Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Post-Christian Mind (and Heart)

Death in the City
by Francis A. Schaeffer
143 pages / first published 1969

The Post-Christian Mind
by Harry Blamires
209 pages / 1999

I actually started Blamires' book first. Only after I started reading Schaeffer's work did I realize that both dealt with the post-Christian mind. Once I noticed that, a comparison of  the two seemed like a 'really good' idea. Blamires began with two advantages: fame and currency.

What do I mean by that? Well, Blamires is known for his minor classic The Christian Mind, and The Post-Christian Mind was published thirty years later than Schaeffer's work. Given these facts, I anticipated that Blamires' work would be the really better read of the two, or at least more useful in reacting to the post-Christian mind - the mind that continues to shape our Western culture today. Read on to find out whether I was right.

What intrigued me most about Blamires was that he was a student of C. S. Lewis (more reviews of Lewis lore here), and you can see Lewis's influence in Blamires's book. Blamires' analogies, like Lewis's, often show vivid insight into things that I had never carefully thought about. For example, he illustrates the difference between quantitative reasoning and qualitative reasoning with the contrast between saying 'This garden covers two acres' and saying 'This garden is beautiful.' Both types of description can apply to a garden, but if we determine morality by consensus (quantitatively), we are stuck with, as Blamires calls it, 'the tyranny of the average.'

Blamires' best moment is perhaps his qualified justification of democracy: "Thus the principle of democracy does not in itself testify that everyone is so competent that their opinion must be acted upon. The principle of democracy testifies that everyone is so subject to corruption that the reins of power must not be left for long in anyone's hands without check."

On the other hand, his view of insurance and advertising has nothing clearly Christian (or commonsensical) about it. He views both as a kind of taxation, since we cannot choose whether we will pay for either, as both get folded into the prices of products we buy. While there is certainly much to criticize in the content of advertising, his criticism ignores the necessity of information to make wise purchases. If we don't want to pay for advertising, we can find information on less adverised products from sources like Consumer Report (which we would, of course, have to pay for). As for insurance, aside from the insurance that is required by law, we could, perhaps, avoid insurance by only buying products when we have enough savings to replace them if necessary - a tall order! In other words, insurance is not merely a tax, but is an actual service.

In the end, Blamires' analyses too often sound like the rants criticized in Ecclesiastes 7:10 - "Say not, 'Why were the former days better than these? For it is not from wisdom that you ask this." In contrast, Francis Schaeffer's Death in the City avoids sounding like mere complaint, even though Schaeffer's analysis of our culture relies strongly, to begin with, on his analysis of the relevance of the "weeping prophet," Jeremiah.

If Schaeffer has a weakness, it is that his exegesis of prophecy and lament from Jeremiah identifies the city and nation of Jeremiah's time with the city and Western nations of our time. While that may be questionable, given that Western nations are not, and have never been, God's covenant people, there is a strong parallel between the apostasy of Judah and the post-Christian rejection of God by cultures, as a whole, that have benefitted from Christian values, especially since the Reformation.

The strength of Schaeffer's analysis, on the other hand, is his compassion, his identification with the despair of post-Christian culture, and his focus on reacting not only to the post-Christian mind, but also the post-Christian heart. The first chapter speaks of the literal hunger of Jerusalem's people as parallelling the spiritual hunger of our time (his 1969 not being all that different from now, almost 50 years later); however, Schaeffer does not let modern man off the hook. It's not the case that man is searching for God; rather, people look for meaning in anything and everything but God. Schaeffer also warns Christians that we too must be persuaded that there is no cure for our culture but the Word of God, so that, of necessity, compassion for people trapped in the lies of our post-Christian world will include a message of God's judgment.

Schaeffer also cautions us in the church (and in our Christian organizations and educational institutions) not to fail to speak that message, not to fail to speak it passionately, and not to soften it with a rejection of any part of the truth of God's Word - as the leaders of Jeremiah's time did with his word from God. He exhorts us not only to preach the truth, but to live it, to face the cost of  preaching and living the truth of God's word - as Jeremiah was told that he mus do - in a society that has rejected God.

