Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Marcelo in the Real World

by Francisco X Stork
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009, 320 pages

What makes a person foolish or wise?

Marcelo is a 17-year-old boy who perceives and understands the world a little differently than most.

He has a disorder similar to Asperger's syndrome which makes social interaction difficult. Marcelo has what he calls "special interests" in music and religion, meeting regularly with a rabbi to discuss the Bible and other spiritual texts. He is content studying at his special high school and working with horses and disabled children.

His father has other ideas. He thinks Marcelo's interests are foolish ones. And he feels if Marcelo tries to work in what he calls the real world, Marcelo will find he fits in just fine. And he ups the ante - if Marcelo doesn't succeed at a summer job at his father's law firm, he will go to public school for his final year of high school.

Well, he does do just fine, although he encounters a lot of misunderstanding along the way. His first challenge is his supervisor in the mail room, a beautiful and confident girl who had someone else in mind for the job. And his second is the son of his father's legal partner - a young man preoccupied with women and pursuing his own goals with no consideration for the needs or feelings others. How does a young man who thinks about ethics in concrete terms navigate the situations and choices he finds in a law firm where a client's profits supersede taking responsibility for flaws in their products? And still succeed at his job so he can go to the school he feels comfortable in?

I like this book for two reasons. Firstly, it presents a complex and nuanced depiction of a person with an increasingly common difference in the way he interacts with the world. And second, through Marcelo's questions and problems, the author raises some interesting issues around ethics and loyalty. Marcelo doesn't doubt that God is real, and that He has communicated to express His will. He does have doubts about knowing God's will in difficult and conflicting circumstances, and the exploration of that question highlights what all people have in common.

As readers we come to see Marcelo's way of seeing the world is both a hindrance and an advantage. We're not sure how his father feels about the choices his son makes - but there's no doubt that Marcelo has grown up and is making his own choices by the end of the story.

"Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a "fool" so that he may become wise." (1 Corinthians 3:18)

A caution - there is some crude language in portions of the book. It's used to contrast Marcelo's perspective with that of the people around him, but it may disturb some readers.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


How to Revitalize Christian Journalism
by Marvin Olasky
Crossway Books, 1996, 303 pages

The best media book you’ll ever read… and it’s free!

If you want to understand the media, if you want to understand how the news business should be done, if you want to know what it means to be truly objective (hint: it actually involves bias – biblical bias!) then you need to read Marvin Olasky’s Telling the Truth.

To give just a taste of the book, here is one of the more important lessons Olasky passes on, using whitewater rafting as an illustration.

We know the God, in his Word, gives us direction on how to please Him, and do what He wills. But in some situations it is clearer than others what his will is. And that is an important point to note, and concede. If we act as if an issue is clear-cut, when in truth the biblical position on the issue is only discernable after extended study, then we will be seen as unreasonable and even arrogant, both to other Christians, and particularly to non-Christians. This too-certain-by-half attitude will ensure that people who might learn from us, won’t want to talk to us. It’s important then, to remember that while the Bible addresses many issues, it does not speak directly to all issues.

In Telling the Truth, Olasky compares the Bible’s various degrees of direction to the six classes of whitewater rapids. Class one rapids can be navigated by anyone, while class six rapids are all but impossible.

Class one: Specific biblical embrace or condemnation. Gay Marriage is a hot topic these days, even in the churches. But the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality is so clear that it can only be misconstrued by those trying to twist Scripture. To pretend that this is anything other than a black and white issue is to act as if the Bible as a whole is meaningless.

Class two: Clearly implicit biblical position. As Olasky notes, “even though there is no explicit command to place our children in Christian or home schools, the emphasis on providing a godly education under parental supervision is clear.” So while not explicit, there is a clear implicit biblical directive to follow.

Class three: Partisans on both sides quote Scripture, but careful study does allow biblical conclusions. Some Christians, citing examples like the Good Samaritan, and quoting texts like “love your neighbor as yourself,” think that helping the poor means guaranteeing everyone a certain standard of living. But as Olasky notes, if in the Bible, “even widows are not automatically entitled to aid then broad entitlement programs are suspect…the poor should be given the opportunity to glean, but challenged to work.” With issues like these, looking deeper into Scripture allows us to find a more certain direction.

Class four: Biblical understanding backed by historical experience does allow us to draw some conclusions. While large government initiatives like, for example, a proposed national daycare program, may in many ways seem like wonderful ideas, we can look back through history and see what happens when governments exert more and more influence over daily life. There is no clear biblical directive for limited, smaller government, but Samuel’s warning in 1 Sam. 8 and Lord Acton’s historically verified adage, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” show us we should be suspicious of any government that seeks to constantly expand its sphere of influence.

