Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Moon Is Always Round

by Jonathan Gibson; illustrated by Joe Hox
32 pages / 2019 / New Growth Press

The Moon Is Always Round is, I believe, the first picture book that put tears in my eyes. Jonathan Gibson tells the simple (true) story of how he, his wife. and his three-year-old son Benjamin waited excitedly for the arrival of a baby sister for Benjamin. The story is told in Benjamin's voice, with the persistent refrain from his Dad that "the moon is always round."

We do not learn until the end what that means. When Benjamin realizes that his sister will not be coming home, he is asked by his father at the funeral of the stillborn child, "What shape is the moon." When Benjamin answers, "The moon is always round," Jonathan Gibson's further question - "What does that mean?" - is answered by Benjamin, "God is always good."

Gibson's story reminds us that God is always good, even when, as with the moon, we cannot see the full picture. This profound and poignant lesson is reason enough to read this book, on your own, and with your children, but Gibson uses the last three pages to

  • give children a clear understanding of the meaning of the moon's always being round;
  • show how Good Friday is the supreme example of God always being good (even when we can't see it);
  • give the detailed story of his use of the expression "The moon is always round" with his son, including where he first encountered those words; and
  • provide a "Catechism" for young readers or listeners about the meaning of the expression.

If you believe, as I do, that the moon is always round, and God is always good, and that Jonathan Gibson can help remind you and your loved ones of those facts, you can get his book here, and here in Canada.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Classical Me, Classical Thee: Squander Not Thine Education

by Rebekah Merkle
99 pages / 2017 / Canon Press

At first glance, the title rules this out for the general reader, but Classical Me, Classical Thee is a really good discussion of the basis for any Christian education. While Reformed Christian schools, for example, may not emphasize the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) of classical education, the justification for the subjects covered in classical Christian schools applies (or should apply) to Reformed education as well.

Rebekah Merkle uses several analogies to explain the "superpowers" that the classical curriculum gives to students (powers that a good Christian education will also provide). She stresses that such education is not only a "pizza with extra toppings" in comparison to public education but "a fundamentally different pizza." Why? Because the classical curriculum offers a more coherent view of life, the universe, and everything, since in addition to the seemingly miscellaneous puzzle pieces (facts and figures) of a secular worldview, classical education shows how to  comprehend and connnect those pieces by using the picture on the box (a Biblical foundation for students' varied studies).

So what are the superpowers bestowed by classical (and good Christian) education? For instance,

  • in Latin, we are given the basic structures of language that enable us to speak and write clearly (a good reminder of the importance of grammar studies in the English language as well);
  • literature teaches us to read for detail - something that reader-centered study of literature does not equip students for in post-secondary education or the real world;
  • logic prepares students to see through the false claims of our secular culture;
  • rhetoric, on the other hand, enables both classical and Christian students to defend the truth - and worldview study enables them to know what that truth is;
  • math and science show us not only the order in the universe, but also the divine source of that order - something hidden from public school students; and
  • history shows us how we got to the misunderstandings of secular culture, and therefore how to fruitfully address those misunderstandings.
Merkle's chapter on the Trivium is less relevant to the student or teacher of a general Christian school, but her conclusion is an urgent appeal to invest the superpowers (also known in Jesus' parable as talents) developed in Christian education to serve God in "faithful, creative ways."

If you think that Rebecca Merkle's book can help us in both classical and general Christian schools to "squander not thine education," you can get her book here, or here in Canada

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Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Amazing Dr. Ransom's Bestiary of Adorable Fallacies

A Field Guide for Clear Thinkers
by Douglas Wilson & N.D. Wilson
illustrated by Forrest Dickison
320 pages / 2015 / Canon Press


The authors of this guide to discovering and disarming logical fallacies have indeed revealed the adventures of an amazing globetrotting fallacy hunter, and their narrative will help us hunt down (and on occasion, kill) fallacies in our own interactions with fallacies and the people who love them.