The last four chapter turn from Jeremiah in Jerusalem to Paul bringing the gospel to the Romans. Schaeffer shows how Paul first speaks to the man without the Bible, showing how man is lost, but great - a rebel, yes, but a rebel made in the image of God - so that the gospel is the power of God not only for a narrow kind of otherworldly salvation, but also for the rebuilding of the whole man in all his cultural endeavours. Schaeffer gives examples of how, since the meaning of life can only be received from God Himself, people have demonstrated the judgment of Romans 1 on those who reject God - that they also reject and lose touch with reality. On the basis of Romans 2, Schaeffer demonstrates that God is just in judging the man without the Bible, because we judge ourselves every time that we judge others by whatever standards we know through our being created in God's image.

But this universal guilt also brings us as Christians a universal responsibility - to treat our fellow rebels with compassion. As we do so, however, Schaeffer uses the image of the universe with two chairs to call us not to sit in the chair of the materialist. Materialists explicitly believe that there is no God in the universe, but Christians can easily act as if that were true. We are exhorted to live by faith in God - facing the lostness of God, but extending compassion to others in the name and in the power of Christ.

Whichever of these two you find to be the more useful in coping with or reaching out to our post-Christian world, you can find Schaeffer's book here, and/or Blamire's book here.




Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Elfin Knight

Book Two of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene
updated and annotated by Toby J. Sumpter
282 pages / 2010

Last month I reviewed an update of Book One of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. I knew that I would be reviewing the next volume in the series soon, but I was a little worried that it would not be as good a read. Book I, after all, was based on the legend of Saint George, the patron saint of England. How could Book II be as good? Hollywood has shown how few sequels measure up to the original.

Of course, the second book of The Faerie Queene is not really a sequel. Rather, it's a totally new adventure showing us, symbolically, another aspect of the Christian life. Our new hero is Guyon, who stands for temperance. Ironically, we meet him first when he is almost tricked into attacking Saint George, the Redcrosse Knight who is the hero of Book I. This near double homicide illustrates just how difficult it is to keep one's temperance.

Toby Sumpter's introduction and generous footnotes make it clear that Spenser is showing that temperance – taking the middle way – is not merely a passive quality, but involves using wisdom to find the right path, and then pursuing it with full heart. In a world where temptation tests temperance tenaciously (pornography, the glorification of violence), it is important to see that maintaining a temperate approach is ultimately an adventure - the spiritual warfare that Paul tells us about in Ephesians 6.

Like Saint George, Guyon has a sidekick. While Guyon represents the strength of the temperate man, his companion, the Palmer, represents the wisdom needed to find the right path. Book II also has a counterpart to the House of Patience - a castle laid out like the human body that shows how temperance combats the temptations of the seven deadly sins and the moral challenges brought to us through our five senses, in a couple of epic battles that end with the triumph of another figure from Book I - Prince Arthur. What makes Prince Arthur a little more fun in this volume is his reading of the history of England (including a version of the story of Shakespeare's King Lear) - a story that ends just before the rise of King Arthur. Hmmm... Prince Arthur, King Arthur - any connection?

Another parallel to Book I is Guyon's own epic quest - to destroy the Bower of Bliss, a sensual but ultimately false paradise that subverts the manliness and the very souls of the knights who become entrapped by the wanton pleasures of the witch Acrasia. Guyon has encountered the temptations of both male fury and female beauty earlier in the story, but, having seen the death her enchantments have already brought, how will he handle her added lure of illicit artistic depictions?

Roy Maynard's followed his update of Book I of The Faerie Queene with an insightful epilogue. Sumpter ends his with a short play that picks up on the most approachable plot points of the story for students to act out – a nice little bonus that shows that temperance is more than just thrift or prudish abstinence. Like Spenser, Sumpter shows us that temperance is well-directed generous and zealous effort.

If you think The Elfin Knight is joust what you or the young warriors in your life needs to remind you of just how courageous it is to resist temptation, you can get it here.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Golly's folly: The prince who wanted it all

by Eleazar and Rebekah Ruiz
illustrated by Rommel Ruiz
36 pages / 2016

Loosely based on the Preacher's denouncement that "all is vanity," this is the story of Golly, a prince who wanted more and more and more, but found that nothing satisfied. It's all done in rhyme, which along with the bright pictures makes this one that kids 3 and up will adore!

