Saturday, December 28, 2013

Only One Mommy

by Rena M. Lindevaldsen
2011, 140 pages

How far would you go to protect our children from government-ordered indoctrination? And would you go to jail to protect someone else's children?

There was nothing hypothetical about these questions for Lisa Miller or the pastor she turned to for help. Only One Mommy is her lawyer's account of the seven-year custody battle Miller fought against her former same-sex partner. Miller conceived her daughter Isabella in 2002 via artificial insemination. Two years earlier she entered into a civil union with another woman, which they dissolved in 2004. Miller, now a professing Christian who has renounced homosexuality, tried to block her former partner's court-ordered visits with her daughter. The woman wasn't biologically related, and Miller wanted to protect her daughter from being exposed to her former partner's sinful lifestyle. After seven years Miller lost her court battle, but, instead of complying and giving her child up, she fled the country, and is now thought to be hiding in an Amish community somewhere in Central America with her daughter.

The book was published in 2011, but the story continues. In January 2013 the American Amish pastor who helped her flee, and who refused to tell authorities where she had gone, was sent to jail, then released two months later while his case is under appeal. You can find out more at the pastor's blog

Quite the story, and quite the relevant book – these are questions we need to consider. I pray that we would all go and do likewise.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Nothing to Envy

by Barbara Demick
316 pages, 2010

When my wife's book club tackled this title, the bits she read to me were so bizarre I had to read it too. A few examples:

  • The two most famous stores in North Korea are known as Department Store #1 and Department Store #2. It's unclear whether the goods being displayed are actually available for purchase, or whether they are there only for show, to impress foreign visitors.
  • The few visitors permitted in are only allowed to see what the regime wants them to see. They aren't allowed to talk to the citizens, and are generally restricted to the capital city of Pyongyang. But keen observers, like the book's author, can spot what's wrong with the picture. On one visit she watched a troop of soldiers in crisp uniforms approach and lay a wreath at a statue of North Korea's "Eternal President" Kim Il-sung. "When they bowed low as a show of respect, their pants hitched up just enough to reveal that they weren't wearing socks." The country no longer has the means to provide all their soldiers with socks, but does make it a priority to try to impress visitors by putting on these sorts of military displays.
  • The author is a journalist who was trying to get an accurate understanding of North Korea. But because of the country's many restrictions, the only way she could properly assess the country was by interviewing the few who had managed to escape from it. She gave as a gift George Orwell's 1984 to one escapee, who "marveled that George Orwell could have so understood the North Korean brand of totalitarianism."

Journalist Barabara Demick gives us a revealing look at this, the most mysterious country in the world, with biographical accounts of 6 people who used to live there. We all know a bit about North Korea - it is in the news regularly, but even to the most avid article readers among us, this book will be an eye-opener. We get a glimpse at a truly Orwellian world where government is the source of not only material goods, but where it provides life's meaning as well.

While there is nothing graphic – North Korea is a brutal regime, but the author doesn't provide vivid details – the subject matter, and a handful of crudities make this a book best suited for older teens. It is very well written, shocking, and will give readers a better understanding of a people who are in need of prayer.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Psychology As Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship

by Patrick McDonnell
191 pages; 1977, updated 1995

Another review of a book that was already old when I read it, but it could still be a real lifesaver for any Christian student taking psychology in university, especially with the added material on "values clarification" in education, as well as on New Age religion.

Today, seemingly,  the very concept of the self is under attack... but not really. Even when people claim to have no stable identity, redefining gender and relationships as they see fit at any given moment, they still consistently look to their own personal preferences to justify their choices (though they may blame - or credit - society for those preferences). We are living in an age, like that of the judges in the Bible, in which every man does what is right in his own eyes, and elementary students are told that they have to determine their own gender.

This is where the title of Paul Vitz's book comes in. The pop psychology that tells us to rely entirely on our own resources and standards to guide our lives is so unquestioned, and so celebrated in song and story, that it functions as religion. This is largely due to the influence of four theorists that Vitz looks at. Three of them I will mention here. Erich Fromm I have seen featured in a Christian literature anthology, Carl Rogers had a huge role in making counselling the process of simply finding out what you really want in life (right or wrong), and Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs is still used in government curricula for career development courses.

Next, Vitz looks at the different forms of self-centered psychology, at the problems in trying to describe selfism as science, and at the philosophical weaknesses of selfism. Despite all selfism's problems, though, it maintains a strong influence on society because it is a major driver for our consumerist economy, directed most strongly at the young, who have so much disposable income. This fits in with a later chapter on selfism and the family, focusing on the isolated individual (which mobile and wireless technology only promote even more) and the selfist willingness to blame parents for our troubles.

If selfism really is religious, then it probably interacts with Christianity in ways that can only lead to religious error. Vitz looks at the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach, the positive thinkers Emerson Fosdick and Norman Vincent Peale, and pietism, as well as tracing the religious background of Carl Rogers. Religious error can only be corrected by religious truth, which is why Vitz gives a Christian critique of selfism, and explains the need for Christians to support efforts to bring Christian influence back into psychology, including the government bureaucracy that supports so much of psychology.

Vitz ends with a look at how Christian understanding will help many who are feeling disillusioned by the vain attempt to determine their own meaning for life. For anyone involved in education, counselling, psychology, sociology, or child-raising, Vitz's book offers a compelling look at both the power of selfism (human nature's default position even without a philosophy to back it up) and the power of Christian insight to show us an infinitely better alternative.  


Saturday, December 7, 2013

9 Great quotes from Trevin Wax's "Clear Winter Nights"

This isn't your typical novel – Clear Winter Nights describes itself as "theology in story" – so the author isn't trying to be subtle about the intent of his book. He is here to teach, and he does so with flourish. Here are ten great quotes:

Don't trust in your strength, because there is such a thing as pride.
Don't despair in your weakness, because there is such a thing as forgiveness.

"Are you saying that you can't be gay and Christian?"
"No, I'm saying you can't be a Christian without repentance."

"He would think I'm attacking him personally. It would be like I'm saying there's something wrong with him."
    "That's just the point. Look at what King Jesus says about sex and you'll quickly realize there's something wrong with all of use. Something wrong that can only be fixed by what Jesus did for us on the cross and in His resurrection."

"There are only two ways to resolve the pressure you're feeling about being a hypocrite. You can do away with the ideal. Stop fighting your sin and abandon your faith. Or you can admit your failures. Strive in the power of the Holy Spirit and look to Jesus. Some people want to resolve hypocrisy by lowering the ideal. But instead, we ought to take the hand of Christ and move higher."

"It doesn't matter how tightly they closed her coffin. They encased it in bronze, locked it up tight and dumped six feet of dirt on top of it. But it doesn't matter. The casket will be no match for the power of the resurrection on the Last Day. Those locks will be undone. The decomposition of her old body will be reversed.... It may be winter, but spring is coming."

"The minute you think your faith is better than someone else's, you start down the path of having a superior attitude. What if we said no religion is superior? What if we said all religions are on equal footing? That would keep people from having an attitude of superiority."
    "You don't lose the attitude of superiority by saying no religion is superior. You get even more reason to feel superior. Now you're standing over against all the religions of the world, saying none is better than another. Don't you find it a wee bit prejudiced to say that we're the only ones who've figured out all religions are the same? All the while there are poor, mindless Christians or Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus across the world still groping around in the dark. Poor souls. They think their religions are better."