That's exactly the problem (for all of us) with fallacies - they're so loveable. "The Amazing Dr. Ransom" (who claims to have been born in 1837 and have stayed healthy through the use of spider milk lotion) tells us how easily people allow fallacies into their lives and minds. Ransom deals with 50 fallacies in the following four categories: fallacies of distraction, of ambiguity, and of form; and millenial fallacies. Each of the fifty chapters

  • defines the fallacy and its dangers (showing it as a cuddly but vicious animal);
  • shows the fallacy, in Forrest Dickison's illustrations, in repose and on the attack;
  • explains how we, like Ransom, can defeat it;
  • gives the fallacy its other (sometimes better known) names; and
  • provides both discussion questions and exercises in recognizing examples of both fallacious and logical arguments.
The book also includes answers for all the questions in the back, as well as a schedule for teaching, reviewing and testing students' knowledge of logical fallacies, which helps make it ideal as a textbook for an English or philosophy course. But what makes the book fun is that both Ransom's adventures in confronting fallacies and the examples given are presented with satirical wit. I have never enjoyed reading about and puzzling out fallcies more.

Which brings me to the two cautions:
  1. On occasion the Wilsons, arguably, step over the line of discretion and good taste in the description of Dr. Ransom's confrontation with fallacious fools (always a peril in satire).
  2. The recognition exercises' answers in the back have no explanation. It helps if you share the Wilsons' Christian worldview and principled conservatism (as I generally do), but even then, I did not always agree with their answers. If I were to use this in my classroom, I would have to discuss every answer with the class as a whole (not in itself a bad thing).
Despite these considerations, I would love to see this as a textbook for my courses. If you agree that this book could help you defeat the fallacies that stalk us along all our mental trails, you can find it here, and here in Canada.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

If we survive

by Andrew Klavan
352 pages / 2013

This is a very different sort of story. When's the last time you've read Christian fiction that had someone dead by page 2?

Will Peterson is a 16-year-old visiting a small Central American village with his church's mission team, there to help rebuild the local cinder-block school. They've finished the work and are waiting in the cantina for the bus to take them back home when the room is suddenly filled with rebel soldiers and the pot-bellied, smiling waiter, who had been joking with them only moments before, is now on the floor, shot dead by the rebel leader.

What happens next is a not-so unusual chase-type adventure. The rebels have taken over the government and are executing anyone for any reason, and they don't want to let any American witnesses get out of the country alive. So now these church kids, along with an unexpected helper, are on the run, barely staying ahead of these murderous bandits.

What makes this something special is the characters in it. The most intriguing might be Jim Nolan, a 16-year-old intellectual who has read the biography and op-ed articles of the country's rebel leader...and who believes everything he's read. Even when the rebels start killing people, Jim is sure they're fighting for justice. Even when the guns are turned their direction, he's just as sure that it's all a horrible mistake, and if he can only talk to someone, things can straightened out. Jim steadfastly holds onto his rebel sympathies despite all the bloodshed around him. Author Andrew Klavan makes clear why Jim remains so loyal: because a lot of what he's being reading, about how the government was oppressing the country's poorest, is entirely true. Klavan isn't taking a cheap shot at the naivety of liberals here – this is a more nuanced look that admits the problems the Left points out might well be problems, even as the solutions they suggest are no solutions at all. Or, in the context of this story, just because the government is bad doesn't make the rebels good.

Will is also a well developed character. He came on the trip as a way of escaping his home life: mom and dad are always arguing and, he thinks, on the path to divorce. But now, unbelievably, things have gotten a whole lot worse, and as Will and the others bounce from one crisis to another, he has to battle a very understandable sense of panic. He does so by remembering two things:

  1. a Hemingway quote that cowardice is "a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination."
  2. advice from his youth pastor, who once told the group, "Don't worry about anything – pray about everything." 

CAUTIONS

While praying is always good advice, the way Will's prayers are depicted in the story makes it seems like it is more the act of praying, and not the God he is speaking to, that really helps Will.

