Monday, December 28, 2015

How to train a train

by Jason Carter Eaton
48 pages / 2013

This is good old-fashioned goofy fun. What if trains were like pets? What if they liked to fetch, and had to be bathed, and, of course, trained? In this guidebook for training trains a seasoned train trainer tells us how to find, select, catch, care for, name, and, train our new train.

The pictures really make the book special, so to give you a feel, here's a couple from the training sessions. When it comes to training your train you'll want to start with the basics, like "play dead."

And of course the always popular "fetch"!

Your kids will be sure to like this one, though because the story was quite simple I was glad we got this one from the library. We'll probably borrow it a few times through the years, but since none of my girls are really into trains, I don't feel a need to own this one. But for a child into trains, the pictures in this are pretty amazing: detailed and lively, with all sorts of trains depicted. You can pick up a copy at by clicking here.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Redeeming Love

by Francine Rivers
1997 / 464 pages

Whoever said you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover must have been thinking about Francine River’s novel Redeeming Love. When it first appeared on bookshelves it was marketed with a Harlequin Romance-esque cover – a beautiful woman looking forlorn, vulnerable, and oh-so-in-need of a strong man.

Despite the front picture, people were buying the book in bunches and the sales clerks at all three of my local Christian bookstores gushed over it. Two Reformed ministers recommended it to me. Still, I couldn’t look at the cover without rolling my eyes – I couldn't bring myself to buy it.

A year later it came out with a much more subdued cover, one that I could walk around in public without the other boys making fun of me. Finally I was able to buy it and read it.

It was worth the wait. A powerful, poignant, even brilliant novel, it tells the story of Michael Hosea, a settler in the California of 1850. The story is in many ways the retelling of the book of Hosea, and the true power of the story is in how it forces the reader back to the Bible to reexamine a small prophetic book many have overlooked. You can’t help but study the book of Hosea after reading this novel.

If you are well acquainted with Hosea you’ll understand why this novel comes with a “PG-13” rating. The prophet Hosea, after all, marries a prostitute, and Francine Rivers closely parallels those facts in her account. So some disturbing subject matter is dealt with that probably isn’t suitable for young teens.

Now, I'm always leery of books that purport to be fictionalized retellings of biblical stories, and with good reason. I remember one novel about the apostle Paul that left readers with the impression that him and James actually disagreed as to the importance of works, which is entirely untrue. Francine Rivers also has a number of fictionalized biographies of biblical characters and because fact is mixed with fiction it is so very hard, after reading one of those stories, to remember just what the Bible really says. So, I don't thinking fictionalized Bible tales are all that great an idea.

But because this is inspired by, rather than purporting to be, the book of Hosea, Redeeming Love is something else entirely. It would be hard to confuse this with the original source material. And yet, it is an insightful parallel of Hosea that might make this somewhat mystifying Bible book a little more understandable for some readers. And it is simply a really good read! 

You can buy a copy at by clicking here.

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Severe Mercy

by Sheldon Van Auken
243 pages / originally published 1977

Another "really old read," but one that I've heard about a few times over the years, and finally read only recently. C. S. Lewis and his admirers do that to you. Sheldon "Van" Vanauken and his wife Jean "Davy" Vanauken not only admired C. S. Lewis, but they met him, spent time with him in his Oxford haunts, and corresponded with him - activities many a Christian English teacher would envy them for (certainly this one would!).

However, all that was after they met each other and set up what they called the "Shining Barrier" for their love. As Sheldon recounts it, they met as fellow pagans, and lived together in a blissful love (both before and after marriage) that few couples ever experience. This seems like simple arrogance, but as he explains it, their relationship had a kind of intentionality that should be characteristic of every Christian marriage. They even named the events that threatened their intense and exclusive love for each other in ways that showed that they were aware that maintaining such an intensity was a kind of warfare. For instance, they called their refusals of other possible commitments names like the "Air Force Defeat" and the "Squadron Defeat." Vanauken also uses words like "inloveness" to describe their emotion and passes on the poems he wrote during their courtship, and the two of them deliberately chose a nomadic lifestyle, boating on the Atlantic, that kept them from getting distracted by other involvements.

Nonetheless, it is not the "Shining Barrier" that makes the teaser on the top of the cover of my copy accurate: "A real-life love story, full of wonder and hope." Clearly, Christians cannot find hope in even the most ideal love story from the 1970s unless it also demonstrated God's love. God's love does manifest itself when the Vanaukens begin to meet, with considerable initial skepticism, various Christians on the campus who make Christianity both more and more intellectually credible and more and more relevant to the modern world. This already puts them somewhat in the orbit of C. S. Lewis, who spent much of his life pursuing both those objectives. Actually meeting him makes their change even easier.
When the Vanaukens do become Christians, they have difficulty integrating their old lifestyle with their new understanding of who God is in Christ. In that past life, they had even determined that if one were to become gravely ill, the two of them would die together, in, for instance, the deliberate sinking of their boat. Now they understand that that would be self-murder, but Sheldon still becomes jealous of his wife's increasing commitment to Christ when they move to the States.