"No Christian who truly understands grace can feel superior to anyone else. Grace shatters any sense of superiority."

"Truth is not a formula... Truth is a Person."

Chris took a deep breath and nodded. "Sounds like you got ahold of grace."
"No," Gil said, taking off his glasses and wiping his eyes. "Grace got ahold of me."

Thursday, November 28, 2013


by Patrick McDonnell
42 pages, 2008

I love reading wordless books with my four-year-old daughter - when the pictures tell the story, it means she can read to me. With South I spent the first few pages telling her what was going on, but once the setting was clear, she happily took over with only occasional help from dad.

South is by the creator of the comic strip Mutts, Patrick McDonnell, who imports one of the strip's characters into this comic-like book: Mooch the cat. Now cats might not seem all that sympathetic to birds, but when Mooch comes upon a poor cute little bird who, we see, has been left behind by his flock when they headed south, Mooch lends a paw. Mooch really is a stand-up sort of cat, so he takes bird under his wing (so to say) and the two of them set out to reunite this lost little one with his family. Since cats can't fly, the journey takes place on foot.

Soon enough bird is united with flock, and it comes time for Mooch and bird to say their goodbyes. It was at this point that my daughter was a bit overcome - goodbyes are always hard to say. But we reassured her that Mooch and bird would see each other again, when Winter turned to Spring.

This is a fun little book, that might be best described as a 38 panel wordless comic strip. So it is a very quick read, and might be the sort of book that is better to borrow than to buy. But I sure hope your library has it!

If you do want to pick up a copy, you can get it at here, and here.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Gifted Hands

by Ben Carson
240 pages, 1990

If you've seen the Hallmark movie of the same name, let me tell you, the book is even better! Ben Carson grew up in poverty, with only one parent, but her prodding, his own hard work, and many clearly God-given opportunities, allowed him to become a brain surgeon.

The title of the book comes from a passage where Carson explains that he chose neurosurgery because of an "acceptance of my God-given talents of eye-and-hand coordination – my gifted hands – that fitted me for this field." Carson is a charming author because, while he knows he is gifted, he also knows he is flawed. And he knows Who to give credit to for the amazing work he has accomplished.

This biography concludes in 1987 right after the operation that first garnered him national attention: the separation of conjoined twins who were connected at the head.

But I read the book after seeing his appearance at the 2013 American National Prayer Breakfast, which got people talking about him as a potential presidential candidate. With President Obama just two seats away, Dr. Carson gave an outstanding speech on the perils of our country's fiscal irresponsibility. It was a soft-spoken, brutally pointed rebuke of Obama's trillion dollar deficits.

So if you have an interest in medicine, or in the background of this rising political figure you'll find this fascinating.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Amusing Ourselves to Death

by Neil Postman
208 pages, 1985; revised edition 2005

Interesting to call this book a classic. It's not quite 30 years old, and arguably it's hopelessly outdated, focusing on television when we live in a worldwide web world. However, for years I heard it referenced by many other authors I admired, so I finally decided that it was "really good" enough to make a PowerPoint on for my fellow teachers.

Why is it so good? To begin with, Postman goes even further back to that Canadian media maven, Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase "The medium is the message" to explain how every new technology carries with it new ideas about the structure of the world. For example, idols tell us (falsely) that the gods can be seen, clocks carry the message that we need not live by the rhythms of nature, and books imply communication with an unseen audience – as does electronic communication, though in a different way.

As well as conveying different views of the world, different media value different ways of knowing and kinds of knowledge. For example, an oral culture uses proverbs and traditional wisdom to settle disputes, while a literate culture is not impressed by such sources, unless they are backed up by codified, written knowledge.

Postman applies these general principles to American culture (and we can also apply it to Canada!). He demonstrates how Early America’s widespread literacy fostered a society that valued sustained argument, as proven by the widespread reading of serious books, the greater number of newspapers per capita in America than in the British nation that founded the colonies, and the frequent attendance by the 'masses' of lectures and services with complex sermons. Postman calls this period in America the Age of Exposition, in which large crowds attended debates by Lincoln and Douglas with each speaking for an hour at a time, lawyers were considered heroes rather than villains for their logical skill, and even advertisements emphasized arguments over images.

The turn away from exposition resulted from three new technologies giving Americans access to what he calls decontextualized information: telegraph news services that allowed people to follow news that had no local significance to them; photography, which allowed people direct visual experience of a remote setting without exposition or description; and television, which turned knowledge into entertainment.

Postman looks particularly at how television's emphasis on entertainment has distorted various realms of American life. In politics, the 1984 television presidential debate was won in the court of public opinion by the candidate with the best one-liners, and the emphasis on current trends has ended the use of intelligent historical argument. In news coverage, the phrase "Now... this" alerts viewers to the fact that we are leaving one 90-second item for the next unrelated item, the visual appearance of news anchors may get them hired or fired, and many rely on USA Today and People for the equivalent of TV news coverage. Even religion is dominated by televangelism and megachurches inspired by their approach to worship that requires nothing of the worshiper, particularly no real communion of saints. In education, the use of television [and Youtube videos?] has led to experiences for students that give little context and exposition and ask for little effort.

Postman ends by warning that the scenario of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in which the public is kept sedated by soma (an appealing drug) is analogous to television's pop culture sedation of our minds today, and far more likely than George Orwell's oppressive Big Brother world of 1984. In many ways, I think we live in a world that has generous dollops of both, in which Hollywood, "epic fail" videos on Youtube, and the NSA combine to keep the public under watch and uninterested. How we got here, Postman tells us. How it applies to today's world, and what we can do about it, is something thoughtful Christians will begin to ponder when they see how technology, so powerful in the good it can do (e.g.,,, etc.), can also end up Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

John Owen

by Simonetta Carr
62 pages, 2010

Simonetta Carr has created one of the best children's resources about Calvin and has now done the same for John Owen. But there is a difference between the two. While her book on Calvin is the best of a considerable bunch, her book on Owen is the best by default – I don't know if there are any other contenders.

Why this dearth of attention for Owen? He wasn't (quite) the pivotal figure Calvin was, which may explain it in part. But I think there is another reason. While Calvin had a hard life, Owen's life might best be described as complicated, and to a degree that doesn't lend itself to the type of simplified summaries children's biographies need. 

Politically he was involved in three English Civil Wars in which the country went from a monarchy to a republic and back to monarchy again. He was also involved in theological battles to allow for the pure preaching of God's Word – he was a "Noncomformist"who spoke out against the arminianism and intolerance of the Anglican Church. While his fame kept him from prison, the threat of it was always hanging over him. We know little of his personal daily life, but here too he had burdens to bear: John Owen has 11 children, and buried them all. And then there are his writings: Owen is renown as one of the most influential, and theologically dense, English Puritan authors.

To capture this man in a way that children will be able to understand is quite a challenge. And, to be blunt, I don't think Carr quite manages it. Her summary is too much timeline - what he did when - and too little story. We don't get a feel for the man. That said, this is likely the best children's biography that could be written for the man. 

