Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther

by Steven J. Lawson
145 pages / 2013

This is a book that every Protestant minister should read. Why? Because it uses the story of the first Protestant minister, Martin Luther, to show what Protestant ministers should be doing with the word of God.

This book is by no means a complete biography of Martin Luther. It does not deal with any of the flaws that are sometimes mentioned with regard to his life. What it does do (very well) is show how God used Luther to redirect His people back to His word.

And how was Luther equipped, and how did he equip others, to do that? First of all, he had, in the words of the title of Chapter 2, "A Deep Conviction about the Word" - its verbal inspiration, its divine inerrancy, its supreme authority, its intrinsic clarity, and its complete sufficiency.

A deep conviction about God's word is not effective unless one also knows it deeply, and Luther did. Chapter 3 portrays the second key characteristic of Luther's approach to the preaching of God's word - his "Relentless Drive in the Study." First of all, he humbly followed wherever God was leading him through His word. Second, he stressed going back to the Bible rather than any commentaries - reading through the Bible himself twice a year. Third, Luther departed from much earlier interpretation of God's word by sticking to the clear meaning of the text rather than spiritualizing it. Finally, he emphasized the reading of the text in the original languages, and the need for the work of the Spirit to work with God's word.

Next, Lawson shows the structure and content of  Luther's sermons: concise introduction, biblical exposition, a stress on God's law, the exaltation of Christ and His work on the cross, personal application, and the invitation of the gospel. This is similar to the structure of the Heidelberg Catechism - sin, salvation, service. Luther's sermons were also delivered powerfully, with an indomitable spirit, fervent intensity, accessible speech, and colorful expressions.

Finally, Luther preached with full disclosure of the truth, confident assertions of Scriptural wisdom, determination in the face of opposition, undaunted courage, and a daring defense of Biblical teaching.

Lawson concludes with an exhortation to continue the Reformation by emulating his high view of the Scriptures, a high view of God, and a high view of the pulpit. If you believe that Lawson's view of Luther gives us a good way to see the value of the kind of preaching that Luther preached and promoted, you can get his book here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Farm Team

by Linda Bailey
illustrated by Bill Slavin
32 pages / 2006

I'm a Canuck living in a house full of American lasses, so every now and again, I hit my daughters up with a dose of good ol' Canadian culture. And boy was this a goodie!

The Farm Team is about a bunch of chickens, pigs, sheep, and one cow, who love hockey and want to bring the championship trophy back home. For the last 50 years, the Bush League Bandits have always come out on top, but this year the Farm Team has a great goalie and they think they have the right stuff to get it done.

But the Bandits are cheaters, and when the score gets tight their porcupine drives for the net and punctures the Farm Team's porky goaltender. How's the Farm Team going to handle it with their best player injured? Never fear, coach Clyde (a Clydesdale) will think of something!

Parents could use this book to teach children a little about sportsmanship – the Farm Team are great examples of hardworking and clean playing sportsmen sportsanimals – but the real value of this book is in just how fun it is to read out loud. There's lots of action, some good twists (what's the Farm Team going to do when the Bandits' new star player is an enormous bear?!?), and some very fun play-by-play dialogue to shout out. It's the kind of book that is so well written it made it easy for me to become quite the performer. My kids loved it, and even my wife, who was busy making supper as we read, really got into the action.

So a good dose of Canadiana and a great big heaping of fun.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Finding Winnie

The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear
by Lindsay Mattick
illustrated by Sophie Blackall
56 pages / 2015

As we were working our way through The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh I was delighted to find this treasure at our local library. It turns out that Winnie, a teddy bear who had fantastic and entirely fanciful adventures, was named after a real bear whose adventures were quite something too, and of the genuine sort.