Another caution worth noting is that while the church mission group is Protestant (and seemingly some sort of conservative Evangelical) there are postive, if brief, portrayals of other religions. This includes Roman Catholicism, in which a priest has a key role in saving them, and the villagers' ancient spirituality, when the missions group is invited to sit in on a pagan festival of lights. However, in both cases Will keeps to the facts, describing what they saw, but not digging into what it all means. A discerning reader would have reason to presume Klavan believes Roman Catholicism isn't importantly different from Protestantism, but that isn't a message the author is trying to hammer home here.

CONCLUSION

This is a gripping read that any teenage boy would really enjoy, and dad might not mind either. And if dad does join in, this could be a leap off point for some really good conversations about:

  • the American role as policeman of the world
  • one-sided news coverage, both from the Left and Right, and how that compares to what God tells us about the importance of hearing both sides in Prov. 18:17
  • courage and what it really involves
  • what prayer to God is actually
  • why we find nice people following other gods, or worshipping God in wrong ways
So, overall, I'd recommend this for teen guys with a little discernment, and a willingness to talk things through with their parents. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

A Tale of 61 Biographies

60 People Who Shaped the Church:
Learning from Sinners, Saints, Rogues, and Heroes
by Alton Gansky
316 pages / 2014
Baker Books

Jonathan Edwards: Lover of God
by Owen Strachan and Doug Sweeney 
155 pages / 2010
Moody Publishers

They were the worst of times; they were the best of times. In church history, as in Charles Dickens'  view of the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities, those statements could be applied simultaneously to any given era, since the church is both in the middle of fierce spiritual warfare, and yet she has already won in the victory of her Saviour over our sin and guilt. The two books shown in the titles above demonstrate how God uses saints, sinners, rogues, and a lover of God to spread the gospel, glorify Himself, and build up His church - and one of them is especially strong in applying that understanding to God's people today.

Alton Gansky shows us the lives of 60 "people" who shaped the church. The book could be called 60 Men Who Shaped the Church if it were not for the story of Fanny Crosby, the one woman profiled in the book. Her biography, like many of the men's, inspires us with both her attitude - not despairing in spite of being blind from infancy - and her contribution to the Christian church - over 9000 hymns, many still well known. In a collection of stories like this one, we could always name people who should have been dealt with, or quibble with the choice of some that were tackled, but Gansky deals with many figures who had impressive influence on the church.

The main caution that I would urge about Gansky's book is that he treads too lightly where the person discussed had a significant negative effect on the purity, doctrine, or practices of the church. For example, he does not mention the effect of Constantine's making Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire - the influx of many into the church whose profession of faith was likely not genuine. The same problem relates to the introduction of Arminian doctrine or Arminian methods of evangelism into the church. Gansky says nothing about the problems involved with these innovations.

Strachan and Sweeney have the advantage of dealing with a man who is well known for his solidly Reformed writing and preaching: Jonathan Edwards. What makes their biography particularly valuable is the application, at the end of each chapter, of Edwards' insights, virtues, and flaws to our own lives as "lovers of God." Their book is the first of five in The Essential Edwards Collection, and based on this one, the rest of the series promises to show us clearly how this prominent American theologian and preacher is both a source of insight and an example for our lives lived to the glory of God. My only caution would be that in urging our "duty to fight doubt" (as Edwards did), the authors recommend Tim Keller's The Reason for God - a book that indeed addresses many of the reasons for doubt, but also compromises with the theory of evolution. Other than that, this is an excellent introduction to an American whose work and life both have much to teach us.

If you think that you can learn from saints, sinners, and rogues about how God built up His church, you can find Gansky's book here, and here in Canada. And if you think that we can use the example and wisdom of Jonathan Edwards to grow in your love for God, you can find Strachan and Sweeney's book here, and here in Canada.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

You Who? Why you matter & how to deal with it

by Rachel Jankovic
235 pages / 2019

I began reading my wife’s copy of You Who? only after she shared comments from the online critics who were savaging it. A good encouraging review won’t necessarily sell me a book – I have too many others stacked up already competing for my attention – but when a certain sort of critic just hates a book then my curiosity is piqued and I want to know, “What could have gotten them that riled up?” So I owe Rachel Jankovic’s detractors thanks for getting me started on one of the best books I’ve read this year.

