Tuesday, August 14, 2018

God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God

by Mark Jones
240 pages / 2017

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

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

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Take Heart: Christian Courage in the Age of Unbelief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place


by Andy Crouch
224 pages / 2017

There have been some excellent reviews of Andy Crouch’s book and I don’t want to duplicate those efforts. So in my review, I would like to work with Andy Crouch's own idea. At the end of each chapter's look at another way of "putting technology in its proper place," he gives a "Reality Check" about just how well his family (and he himself) have been doing that. I would like to give my own reality check for some of the chapters' insights.

For instance, the introduction speaks of "the value of the nudge" - changing the environment in small ways to make it easier to do the right thing (like sitting where there are no screens to distract us). In our own house, we have nudged our living room into a higher priority than our "rec room" by putting our nicest couch there and putting a puzzle on the coffee table - an activity that makes real conversation more likely than watching the latest on Netflix or the news. At the same time, I can't say that I have been as faithful in keeping to the "disciplines" that Crouch defines as deliberate routines to give us "spiritual resources" necessary for fruitful living. More on those disciplines later.

Among the ten commitments that Crouch urges us to make wisdom and courage the goals of our life together as family – a worthy goal, and one I would have loved to have been challenged with years ago. We did seek to make the Sabbath a feast day, at least in the evening, but I'm not sure whether we ever made it an intentional rest from the continual distraction of our screens – a practice that would have made more time for meditation on the Word we heard preached that day. And while I have never needed to take my phone to bed, some of our children used the alarm excuse to keep theirs at night - not something that leads to real nighttime refreshment.

Crouch's fifth commitment is an interesting one to ponder for me as a teacher: no screens before "double digits" - 10 years old - at school and at home. Our school does use Chromebooks extensively before age 10, but I think that they are well integrated into the language arts program in those grades. More to the point, this year I drifted into allowing junior high students the opportunity to play video games on computers at lunch – better than playing in isolation on their phones, I thought. Next year, we will be cutting off the "arcade," and have already begun to supply a growing hoard of board  games as more social, brain-engaging alternatives for the non-gym-inclined kids (much like myself!).

Crouch's seventh commitment - "Car time is conversation time" - is one that we have adhered to often in the last few years, but we did have one of those vans with the DVD player, and we did rely on it on long trips. Maybe that was a good exception. Now the DVD player is out of the picture, and in the few trips that we still have with our youngest adult son, we enjoy a mix of radio, podcasts, music CDs, audiobooks, and conversation. Does that leave enough time to get past the seven-minute barrier that Crouch says is necessary for deeper, risk-taking conversational revelations? I hope so.

I love listening to compact discs, so Crouch's commitment to make singing (our own singing, not recorded music) a prominent part of family life and church worship intrigued me. We could certainly make that a greater part of our family's devotions, but I am especially looking forward to our own congregation's making singing together not only part of worship, but also an "event" on its own, in a Sunday potluck dinner plus singalong.

Keeping in mind that I have not dealt with all Crouch's ten commitments, I hope that these reality checks show that his book provoked a great deal of reflection for me on technology's place in family, school, and church life. If you think that The Tech-Wise Family can help you in putting technology in its proper place, you can get it here in the U.S., and here in Canada.

Monday, May 14, 2018

God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Life: The Myth of the Modern Message

by Ray Comfort
128 pages / 2010

Reformed Christians confess the importance of God's law with the second question of the Heidelberg Catechism:
What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort? 
First, how great my sins and misery are....
Ray Comfort agrees with them and wishes more people did. In this book Comfort is confronting an enormous problem that he argues is related, at its root, to a lack of concern for the law – that 90% of seeming converts in Christian crusades are gone from the church within a year, and many never set foot in a church at all. He argues the cause for this distressing statistic is the "modern message." Unlike the Bible and church history, which show persecution as the likely result of following Christ, the modern message promises earthly happiness for those who turn to Him.

This poses a further question: What should be the message of the gospel? Comfort tells us that the "lost key" is the use of the law. Only knowing our sin - specific sin, not just our weakness or brokenness - begins "making grace amazing.” 

To illustrate this, Comfort makes a brilliant analogy about giving parachutes to two airplane passengers. The first man is  told that the chute will make his flight much more comfortable. When, instead, he finds that wearing it makes him feel silly in the eyes of the other passengers and makes it hard to sit in his seat, he gives it up in frustration. 

The second passenger is told that the chute will save his life when (not if) the plane crashes – a metaphor for our inevitable appearance before the judgment seat of God. You can imagine how much more grateful he is for his "gospel chute."

Comfort next makes it clear that Jesus Himself used the law to convict sinners of their need for forgiveness through God's grace – the only chute that can save us from the crash of our condemnation – and concludes by stressing that churches filled with false converts are no testimony to the power of a false modern message.

The appendix is a model of "gentleness and respect" as Comfort passes on a word "For My Campus Crusade Friends," demonstrating that some of the organization's own leaders have come to see the necessity for the law in the proclamation of the gospel. 

