Friday, October 21, 2011

The Little Ships

The Heroic Rescue at Dunkirk in World War II
by Louise Borden
illustrated by Michael Foreman
McElderry Books, 1997, 32 pages

In May of 1940, half a million British and French soldiers were trapped in on three sides by German forces. They had their back to the sea, and the Germans seemed intent on pushing them right into it. But then the call went out all over the English coast for ship owners to come bring their boats to save these stranded soldiers. And they came, by the hundreds. In total 861 ships set sail for the shores of France, for the beaches of Dunkirk, including hundreds of small fishing boats and pleasure craft. This is one of the most stirring examples of courage, in a war that was filled with them, because this the most ordinary sort of courage - ordinary courage  these were ordinary men the soldiers' old neighbors, their fathers and hometown friends heading out into danger simply because they were needed. They brought back more than 300,000 soldiers.

That's the story this little picture book sets out to tell, and it is quite a story. The author tells it from the perspective of a fisherman's daughter, who, because she is a seasoned sailor, goes along with her father and their little ship, the Lucy. This is a read-out-loud book, as the author Louise Borden lays out lyrical sentences - this isn't poetry, but it has a clear cadence and rhythm that springs up from the page.

The illustrations are water colors, which ably captures the mood and the scene, but the pictures themselves are not that eye catching - the colors are all muted. That's one reason I think this book may have to be read twice to be appreciated: it is a book about quiet courage, and the pictures are quiet too. But the text, read aloud, and the somber tones of  the illustrations have a cumulative impact. It really hits you in the end. But the worry is that children might stop after only a few pages.

So to conclude, this is a great book for a teacher to read out loud to their class. There is a fair amount of text per page, and the intense story line also makes this a book best suited for Grade 2 or older, and while they may not be wild about it at the start, I'm confident they'll appreciate it, and the courage of these hundreds of ordinary men, by the time they get to the end.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Counterfeit Gods

by Timothy Keller
Dutton Adult, 2009, 240 pages

Can I recommend everything by Tim Keller? No (see below), but I can recommend this book.

John Calvin once said, "The human heart is an idol factory. " It makes sense that God's prohibition of idolatry is the first commandment. The reason: we are all idolaters, and every violation of the commandments is also the breaking of the first commandment - desiring some created blessing so much that we are willing to do anything to get it, without caring how God wants us to use his blessings.

The brilliance of Tim Keller's Counterfeit Gods is that it takes this plausible idea, and makes it compelling, by showing how idolatry in action has played out both in the Bible and in today's world - and shows the solution.

Keller introduces the concept of idolatry as an explanation of the suicides of executives in response to the economic meltdown of 2008 and the utter disillusionment of Beatrice Webb and H. G. Wells after the rise of Hitler. The first chapter shows how the understanding of idolatry makes sense of one of the most puzzling stories in the Bible from the life of Abraham.

Keller also looks carefully at the lives of Jacob and Leah to analyze our own and our culture's idolatrous attitude to sex and love. He examines how the first sight of Jesus casts down the idol of greed in the life of the tax collector Zaccheus - an idol institutionalized in our day as "the culture of greed." Our culture's idolatry of achievement and success as ways to validate yourself is critiqued through the Biblical example of the Syrian general Naaman. The self-glorification of Nebuchadnezzar foreshadows our own and our culture's idolatry of power. Finally, Keller shows how the hidden cultural idols of profit, self, and nationalism can even subtly diminish our service to God, as the latter two did especially in the self-righteous ministry of Jonah.

All these exposures of the idols of our hearts would be merely disheartening (pun intended) if, as Keller shows, God did not provide a Way of escape in the person of Jesus Christ. Keller shows how setting our hearts, eyes, and ears on Him and His kingdom counsels and comforts us, in two main ways. Using counselling case studies, Keller shows how the fact that Christ has shared our suffering turns the loss of even the genuine blessings of loved one, prosperity, success, and the approval of others from causes of sinful despair to sources of sorrow in the midst of hope. Most of all, we can resist the incursion of idols into our hearts by learning to make Christ our true and lasting blessing - the Way, Truth, Life, food, drink, and love of our hearts.