Now that I've damned this book with faint praise, I want to highlight why this is indeed a really good read.

First off it is a  good overview, and easy to follow. Children unfamiliar with the time and place will have no difficulty understanding what is going on. That is no small feat!

Second, Carr has, again, peppered the book with pictures – 37 over its 62 pages – with more than a dozen of them full-page paintings by Matt Abraxas, commissioned just for the book. That gives it a welcoming, inviting feel.

Third, it fills a gap. Church history is a subject that most Christian schools teach, but I don't think many students keep studying it as adults. So even though there are adult biographies on Owen, there was a pressing need for a children's version – we really should have an understanding of what God wrought through this man. Thankfully we now have this very readable introduction.

So I recommend this as a wonderful school resource - all our libraries should have a copy. With a teacher's encouragement children will find this an easy book to read, and a good introduction to a man they knew nothing about before.

You can pick it up at here, and here.

RELATED REVIEWS: Other children's biographies by Simonetta Carr

Monday, October 28, 2013

Saint George and the Dragon

retold by Margaret Hodges
illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
32 pages, 1990

There are a lot of "powder-puff" stories for the pre-K set – stories where everyone is nice, they do nice things, and a nice time is had by all.

I'm all for niceness, but there is a certain lack of drama to these stories. And after reading one after another of them to my three-year-old I noticed she was having a hard time dealing with stories that included disagreements, disappointment or suspense. Anything that wasn't the nicest of nice was becoming scary to her.

Steps needed to be taken to rectify this situation, and what better approach than to tell her stories of valor, self-sacrifice and dragons!

Admittedly the first go around wasn't a success. With no dragon books at hand I made up a story about daddy fighting a dragon in defense of my daughters, and then getting eaten by the fierce beast! Now, I knew this dramatic turn would push my little one's limits, but I was going to quickly follow it with my climactic reemergence, sword in hand, out of the belly of the now dead dragon. A fantastic ending, if I do say so myself. But, alas, my daughter wasn't around to hear it...she had already fled the room.

For my second go I decided to turn to the experts and get an actual book, one of the very best dragon fighting stories ever made by man (or retold by woman): Saint George and Dragon. In this account, taken from Edmund Spenser's classic Faerie Queene, the brave Red Knight is asked by Princess Una to come save her land from a dreadful dragon. And come he does, along with his dwarf companion.

The battle that then commences is beyond epic. The fearsome dragon has "scales of brass fitted so closely that no sword or spear could pierce them" leaving the Red Knight no opportunity to slice into him. It is only "the strength of the blow" that gives the dragon pause. The first day's battle ends when the Red Knight's thrust glances off the dragon's neck, but pierces its left wing. In fury the beast throws the knight and his horse to the ground and then bellows
"the like was never heard before - and from his body, like a wide devouring oven, sent a flame of fire that scorched the knight's face and heated his armor red-hot." 
The knight falls, and the dragon thinks he has won.

But that was just Round 1! The spot where the knight fell, it so happens, was an ancient spring which cools his armor and restores his strength. So much so that the next morning he was ready to do battle again. Two more rounds follow, with the dragon losing a paw, and a length of tail before ultimately succumbing to the Red Knight in Round 3.

My daughter loved it! She needed some reassurance midway through the battle that the knight was going to win, and I should also note I didn't give it as dramatic a reading as I could have - vocally I tamped down on the tension. But there was still plenty of suspense, loads of actions and a full on disagreement between knight and dragon. And my daughter handled it all.

So why should little kids be exposed to drama? Because stories, in addition to be a source of entertainment, can also serve as a means of education. We don't live in a powderpuff world - there are dragons that need slaying. What's more, Christians need to teach their children that the fiercest dragons out there can be and must be slain. God calls us to battle, so while stories about tea parties and talking puppies have their place, at some point training must commence. We have to be properly prepared for disagreements, disappointments, drama and dragons.

I leaned something from my little girl when I saw how she could make it through the scary parts so long as she was assured it would all end well. Lots of scary stuff in life too, but what do we have to fear, knowing as we do that God has already won?

So to sum up, this is an epic tale, retold in the very best way imaginable - my English teaching brother assures me no one has done a better job than author Margaret Hodges. The illustrations are detailed, and while not gore-free (we do see blood spurting from the dragon's tail when it gets cut off) certainly not gory. Both children and adults will enjoy time just pondering the pictures - when people talk of visual feasts, this is what they mean.

The only caution I can add is a bit comical - there is some small elfish immodesty in these pages, with the clearest example in the last picture here. The elves are not part of the story (they are a part of the larger Edmund Spenser tale Faerie Queen, of which this is an extracted part)  but appear on the title page, and in small pictures that frame each page's big center image. The elves, in one or two instances, are entirely naked, but the pictures are so small as to be easy to miss, and the elves themselves so child-like as to be quite innocent-looking. Nothing lascivious here and I mention it only so that those who might find such pictures objectionable aren't surprised by them.

Children from 3 or 4 to as old as 8 or 9 will love this story. And their dads will enjoy reading it to them.

Buy Saint George and the Dragon at this link and will send a tip our way at no cost to you.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Code name Habbakuk

by L.D. Cross
2012, 130 pages

In 1942, as the Allies faced mounting losses in the Atlantic from German U-boat attacks, they began anxiously exploring new ways of protecting their shipping. The oddest possibility they investigated was "Project Habbakuk" - a secret plan to build gigantic, unsinkable aircraft carriers out of ice. Ice, it was suggested, could be an ideal ship building material: it floated, was inexpensive, easily available, and after an attack ship's repairs could be done by simply spraying on some super-cooled water wherever dents and holes might be found.

Winston Churchill was an enthusiastic proponent, and probably the reason the idea was given serious study. But it was up to the Canadians, with our suitably cold climate, to build the first scale model. So that's why a crew of dozens soon found themselves secreted away in the middle of the Rocky Mountains building a 1,000-ton ice boat on the surface of a frozen lake.

It's a weird and wacky story, but it gives genuine insight into just how desperate the Allies were in 1942. An aircraft carrier made out of ice? It should have been a laughable. But with supplies low, and losses high, the Allies were looking for something - anything! - that could turn the course of the war their way. Author L.D. Cross does a great job of delivering the fascinating and highly amusing tale of Project Habbakuk's inspiration, testing and ultimate demise.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature

by Gene Edward Veith
256 pages, 1990

For the last few months, I have reviewed the "reads" that were "really good" enough to be novels we studied in my high school English courses. Reading Between the Lines is one of the books that I enjoyed reading as a resource for my teaching of English literature.

Why? Because it both provides and stimulates insight into what it means to read, and to judge, literature as a Christian. It starts with a chapter on how reading connects us to God through His word, and how our culture values images partly because we no longer want to be people of the Book. The second chapter reminds us that we cannot read uncritically, because although literature gives us vicarious experience, it can also give us the vicarious experience of sin - in other words, stimulating the lust and anger that Christ said were equivalent to the physical sins that they lead to. In this chapter Veith also appeals to Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book from the 1980s analyzing the television-based values of our culture that could also be applied to the use of the internet today. (More on Neil Postman's book next month!)