Our story begins with Prince Golly looking to power as the way to happiness. He convinces his father to give up his throne, so Golly can be king. And he is happy...for a time.

Next he turns to things, telling his trusted advisor:

"I want flocks of animals, and a farm on a hill.
Get some of all kind – what a thrill!
Build lots of houses, find rings for my hand.
Oh – and I'd like my very own band."

But the buzz from all this stuff only lasts for a while. And so Golly turns to food, partying, knowledge, but none of it brings him happiness and contentment.

In his despair, he starts to cry. And then his father comes by.

(It is hard to write a review of a rhyming book, and not start doing it yourself.)

In Ecclesiastes the world turns out to be vanity, but life under God is not. In this story Golly also learns the world is vanity, and he looks to find contentment in submitting to his father. In doing so the story almost presents "family" as the ultimate good and the one true way to happiness and contentment.

But, of course, his father, King Zhor, is meant to point us to our Father in heaven. That analogy shouldn't be pressed too hard, though, because while King Zhor gives up his crown, our Father doesn't. Maybe, in this act King Zhor is more comparable to Jesus humbling himself in becoming man. But it's not a direct parallel – like any analogy, the connections are partial, and incomplete. It's the gist that matters, not the details.

This is a great one to use as a conversation starter about seeking contentment in what the world offers. I read this out loud to my kids once, without the pictures, and they already liked it. And the pictures are so vivd, that makes it all the more remarkable. I'd recommend as a fun one to read in a family setting with kids of all ages.

You can get the e-book for free if you subscribe to the publisher's newsletter here.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

If I built a car

by Chris Van Dusen
40 pages / 2007

Rhymes and a kid’s big ambitions: it makes for one engaging read-out-loud story. The “hero” is a little boy who wants to make a new sort of car, with a couch, fireplace, fish tank, its own pool, and much, much more, all tucked inside.

The rhythm and rhyming make this a real treat for a parent to read out loud to their kids – you can’t help but sound good! And the crazy fantastical imagining make for quite the adventure.

There’s also a sequel, If I built a house, which is every bit as good. The only caution I might add is that in the house story there is one bathroom scene that might get giggles from some readers – the imaginative boy has come up with a “scrub-a-dub” shower/bath machine:

"Just step on the belt, and it washes you clean, 
even the places you never seen.”

The boy is shown getting cleaned, and while his nakedness is entirely covered up, some kids seem to think it titter-worthy nonetheless.

What's great about this sort of book is that it'll get boys and girls to grab their crayons and start making plans for their own special car. So mom and dad, be ready for that, and if your energy permits, grab a pencil right alongside of them, and see what sort of car you can come up with!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves

Book I of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene
updated and annotated by Roy Maynard
236 pages / 1999

Clearly Edmund Spenser knows how to make a really good read, since both my brother and I have reviewed books based on his treatment of the legend of Saint George and the dragon.

Saint George is the first clearly Christian dragon-slayer in English literature, but his story is much more interesting and significant than the single-paragraph summary that it usually rates. George is a complex and flawed knight, much like the heroes of King Arthur's Round Table. What makes Spenser's story more significant is how George's failings, and the help he receives in his failures, parallels the spiritual struggles and blessings of Christians involved in the spiritual warfare of Ephesians 6:10-20.

Spenser's poem is full of rich allegory, of greater depth and variety than John Bunyan's simpler Pilgrim's Progress (also reviewed in this blog). As well as extolling the reign of Elizabeth I, Spenser shows how George vows to help Una (whose name shows her as a symbol of the one true faith), but is tempted by Duessa (whose name shows her duplicity and false faith). Along the way, both of them meet (among others, both good and evil) Prince Arthur (the young King Arthur), who shows the best of English virtue. When Saint George avoids being trapped in the house of Pride, but becomes the captive of Pride in the form of the giant Orgoglio, he needs the help of both Prince Arthur and the house of Holinesse. Finally, in an epic three-day battle against the dragon (wonder who that represents?), George is given supernatural aid that symbolizes the spiritual help that is available to every Christian in our struggles against the devil, the world, and our own flesh.