If that were all that happened, the story might be one of gradually adapting themselves to the structures of American Christianity even while Sheldon continues to make idols both of the woman he loves and of their relationship. However, God, with the "severe mercy" of the title, acts to break the back of what Vanauken realizes in hindsight is a pagan loyalty to their love within the "Shining Barrier." The problem with that Barrier is that it shut out not only "the little foxes" that the Song of Solomon tells us can threaten a married relationship, but also God Himself, and the people whom He puts in our path to serve. It is that service to Christ in Davy's working with those learning about Christ that provokes Sheldon's jealousy.

How does Sheldon cope, then, when God, over a period of several months, brings Davy, through a mysterious illness, to that ultimate separation from her husband, death? And of more than marginal interest to an English teacher like myself, how does the presence of C. S. Lewis help him cope?

If you are intrigued by the answers to those questions (recognizing that the Christianity of Oxford that guides the Vanaukens for most of the story is certainly not the full-orbed understanding of Reformed faith, liturgy, and church structure), you can purchase A Severe Mercy here.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Picture books to promote writing

If your kids are anything like mine, once we've read a book about something they want to go do it. So whether you have an already budding writer, or just want to encourage a child to give it a try, here are a couple picture books that could get kids writing.

The Plot Chickens
by Mary Jane and Herm Auch
32 pages / 2010

Henrietta the chicken can read and she wants to write. And though she can't talk, she can cluck and "Buk, Buk Buk!" sounds enough like "Book, book, book!" to get the librarian to provide her with ample reading material. When she decides to write a book she finds a "how-to" guide on the library shelves, and sits down at her typewriter with book in hand, going one by one through eight important "writing rules."

The first - "You need a main character" - has her fellow hens auditioning for the role, but when they find out from Rule Three that the main character has to confront some sort of problem, they all chicken out. So Henrietta invents an entirely original main character, and we follow Henrietta as she tells her tale, using each rule to add something to the story.

Each page has some humor, and kept the attention of both of my kids, ages 4 and 6. More importantly it got the oldest in a writing mood. This would be an absolutely fantastic resource for a Grade One class, or for any child who might have the writing itch.

I will add that I have a bit of a dispute with the final of the eight rules. Rule Eight says "the main character must solve her (or his) own problem" and while that is a good general rule, taken on an ultimate level it actually runs counter to a very fundamental truth. We don't solve our own biggest problem (which is causes so many others)! Jesus had to come precisely because of our own inability to merit our own way back to God.

That said, many a Christian book is bad precisely because it crafts problems for characters and then has God step in to solve them in a way that is entirely unlike how God actually intervenes to save us from ourselves – miracles are far too commonplace in Christian books. Which shows that Christian would do well to consider Rule Eight, even though it isn't ultimately true.

You can get at by clicking here.

Show Me a Story: writing your own picture book
by Nancy Loewen 
32 pages / 2009

This is really two books in one. The first is about a Canadian goose named Webster who is tired of flying in V-formations and wants to try some other letter. The second, interspersed right through the first is a how-to for writing pictures books.

On the first page readers are told to just go through and enjoy the story first, and then, on the second go through they can pay attention to the writing tips that appear on every two-page spread. The tips explain just what is going on from a writer's perspective. For example, on the first pages we're told about how the first thing a story will do is introduce us to the main CHARACTER and then set up the PROBLEM or struggle they will have to deal with in the rest of the story. And here "in the beginning of the story we also learn where and when the story takes place. This is called the SETTING."

This is a decent enough story, but its main purpose is to serve as an illustration for each of the 15 tips as they are laid out. And it accomplishes that task brilliantly!

Show Me is a must for any school, and a good one to buy for any aspiring young writers in Grades One through Four. You can get a copy from by clicking here.

Which is better?Comparing the two books, The Plot Chickens has the better story - my kids loved it and had me read it again and again. They also found it more of an inspiration to grab some paper and a pen and give writing a try... even though neither knows how yet.

My daughters weren't interested in re-reading Show Me A Story. However, I found Show Me A Story a more straightforward tool, laying out the writing tips better, and in a clearer fashion. And that's why we've given it (and not the other) to a young aspiring writer we know.

So each has a different strength and weakness.

Monday, November 30, 2015

A passage from "The Hiding Place" I can't manage to read out loud...

Corrie Ten Boom's autobiographical The Hiding Place is best known for its account of her war time experiences. But one of the many powerful sections in the book is about something that happened decades before, in the year 1919.