The next section deals with the forms of literature: nonfiction - the art of truth-telling; fiction - the art of story-telling; and poetry - the art of singing. For each form, Veith analyzes the elements involved, and profiles several Christian authors who admirably exemplify that form: for instance, C. S. Lewis, John Bunyan, Flannery O'Connor, John Donne, the Bible itself, George Herbert, and T. S. Eliot. Several of these profiles either significantly influenced my own taste, or formed valuable background material for my instruction in English literature.

The next section, on the modes of literature, discusses tragedy and comedy as the literature of damnation and salvation (including how they parallel the Bible in part or in whole); realism, which is literature as a mirror of the social world of the author; and fantasy, which is literature as a lamp, shining light into the realities of human nature and faith through invented worlds.

The final section, on the traditions of literature, takes us from the Middle Ages and the Reformation - the literature of belief; the Enlightenment and Romanticism - the literature of nature and the self; and Modernism and Postmodernism - the literature of consciousness and self-consciousness. This historical overview of literature over the past 1000 years or so is an excellent introduction to how literature demonstrates and influences worldview. The final chapter looks at how writers, publishers, and readers influence the making of literature. The book ends with a reading list of suggestions for Christian readers.

One of the reviews on made it clear that some of the references to Christian authors are a bit dated in a book more than 20 years old, but this book has been one that I've not only thoroughly enjoyed reading, but looked forward to rereading when the occasion called for a refresher of my background knowledge of writing and writers. If you not only want to enjoy great literature but appreciate it, you'll enjoy reading this book as well.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Good advice from a great book

If there's one thing that makes a book for me it is good dialogue - conversations that are substantive
and feel genuine. Thus I appreciate Sigmund Brouwer.

In his The Lies of Saints the hero of our story, Nick Barrett, is helping out another private investigator. The reason he needs to help her is because Kellie Mixson is laid up and the hospital, the victim of a particularly nasty car crash. Nick is a good friend, and the perfect gentleman – he knows she has a boyfriend, so he would never think to act on his attraction.

Or so he thinks. But a pastor that knows both P.I.s – the eighty-something Samuel Thorpe – is more than a little concerned. He knows that what a man intends can change quickly, given the wrong sort of circumstances. So when Nick pops by for a visit, Pastor Thorpe decides this is the time for a needed, awkward conversation.

"It's a fine line," Samuel said, "Between ministering and tending another man's business. I'm generally averse to offering advice unasked for and, always so conscious of my own shortcomings, loath to take notice of another's. You'll bear that in mind as I speak." 
"It's a ticklish business to be friends with a woman, particularly one like Miss Kellie. She's fine-looking, and smart and of good character. I'm certain you're not blind to that. I doubt for that matter, that it's escaped her notice that a woman could do worse than land a man like you. But as you mentioned, she's in a committed relationship, Nick." 
"Yes, I have mentioned that before," I said. "But I don't see how this is an issue we need to discuss." 
"It's not only an issue of honor," he said, "but of the slow or fast erosion of your soul. Every moral decision you make, Nick, affects your soul. This woman, I can tell, has a hold on you. Don't do anything to hurt her. Her boyfriend. Or you." 
Sam straightened and began pacing again. "Now I'm not suggesting that you have or intend to do anything inappropriate. But it's like driving a car. Good drivers aren't the ones who can handle a car in a skid and keep it on the road. Good drivers are those who recognize when conditions are bad and take action not to get into trouble in the first place." 
"Kellie's in trouble," I said. "She needs help. That's all I'm doing."
"You don't have to justify your motives to me. Just beware of them yourself. All I'm saying is if there's trouble way up the road, it'd be a lot better for you to see it coming and slow down before you reach it."
Canadians can get Lies of Saints at, and Americans can find it here at

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Harold and the Purple Crayon... and a red crayon too!

Harold and the Purple Crayon
by Crockett Johnson
64 pages, 1955

Harold is a little boy with a big purple crayon and an even larger imagination. The book is delightfully simple - Harold lives in a blank-canvas of a world, and with his purple crayon he can create the adventure he wants to embark on. As his adventure begins Harold is faced with a problem:
One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight. There wasn't any moon, and Harold need a moon for a walking the moonlight. 
So Harold uses his purple crayon to draw the moon, and then to draw a path to set out on.

One of the funniest situations occurs when, after drawing  "a terribly frightening dragon," Harold is so scared by his own creation he backs away, and "His hand holding the purple crayon shook." So what happens when you draw with a shaking hand? You draw waves! So Harold ends up backing away from the dragon into water he had just accidentally created! Fortunately the quick-thinking Harold rectifies the situation by drawing a boat to climb into.

Children will appreciate the imaginative storyline, and the simple illustrations – attractive but also do-able for children as young as four or five. So Harold's adventure may inspire your children to create some adventures of their own!

You can pick it up at here, and here.

by Aaron Becker

40 pages, 2013

While Crockett Johnson wrote sequels to Harold and the Purple Crayon I think Aaron Becker's Journey might be the most worthy successor.

There are some notable differences: Harold's world is a blank page, ready to be drawn on, while Journey has lavish full color spreads; Harold is narrated, while Journey is a completely wordless book. But in both books a child equipped with a large crayon and an even larger imagination sets out on an adventure of their own creating.

Journey begins with a bored little girl trying to get her mom, her dad, or his sister to come play with her. But her family is too busy, so the girl retreats to her room where she happens upon her red crayon. She draws a red door on her wall, and opens it to an entirely new world. A quickly drawn red boat allows her to float down a forest stream to a castle that has moats running all throughout it, and friendly guards who wave her through. Like Harold, she too, in a moment of quick thinking, conjures up a balloon to save herself from a big fall. The adventure continues into the clouds, where she comes upon a strange king, his stranger airship, and a beautiful bird that looks almost as if someone - someone with a purple crayon - had drawn it!

I loved "reading" this with my three-year-old daughter, asking her as we turned each page to tell me what was happening. Sometimes I had to point out certain details in the pictures to help her along, but for the most part this was a book that she could, to her delight, read to her daddy. Simply wonderful!

Becker has turned now this into a trilogy, with the girl being joined by a chalk-drawing friend for a Quest in book two, and then coming full circle, and meeting up with her father in the chalk world in book three, Return. I've read both to my girls, and we loved every bit of it – they are just as charming, and also wordless, so the girls get to search out the pages, and figure out the story right along with dad.

But these two sequels got a little mystical. In the second book, Quest, this mysticism is so minor it is hardly worth mention – a quest for other chalk colors takes them diving underwater to an ancient Greek-type temple, and then up in the mountains to some Buddhist type temple. No biggie.

In book three, Return, they end up in a cave where drawings on the wall show their previous adventures, and also prophecies about how they will beat the bad guy who is chasing them. They follow the directions, and yes, it works just as the drawings foretold. Now, there are no words in these books, so there are no details as to how these drawings came to be, and what person or being made them. And, as the dad "reading" this with my daughters, I can choose to point out the details as I like and I just didn't focus my daughters' attention on this prophetic angle. But the author, in creating a world where chalk drawings can come alive, is now also creating a bit of a "chalk religion" in book three, and I found that a bit disconcerting.

All in all, I'd recommend book one and two with no cautions – these are great imaginative books that I'd consider buying, because they stand up to repeated viewings. But book three is one I'd be up for borrowing from the library, but not so interested in owning.