But why this edition in particular? Roy Maynard's often amusing footnotes and slight updating of the poem's language make clear just how full of gospel good news Spenser's story really is, and the questions at the end of each Canto (the poetic equivalent of a chapter) help us keep the story straight.

As well. this edition contains an insightful introduction, as well as occasional brief articles about such topics as Arthur, Merlin, the Crusades, dragons in the Bible, and Saint George himself. Finally, the Epilogue clarifies the importance of reading and understanding the meaning and historical context of Spenser's work.

If you want to see everything that leads up to the Fierce War with one of the great (and terrible) English dragons, you can get Roy Maynard's adaptation of Book I of the Fairie Queene at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Saint Patrick

by Jonathan Rogers
2010 / 132 pages

My mom was born on St Patrick's Day, and that was reason enough to check out Jonathan Roger's short, engaging biography of this Irish legend.

St. Patrick (385-461) is famously credited with driving the snakes out of Ireland. Other Patrick legends are equally impressive, and just as erroneous. But while legends abound, facts are hard to come by. As Jonathan Rogers explains, the most substantive information we have about Patrick comes from just two documents, which are the only pieces of writing we have from the man himself.

The first, The Confession of Saint Patrick, lays out his theological beliefs, even as he shares the story of his capture and escape from the Irish raiders. The second, The Letter send to the soldiers of Coroticus, was a plea to a British raider to return the newly baptized Irish Christians he had stolen and taken off to slavery. These two documents are included, in their entirety, as appendices in the back of this slim volume, and amount to 29 pages.

Rogers uses the remaining 100 pages to put Patrick's writings in a historical and cultural context, with perhaps the biggest eye-opener being that with the Christianization of the Roman Empire, people of the time saw outside the Empire as being outside the Church. That's why Ireland hadn't been evangelized to this point. It was outside the Empire, so it almost unthinkable that the people there could still become Christian.

But it wasn't inconceivable to Patrick. My takeaway from this book is that what made Patrick special was his zeal for lost people that others thought irredeemable.

I will add, though, that I don't think Patrick's a saint we really need to know more about. So, even as I think this is a really good read, I'd put a number of other biographies ahead of it. We only have so much time, after all, so if you don't know much about saints such as Martin Luther, Isaac Watts, or Corrie Ten Boom, those would be better people to start with.

Pick it up at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Winston Churchill

by John Perry
158 pages / 2010

Churchill had been dead more than 50 years now, but if the man himself is gone, the myth is enjoying a revival. Churchill has made recent appearance in the big screen productions Churchill and Darkest Hour, and has also shown up on the small screen in the British drama Crown. Of course, we all know the camera distorts, and it's not just the ten pounds it adds, so if you want a more accurate understanding of the British Bulldog, why not turn to  print instead?

Most Churchill biographies are the size of dictionaries, and since that exceeded my interest in the man I was pleased to discover John Perry's Winston Churchill was of a more reasonable size. Since it's part of Christian publisher Thomas Nelson's 16-book Christian Encounters biography series, I wondered if that meant Churchill himself was Christian. But, no, sadly it isn't so.

It turns out that while Churchill knew his Bible, and would sometimes speak of God – particularly in rousing speeches to the British public – he thought that, if there was a God, then God owed him heaven. So no, Churchill wasn't Christian.

As Perry makes clear, Churchill had a spiritual type of fatalism. Early on Churchill came to understand that no man is in charge of his own fate; the fact that one man lives through a battle and another dies has little to do with the men themselves. So when Churchill survived a number of dangerous encounters in his youth, he grew in his conviction that he had been destined for something great. Destined by Who? The answer to that question wasn't all that pressing to Churchill. But this conviction gave him confidence, and even a certain sort of humility... but it didn't result in worship. Churchill seemed to be the greatest being that Churchill knew.

CAUTIONS

As a rule I don't recommend (or even review) books that take God's name in vain – why would I praise someone who is mocking God?

This is especially true when it comes to fiction, however, a case can be made for exceptions when it comes to history. In detailing Churchill's agnostic attitude towards God (and his son Randolph's especially arrogant view) it would seem unavoidable that some of Churchill's blasphemous quips and comments would need to be shared. But while these quotes do seem necessary, this is an instance where less is more, so we can be grateful with the restraint in which Perry shares them.