Corrie's describes her Tante Jans as a Christian social activist, who helped the poor, and also wrote tracts and pamphlets decrying such evils as mutton sleeves and bicycle skirts. In other words, a busy, well-meaning, but generally humorless lady, who was trying to earn her way to heaven.

When the doctor diagnoses her with diabetes it is quite a shock as there was no real treatment at that time. It meant that Tante Jans had very little time left, maybe a few years. Her response? "And from then on she threw herself more forcefully than ever into writing, speaking forming clubs and launching projects."

But then one day her weekly blood test came back black. Black meant she not longer had years or months, but merely days, three weeks at most. The family learns this before Tante Jan, and as they consider how to tell her Corrie's father hopes that: "Perhaps she will take heart from all she has accomplished. She puts great store on accomplishment, Jans does, and who knows but she is right!" So upstairs to her room they all go.
"Come in," she called to Father's knock, and added as she always did, "and close the door before I catch my death of drafts."
She was sitting at her round mahogany table, working on yet another appeal... As she saw the number of people entering the room, she laid down her pen. She looked from one face to another, until she came to mine and gave a little gasp of comprehension. This was Friday morning, and I had not yet come up with the results of the test.
“My dear sister-in-law,” Father began gently, “there is a joyous journey which each of God’s children sooner or later sets out on. And, Jans, some must go to their Father empty- handed, but you will run to Him with hands full!” 
“All your clubs…,” Tante Anna ventured. 
“Your writings…,” Mama added. 
“The funds you’ve raised…,” said Betsie.
“Your talks…,” I began. 
But our well-meant words were useless. In front of us the proud face crumpled; Tante Jans put her hands over her eyes and began to cry. “Empty, empty!” she choked at last through her tears. “How can we bring anything to God? What does He care for our little tricks and trinkets?” 
And then as we listened in disbelief, she lowered her hands and with tears still coursing down her face whispered, “Dear Jesus, I thank You that we must come with empty hands. I thank You that You have done all – all – on the Cross, and that all we need in life or death is to be sure of this.”

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Case of the "Hopeless" Marriage

A Nouthetic Counseling Case from Beginning to End
by Jay Adams
142 pages / 2006

If you need marriage counseling, or know someone who does, read Hopeless Marriage.

In this fictionalized account, we are introduced to biblical counselor Greg Dawson and troubled couple Bert and Sue Lancaster. We follow them through ten sessions with the pastor as they attempt to repair their marriage.

At the start of things neither thinks Pastor Dawson can really help them. Both think divorce the most likely possibility. However they are Christians and are willing to submit themselves to what God is telling them from His Word. And because of that, Pastor Dawson can offer them hope. As Dawson explains:
I'm glad you came here before you made any rash decisions. I want you to know that I'll work with you for as long as necessary to help you solve your problems. And – let me say at the outset – they can be solved. I say that because you're both Christians. That means that you have newness of life to enable you to do God's will, you have the Bible to direct you how to do it, and you have God's Spirit to strengthen and help you do it.
What does this biblical marriage counseling look like? For that you need to read the book, but here's a peak at one matter that was addressed over the course of the first three sessions.

SESSION 1: At the end of the session Bert and Sue are given a homework assignment that involves composing "a list of 100 or more ways that [they] are failing God as a person, as a husband or wife, and as a father or mother." After they list their faults, then they are supposed to exchange lists to let their spouse add in any they might have missed! Why 100? Why so many? To provide some concrete material - as Dawson explains, "few people can come up with 100 generalizations." Instead of general he wants specific, because it is in specific small ways that people change. Just imagine if you were given the vague charge to "love your spouse more this week." How would you know whether you were meeting this goal or not? But what if things were more specific?

SESSION 2: Their homework assignment this time is to work on two of their faults, as picked by their spouse. This is the putting on of the new man spoken of in Ephesians 4 and while it's a small task – just two items! – that also means it's do-able! Bert is told to concentrate on taking out the trash and making sure his socks hit the hamper. If Bert wants to show his wife that the loves her, here are two very real ways he can go about doing so.

SESSION 3: When the couple shows up for week three it turns out that while Bert's socks hit the hamper six out of seven times, he completely forgot about the trash! Concrete goals reveal concretely whether they are being met or missed. Blame can be clearly assigned, sin shown, and therefore repentance sought – Bert can't evade responsibility, no real excuse is possible, for failing to attend to such a small task. Dawson explains to Bert that his lack of attention is going to be understood by Sue as a lack of love. Confronted by his sin, Bert has the choice of ignoring it, or seeking forgiveness for it. And because he really is a Christian man he shows his love for God by repenting.

That's a taste of the contents, but there is far more here. And what's wonderful about the fictionalized format is that it is a very easy read. This overview of what biblical marital counseling should look like will be useful to elders, deacons, ministers and anyone who is having difficulties or knows someone who is. You can pick up a copy of The Case of the "Hopeless" Marriage at by clicking here.

