Sunday, August 28, 2011

Battles of the Bible: 1400 BC - AD 73

by Martin J. Dougherty et al
Amber Books, 2008, 224 pages

When I saw Battles of the Bible I confess I immediately knew I had to have it. I'm a history nut and every time I read a story in the Bible I  want to know more details than the Bible recounts.

Battles of the Bible brings to light the brilliance of the military strategies employed which surprised me, though it probably shouldn't have considering who inspired those strategies. It also does a solid job putting the Israelite battles into a historical context. The brutality that many accuse the Israelites of perpetrating wasn't something unusual, and, in the context of the time, was even expected. With the strictly Biblical battles, however, I left a little disappointed. The book doesn't tell you much about the battle strategy that the Bible doesn't.

The pictures in this book are gorgeous being either shots of the battle sites or paintings from Middle Ages or Renaissance era. They are full color for the most part and help to bring the battle stories to life.

Where the book really shone was its recounting of Bible-related battles that fell outside of the Bible itself but still helped understand the Biblical history. How did the tiny grew of Maccabean rebels manage to throw off the Selucid empire? Why is Masada such a potent symbol even in modern day Israel? It's with these sort of battles that Battles of the Bible really opened my eyes and gave me  a greater understanding of the Jewish culture.

This is a great book, a beautiful book, and one that will broaden your understanding of the greater Biblical history. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Silmarillion

by J. R. R. Tolkien

Harper Collins, 416 pages

No, I`m not going to tell you why it is called The Silmarillion... not yet!

If you`ve read Tolkien's The Hobbit, and then The Lord of the Rings, maybe you have become curious about what Middle Earth was like well before the War of the Ring. Or perhaps you just wanted to hear the full story of Beren and Luthien that is summarized by Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings as the tale of Beren and Tinuviel.

That story is only one of the tales in The Silmarillion, but it was clearly one that meant much to Tolkien himself, since he had the names of Beren and Luthien inscribed on the gravestones of himself and his wife respectively. Beren is one of only three mortal men who married elves; another, of course, is Aragorn himself. (The third? Read The Silmarillion to find out!) The story tells of a love that, like the love extolled in the Song of Solomon, is stronger than death. Beren`s love for Tinuviel is so strong that it braves the stronghold of the most Satanic figure in all of Tolkien`s worlds. (Sauron? No, the one before him! See next paragraph.)

Which brings us to the value of  The Silmarillion for a Christian reader. When Tolkien conceived of Middle Earth, part of his purpose was to give England an alternate mythology parallelling the history of our own world, as God's word. Therefore, this book tells of the creation of Middle Earth by Illuvatar; the fall of Morgoth, his chief servant; and all the epic conflicts that arose from the struggle between Illuvatar and Morgoth (including epic wars and a massive flood).

Tolkien`s version of the creation has its own beauty that may remind some readers of the way Aslan sang Narnia into being in C. S. Lewis`s The Magician`s Nephew. Similarly, the fall of Morgoth shows metaphorically how sin brings discord into the world. All the struggles of elves, dwarves, and men that result show the nobility of love and heroic sacrifice and the ugliness of pride, treachery, and betrayal. Many of the verses in Proverbs that show the importance of patience and self-control are well illustrated in Beren and Luthien's tale and other stories of the various races' correctly and incorrectly motivated wars against Morgoth and others of Illuvatar's servants (the Valar). Parallelling the Genesis Flood, the anger of the Valar toward the ingratitude and mistrust of men and willingness to follow Sauron's demonic guidance brings on a huge flood - the drowning of Numenor - and a permanent change in the form of Middle Earth.

Of course, we do not find the specifically redemptive sacrifice(s) of The Lord of the Rings in The Silmarillion, but the willingness to risk one`s life for others repeatedly brings former enemies together (think of the parable of the Good Samaritan and the actions of David toward Saul), and the events that lead up to the reign of Sauron and the making of the One Ring are also detailed.

All very interesting, you might say, but why read a reflection of Biblical truth and not just stick to reading the Bible? Certainly the willingness to read and reread our Bibles, to study the Word, to let it dwell in us richly, is a mark of true faith. However, Christians also want to see that truth reflected in art, in music, and in literature - even in fiction. Even the Puritan John Bunyan saw that, which is why we have Pilgrim's Progress. The beauty of fiction is that it may recapture for us the 'strangeness,' the wonder of Biblical history to which we have become too accustomed:
Yes, this is how ugly sin is, how beautiful virtue is, how great and terrible judgment is. You mean that judgment on pride and blasphemy and wickedness would bring a permanent change in the world? Yes, it did, and yes, it will!