CONCLUSION

Why, then, is Churchill being profiled in this Christian series of biographies? Because we can see God's hand on the man. From birth God was preparing him to be the right man, for the right time. And He so arranged things that Churchill was in the right place too, as the war time prime minister. This was all beyond Churchill's arranging, but looking back, we can see how God laid out events, and how He can use whomever he will because, whether Christian or agnostic, all are a part of His plan.

That's the real reason to read this biography – it is a treat to see how God has acted in history to preserve His Church. Churchill was a great man in ways, but he was also a petty one in others. Had he lived today, there might even have been unfavorable comparisons made between him and our least favorite politicians: he blew through taxpayer dollars to fund his own high living, and he was known to indulge in "alternative facts" in his writings. At a different time, this great man might have been run out of politics. That's the lesson here – the greatness of this great man can't be found in the man himself. Instead what's on display is God's gracious providence in providing for us the response we need to Hitler's Third Reich.

Winston Churchill is a quick, eye-opening read that both my wife and I enjoyed. I would recommend it to anyone, teens and up, interested in learning more about one of the pivotal figures of the 20th century.

Pick it up at Amazon.com here, and Amazon.ca here.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide

by Blaise Alleyne and Jonathan Van Maren
104 pages / Life Cycle Books

I hope that many who are reading this are wiser than I have often been, but I wonder if, as was the case for me, some pro-lifers found it difficult to oppose euthanasia as passionately as we oppose abortion. How do you help someone who doesn't want to be helped - who wants to die?

Of course, that emotional tension is exactly parallel to the hard cases that are typically presented to pro-lifers in the abortion debate. Just as in that debate, the key is to find the central issue. With abortion, the main question is, "Who is the unborn?" There are only two options. If the unborn is not human, there can be no justification for 'its' surgical removal, but if the unborn is human, then there can be no justification for killing  him or her. Similarly, the crux of opposition to  euthanasia is the question, "How do we help those who are feeling desperate enough to want to kill themselves?" There are only two options: either we prevent suicide, or we assist it.

That's where Alleyne and Van Maren's book comes in. These two men with extensive experience in the pro-life movement break down the debate in terms of that central question. They start with framing the debate
  • how to dialogue effectively;
  • how to define the three possible positions (the split position, the total choice position, and the pro-life position); and
  • how to approach the issue of suicidal despair (referencing Victor Frankl's insight from his experience in a concentration camp that "D = S - M," or despair = suffering without meaning).
The second chapter explores the first of those three positions. The job of pro-life apologetics is to show the inconsistency of the split position, which suggests that we should prevent some suicides while assisting others). The authors give ways to counter the reasons often used to justify some suicides, given by the acronym QUIT. They show that arguments based on Quality of life, Unbearable suffering, an Incurable condition, or a Terminal prognosis are fallacious, largely because they are based on ageism and ableism. In the same way as arguments against abortion bring out "two-year-old Timmy" to show that we should not be killing human beings at any level of development, arguments against euthanasia show us the healthy 19-year-old to help us realize that it is wrong to assist the suicide of anyone, of any age or level of health - because as the authors put it, "suicide is a symptom [of despair], not a solution."

Chapter 3 deals with those who are (sadly) willing to be consistent and advocate total choice for all who desire to be assisted in ending their lives. The only response is to insist that the suicidal need love even more than they need argument.

The fourth chapter shows how dangerous it is to accept either the split or the total choice position, because they have always involved a slippery slope toward more and more assisted killings, they reduce the willingness to prevent suicide, and they undermine the morale of everyone who works in any facility that provides suicide assistance.

Finally, the authors show the pro-life position. It is not mere vitalism, and so allows for
  • the refusal of burdensome treatment, as well as
  • the use of pain medication, even when that risks hastening death, as long as the intent of such medication is to alleviate pain rather than to kill.
The pro-life position also offers positive responses to the suicidal: psychological health resources, pain management, palliative care, and dignity therapy. The authors end with two pleas:
  • "Let death be what takes us, not lack of imagination." In other words, may no-one ever have their death hastened because we refuse to imagine how we may show more compassion.
  • "As people who believe in the dignity and value of every human life, it is our responsibility to.... persuade people that assisted suicide is wrong."
Alleyne and Van Maren admirably give us the tools to carry out that responsibility. Given the urgency of the push toward euthaniasia in both Canada and U.S., more of us should be reading this book.You can order it from Life Cycle Books (including the option to buy it in bulk for your pro-life group or circle of friends at greatly reduced prices).