You can pick up Journey at here, and here.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Citizen Scientists: Be A Part of Scientific Discovery From Your Own Backyard

by Loree Griffin Burns
photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz
Henry Holt and Company, 2012
80 pages, Paperback

When I was a kid, I liked to look at bugs, frogs, and other creepy things.  When I grew up, I graduated to an interest in birdwatching.  And when I became a teacher, I enjoyed biology units in which I could encourage my students to learn more about the natural world around them. 

Citizen Scientists is a book that can help kids (and grownups) begin to recognize some of the detail and beauty of creation.  It's about how ordinary people can contribute to actual research projects - a "citizen scientist" is someone who helps professional scientists collect information in the field.  There's four sections, each covering monarch butterflies, winter birding, listening for frogs in spring, and looking for ladybugs. 

Each section shares a quick story about a child who has made a hobby of observing nature, explains about the creature or creatures being examined, gives the reader information about how to get started, and has a list of resources (both books and online) to help the reader learn what they need to know in order to find and identify each creature.  There's also information about why keeping track of what animals live where is important information.

What I really like about this book is that it isn't just something to read and then put aside - putting the information to use could lead to some great family time outdoors, learning and exploring together.

There is a focus on American places and creatures, but there is enough overlap with Canadian ecology, and enough additional resources suggested that it's still useful and interesting for Canadians.  Recommended for ages 8 and up.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Chosen

by Chaim Potok
304 pages, 1987 (originally published 1967)

This is the last novel some of my students will ever read, since we deal with it in the regular Grade 12 English course. For non-readers, it's not a bad way to end your reading career, since it is a thoughtful look at the difficulties of growing up as members of a small religious group in the midst of a society that attaches little or no value to your convictions. In other words, though it deals with members of two different Jewish communities in New York during the Second World War, The Chosen gives students in our Reformed Christian school a good sense of what may face them after graduation.

The narrator of the story, a teen named Reuven Malter, is the son of a brilliant Orthodox Talmudic scholar (a professor of the Jewish scriptures and commentaries) named David Malter. Reuven's father uses rationalistic methods to understand the seeming inconsistencies in the transmission of those sacred and near-sacred books - analogous to liberal scholars who used higher criticism to cast doubts on the reliability of the Bible. Despite this somewhat unpromising parentage, Reuven is devout in his belief in God, and eventually wishes to become a rabbi.

Strangely, Reuven, through the most entertaining (and violent) opening baseball game I have read in fiction, meets and befriends Danny Saunders, the son of a Hasidic rabbi whose beliefs are much clearer and perhaps even simplistic - a bit like Reformed believers who face the temptation to place more stock in tradition rather than the Bible it is based on. Reb Saunders, Danny's father, speaks directly to God, calling him the Master of the Universe; speaks only Yiddish; and uses the methods of his Hasidic forebears to raise Danny in a way that repels both Reuven and his father.

In spite of the injury done to him by Danny, and his lack of sympathy for Reb Saunders' parenting method, Reuven is drawn into the strange and mystical world of Hasidism in his concern for Danny, who, ironically, is also rejecting his seeming destiny in his choice of psychology for a future career.

In the course of Reuven and Danny's intense friendship, we see the value of such friendship; the difficulty of varied American Jewish groups in reacting to the Holocaust and the beginning of the state of Israel; and the challenge of secular worldviews (especially Freudian psychology) to the faith of those who believe in God, in his control of the universe, and in the truth of human responsibility. As well, the novel makes clear the anguish of those who do not understand or trust in either God's providence or His redemptive work in Christ.

It should be clear by now that this is not a Christian novel - but it is a novel that affords ample opportunity to Christians to discern the blessings of their faith by contrast with mysticism, materialism, and other worldviews. As well, it shows the challenges of trying to live within a secular society, challenges that are exacerbated by further division within the faith. However, exactly because it is a faithful portrayal of Jewish life in New York in the War, it also, sadly, reproduces the language of some Jews who, naturally, have no respect for the name of Christ - mostly during this intense conflict of the opening baseball game between the Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. Once past this conflict, the novel sheds more light than profane heat.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Wings of Dawn, oops, I mean The Orphan King and Fortress of the Mist

Wings of Dawn
by Sigmund Brouwer
450 pages, 1999

There is a danger in overhyping a book. One of my very favorite novels is Sigmund Brouwer's Wings of Dawn. It is a book I've shared with many of my niece and nephews, and while each has enjoyed it, none has been nearly as effusive in their praise as I, and that is, I'm sure, partly due to the raised expectations created by my own enthusiasm for the book.

But it is a very good book. What grabbed me was the inventiveness of the premise. It takes place in the 1300s, and the hero of the story is a young man of seemingly humble abilities - Thomas is but a servant. He is, however, a servant who has at his disposal the wisdom of that present time, from the four corners of the world, in the form of some very helpful books. So, for example, he knows the secret of making a powder that burns the throat and blinds the eyes which can make it seem, to those not in the know, that Thomas has a wizard's ability to cast blindness on his enemies.

He has more tricks in his bag, all things that would seem magical to ordinary peasants and even lords and kings at that time, but tricks that someone, somewhere in the world, had, in fact figured out by this time in history. So it is at least theoretically possible that someone could have gathered all this knowledge together and, in doing so, given themselves the ability to seem quite the wizard.

To sum up, it's a very cool premise, and pulled off by an excellent storyteller.

The Orphan King
by Sigmund Brouwer
220 pages, 2012

When I learned the author had reworked the one book into at least four, to give him room to further flesh out the story I was quite excited. The first three, The Orphan King, Fortress of Mist, and Martyr's Fire have been released, with no date yet on the fourth. Wings of Dawn was 450 pages, and each of these stories is 220+ so it looks like the story will be expanded by at least 100 per cent. After finishing the first three I am very pleased. It is very much the same story, but he has managed to improve on what was already excellent.

In The Orphan King we are introduced to Thomas as a servant intent on conquering a kingdom. You might think that sort of task would take an army, but all Thomas wants is one single solitary knight. But what knight in his right mind would sign up for such a suicidal task? To make matters even more challenging Thomas has a enemy who is intent on either killing him or recruiting him but Thomas has no idea who it might be. Unsure of who to trust, it seems if this boy is really to conquer a kingdom, he is going to have to do it alone!

Fortress of Mist

by Sigmund Brouwer
220 pages, 2013

Thomas has his kingdom, and an impenetrable castle. But can he keep it? And can he figure out who to trust? In Fortress of Mist Thomas takes part in two enormous war campaigns, and emerges unscathed, due to the knowledge contained in his books. But he discovers that it is those very books that his mysterious enemies are after. Thomas still doesn't know who to trust, but learns that just as there is a hidden enemy after him, there also seem to be hidden friends who want to help.

Some of the added depth to the expanded storyline in this trilogy is more on Thomas's rejection of, and reluctant search for, God. Thomas has had a hard life, orphaned as a child, then raised by monks who had no love for him. So he wonders how a good God could allow so much evil. It is a question asked but unanswered in the first book. In the second he gets to know a good Christian man, and starts to see the difference between the "christianity" of the corrupt Church, and Christianity as it is outlined in the Bible. In the second book, as in the first, Thomas's investigation into who God is only amounts to a few pages, but it is well integrated into the story - this is no clumsily presented Christian subplot. The life and death situations Thomas faces drive him, quite naturally, to start asking about the most important issue of life: why are we here?