So why is this book called The Silmarillion? Well, because of the Silmarils, jewels crafted by Feanor, an ancient elf whose sons' great oath brought many years of conflict to Middle Earth. Why the Silmarils are so important to elves, men and the Valar, you`ll need to read the book to find out.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Beatrice's Goat & One Hen

These two picture books will open children's eyes to what is involved in helping the poor in Africa, and may get them excited enough to want to get involved. Both are aimed at children 5-9, so you might wonder, what could such young children do to help anyway? Well, as these two books show, even a very little can go a long way... if it is used creatively and industriously.

Now there are some clear similarities - both are beautifully illustrated, and both present poverty-fighting ideas that have been proven effective. But they have very different strengths. The first - Beatrice's Goat - is the better written, with a tight, engaging story. The second - One Hen - present the newest and perhaps most effective means of helping: Micro Finance Loans.

Beatrice's Goat
by Page McBrier
illustrated by Lori Lohstoeter
Atheneum Books, 2001, 40 pages

This is the story of a little African girl named Beatrice, and how she, and her mother and five younger brothers and sisters all came to live in a "sturdy mud house with a fine steel roof." The house is new, as is the blue wooden furniture inside, and it's all because of a goat named Mugisa.

The goat was a gift but one that required quite some care. A pen had to be built, and each day food had to be brought, and water fetched from the stream, and of course Mugisa had to be milked too. It was this milk that changed Beatrice's life. Not only was it an important source of nutrition for the family, to help them grow stronger and be more healthy, but there was enough left each day to sell to neighbors and friends. So because of Mugisa and her milk, Beatrice was able to get the money needed for her to attend school! And Mugisa was a gift that kept on giving. When she gave birth to two kids, after they grew into adult goats themselves, the family sold them and was able to use the money to build their new home.

This gift of a goat is an example of charitable giving which is, as they say, not a hand out, but rather a hand up. Mugisa required care and work, but allowed the family to greatly improve their situation. World Vision is involved in this type of charitable venture, so if, after reading this book, your children want to become involved, they can go to and donate an animal to a family in need. A goat might be a bit expensive, at a cost of $75 US, but 3 ducks can be given for just $18, an amount that an excited determined child could raise with just a little help from mom and dad.

The book is beautiful and attractively written, and it tells a story well worth hearing.

One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference
by Katie Smith Milway
illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes
Kids Can Press, 2008, 32 pages

It's another beautifully illustrated picture book, and is based on a true story. Kojo is a small boy from Ghana who has to help his mother take care of the family after his father dies. He is fortunate enough to get a small loan - a micro loan - with which he buys a hen, and by selling her eggs he is soon able to pay off the loan, and buy more hens. Through hard work he eventually builds up his flock until it provides him and his family enough money to feed them, and send Kojo to school.

Each page has 100-200 words of text making it a book most suitable for grade one or two - it is quite text heavy for a picture book. But the book is designed so that it can be read to younger children too, with each page including, in a large font, a one line summary. One example: "These are the eggs that Kojo sells from the hen he bought"

A problem with this book is that the longer text is written in a stilted passive style. Definite improvements could have been made quite easily. For example, here's a line from early on in the book:

"Kojo tugs the knot tight and hoists a bundle of firewood onto his head... As Kojo nears the house he can smell his mother's fuju cooking, their main meal made from cassava and yams. He begins to walk faster."

It's a strange choice the author made, and one that could easily be improved on. Why not make it more active?

"Kojo tugged the knot tight and hoisted the firewood onto his head... As Kojo neared his house, he could smell that his mother was cooking fuju, a meal made from yams and cassava. He started walking faster."

See, how hard was that?

That means this is probably not going to be the sort of book your children will ask you to read to them again and again, but it is still a wonderful educational resource that will teach them about an important way we can help the poor in Africa, via Micro Loans and MicroFinancing. Because these are very small loans it is, again, easy for a child to get involved - almost anything they raise or give can be used to help someone. World Vision is also involved in this type of charitable giving, and you can find out more about it by looking for MicroFinance on the menu at

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species

by Michael Keller and Nicolle Rager Fuller
2009 / 192 pages

This is a decidedly odd recommendation - I am recommending a good adaptation of a horrible book.

Darwin's Origin of the Species is the foundational book for the theory of Evolution and author Michael Keller and illustrator Nicoller Rager Fuller have, here, done a good job of condensing the content of Darwin's book. By reading their version, instead of the original, a good understanding of Darwin's theory can be had in an hour or two, instead of a day or two. That is one reason I am recommending it.