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Steal Away Home

Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson:Unlikely friends on the passage to freedom
by Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey
290 pages / 2017

This is two biographies in one, about the little know relationship between the "Prince of Preachers" Charles Haddon Spurgeon and a former slave, Thomas Johnson.

The men couldn't have grown up in more different circumstances. Spurgeon was in the United Kingdom, and establishing his reputation as "the Prince of Preachers," while Thomas Johnson was still a slave in the America. Johnson's first heard Spurgeon's name mentioned when the preacher's sermons and books were being burnt by slavery-defenders in the South. They didn't like the strong and clearly biblical way that Spurgeon had been denouncing slavery. 

And then emancipation came, and Johnson was finally free, he too, became a preacher. And with his heart inclined to the mission field in Africa, he eventually ends up at Spurgeon's College where the two meet and become friends. Perhaps one reason they became friends was because Spurgeon struggled throughout this life with depression, and his young friend Johnson knew something of that too, borne out of his despair as a slave. As true Christians brothers, they are a help and a companion to one each other.

One caution

Now, this while these two men are both real, I should note this is a fictionalized account. That means that while the broad details are all true, and much of the dialogue is taken from the men's works, this work should only be enjoyed for the general impression, not the specific details, it provides of their friendship.

I'll give one example of how this mix of fact and fiction does, on the one hand, stay very true to reality, but on the other hand, can give a bit of an inaccurate impression. When we read of how Spurgeon proposes to his wife-to-be, he comes off as quite the Prince Charming with all the right words, the perfect thoughtful present, and just the right timing. However, the authors have compacted the evening's events from events that took place over more than the one occasion. The facts are true, but it's an alteration of the timeline for brevity's sake, to keep the story flowing.

Conclusion

This is just a wonderfully readable book. And it is attractively put together too. You aren't supposed to judge a book by its cover; but it's wonderful when a good cover can give a reluctant reader just the encouragement they need to get started.

I'd recommend this to anyone with an interest in church history, or in knowing more about the American South during slaver and after, or who enjoy historical fiction or biographies. It's a well done book, so if you are a reader, I think you'll love Steal Away Home.

You can pick it up at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Great Brain

by John D. Fitzgerald
175 Pages / 1972

The Great Brain is the story of Tom Fitzgerald, a ten-year-old boy living in frontier Utah in a time so long ago that indoor toilets were considered a novelty. His hometown of Adenville is, like most Utah towns, populated mainly by Mormons who live beside a handful of Catholics and Protestants. For Tom that doesn’t matter since he can out think them all.

The all consuming love of Tom’s life is money. If there’s a way to get it, Tom puts his great brain to work so that the money can be his. Not surprisingly, Tom’s great brain finds other things to work on, including finding kids lost in a cave, and getting even with his teacher.

This book is fun to read as the schemes dreamed up by the “Great Brain” are often hilarious and crazy and almost always successful. Yet though Tom’s fascinating schemes are not always something to admire, there’s a wonderful sense of morality that runs through the book.

The whole tale is told by Tom’s younger brother, John. He is often taken in by Tom’s smooth justifications of his actions, but John always lets you know that he’s still left with nagging doubts. Part of John knows, however silky the Great Brain’s explanations might be, that his schemes still aren’t quite right. Tom also has great parents who are almost always on the ball. They catch onto his antics, punish him, and force him to make restitution to those he’s swindled.

In the end, though, the Great Brain sees that there’s more than money. While there isn’t an overt religious message in the book, Tom actually saves a friend’s life and passes up a great money making opportunity that went with it. It makes him feel “extra good inside. Sort of clean and warm and Christmasy.”

This is a fun book, good for anyone 9 and over. I absolutely loved it when I first read it as a kid. While it tells the story of an entertaining and sometimes shady child, it doesn’t glorify his antics. Ultimately Tom’s activities are clever, entertaining, confounding and successful, but you still are left with a clear sense that they’re wrong. It’s a fascinating tale with an “old fashioned” sense of morality; good must ultimately win out.