It begins with charm. Just as Winnie the Pooh is begun with a father telling his son a story, so too this book starts with a parent telling her child a bedtime tale. In this case the storyteller is the great granddaughter of the man who gave the first Winnie his name. Harry Colebourn was a vet living in Winnipeg. When the First World War began Harry had to go, so he boarded a train with other soldiers and headed east. At a stop on the way he met a man with a baby bear and ended up buying him. To make a long story shorter (and not to spoil too much of the tale) this bear - named Winnie after Harry's hometown - ended up in the London Zoo where a boy name Christopher Robin, and his father A.A Milne came across him and were utterly entranced and inspired.

It is a wonderful story, but what makes it remarkable is the charming way it's told. This is brilliant, and a homage of sort to A.A. Milne's stories. It's true, so there is quite a difference between his Winnie tales and this author's, but the same gentle humor, the same whimsy, the same, did I mention charm? is there throughout.

The book concludes with a few pages of the real Winnie, along with Harry Colebourn.

Cautions

The First World War is made mention of, but nothing of the battles are shown.

Conclusion

For any fans of Winnie the Pooh this will be a real treat, no matter their age. Both my daughters and I were entranced! You can pick up a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here.

In 2015 another picture book came out about the bear behind the bear. Winnie: the True story of the Bear who inspired Winnie-the-Pooh is also very good, and if it had come out on its own, it would have found its own spot on our blog. Very fun, and different enough that after reading Finding Winnie it is still an enjoyable read as well. Compared to most any other picture book Winnie is remarkable - really among the best of the best - but it does lack a little of the Milne-like charm of Finding Winnie, and so ranks second among these two books. Check out more on it at Amazon.com by clicking here. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Wright Brothers

by David McCullough
320 pages / 2015

Match an astonishing story with a superb storyteller and what more could we ask for? David McCullough clearly had fun delivering a story that, if it weren’t true, would never be believed – the Wright brothers seem simply too good to be true. These two former journalists, now bike builders, simply decide one day to get into the plane building business. They begin by firing off a letter to the Smithsonian Institution to ask for all the information that can be had about flight because they are determined to succeed where all others have failed.

McCullough gives us the measure of these two men, by highlighting just how audacious their goal really was. At the time many thought human flight was an impossibility, and based this conclusion on the decades of failed experiments that preceded the Wrights’ interest. And while the two brothers are not poor, they don’t have the resources some other experimenters have been able to muster. So how could the Wrights manage what they did? McCullough credits it to determination, brilliance, patience, curiosity, and, did we mention determination?

At 320 pages this might seems a bit on the big/intimidating side. But but with 50+ pages devoted to the footnotes and index, it isn’t nearly as large as it seems. Who should read it? Anyone with an interest in aviation, or underdog stories, would love it. But I would most like to see this in the harnds of young men and older teens. This would be a wonderful book to inspire them to investigate, experiment, study, dream and work hard. That’s what the Wrights had going for themselves, and look at how far it took them!

To be clear, this isn't a specifically Christian book. Their father was a church bishop, and a man of principle and dedication, but he didn't seem all that worried about his boys irregular church attendance. While the two brothers were always very strict about taking the Sabbath rest, there isn't all that much in here about their relationship with God. So a fascinating biography but not a spiritual one.

You can pick up a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Don't Worry - Rejoice!

Parents in Pain
by John White
1979 / 245 pages

Worry: Pursuing a Better Path to Peace
by David Powlison
2004 / 40 pages

While parents are not the only ones to worry, I suspect most every parent struggles with it, which is why David Powlison's Worry pairs up rather naturally with John White's Parents in Pain. We have reviewed both these authors on the blog before, but not their books on these topics.

John White is better known as the author of the Archives of Anthropos, a children's fantasy series. In that series he actually alluded to some of the concerns of his "real job" when his protagonists meet a girl with an unnamed trauma in her past. As a Christian psychiatrist, White is upfront about the fact that parents will experience pain, and that he went through that pain in the raising of his own children. Our children will not turn out exactly like us, and we do not have to take personal responsibility for their mistakes and sins that bring us pain.

One chapter in particular dealt with the issue of worry as a parent when White urges us to relinquish our certain "rights" and expectations parents have created for themselves. He urges us to give up:
  • our "right" to tranquillity, 
  • our "right" to repayment for all our work in bringing our children up, 
  • any expectations of respectability in the eyes of other parents, 
  • and any expectation that we can shelter our children from the consequences of their own action. 