The author’s premise is simple: “Who am I?” is a question everyone asks and most of us answer badly. The most common answers involve our jobs: people will say “I’m a farmer” or “I am a small business owner.” But there’s a problem with identifying with our career: we can lose our job, or retire from it. And who are we then?

Others will identify themselves with their abilities or interests (“I am an artist,” or “I am a surfer”), or in their marital status (“I am single”), what groups they belong to (“I am Canadian”), or in not belonging to any groups (”I am a free spirit”). And many women look for their identity in the roles of wife and mother.

But here, too, problems exist because here, too, things can change: over time our abilities fade and our interests can shift. Over time the country we were once proud of may betray the values we thought it held. And over time even the most loving spouse will repeatedly let us down. Sure, our children can be a frequent source of pride and joy, one week sitting side by side in the church pew, hair combed, shoes polished, lovingly sharing the songbooks, but the next week it’s just as likely you’ll be taking two out at a time, their legs kicking and little lungs giving full vent to their protests in front of the whole congregation. If we find our identity in being the perfect parent, it doesn’t take any time at all for that bubble to burst.

So if those are all wrong answers to the "Who am I?" question, then what’s the right one? Jankovic wants to:

“encourage and equip believing women to see their identity in Christ as the most essential part of them, and to see all the ways that will work its way out in their lives, manifesting itself as strength, dignity, and clarity of purpose.”

Encouraging believers to make Christ our first and foremost shouldn’t be controversial. So why were critics upset? Because they were confused, mistaking Jankovic’s call to God-honoring obedience for some sort of legalistic works righteousness.

There’s a sense in which that’s understandable. Legalism (or works righteousness) and antinomianism (or lawlessness) are a set of paired theological errors. The legalist can’t believe God’s grace is really free, so he wants to earn it by obeying God’s law and, like the Pharisees of old, will even add to and expand on God’s laws. Meanwhile, antinomians recognize that the law can’t justify us and conclude that since we can’t measure up to God’s standard then Jesus must have come to abolish all those pesky Commandments.

These are huge, dangerous errors, but if you speak out against one, it’s inevitable someone will mistake your point and think you are a proponent of the opposite error. And that’s what’s happened here.

In the Reformed circles that this magazine serves we all know we can’t earn our way to heaven, but if we have a tendency to err in one direction or the other then we’re probably more likely to tip in the legalistic direction (just think of all the additional rules we once had for Sunday and how often we heard "dat niet op Zondag").

But in the evangelical world – Jankovic’s target audience – the error is on the other side. In those circles many believe sin is no big deal because, after all, the more we mess up, the more it just shows how gracious God is. Or as the current star of the Bachelorettereality TV show (a self-professing Christian) put it this past month, after she had sex with one contestant and went naked bungee jumping with another:

“I refuse to feel shame….I am standing firm in believing that maybe God wants to use a mess like me to point to his goodness and grace.”

What this neglects is the Apostle Paul’s answer to the question, “Shall we then continue in sin that grace may abound?” to which he gave a definitive, “By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2). Of course, we shouldn’t expect solid theology from reality TV. But this antinomianism – lawlessness – is working itself out in the audience of evangelical wives and moms that Jankovic is speaking to.

There we find that the false identities some Christian women are adopting, are giving them reasons to disobey God’s call to faithful, mundane, day-after-day obedience. A mom who finds her identity in her abilities will ignore her children in favor of her career aspirations. Or if she’s made herself the center of her world, then she’ll have every reason to skip the laundry folding and partake in a little “me time” instead. And if her kids become her identity, then neglecting her husband to give the little ones more attention can be spun as downright virtuous.

