new chance to demonstrate Christian courage. And how do we gain that courage? By knowing how great is the God whom we serve (freeing us from focusing on our own smallness), and realizing that He is "playing the long game" (freeing us from looking narrowly at our own situation).

And just how great is our God? Chandler borrows the title and ideas of the book God Is a Warrior to show how God has fought for His people and against His unfaithful people, promised to be their warrior among His people and then fulfilled those promises in Christ. Since Christ's ascension, His people proclaim His victory to the world, as well as His return as a warrior to finally defeat His enemies and reestablish the reign of peace (shalom) that was broken by the fall into sin. With a Warrior God like that, how could we not be courageous?

But what does that courage look like? Chandler draws on 1 Peter to show how courage in Christ involves holiness (which is shown by integrity), devotion to our church and the common good, and evangelism. Perhaps the most surprising way to begin that evangelistic response to the Great Commission is through hospitality: welcoming everyone you meet, engaging with people, and making dinner a priority (including invitations to the outsider and the outcast) - following Jesus in His faithfulness to His Father and His love for the people on the margins. Finally, Chandler refers to Psalm 139 to show how literally, "you were made for now." God has put the nations within their boundaries (Acts 17:24-27), and us in specific places within those nations, to bring God's victory to the people of those nations. No wonder, as Chandler sums up, that "This is a great time to be a Christian. Take heart."

If you think that Matt Chandler's exhortations can encourage you to confront our culture with holiness, devotion, and evangelistic hospitality, you can get his book here and here in Canada.