In other words, let us stop making idols of our own powers to change others.

Some references to free will (but not in the Arminian sense), and to abortion as a possibly acceptable solution to teenage pregnancy (though strongly discouraged), should not keep discerning parents from benefiting from much good counsel and encouragement when our children put us through pain.

David Powlison's booklet is not specifically about parenting, but he uses a careful meditation on Christ's well-known words on worry in Matthew 6 to bring us (again?) to the recognition that "your Father is God." He is in control!

One other piece of counsel that both share is to act rather than worry! White mentions that while happy is an adjective, rejoice is a verb. Paul commands us to rejoice even when we have no earthly reason to be happy. Similarly, Powlison reminds us to exercise our Spirit-led will by deliberately focusing on God's promises (wonderful reasons for rejoicing!), and by giving to others in response when we are tempted to worry.

If you believe that either or both of these books will help you stop worrying and start rejoicing and acting in love rather than fear, you can order David Powlison's book here and John White's book here.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The question of God:

C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life
by Armand M. Nicholi Jr.
2002 / 244 pages

While C.S. Lewis was 40 years younger than Sigmund Freud, he was well acquainted with his ideas. Freud hated and feared God, and as a young man Lewis found Freud’s atheism attractive. But after his conversion, Lewis used his considerable skills to answer and rebut Freud’s arguments against God. What author Dr. Armand Nicholi has done is presented a type of conversation between the two, with Freud usually presenting first, and Lewis them coming after to respond and correct.

So what do these two “talk” about? As the subtitle shares, C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. The two also discuss whether morality exists and why there is suffering. And they take a close look at death.

It is a fascinating book, part conversation, but also part biography, giving us a good understanding of both men by sharing the similarities and differences in their histories.

The only caution I would note is that when it comes to the problem of pain both Lewis’s and the author’s Arminian leanings come out. For an interesting Reformed perspective, see Joe Rigney’s “Confronting the Problem(s) of Evil.”

But overall this is a very readable, very interesting account of two of the twentieth century’s pivotal figures and their ideas, which continue to impact us today.

You can buy a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Oxpecker and the Giraffe - I Need You and You Need Me

by Patrick Fitzpatrick
illustrated by Tim Newcombe
32 pages / 3013

Giraffe is tired of his near-constant companion, the Oxpecker bird and wants him to go away. Or as he says it in the book:
You're always climbing on my skin. Your company is wearing thinYou are nothing but a pestFly away and let me rest.
But Oxpecker knows something Giraffe doesn't: "I need you and you need me." It turns out that the Oxpecker feeds itself by eating the blood-sucking bugs that want to take a chunk out of Giraffe. That keeps Oxpecker's tummy full, but also keeps Giraffe with a lot lets mites and such trying to turn him into lunch.

So this is a story of interdependence, and because this comes from creationist Christians the authors take the opportunity to point out how such interdependence should point us right to God. Or, as Giraffe's friend Rhino puts it:
We need them, and they need us
Why the worry? Why the fuss?
God has made us by design,
So our lives must intertwine.
This is a fun story, with vibrant pictures and a nice rhyming rhythm to it. It is intended as an educational book, and as such it is fantastic; it not only teaches but entertains too.

But evaluating it simply as a picture book – evaluating it on an entertainment scale – then it is good rather than great. Our under 6 kids enjoyed it, and we had a good talk about it, but there are other picture books they do like more. So this one might be an ideal one to get out of the library (it would be a great addition to any school library).

If you want to buy it, you can do so at Amazon.com by clicking here.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Faith of Christopher Hitchens

by Larry Taunton
Biography
181 pages / 2016

The late Christopher Hitchens is best known for his book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He was an aggressive atheist who made his living blaspheming God. So why would we want to know more about him? And why would Christian author Larry Taunton want to write a book about him?