That’s what it can look like, but as much as these identities promise us meaning and fulfillment, they never deliver. Jankovic wants us to understand we were made to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Our identity is in Christ. We were made to worship. That’s our identity: God worshippers. And His people give Him glory by doing the good works that He has prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:10).

Does that mean folding laundry is the key to pleasing God? Well, God might be calling you to get at that pile of clothes and, if so, then you should obey. Then that is how you can glorify Him. But the kids' homework might be a more important priority, and then that unfolded pile can also glorify God as you, in loving obedience, help with homework instead.

I am not a mom or a wife, but this book was a help to me too. There wasn't all that much in here that I didn't already know but it served as a much-needed reminder that I am not what I do. I’m at that stage of life where joints are giving out, and it’s more obvious now than it has ever been that I am no athlete. Before I read You Who? that was getting me down. But there is joy to be found when, instead of finding my identity in my athletic ability (or lack thereof) I bow my knee and ask my God and King, “How can I honor You?” When I make Him my focus, then it turns out I’m still able to throw a ball far enough to play with the three kids God has given me to raise and nurture. I can't glorify myself anymore in my athletic endeavors, but in playing with the kids He's given me, it turns out I can glorify Him. I can still, in this way, do what I was made to do. And instead of being depressed at being able to do less, I can be content knowing God isn’t concerned with the declining volume of my output.

But, as Jankovic notes, He does demand everything I have to give. If that sounds like a lot, of course, it is. Jankovic emphasizes obeying God in the day-to-day grind, making every moment about Him. We're not going to succeed at that, but when we understand what Christ has done for us, and how we are His, then we will want to try. And in trying, we will glorify Him. In failing we will also glorify Him. And we can glorify him, too, in repenting and then, secure in what Christ has done for us on the cross, going to bed assured of forgiveness and getting ready to do it all over again tomorrow.

If I’m not making this sounds exciting, then that’s a good reason for you to pick up You Who? where Rachel Jankovic says it a lot better. And if you are excited, well, what are you waiting for? You're going to love You Who?

I’d recommend it for any study group, women or men, and if your group is interested, then be sure to check out the study group e-book that you can download for free here.

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the plot to kill Hitler

by John Hendrix 
176 pages / 2018

The world “pastor” is not often paired with words like “plot” or “kill.” But when the Nazis took over Germany, and used nationalism and intimidation to silence its churches, and then set out to conquer the world, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to do something. And he felt himself pulled to do what would once have been unthinkable to him: Bonhoeffer joined a conspiracy to kill his country’s leader, Adolf Hitler.

At 176 pages, and text-dense, author John Hendrix has a lot of space to explore Bonhoeffer and his time. He starts with his birth and family life, before showing how World War I impacted the Bonhoeffers – one of Dietrich’s older brothers was killed – and how the runaway inflation that came shortly afterwards destroyed everyone’s savings. In 1921 a German could exchange 75 marks for 1 US dollar, but by the end of 1923 to get that same US dollar he would have to bring a wheelbarrow, or maybe a dumptruck, to carry the 4 billion marks that’d now be needed. Money, jobs, and hope were scarce, and this set the scene for the rise of Hitler. Germans wanted a way out, and Hitler presented himself as a savior.

 Meanwhile, Bonhoeffer was learning, via travels in Europe and America, that a love for one’s country doesn’t mean you have to support everything your government does. So when the Nazis, only a few months after they came into power, fired Jews from any government positions, Bonhoeffer was one of the few church leaders to speak out. He published a public paper called “The Church and the Jewish Question” in which he laid out an explicitly Christian justification for resisting the government. He described three ways the Church can and should respond to an evil government.

  1. Question the State and its methods: a True church must reject government encroachment on its beliefs 
  2. Aid the victims of State actions: the Church has an unconditional obligation to the victims… 
  3. Strike back: it is not enough to just bandage the victims under the wheels, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself! 