Martyr's Fire
by Sigmund Brouwer
216 pages, 2013

Thomas took his kingdom with trickery, but now a group with even better tricks has arrived in Magnus. Fifteen "priests" of the Holy Grail are swaying the people to their side, under the threat of eternal condemnation, and they have signs and wonders providing their credentials as God's spokesmen. With the people now against him, Thomas seems destined for a stay in his own dungeon. But he still has one friend in Magnus and with his help Thomas might still escape to fight another day!

The author devotes a few pages in Martyr's Fire to exploring just what faith is, and unfortunately, he gets it wrong. Brouwer seems to believe that faith is simply a blind leap into the unknown that we have to take because we have no other options. He makes it out to be almost irrational - just believe! But, as apologist Sye Ten Bruggencate noted, we have a pump, in our chest, made out of meat, that works continuously for 70-80 years, fueled by donuts. So it is hardly a blind leap to belief there is a loving God, who made us. Sometimes if might feel like there is no evidence of God, particularly when we are neck deep in sin, doing our very best to avoid Him. While it might feel that way sometimes, that isn't how it actually is.

But this discussion of blind faith only amounts to a few pages and the rest of the book is a rollicking ride. Boys in their teens, particularly if they are at all interested in knights and castles, will enjoy this immensely... or at least if their uncle doesn't overhype it. And this is something their dads can enjoy too, if they understand it is actually aimed at a teen/young adult audience.

Blades of Valor
by Sigmund Brouwer
????, 2014

This is a solid, but not spectacular ending to the series. There were a few too many instances where the only reason things aren't brought to a quick and final resolution is because Thomas won't trust the very lovely and in-love Katherine, and vice-versa. That distrust was a part of the other books too, but by the fourth it has started to wear a little thin. So while I liked that the original one-book version of this story, Wings of Dawn, was expanded, it probably would have been better to expand it to just three books and not four.

That said this is still a solid ending to a really great series.

Inexplicably the publisher decided to release the fourth book only as an e-book (which is why I haven't listed a page count). And that is beyond annoying. I have paperback versions of the first three books, but have to loan out my Kindle for someone to read the fourth? It so bothered me I've emailed the publisher twice, but gotten no response. At this point it looks like they are not going to release the fourth in paperback at all.

If they don't, then get an old copy of Wings of Dawn instead, because you are going to want to share this story with your friends.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Choosing my Religion

by R.C. Sproul
117 pages, 2005

Half-way through I still wasn’t sure if this was meant for Christians, or searching non-Christians. The answer is, both. Sproul wants to help both groups with the questions that come up in university and college.

For Christians the answers and illustrations here will be an encouragement and also equip them to talk about God with their classmates For searching non-Christians, Sproul pushes them to contrast and compare their current worldview with the Christian one.

To best explain the book I need to give an example. At one point Sproul asks: “What sets the Christian faith from all other religions?” He explains it comes down to the answers to two questions:
  1. Who initiates my rescue?
  2. From whom must I be rescued?
Of all religions that ever claimed your allegiance, only Christianity answers both questions with the same one-word response: God. I’d not heard it quite like that before. Both Christians and non-Christians are sure to find such succinct explanations helpful. And the book is full of many more!

Highly recommended for college and university students, or any young people who are discussing Christianity and other religions.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Cat Who Wore a Pot on Her Head

by Jan Slepian and Ann Seidler
32 pages, 1987

This is just plain goofy fun. Bendemolena is a little kitten that is part of a big family - a noisy family! As the story begins Bendemolena finds a pot, plops it on her head and discovers that her loud home becomes a lot quieter when her ears are covered, so she decides to keep wearing it.

Problems start when her mother, Mrs. Cat, has to leave to help a sick friend, and takes the now hard of hearing Bendemolena with her to relay messages to the rest of the family back home. Mrs. Cat says, "Bendemolena, Bendemolena, run home and tell your brothers and sisters that it's time to put the fish on to bake."

But with the pot pulled tight over her ears Bendemolena isn't quite sure what her mother said: "Did she say put the smish on to fake or put the bish in the lake?" She concludes what her mother must have said was, "to put the soap in the cake" so that's what she tells her brothers and sisters to do.

My three-year-old loved every guess Bendemolena made, and all the silliness that happened each time she came home with another mixed-up message. I'm sure we'll be revisiting this giggle-inducing book regularly.

You can pick up a copy at by clicking here.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Lord of the Flies

by William Golding
1954 / 304 pages
this edition with introduction by Stephen King published 2011

First off: a caution about the author of the introduction. I would not recommend any book by this author. Stephen King's horror novels fail to do one thing that this novel does very well, and that is to make violence truly horrifying.

As a study novel for many English teachers, this story is so well known that it's hard to say anything really new about it. I even read an article once, when the television "reality" series Survivor began, that compared it to this novel.

Actually, that's a good place to start in talking about Golding's story. Survivor fails as art because it succeeds as entertainment (in the worst way). It makes the backstabbing treachery required to win a million dollars (by getting the others voted "off the island") amusing and flattering to our self-righteous sense of superiority to its crudely cunning contestants. Golding, though, shows us that even "the best laid plans gang aft agley" (as Robert Burns put it). In other words, while Survivor (and many daytime talk shows) enable us to compare ourselves (favorably, of course) to the so-called "trailer park trash" of our world and think like the Pharisee in Christ's parable that we are "not like that publican over there," Lord of the Flies shows us that "there, but for the grace of God, go I."

Not that Golding was a Christian. One of his novels depicts the wanderings and conflicts of a group of Neanderthals, and the few seemingly Biblical references in this novel are double-edged. For instance, one character seems Christ-like in his compassion and meekness, and cries out something about "a body on a hill" - a seeming reference to the Crucifixion - but that character also seens to hear the voice of "the lord of the flies" (a literal translation of Beelzebul, a Biblical name for the devil) in the midst of what seem to be epileptic fits.

So... Golding is not writing from a Christian perspective; however, Christians will still find much worthy of consideration in this story. Golding had served in World War II, and had plenty of evidence of man's inhumanity to man. This hard-won insight into man's innate bent toward evil enabled him to see what Reformed Christians call total depravity.

The novel begins with the crash landing of  a plane on a desert island. The boys inside are being evacuated from England due to the threat of a nuclear war. How these young boys set up their own new society without any adult supervision is the point of the story. In the early Christian church, Pelagius believed that our sinful behaviour was learned rather than inborn. If so, these boys should have an immense advantage over the adults whose war threatens to destroy civilization, but do they?

If, on the other hand, we are conceived and born in sin, the boys' reconstructed society should show man's evil on two levels. In the first place, various boys or groups of boys highlight various aspects of man's nature - his reason, his spiritual side, his common sense, his desire for power. The Greek philosopher Plato believed that our main problem was our inability to balance these various parts of our personality, and the boys' society shows exactly how the best sides of our nature are overwhelmed by the worst in us.