Still, why would we even want a good understanding of Darwin's theory? The theory is bunk, so why waste our time learning about it?

It may be bunk, but it was once pretty influential bunk. It is, in fact, a book that changed the world because it offered an explanation to those that did not want to acknowledge God, of how life might have developed without Him. Even many Christians were convinced back in 1859, when Origins was first published, and tried to reconcile the Biblical account of Creation with Darwin's account - they thought his theory was so clearly true that the only way the Bible could also be true is if it was made to fit with what Darwin wrote. Inside the Church and outside, this book was causing tremors.

That's why it is still worth reading, though today even evolutionists disagree with almost all of what Darwin wrote. When he was writing it we hadn't yet learned how incredibly complex the cell was, and knew nothing about genetics, so Darwin assumed that life was far simpler than it has proven to be. He developed his theory while operating largely in the dark.

And yet, despite being full of what everyone today recognizes as errors, this book swayed many to deny God, and pushed many who still believed to try to accommodate the Bible to this new theory. Is there a lesson to be learned from this that we can apply today? Aren't we again being confronted with scientists saying they have it all figured out, and with Christians who say we should reinterpret the Bible in light of the latest scientific theories? As Yogi Berra said, "This is deja vu all over again." But while God's Word continues to be attacked, it continues to endure - that is a good take-away lesson.

Now the problem with this graphic adaptation is that it is written by evolutionists - the authors are, or where all of Darwin's "evidences" for evolution are evaluated, and rebutted. I'm a frequent visitor to these sites, so as I paged through this graphic adaptation I was struck again and again by how Darwin's best arguments - including the ones still in use today - have been thoroughly dismantled by Creation scientists.
obviously fans of Darwin, and present his theory without critique (or, at least, without Creationist critique - they offer some improvements on his theory, updating it in parts). So this is not a comic you would simply hand to someone without warning or explanation. I recommend it only be used when combined with the websites of Creationist groups like

This is why I am recommending this book - if Christians were better aware of Darwin's theory, I think we would be a lot less intimidated by it. Of course this is not a book to give to the undiscerning. I would only recommend it to someone who was going to dedicate time to studying Evolution, and was going to put in the effort necessary to find answers to any questions the book raises.

You can pick up a copy at here, and here.

RELATED REVIEWS: other graphic novels about evolution

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Lord of the Rings

by J. R. R. Tolkien
Mariner Books
2005 / 1178 pages

If you haven't heard of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you must have been living on a desert island (without the Internet). As a teacher, I'm pleasantly surprised by the number of people who still read the books (rather than simply assume that the movies accurately convey Tolkien's world). The fact that people still read the books is a good thing, because the movies simply cannot do justice to the scope of J. R. R. Tolkien's vision.

For instance, the movies cut off the beginning and end of the story - the meeting in the Old Forest with Tom Bombadil and the scouring of the Shire. While the movies' theme seems to be the importance of the underdog (hobbits to the rescue!), the books have a clearer grasp of the power of sin and its resulting curse. The Old Forest is "thorns and thistles" in abundance - nature resisting and even threatening man as a result of sin. The movies show the great power of the destruction of the Ring (partially parallelling Christ's triumph over sin and death on the cross), but only the book shows that there are still other battles to be fought against sin, in the scouring of the Shire.

This is the harsh beauty of the entire trilogy - the revelation of the need to fight against sin - but not only externally; also internally. Many characters are tempted by the Ring, because they see it as the way to accomplish their own ends (good or ill) - Galadriel ruling over the world in beauty, Denethor using it to defeat Sauron, Boromir seeking to keep his father's love. The Lord of the Rings reveals the terrible danger of believing that the ends justify the means.

Most of all, Tolkien's trilogy is a vivid portrayal of two Biblical themes. The first is the temptation and destructive power of idolatry - destructive to both self and others. As you read, note the swath of deception and destruction wreaked by the path of the Ring from Sauron - one version of Middle Earth's Satan - to Isildur and down through the three Ages of Middle Earth to many other characters.

The other theme is the comprehensive nature of the redemption needed from the Ring. Christians know that they have been redeemed by the power of Christ in His threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. Some glimmer of how great Christ's work was and is can be seen in the fact that three characters are needed to show the analogy to His work in Tolkien's world. Pondering how each of the three main characters - Aragorn, Frodo, and Gandalf - parallels some various aspect(s) of Christ's threefold office can help us see how complete (and how much greater) Christ's redemptive work is.