Because this book is much more about God’s graciousness than it is Hitchens’ rebellion.

And because Hitchens wasn’t quite what he seemed. Taunton writes of Hitchens having “two sets of books” just as fraudulent accountants do, with the one set for the viewing public, and the second private set that give the true tally. Hitchens’ public face was that of the confident anti-theist who thought it made good theater to claim God was both unforgivably evil and non-existent. Meanwhile the private Hitchens was spending more and more time with God’s followers, calling some of them friends, and even studying the Bible with one or two. If he wasn’t deliberately seeking God, this other Hitchens’ interest in the truth was bringing him closer and closer to his Creator.

The author, Taunton, got to know Hitchens after arranging public debates between Hitchens and prominent Christians. Often times after these debates the two public combatants, Taunton, and others, would head out to a late dinner where the debate would continue. This is how Taunton and Hitchens became friends. When Hitchens was diagnosed with terminal cancer the late night debating seemed more important to them both.

God not only brought Christians into Hitchens life, He also gave this materialist a sure knowledge about the reality of evil. The atheistic/materialistic worldview has no room for right and wrong – things just are. We don’t speak of chemical reactions as having any sort of “moral quality,” and in the atheist worldview all we are is chemical reactions. So when atheists speak of evil they are speaking of something they have no explanation for. Hitchens seemed to understand this, but, particularly after the 9/11 terrorist attack, was also certain there was evil. Hitchens bravely denounced radical Islam, which lost him friends among the Left, but more importantly exposed – seemingly to Hitchens himself – the big hole in his godless worldview. It was another nudge in a Godward direction.

While Taunton doesn’t make any claims about a deathbed conversion for one of the world’s most notorious atheists, he shows us that God was ever so gracious to Hitchens, confronting him, pursuing him. We don’t know if Christopher Hitchens ever repented, but we do know God gave him every opportunity.

Cautions

The only caution I’d add is that some of the Christians mentioned in the book – who debated Hitchens and gave him something to think about – have a notable flaw in their theology, that being some sort of bow to theistic evolution. This isn’t a concern in this book (it doesn't come up) but I share this only as an alert to any readers who might be spurred to look up the works of these mentioned men.

Conclusion

This is a close-up look at a wavering atheist that concludes without a clear happy ending – that makes it strange, particularly for a Christian-authored book. But the glimpse at what God was doing in Hitchens’ life makes this a compelling book. God gave Hitchens time, allotting him 16 months after his initial terminal cancer diagnosis; He brought him into close company with men who were able to answer his objections; and He also made Hitchens aware of evil. Why read The Faith of Christopher Hitchens? Because one can’t help but be struck by God’s graciousness in the life of Christopher Hitchens.

To buy a copy at Amazon.com click here.

I got a free copy of this book for review purposes but, as you might suspect, that has no impact on the sorts of evaluations I give.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Conversion and the Communion of Saints in Some Really/Pretty Good Reads


Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and
The House at Pooh Corner (1928)
by A. A. Milne
368 pages / this edition 1996

Messy Grace
by Caleb Kaltenbach
224 pages / 2015

Which book best fits the title of this post? Read on to find out....

I've always had Winnie-the-Pooh in the back of my mind, but I only finally read both volumes of this "really good read" (so I've heard) recently. As I read, I had the general five-star rating that Amazon's readers gave it confirmed by the fun of the characters (mostly based on the stuffed animals of A. A. Milne's son Christopher Robin). Pooh Piglet, Roo, and Tigger, for example, are very much children, with children's typical egocentric focus on themselves. At the same time, Pooh, though a somewhat gluttonous Bear of Very Little Brain, has the childlike love of the world that prompts plenty of poetry, which he, with childish confidence, is sure that Christopher Robin will love. Piglet is a typical little kid who is more than a little worried about everything. Both Roo and Tigger are filled with the energy of children that sometimes exhausts the adults in their lives.

Many of the others seem to be more children's view of adults: Rabbit all busy and bustling, but not very patient; Kanga the perfect mother, but just a little fussy; Eeyore - the somewhat depressed (and depressing) donkey. What binds the two groups together is their love for Christopher Robin, who owns all these (stuffed) creatures.