CAUTION AND CONCLUSION: As I said at the beginning, I cannot recommend everything that Keller has written. The Reason for God, in particular, shows a willingness to accommodate Biblical interpretation truth to the supposed authority of secular evolutionary scientific theory. I noticed that Keller used no examples from Adam to Noah in Counterfeit Gods, perhaps he doesn't quite know how to fit them within his theistic evolutionary framework. However, the Biblical examples he does use are applied to ourselves and our culture in insightful, practical, and comforting ways. Thus, while I cannot recommend The Reason for God (because arguably, and ironically, it makes an idol out of secular science), I highly recommend Counterfeit Gods.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Blood of Lambs

by Kamal Saleem (with Lynn Vincent)
Howard Books, 2009, 340 pages

Added October 17, 2010 - I've just had a review pointed out to me, in the Christian magazine Books and Culture, that questions the legitimacy of this autobiography. The review was written by a history professor at Calvin College, Doug Howard, and you can find the link to it here. I don't know quite what to think, but thought it was important to pass along this information.

This one knocked my socks off.

The author, Kamal Saleem was involved in terrorism from the time he was seven, recruited by the Muslim Brotherhood (the very same group that is so very often in the news right now) to smuggle arms into Israel. The Blood of the Lambs is the story of his past and his present. We learn about his upbringing and his early years as he is taught the trade of terrorism. Kamal grew up in Beirut, Lebanon in the 1960s, the son of a devout Muslim couple, and it was at his "mother's kitchen table, surrounded by the smells of herbed olive oils and pomegranates, that [he] first learned of jihad." She told her little boy that salvation was to be found through an external struggle - through fighting and killing Islam's enemies. She told her little boy: "even the most sinful man is able to redeem himself with one drop of an infidel's blood." With this sort of religious grounding, it was no wonder that Muslim Brotherhood found this young lad willing and eager to go on whatever mission they proposed to him.

In alternating sections we are taken to the more recent past, starting in 2007, with the author, now a grateful and humbled Christian, on a tour of the United States trying to alert his adopted country to the danger of radical Islam. 

This back and forth is a riveting way of telling his tale - it sets up the stark contrast between what radical Muslims are up to, and what the West is ready to believe. For example, in one section we follow Kamal as his group attacks a Christian stronghold in Beirut and blows up the top floor of a hotel to kill the soldiers positioned on it. Then in the next section, where we are taken thirty years into the future, the author shares one college paper's reaction to his speech: people can "easily dismiss... Kamal Saleem, for offering us nothing but that fear." 


Though the violence in this book is described with care and tact, there is quite a lot of such content. There is also some brief mention of sex, the most explicit being those describing Muslim attitudes towards women. So this is not a book for the pre-teen set, and should only be given with care to those under 14 or 15. However the size of the book, at 340 pages, is probably all that's need to dissuade those not yet mature enough for its contents.


My brother-in-law thought this book should be in every church library. He called it a difficult book, not because it was hard to read (it is a fast-paced, page-turner, thanks to its excellent co-author, Lynn Vincent) but because it offers insight into a horrible world. As he put it, "We don't know how blessed we are!" While we encourage our children to work hard at piano, or take up a sport, Kamal's parents encourage him to be a terrorist. While we live in countries where we have known nothing but peace in our lifetime, the Middle East is in the constant turmoil of wars, revolutions and terrorism. And while we worship the God who tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, many in the Middle East worship a god who tells them that they can earn their way to heaven by killing their infidel neighbor. 

So who would enjoy this book? Anyone who likes thrillers - there is a lot of action. And anyone who regularly reads Christian biographies will find this a beautiful story of God's amazing grace. And finally if you read to learn, and want to know more about the Middle East, or Islam, or terrorism, then this book is an education indeed. 

This is a book that really every adult should read. We must not be naive about these horrors, and we must pray for the people caught in them. May they find their way to the one true God!