Cautions

This is not the first book by Ray Comfort that I have read. The previous one, Revival's Golden Key, was a good read, but this one is a really good read. The two books have similar messages, but God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Life is a better read for two reasons:
  1. It's almost 100 pages shorter.
  2. Comfort's use of Scripture is simpler and more literal.
In Revival's Golden Key, Comfort sometimes slips into an allegorical interpretation of particular passages to support his contention that it is the law of God that brings sinners to true Christian conversion. The Myth of the Modern Message sticks to texts that clearly relate to preaching and evangelism to make the same point.

Conclusion

If you believe that Comfort can show a better way to obey the Great Commission as Reformed churches begin to make evangelism a greater priority, you can get it in Canada here and the US here

You can also download a pdf version for free here.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Classic Starts: Robinson Crusoe

by Deanna McFadden & Daniel Defoe
143 pages / 2008

Sometimes whether a book is really good or not depends on how you are going to look at it, and what you are comparing it to.

A bad book?

If you were to compare this Classic Starts retelling to the original Robinson Crusoe published in 1719, there are a number of ways where the retelling falls short:
  • It is, at most, just one quarter the size and that means significant parts of the story had to be left out (Robinson's encounter with a pack of wolves, for example).
  • Historically inaccurate political-correctness has snuck in, with Robinson's native servant, Friday, now simply his native friend.
  • And most significantly, the general Christian worldview that is a big part of the original is almost entirely absent. A non-Christian won't think this a Christian book at all. However an astute Christian reader will still see hints of it.
Why it's good

Now let's do another sort of comparison. When I'm trying to find a book that I can read to my girls – 4 though 8 years old – I know that the original Robinson Crusoe is simply too tough a book for them. My 8 year old might be able to enjoy it, once I got her hooked, but how could I expect my Elephant and Piggie-loving 4-year-old to come along for the ride?

So, I need something simpler. But I'm also tired of reading just Elephant and Piggie-type books. They're too simple for the 8-year-old, and I wouldn't mind trying to stretch them all, at least a little bit.

Of the chapter books at my local library, it's hard to find gems. It's shelves full of kids talking disrespectfully, swapping potty-humor jokes with friends, turning into witches, or having adventures with ghosts. It's just row after row of juvenile silliness. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between.

So then I hit on this "Classic Starts" series. It's put out by Barnes and Nobles' Sterling Children Books, so, as you might expect of a secular company, their retellings aren't going to be particularly careful about preserving an author's Christian worldview. But because they are classic stories, and many of the authors did indeed have a Christian worldview, even when retold, the stories are still good clean fun for the whole family. So, suddenly, I had a dozens of titles to consider...and that got me very excited. Our girls (and mom and dad too) have already enjoyed their version of PollyannaThat one might actually be better than the original.

So, let's look at this Crusoe retelling and focus on the highlights. It is a really good read because:
  • At one quarter the size, this is a story that 4-year-olds can enjoy. And because the retelling is polished, and the original material is so rich, this is something mom and dad can enjoy too. That makes it great for the whole family in a way that the original isn't. 
  • There are still hints of the Christian worldview here. And it isn't as spiritually deficient as 99% of what you will find on the public library shelves. If we didn't know about the original, Christian parents would love these without reservation. 
  • This is a gateway to the original. Kids like to hear the same stories more than once. I had a retelling of Around the World in 80 days, that while a radical abridgment, was still too long for my littlest. But then I read a comic version of the story to her and that got her interested in the book. And just as the comic led to the abridgment, my intention with these Classic Start retellings, is that, with at least some of them, I hope to use them as lead-ins to reading the originals. 
I'm not recommending the whole Classic Starts series – we've only read two to this point. But I did want to let parents know about them; this seems, at the very least, a good series to investigate further.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Can I smoke pot? Marijuana in light of Scripture

by Tom Breeden and Mark L. Ward Jr.
103 pages / 2016

This book is valuable in two very different ways.

First, it's valuable for anyone considering the title question: Can I smoke pot? For some that might be a personal interest, while others simply want to know how to answer the question when it comes up.

Second, about half of the book is spent making the argument that the Bible is our go-to whenever we have questions. We might not think that when it comes to marijuana, since the Bible never mentions it directly. But if we want to know God's thoughts on the subject, then it doesn't take much digging to find principles which are applicable. The Bible does offer us the guidance we're looking for. As Cornelius Van Til put it:
“The Bible is authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything.” 
That makes this a very useful book for anyone interested in learning how to use God's Word as a guide for all of life.

Shorter answers are available to the title question. If you want the article-length response, I give one here. But the value in this book is that, even though it is short – at 100 pages it can be read in an evening or two – the authors have the room to delve deeper. So some of the topics they address include:

  • the role of government and when we do and don't have to listen to it
  • what the Old Testament and New say about the use of medicine
  • what questions we need to ask when considering the wisdom of using marijuana for medical use
  • how recreational marijuana use compares to recreational alcohol use
  • is it possible to smoke marijuana recreationally in moderation?

So what answer do the authors ultimately give to their title question? There is a sense in which they don't give a simple yes or no answer. But when it comes to recreational use, they want Christians to understand there are many reasons why we should just say no.

So read the book, and then share it with your friends, your kids, and your church. Let's have a ready answer for this increasingly common question.

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 must 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 man without 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.