Class five: A biblical sense of human nature provides minimal, but real direction. The malevolence of 9/11 shocked many people around the world. They wondered how anyone could do anything so evil. The same sort of reaction occurred 50 years ago when the truth was fully revealed about Hitler’s “Final Solution.” As Christians we know that man is by nature inclined to all sorts of evil, so while we might be saddened we shouldn’t be too surprised at those events. We should recognize that war and violence are more man’s norm than peace, and prepare likewise. So our biblical understanding of human nature shows us that we should prepare, even if it doesn’t make clear how we should prepare.

Class six: These issues are navigable only by experts, who themselves might be overturned. Some issues have no clear biblical position. These issues can range from the local (Should we put up a stoplight at this intersection?) to the national (How should we address the problem of illegal aliens already in the country) to the international (what should be done about Iran's nuclear program?).

It’s all too easy, in a world embracing lawlessness, to overreact and embrace the opposite extreme, but that is also wrong - it is legalism. But to be a true light to the world Christians must remember both to speak out clearly where God’s intent is clear, and to speak out more charitably where God’s direction is less clear.

This is just one of the lessons Olasky teaches in this amazing book. I can't praise this book highly enough: it is one of my ten favorite of all time, a book I have read and reread, and if you are thinking of going into journalism it is simply a must-read. And if you read newspapers or any sort of media, well you'll find it amazing too. And, yet one more amazing thing about it: it is available to be read for free online by clicking here.

That said, if you have any interest in writing or journalism, you'll want the paper copy to highlight and write notes in.. You can get one at here or here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


by Jerry Spinelli
HarperCollins, 2003, 224 pages

Donald Zinkoff's name is not the only thing that makes him conspicuous. All the things that make him conspicuous brand him either as a "loser" or simply as someone who wears his heart on his sleeve.

In Jerry Spinelli's novel Crash, the bully who narrated the story showed us how unsatisfying it is to treat others as losers. In Loser, we see the story from the point of view of the one living with the various handicaps that lead him to be labelled and shunned by others.

Spinelli does not romanticize Zinkoff's life. Zinkoff never learns to write legibly. He is uncoordinated in sports. Finally, for the first eight years of his life, he has a stomach disorder that leaves him subject to sudden vomiting. He can react quickly enough to vomit in something, but not necessarily quickly enough to find the right container. Even his loving father's patience is sorely tested by this particular weakness.

And patience is part of the point. For Zinkoff's greatest weakness - and his greatest strength - is his inability to see himself and his life through others' eyes. He doesn't reflect on life; he simply lives it - to the fullest. When he is having fun, he yells "Yahoo!" He laughs uncontrollably for an hour when he hears a word that sounds funny to him.

There are two ways to respond to such transparent joy in life. One is patience and compassion - exercised by Zinkoff's parents and more sympathetic teachers - and the other is irritation and anger - shown by his less sympathetic teachers and classmates.

As unreflective as Zinkoff is, others do eventually make him uncomfortably aware that he does not measure up to their standards. One teacher assumes that he must be deliberately trying to annoy her, dislikes him for his illegible handwriting. Another gives a personality test that makes him aware that he has no best friend. His classmates reject him because of his poor performance at Field Day.

Zinkoff finds ways to cope with these setbacks, partly by immersing himself in the lives of other equally outcast characters in his neighbourhood. In the end, his love for his neighbour, like that of the rejected Samaritan in Jesus' parable, leads him to try to help find a little lost girl, but also puts his own life in danger on a dark, cold, blizzardy winter night.

CAUTION AND CONCLUSION: Spinelli's novel Stargirl uses evolution as an explanation for our unity with nature. None of his novels feature clearly Christian solutions to the conflicts involved, but several show sympathy for the role of religion in the lives of the major characters. Loser's main character goes to church, but faith in God does not really enter into his daily response to the world. However, the whole story serves as an example of the importance of loving even those who are not "cool." How much more should we as Christians seeks to love all the members, strong and weak, of the Body of Christ. Recommended to get discussion started - especially as a read-aloud by parents and/or teachers.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Mozart Question

by Michael Morpurgo
Candlewick, 2008, 80 pages

Violinist Paolo Levi has played everything from Bach to Vivaldi, and jazz to Scottish fiddle music. But not Mozart; never Mozart.

Rookie reporter Lesley McInley has been given the chance to interview this world-renown musician. She has been warned, though, not to ask “the Mozart question” – Levi doesn’t like it when he’s asked why he doesn’t play Mozart. That’s why McInley is surprised to hear herself begin with the one question she simply can’t ask.