The best part is that not only is this a great book, but if you love it as much as I did, there’s a number of sequels to enjoy.

You can pick The Great Brain up at Amazon.com here, or Amazon.ca here.

- reviewed by James Dykstra

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Flags out front


A Contrarian's Daydream
by Douglas Wilson
196 pages / 2017

In Flags out Front, Douglas Wilson has crafted something that is as inspirational as it is fictional.

What if a Christian public figure took a stand on principle and, no matter what pressure came, just would not back down? What might happen if, instead of wilting under that pressure, or trying to avoid it, a Christian leader embraced it, and fought back fearlessly?

In Flags out Front we get to find out. Tim Collins is a "mild mannered president of a dwindling southern" Bible college who never meant to cause a fuss. But he
arrives on campus one day to find a prankster has swapped a couple of the flags at the campus entrance. Now instead of the American flag flying above all, there is the Christian flag waving from on high, with the Stars and Stripes just below. Collins doesn't know quite what to think. But, upon reflection, he concludes the change is a good one and leaves it.

Then the phone calls start coming. He gets calls from conservative, patriotic sorts, wondering why the American flag is not in its central place. And he hears from the other side too, from those who'd be happy enough to burn the flag, but don't want to see it waving below a Christian flag.

Protests to the right, threats from the left, and Collins quietly stand his ground. He's willing to do it, even if it means standing alone...but alone is one thing he's not going to be. Quiet, meek, Dr. Collins, becomes the rally point for Christians of all sorts...including some clever college students who know how to make some noise.

This is how is should be, and, maybe could be. Who knows what God would do with a fearless few? Actually, we already know: this year we're celebrating the 500th anniversary of the firestorm God started with one monk and his mallet.

Flags out Front is a funny, clever, comedic novel that most anyone would enjoy, particularly if they have an interest in politics. I've foisted this off on a number of friends and family (and read about half of it out loud to my wife) and the response has been enthused all around.

You can pick up Flags out Front at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Visit the Sick

Ministering God's Grace in Times of Illness
by Brian Croft
94 pages / updated in 2014

One of the ways that Jesus described the difference between "the sheep and the goats" as the members of the church come before Him on Judgment Day is that the sheep visited the sick. Clearly visiting the sick is one important fruit of true faith in Jesus Christ.

Brian Croft's book not only shows the theological foundations for and purposes for visiting the sick, but also gives practical guidelines on how to do so in a way that builds up those beset by illness or injury, their family and friends, and those who do the visiting.

Croft starts by showing God's care for the sick after man brought the curse of disease into the world through sin - His care in the nation of Israel, in the life of Christ, and in the New Testament church. He next makes clear how our care for the sick can build up others spiritually through leading questions, the reading of Scripture, praying the gospel (especially when there are non-Christians on their deathbed), affirming God's promises, and trusting God's sovereign plan. This second chapter also gives a useful list of Bible passages to comfort and bring the gospel to the ailing.

Croft's third chapter on "Wise Care for the Sick" reminds us to prepare our hearts, watch our time, listen to the sick members without the immediate compulsion to resolve all their questions, leave a note when necessary, and enjoy the opportunity to grow in the Lord ourselves through our visits. "Skilled Care for the Sick" (as the fourth chapter is titled) also requires us to make effective eye contact, use appropriate physical touch, be pleasant in our manner, be sensitive to the sick person's situation, and even to keep our breath fresh! Croft's last chapter gives several ways for pastors to encourage their congregations to visit the sick.

The conclusion and afterword give a concrete example (in the life of the famous preacher C. H. Spurgeon) of how effective our ministry to the afflicted can be and why it is so important. The appendices give a single-page checklist of what to remember when we visit; pointers on how to start and move spiritual conversations forward; a series of "Frequently Answered Questions;" a summary of J. C. Ryles's essay on the prevalence, benefits, and duties related to "Sickness"; and a bibliography of very useful resources.

In just 94 pages, Croft gives a wealth of ideas to motivate and prepare us to visit ailing members, to their benefit and ours. If you think that Brian Croft's book will help equip you and others in the communion of saints to Visit the Sick effectively, you can order the book at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.