As you can tell, this “comic book” gets into some big and heady topics. What’s more, “how to deal with a hostile State?” is a topic of growing relevance these days. That makes this an important book, but also one that should be discussed between parent and child. There is some serious theology here, and while the general thrust is right on – we owe our allegiance first and foremost to God, even if that means resisting the State – what exactly it looks to live that out, back then and today, is a topic too weighty for a teen to work out on their own.

This is a graphic novel worthy of both a teen and adult audience. The thought and research that’s has gone into it is evident throughout. Even the coloration of the book is fascinating, with Bonhoeffer consistently shown either in teal or with a teal background, the Nazis always highlighted with the use of red, and when death makes an appearance there is a predominance of black.

I’d recommend The Faithful Spy for any teen who has begun to think on big issues, and anyone interested working through what it means to live to God’s glory in tumultuous times.


Saturday, July 20, 2019

Bolivar

by Sean Rubin 
224 pages / 2017

New York is the busiest city in the world, and people there are simply too busy to notice much of anything going on around them. Except Sybil. Sybil is a little girl who does notice things. And she recently noticed that her next-door neighbor is, in fact, a dinosaur.

Sybil keeps getting peeks at the mysterious, very large fellow next door. But try as she might, she can’t get the evidence she needs to prove his existence to anyone else. Her parents, her teacher, and her classmates all scoff. A dinosaur in New York? How ridiculous! 

Now in a secular book that tackles dinosaurs, you might expect some sort of reference to evolution. But nope, there’s none of that. This utterly charming graphic novel is, in one sense, simply a chase story, with Sybil tracking her prey through New York boroughs, the museum, the subway system, never quite getting near enough for the perfect photograph. But the enormous size of this book – 1 foot by 1 foot, with 224 pages – also gives author and illustrator Sean Rubin an opportunity to show off a city he clearly loves….even as he gently mocks residents for their self-absorption.

With a girl and a dinosaur as the main characters, this is a fantastic book for boys and girls from Grade 1 on up (I loved it!).

This might also be the perfect book for a reluctant reader. The big bright pictures will draw them in, and the size of the book will give them a sense of accomplishment when they finish it, while the limited amount of text per page means this is a book they can finish.

Bolivar is a gorgeous goofy adventure and I can’t recommend it highly enough!


Sunday, July 14, 2019

Love Thy Body

Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality
by Nancy R. Pearcey
2018 / 335 pages

Nancy Pearcey's Love Thy Body is  such a really good read that I would like to put it as on option on my Grade 11 and 12 English classes's reading lists (more on that reading level later).

Pearcey's point is that much of our culture's (post-)modern morality results from a debased view of the body. Many people today live as if their actual physical body is not relevant to their personhood. This separation of personhood and body leads to problems in the following areas:
  1. Because unborn children (and some born children) lack a specific level of cognitive functioning, many activists believe that even if they are human, they do not have the full rights of personhood - leading to abortion and even infanticide.
  2. The same type of dismissal of the personhood of the elderly due to a lower level of cognitive functioning leads to the advocacy of euthanasia.
  3. Treating the body as nothing more than a "wet machine" (a conclusion from evolutionary thinking) leads to the hookup culture, in which people (especially the young) use sex for nothing more than personal pleasure, missing the truth that sex is designed by God for both procreation and bonding between husband and wife.
  4. The same dismissal of the body's "designedness" leads both to confusion about both sexual orientation and gender.
Pearcey shows the benefits of Christian understanding on all these issues, both in
  1. the greater respect and love shown to women, children, and other vulnerable groups as Christianity transformed the ancient world, and
  2. the restoration of personal wholeness as people, both Christians and converts to Christian faith learn to understand the full meaning of the bodies God has given us, even when our feelings and our bodies don't seem to match.
Finally, Pearcey shows how we, as God's people, can help heal the modern disruption of the unity of body and person by showing the beauty of living life as God's children in both body and soul, and demonstrating our love for both body and soul with healing and hospitality for those wounded by the lies of our culture.