Secondly, various boys or groups of boys remind us as we read of groups running amok within a dysfunctional society like the military, intelligence agencies, government, mystics, and scientists. While various ideologies tend to idolize certain kinds of people, the Christian understanding of total depravity would predict that each group has its own weaknesses, temptations, and sins. Golding indeed shows how there are no "good guys" on the island (just as King David, the man after God's own heart, was yet guilty of many sins). The one who gets closest, sadly, has the least influence.

The novel does not end terribly hopefully. Even Golding himself, in an interview, revealed that one of the characters that people tend to trust the most in the novel got everything completely wrong. So... what hope does the novel leave Christians with? The beauty of the novel is that one of the characters, the one through whose eyes we have viewed most of the story, has gained enough insight into himself and the other boys to grieve the evil they have done, and most importantly, to stop making excuses for it. The novel challenges us, with the added insight of God's word, to do the same for ourselves.

You can pick up a copy at here and here.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Morning Star of the Reformation

by Andy Thomson
134 pages, 1988

If Martin Luther was the "Father of the Reformation" then John Wycliffe must be its grandfather. Like Luther would one hundred years later, Wycliffe argued for sola scriptura, translated the Bible into his own language, denounced the pope and spoke against indulgences.

Morning Star of the Reformation is a fictionalized biography of Wycliffe that gives a fascinating feel for the time. We learn what city life was like, what the common people believed about the Church, what they ate, how they slept and what they did for fun.

Morning Star is intended for children 12 and up, but I think adults looking for a quick introduction to Wycliffe will enjoy it too. It is downright fun to be able to look back in history and see how God was setting the stage, a century beforehand, for the appearance of Luther and Calvin.

It is important to note this is a fictionalized biography. This is particularly true in the first half of the book, about his young life, where most of it is is made up. That isn't a big problem if readers understand which characters and events are fact and which are fiction. However the author waits until the last two pages to clarity how much of this is actually historically accurate, so my one criticism of this very enjoyable read is that the last two pages of the book would have been much better placed at the very beginning of the book.

So my heartiest recommendation... if you read the last couple of pages first.

Related reviews: children's books on the Reformation

Louise Vernon's novel about William Tyndale: The Bible smuggler
R.C. Sproul's picture book on Luther getting his hair cut: The Barber who wanted to pray
William Boekesten's picture book on Guido de Brés: Faithfulness under Fire
Simonetta Carr's picture books on John Knox, John Owen, and John Calvin

If you are interested in buying "Morning Star of the Reformation" you can support this site by purchasing it from via this link.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


by Katherine Erskine
2010 / 235 pages                  

The subtitle underneath the (uncapitalized) title of this novel is the dictionary pronunciation of the same word. Why?

Because the protagonist of the story, ten-year-old Caitlin, is living with Asperger's syndrome, as a result of which everything in her world has to be black and white, on or off. Caitlin, a gifted artist, doesn't like drawing in colour, takes instructions (very) literally, and finds it very difficult to express emotion herself or read others' emotions - and so prefers to get her understanding of life from encyclopedias and dictionaries (including the pronunciation). I've had students like that myself, who do very well at the right kind of work and with the right kind of guidance.

Caitlin has also done well for most of her life, with the guidance of her older brother Devon, but when she loses him on "The Day Our Life Fell Apart," as she calls it, she struggles to find her way through life without him to explain what it all means and how to react to life's pitfalls.

So why is the novel called mockingbird?  The title points to one of Caitlin's sources of inspiration as she wrestles with life without her older brother's help. She and Devon loved the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and several ideas from the movie pop up repeatedly in the novel: walking around in someone else's shoes and the parental command not to kill a mockingbird - both figures of speech, which makes it difficult for Caitlin to "Get It."

But "Get It" she does, finding closure - an "emotional conclusion to a difficult life event." At first she does not really understand the definition she has looked up, but with the help of her school counselor, she learns how to make friends, how to feel what others feel, and how to deal with what happened to Devon. Her introduction to the gray areas of life also bring colour into her own life - perhaps even into her own drawing.

A novel that will bring a renewed appreciation of both the difficulty and the importance of  learning to "[r]ejoice with those who rejoice" and [w]eep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15), mockingbird is not a specifically Christian story, but it does remind us of how much greater should be our love within and from the communion of saints. In many ways, God must also be patient with us, until, by the gracious work of His Spirit, we finally "Get It" - until the final coming of the Son brings true closure to this world cursed by sin.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Christian Counselor's Commentary: Proverbs

by Jay E. Adams
1997 / 231 pages

I grew up with a set of Calvin's Commentaries at my disposal for any Bible study essays I might have to write. That was quite the blessing, because Calvin's thoughts were reliable and insightful. But they weren't all that readable; these were not books you would pick up and read from front to back. For the longest time I thought that was just the way commentaries were – formal, and formidable – but when I came across this series I learned different. The author is solidly Reformed, his insights reliable, and his commentary on Proverbs readable enough that this could be used for personal devotions.

I also appreciated that the full text of Proverbs is included, which allowed readers to take just the one book with them – no need to also take a Bible – if they want to do a little study at the local coffee shop or park. This portability is a nice bonus.

Adams is best known as the "father of biblical counseling." Forty years ago he reminded the church that God has equipped us to look after our spiritually weak and wounded, and that this is not a task to be handed off to secular psychologists and psychiatrists. Proverbs is a book of particular value to this work; it is in some ways the "owner's manual" for mankind. Adams ably shows how much wisdom, how much love God has packed into each one of these proverbs. Help can be found here, and helpers equipped. I highly recommend this to elders, and also to anyone who wants a readable, reliable, Reformed commentary.

Friday, June 28, 2013


by John Piper
2013, 51 pages

Even the subtitle to this book is challenging: Better to lose your life than to waste it.
What a thought! But it is clearly a biblical one. Our life is a gift from God, and like the three servants in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30) we're supposed to do something with this "talent" – playing it safe is not an option.

Of course Piper isn't promoting risk-taking for risk's sake – he doesn't want us driving without our seatbelt on, or walking along the edge of a cliff. What he's warning us against is making safety and security idols we worship instead of God. Piper is arguing that it's when we're willing to risk our money, risk losing face, risk even our life to honor God that God is most glorified. Then the world knows what is most important to us. And, conversely, if we run from risk, then we aren't living our lives like we believe that whatever we might lose here is nothing compared to what we'll receive from God.

Risk is right is a quick read and one that young men in particular may benefit from. And – bonus! – it can be downloaded for free here.

And if you want a print copy you can pick one up at here and here.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Augustine: The farmer’s boy of Tagaste

by P. De Zeeuw 
93 page, Paperback

Augustine might be called the father of the Reformation - though he lived a thousand years before them he was an influential figure to both Luther and Calvin.

Augustine: the farmer’s boy of Tagaste, aimed at Grade 3 and older, is an age-appropriate look at what a man without God is really like. Author P. De Zeeuw shows us that Augustine was not a nice young man – he stole from his parents, lied repeatedly to his mother, was lazy, and didn’t care about anyone other than himself. For our children, many of whom have been blessed to be born into the church, Augustine’s early life may be an eye-opening look at wickedness and its consequences. They likely will not have met a man with the past of this fellow! The time De Zeeuw spends looking at Augustine’s sinful young life is what makes his redemption, and the use God made of Augustine, that much more awe-inspiring. God took a rebel and made him a key figure in the Church, both in his own time, and in the Reformation one thousand years later.