What makes the characters funny is their general lack of awareness of their own weaknesses, but this can also get somewhat discouraging story after story. I was pleasantly surprised, then, when near the end of the second volume, Milne tells a story that shows how, sometimes, the communion of saints breaks through. We've seen Rabbit in action before, trying to un-bounce Tigger, but now his brusqueness is put to good use when he (finally) tells Eeyore what we've been thinking all along - to stop feeling sorry for himself and go out and visit others. Pooh sings a song that does more than just amuse himself; it also pays tribute to Piglet's earlier heroic actions. Finally, Piglet, when Eeyore mistakenly gives away Piglet's house to Owl after Owl's tree falls down, quietly lets Owl keep the house and accepts Pooh's gracious offer to come and live with him (echoes of Acts 2:45!).

All the creatures, who love the one who owns them, learn to love each other as well. That's what we should be seeking as well. Our unity in the One who owns us should prompt our love for the others who are owned by Him (at much greater cost than Christopher Robin's ownership).

That love prompted by God's love for us in Christ is also what Caleb Kaltenbach calls for. Caleb eventually found out that both his parents were homosexual. After his parents' divorce, his mother lived with another woman. Caleb found out that his father was gay only after Caleb's conversion. That conversion happened only after a childhood and adolescence learning to hate the Christians who seemed to have nothing but hatred for his mother and her partner.

This dual experience of both the homosexual community and the search for the gospel truth about homosexuality (which he does get right, unlike, say, Rob Bell) gives Kaltenbach a unique perspective on the issue. It leads him to call him for a "messy church" in which sinners are welcome - as they were with Jesus. It's worth considering whether your congregation could deal with the following admissions (page 151):
  • I'm an addict and I want to know my next step.
  • I can't handle my finances.
  • I'm struggling with porn.
  • I'm gay.
While Kaltenbach's journey to knowing Christ follows a somewhat Arminian narrative, and requires a "re-baptism," these and other similar scenarios that he mentions are worth considering. How welcoming are we to people who need our help - or who don't know that they need our help yet?

However, near the end  of the book, Kaltenbach's call for church to be somewhere you can "belong before you can believe" confuses hospitality with membership. That comes through later when he asks, "What about those who say they love Jesus, claim to believe in the Bible, and attend church regularly and meanwhile are in a loving gay relationship?" His response that he is "not sure we are supposed to be judges of others' salvation" contradicts precisely what is the proclamation of faithful church discipline. "To live in sin" is to live outside Christ, as was the man condemned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 with the ultimate purpose of restoring him to fellowship with Christ and His church. It is not loving for the church to leave someone in their unrepented sin.

So... which of these is a really good read, and which is only a pretty good read? You decide if you want to order either The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh or Messy Grace (or both).

    Monday, March 7, 2016

    Journey Through the Night

    by Anne De Vries
    372 pages / 1951 (English version reissued 2001)

    Journey Through the Night is children's fiction at its very best.

    The main character, John De Boer, is a Dutch boy soon to become a man, but first he has to survive the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. When the Germans first took over, the De Boers weren't actively trying to resist. However, as German persecution increases, John and his father are compelled by their conscience into helping Jews and others wanted by the authorities. Our "heroes" enter into their work for the Dutch underground in an almost grudging manner, but they do the work because they know it is what God wants them to do. 

    When I first read this series as a child I wondered why they weren’t eager to jump into the work, into the adventure! Now, as an adult I wonder whether I would have had the same courage. That is one of the strengths of the book. It tells a story about the bravery of our fathers, and grandfathers, as they fought against a government that hated God. That's something we might well have to face one day too – it won’t be the Nazis in our case, but Christian persecution around the world is increasing, and it isn't inconceivable it might happen here too. So we can draw courage reading about how God was with his people in this war, even when some were caught by the Nazis.