One caution: Because Pearcey deals with our society's response to the body, as well as the Biblical corrective to our culture's rejection of the body, the book deals with descriptions of, in particular, sexuality in the text and the notes that require mature reading to process, which is why I am planning to offer it as a reading choice only to Grade 11 and 12. However, for discerning readers willing to put in the extra effort or wanting to read the book alongside others, Pearcey's study guide and extensive notes will bolster the impact of the book in strengthening our understanding and the will to act out of that understanding.

If you believe that Pearcey will further your understanding of how a Christian worldview helps us to avoid and heal the personal and societal destruction that occurs that when you do not Love Thy Body, you can find it here, and here in Canada.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Winterflight

by Joseph Bayly
1981 / 216 pages

In this dystopian novel, Joseph Bayly takes us to a not-so-distant future in which abortion for disabled children is mandatory, euthanasia is compulsory soon after 75, and Christians are so confused about Romans 13 they think God wants them to submit to even these demands.

When Jonathan and Grace Stanton's six-year-old son Stephen falls off his bike, they don't know what to do. The fall was minor, but their son has hemophilia and he needs treatment.  However, by government law he shouldn't exist: had his condition been diagnosed prenatally the State would have required that he be aborted. Stephen survived only because he mother never visited a doctor during her pregnancy, and when the time came a friend helped her have a home birth. Now the Stantons wonder what the State might do, even six years later, if they bring their son in to see a doctor. Do they dare find out?

Winterflight was written almost 40 years ago, but it got my heart racing – it all seemed far too probable for my liking. Abortion is already being used to "cure" genetic disabilities like Down Syndrome and while it isn't mandatory, pressure from doctors and culture are such that in some countries 98% of Down Syndrome children are killed before birth.

When it comes to killing the elderly, we don't demand their deaths at 75, but we are already exploring the cost savings that can be had from their early departure. In countries where euthanasia has been legal longer, there are regular reports of involuntary killings. In Canada, attempts are already being made to make involvement on some level mandatory for all doctors.

But what hits closest to home is Bayly's portrayal of the confused Christian response to these government abuses. When Grace's elderly father is told he must report soon to be euthanized, their misunderstanding of Scripture has them thinking that they need to obey the governing authorities even in this, since those authorities are appointed by God (Romans 13:1). But at the same time, in saving their son, the Stantons show that on some level they do understand we must sometimes defy the State.

Is their confusion realistic? We'd never march ourselves off to the local euthanasia clinic just because the government demanded it. But why would we resist? Do we understand on what biblical basis we could reject such demands from the "governing authorities"? During World War II there was confusion on this point among some good Reformed Dutchmen. Among those who joined the Resistance, some felt guilty about it because they were worried that in acting against the Nazis they were resisting God's chosen rulers.

The confusion persists today. Even as we know the government shouldn't mandate euthanasia – even as we recognize that there are limits to their power – many Christians will still turn to the government asking it to solve our problems. We understand the government has limits, and yet we'll also ask them to do more and more. We are confused.

And that's why this book is well worth reading and discussing.

Cautions

There are just a couple cautions to note. First, there is a small bit of language – I think "damn" might be used two or three times.

Second, without giving away the ending, when the book was first published some Christians misunderstood the ending as being prescriptive – they thought the actions of the book's confused Christians were what we should do. So it's important to understand that's not so. These are confused Christians, under enormous pressure, acting in a confused way and the author is not endorsing their actions. In fact, in many ways the book is about warning us not to do as they do.

Conclusion

This is a fantastic dystopian novel, as prophetic as they come, and certainly unlike any other Christian fiction you've read.

The topic matter is weighty, but because there's nothing graphic this could be appropriate for as young as early teens. However the younger a reader might be, the more they'll need a guide to steer their interaction with the story, and particularly the not-at-all happy ending. It would also make great book club material, with fodder for some fantastic discussions.

Friday, June 14, 2019

On Reading Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Call

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

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

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

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