And she is even more surprised to hear Levi answer.

His answer is beautiful, poignant and horrible – Levi tells the reporter his whole life story, how he had to practice in secret because his father wouldn’t approve, how his father was a violinist too, but would never play, and how mother kept a violin hidden away, on the top of a cupboard. And he explained how his father, a Jew, survived the Nazi concentration camps by playing violin in the camp orchestra. Their performances were played outside, by the train tracks, and timed for the arrival of each new convey of Jews – the Nazis had them play Mozart to calm the new arrivals as they were sorted and sent to the gas showers.

While The Mozart Question is intended for pre-teens (so it doesn’t dwell on the horrors of the Holocaust) adults are sure to appreciate it too.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Four Books for Christmas

The thing I love most about Christmas is the reminder that there is more to life than the day to day attention to our own affairs, which is such an easy mindset to slip into. Christmas tells us that we are all here together, that we are united in suffering and darkness, and that our great hope is the one who came into the world to embody and fulfill the two great commandments: to love God with all we have in us, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Even the secular stories point to this theme. I don't like a Christmas to go by without seeing "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," and the morning scene from "A Christmas Carol."

Here are four books for children and their families that point readers away from everyday preoccupations and towards allowing God's love to flow through us.

Red Parka Mary
by Peter Eyvindson

Illustrated by Rhian Brynjolson
Pemmican Publications, 1996, 38 pages

Red Parka Mary is about the fears that keep us apart from one another...and the joy of new friendships.

The narrator is a boy who walks past the home of an elderly neighbour each day. Someone, sometime, told her he should be afraid of her...and so he is.

But one summer day she calls to him to bring a pail of chokecherries to his mother, and they begin to visit after school. Mary tells him about herself, and the boy listens, and comes to appreciate her hospitality and friendliness. He also sees that she has needs too. She wears three sweaters all the time, and is cold all winter, except when she bakes bread in her wood stove.

Close to Christmas time, the boy notices a parka that would be just right for Mary in a store window, and asks his parents to help buy it for her. In return, she tells him she has the biggest and best present for him in the whole world. What could it be, the boy wonders...and the answer brings us back to what really matters.

(Note: this book can be ordered directly from the publisher for a reasonable price, and may also be available in your public library.)

An Orange for Frankie

by Patricia Polacco
Philomel Books, 2004, 48 pages

Frankie is the youngest son in a family of eight children on a farm during the depression. They are all eagerly anticipating Christmas and the return of their father, who has gone to get oranges for the family - it's their traditional Christmas treat. The hallmark of this family is generosity - as the story opens they are getting ready for Christmas, and feeding breakfast to railway workers and hobos who are passing by the farm. Mother says that they have had a good harvest, and should share what they have. In fact, the very next thing Frankie does is give a hobo who has no shirt the sweater his sister gave him for Christmas last year, leaving him with a problem when she announces she's giving him a matching muffler this year and wants to see how well it goes with the sweater. After his father comes home he manages to lose his Christmas orange. Two problems that could make Christmas less enjoyable for everyone...but his wise parents manage to smooth things over and turn the day into a specially memorable one, centered on forgiveness and love.

Great Joy
by Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Candlewick Press, 2007, 32 pages

"The week before Christmas, a monkey appeared on the corner of Fifth and Vine. He was wearing a green vest and a red hat, and with him was a man, an organ grinder, who played music for the people on the street."

Young Frances looks down from her living room window and notices the pair. She wonders where they goes at night - a question which is not encouraged by her mother. But she wonders and worries anyway, and watches for him in the night, discovering that he sleeps on the street, even in the snow. Her mother brushes off her concerns and declines to invite him to dinner.

On her way to the Christmas pageant, Frances invites the organ grinder to come, and inspired when he enters, she" recites her single line:

"Behold! I bring you tidings of Great Joy!"

Great joy indeed - Frances knows better than her mother what the message of Christmas means for all of us. And perhaps her mother comes to understand too.

Christmas is Here
Words from the King James Bible
Illustrated by Lauren Castillo
Simon & Shuster Books for Young Readers, 2010, 32 pages

My final selection is a simple and also profound one. Lauren Castillo has pictured a family coming upon a nativity scene as they busily go about their Christmas shopping. As they take a moment to look, they are drawn into the story by the words of Luke from the King James Bible. There is a moment of peace and awe in which we all can contemplate the great love which our God has for us.

The illustrations for this book are beautiful and subtly done. Readers who have hesitations about visual depictions of God and angels will like this book. The author uses perspective and light in ways that subtly suggest the holiness of the incarnation. It's a lovely book to use with children and to enjoy as a family.

May the joy and peace of the season be with you all!