    This story is particularly compelling for teenagers since John is sixteen. But adults will enjoy rereading it, or reading it for the first time. That's why I would recommend it for anyone 10 years old and up. As C.S. Lewis said, if a children’s book isn’t worth rereading as an adult, it isn’t much of a book at all.

    Old folks like myself might remember that Journey Through the Night was originally a four-book series, translated from the Dutch original (which was a runaway bestseller). This new version includes all four books in one sturdy soft-covered edition. Kids probably aren’t going to ask for these books themselves so maybe parents and grandparents out there should consider giving this one as a gift. Who knows, maybe you’ll even be asked to read it out loud to your little descendants.

    You can buy a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here. Or check out the publisher at Inheritance Publications.

    Saturday, February 27, 2016

    Athanasius

    by Simonetta Carr
    2011 / 62 pages

    One reason we should learned church history is to be equipped to fight errors our ancestors already countered. For example, what we learn in this brief biography is that the Jehovah's Witnesses are nothing new – already back in the 4th century a man named Arius was teaching that Jesus was not fully divine.

    Another reason we should know our church history is to learn about and praise God for the mighty deeds He has done in the past. Arius' teaching confused many but Carr shows readers how God prepared another man to fight for the Truth with unwavering courage.

    He was Athanasius, the man our Athanasian Creed is named after (under the mistaken idea that he wrote it – it is, however, an accurate summary of what he taught). He was an Egyptian bishop who through his lifetime had to deal with 9 Roman emperors. Three of these were pagan, and two supported Arius – that's five in total who thought Athanasius was a troublemaker. They banished him, and caused him to flee multiple times. Carr recounts one great escape story where Roman soldiers asked the man himself where Athanasius was. His answer: "He is not far from here." Nothing could stop Athanasius from teaching about God, explaining about Jesus and the Holy Spirit too. In the conclusion Carr shares Athanasius' apt nickname – contra mundum – which is Latin for "against the world."

    This picture book is intended for children in Grade 2 or older, but adults will enjoy reading it too. What Carr has done here is condense a lot into a concise, beautifully-illustrated package – there are 40 pictures, many of which are full page. To date Simonetta Carr has crafted nine books in her "Christian biographies for young readers" series and this may be her very best.

    You can buy a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here.

    Monday, February 22, 2016

    Gospel Patrons

    by John Rinehart
    2013 / 170 pages

    Are you a giant?

    Church history is full of such people. William Tyndale translated the Bible into English. George Whitefield was used by God to spark the Great Awakening, while John Newton was the ex-slave trader who wrote Amazing Grace and helped William Wilberforce end the British slave trade. These were Christian giants; their stories well known.

    But, as author John Rinehart notes, not all of us are called to these leadership positions. Many are called to supporting roles. In Gospel Patrons Rinehart tells the stories of three people who enabled Tyndale, Whitefield, and John Newton to do their work.

    • Humphrey Monmouth was the man who financed Tyndale’s translation work (and spent a year in the Tower of London as reward). 
    • Lady Huntingdon used her position and influence to have the richest in England come hear George Whitefield preach the Gospel and she funded his work reaching the rest of England and America. 
    • John Thornton placed John Newton in an influential church, and encouraged him to publish a book of his hymns, one of which was Amazing Grace.

    Their stories are not well known, but their roles were vital too. Most of us are not giants like Tyndale, Whitefield and Newton, and we might think that we don’t have the funds to act like Monmouth, Lady Huntingdon or Thornton either.

    But while few of us have the funds they did, most of us are in a position where we can spare money or time to support worthy causes. In sharing these three biographies, what author John Rinehart wants us to realize is the importance of this supporting role. God has a part for each of us to play. And if we understand how important the “lesser” roles are, perhaps we will more willingly take them on, sacrificially donating of our money, and our time.

    This is a very readable book and very challenging too. I highly recommend it, for all ages. You can by a paperback copy at Amazon.com by clicking here or get the pdf book for free (by giving your email address and signing up for the author's newsletter) or get an audio download by visiting www.johnwrinehart.com/free/.