Now it should be noted that the cover is bad – this is not a cover that is liable to make a child pull the book off the shelf. I'm not sure what the pictured broken statue has to do with the story. I'm presuming it is a statue of Augustine, but again, why a drawing of a statue of him? Why not just draw him? However inside the book are some helpful simple line drawings, about one a chapter or so, which are a great addition.

The story is excellent, and the writing is okay – it is a translation of the Dutch original so there are a few rough spots where the sentences don't flow quite like they could, but the writing is never so rough as to get in the way of the story. So when you add it all up - lousy cover, great story, solid, yet unremarkable writing – you've got a book that would be great for children who love reading and are able to handle these "rough spots."
De Zeeuw’s Augustine focuses primarily on the church leader's pre-conversion life, spending only a third of the 93 pages on what happened afterwards (Pelagius is mentioned just once!). So Simonetta Carr’s Augustine, which focuses on his post conversion life, would be the perfect title to read right afterwards.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Tales from the Perilous Realm

by J. R. R. Tolkien
(illustrated by Alan Lee)
UK General Books (April 27 2009), 432 pages

J. R. R. Tolkien’s Tales from the Perilous Realm show another side of his amazing creative power. As a father, Tolkien created stories for his children of another realm beyond Middle Earth, and yet not entirely beyond life as we know it. Why is this other realm so “perilous”? Because it reflects the mystery of life – of love, loss, pride, purgatory, and faerie.
That’s right – purgatory. Tolkien, a Catholic, promoted some “perilous” ideas in his tales that mature Reformed readers will have no trouble rejecting, like a farmer defying his king or a painter atoning for his own sins, but behind those ideas are some sound insights into human nature (see Jeremiah 17:9) and God’s grace (see 1 Corinthians 3:10-16).

The first story, "Roverandom," was Tolkien's gift to console one of his sons on the loss of his toy dog - which in the story is a real dog that has become a toy dog through a cranky sorceror's spell, and goes through the kinds of adventures that a new toy dog might be expected to have in a world in which the moon and the Western Isles are equally (un)attainable destinations for the average person. A great tale to read aloud to kids with their own stuffed animals.

The defiant "Farmer Giles of Ham" is not a humble hero, but he is given the opportunity to humble others even more arrogant than himself (including a miller, a dragon, and a king) in Tolkien's glimpse into vanity both petty and grandiose. The story itself mocks the vanity of academic editors as well.

Only two of the sixteen poems in "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil" are actually about possibly the most intriguing character in The Lord of the Rings. The poems, either written or collected by Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam - the hobbits who most loved (and eventually missed) the magical glamour of the elves - show that any kind of faerie spell (including love) can be both enchanting and dangerous. (Blessings can become idols.)

"Smith of Wooton Major" can be seen as a comment on the need for childlike faith, as only those who are given the ability to see - and explore - the realm of faerie can get beyond the cynicism of being too sensible to believe in such seeming nonsense.

Finally, "Leaf by Niggle," though it allegorically depicts purgatory, also shows the importance of others, and the service of others, in the communion of saints. That annoying brother or sister in the congregation may actually be just what the aspiring artist needs to anchor his work in the real world.

For the devoted Tolkien fan, there are also new looks at Tolkien’s home life in the introduction and Tolkien’s famous essay “On Fairy-stories,” showing the value of such stories and the inspiration(s) for them.

So, although there are some pitfall in the path Tolkien treads in his Tales, the Perilous Realm is still well worth exploring for the discerning reader.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Alfie Gets In First

by Shirley Hughes
32 pages, 2009

Alfie is a four-year-old boy with a little sister named Annie Rose. This charming little chap likes to help mom, visit grandma, and take his blanket everywhere. Author, Shirley Hugues, understands the world of children and understands that small stories are big for them. For example, getting a new pair of rubber boots is a quite an event for a boy who loves to stamp in puddles (see Alfie's Feet).

In Alfie Gets in First the little man dashes by his mom to get inside first, and then, when mom goes back outside to get Annie Rose, Alfie slams the front door and accidentally locks everyone out.

Hughes is a wonderful illustrator and makes great use here of the reader being able to see what's happening on both sides of the door. On the one side we see mom, and soon the neighbors too, encouraging Alfie to reach for the door handle. But Alfie is too short, so on the other side we see him putting his own plan into action. When he does manage to get the door open Alfie is a hero, and a celebration over tea and cookies is had with all the neighbors who tried to help.

There is a lot of text on some pages, but if your children can sit still for 10 minutes there is more than enough detail in the pictures to give them lots to look at. Our family hasn't read all the Alfie books yet, but we sure have loved the ones we've seen.

You can pick up Alfie Gets in First at here and here.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Adam in the New Testament

Mere Teaching Model or First Historical Man?
by J. P. Versteeg 
(translated by Richard B. Gaffin Jr.)
P&R Publishing, 2012

This short book shows that those who question the historical reality of Adam have a lot more than the first few chapters of Genesis to contend with. J.P. Versteeg goes through New Testament passages that refer to Adam, including Roman 5:12-21, Luke 3:38, 1 Cor. 15:22, 1 Cor. 15:45, 1 Timothy 2:13-14 and Jude 14, and shows that the Adam mentioned in these passages is understood as a real actual person.

Versteeg also outlines the consequences of denying the historical reality of the first Adam – if we want to treat him as something else, then we undercut the meaning of these texts. In the Creation/Evolution debate Christians in the Evolution camp will make the plea that we should agree to disagree because it isn't a foundational doctrine. But Versteeg makes the case that the very Gospel is at stake!

This is a translated work, first appearing as a chapter in a larger Dutch volume some 40 years ago. But in 21012 a wonderfully translated version (by Richard Gaffin Jr.) was published on its own. This is a scholarly work, but also only 100 pages, so anyone interested in the topic matter will find this easy enough to work through, and will be well-rewarded for their efforts. Adam in the New Testament: Mere Teaching Model or First Historical Man? is a very timely work for our churches at this time, and a volume that every minister and elder must read.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Lady Jane Grey

by Simonetta Carr
Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, 60 pages

Four hundred and sixty years ago, Lady Jane Grey was made Queen of England, but she lasted in that position for less than two weeks. She never wanted the job, but was pressed into the service of her country after the Protestant King Edward died, leaving his Roman Catholic older stepsister, princess Mary, as the only other potential successor. So Jane accepted the crown. But only days afterward Mary seized power and imprisoned Jane. A little over six months later Jane was executed, but not before gaining fame for her unwavering faith and love for the Lord. Though she reigned just days, her example of faithfulness has impacted generations.

Simonetta Carr has authored a half dozen “Christian Biographies for Young Readers” so far and I’ve found each of the 4 I’ve read to be of an impressively high quality, from pictures, to production values, to prose. They are intended for kids, probably Grade 3 and up, but adults will enjoy them too. That said, Lady Jane Grey was slower paced than the others, probably because there is a lot less action in her life and short reign, so if you have the other titles this will make a great addition, but if you are only going to buy one or two start with Augustine or John Calvin instead.

You can pick it up at here or here.