Author Jay Adams is the man most responsible for bringing the Bible back to biblical counseling – he started his own reformation and could properly be called the Martin Luther of biblical counseling. In addition to many other helpful resources and books he has authored (some of which we review here) Adams has also helped found the following three Christian counseling organizations which are good places to look for help. These are not perfect organizations, so discernment still needs to be used in picking a counselor from them, but this is a better place to start than any other I know of. Only a few Canadian counselors are listed, but there seems to be one in most major cities.

ACBC is the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, and was begun by Jay Adams more than 40 years ago. You can find out how to get training and how to find a counselor at there website:

INS or the Institute for Nouthetic Studies is Jay Adams own, smaller, training website with much of the course material available via online delivery (it is not free, but it is online) at

CCEF is the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation, and it was also started by Jay Adams, back in 1968 (along with others). It also offers courses, and other resources (books, lectures, etc.) which you can find by visiting

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Wrestling with an Angel: A Story of Love, Disability, and the Lessons of Grace

by Greg Lucas
99 pages / 2010

I found reading passages of this book aloud both irresistible and difficult, because it was so often both profound and heart-breaking.

Why heartbreaking? Because Greg Lucas has been through the valley of the shadow and seen that, as he puts it, "the darkness I have experienced is actually the sheltering shadow of my ever-present Father." As a father himself of four children (two adopted), Lucas knows how difficult parenthood can be. As a father myself, I found reading it revealed to me both my own dilemmas and weaknesses in raising my own children and the pride that is so often involved in trying to make it through the valley on my own. To be clear, I have never had to face the problem that Lucas faced in raising his son Jake, who is afflicted with multiple neurological and sensory disorders. At the same time, I, like all fathers, struggle with the fact that children never entirely meet their parents' expectations (both the reasonable and the unreasonable ones) - and with the feeling that God should be doing more.

This is where the profound comes in. God is doing more. In His grace, He brings us through the valley deliberately to enable us to grow in our dependence on Him, our awareness of His presence, and our awe at His greatness and love.

You can buy a copy at by clicking here.

Greg Lucas's blog can be found here

Monday, November 9, 2015

ON GRAPHIC NOVELS, and 5 that are "good" but not "really good"

Graphic novels as a genre, have a lot more bad than good so parents need to be wary.

Some of the bad is obvious. Spend a few minutes in the graphic novel section of any bookstore or library and you'll see that when women are on the covers they are of the impossibly buxom sort, and either clad in spandex, or not really clad at all. While many a male character is spandex clad as well, there are far fewer "bust and bum poses" for the men. The men are heroes; the women are to be ogled and lusted after.

And while gore isn't too common, violence is. The medium doesn't allow for anything near as graphic as can occur on film, but full-color battle illustrations can get disturbing when they're showcasing teeth-shattering and even limb-rending blows.

Some of the bad is less obvious, but just as much an attack on God and what He loves. To discern the worldview of a story the best questions to ask are, "Who, or what, is the god here? Who or what is the object in which people are supposed to put their trust for salvation?" In superhero comics the most obvious "god" is the hero himself, but sometimes it's science (futuristic technology is a huge part of many comics in this genre), and other times we're being told to trust in Man's intrinsic goodness.

Among non-superhero comics the "god" can run the gamut, but sex and fame are popular choices (particularly in the many biographical comics) while God Himself is almost always absent. Or present only to blaspheme Him.

So comics can be pretty bad, and because of the tendency to the bad, even in comics aimed at teens and children, parents have to be particularly discerning.

But at their best comics are a higher art form, combining the visual and the written mediums seamlessly. On this blog we've reviewed some of the very best, and you can peruse that collection by clicking on this link here. But if your son or daughter is devouring graphic novels very soon you'll run out of great ones. It's with that in mind that we're making an exception to the policy of only reviewing the really good. This time around we're passing along here some comics that are quite, but not really good. In other words, this time we're going with quantity over quality: here's five that may not be brilliant but aren't half bad either.


The City of Ember: The Graphic Novel
by Jeanne DuPrau
adapted by Dallas Middaugh
art by Niklas Asker
144 pages / 2012

If you, like me, had never heard of the novel this graphic novel is based on, it still wouldn't take you long to figure that this is an adaptation - the events are a bit truncated, evidencing that they were from longer source material that had to be cut down a good deal.

This is the story of a town, surrounded by darkness on all sides, with the streets lit only by lamps, and never sunlight. But those lamps are starting to flicker out, and sometimes the entire town blacks out. There's also less food than there once was, and certain types of food, like peaches, exist only as memories for most residents. So how has this town come to be, and why does it seem the only place for people to live in the whole world? And why is there no sun? These are the questions that our two young heroes, Doon and Lina, a teen boy and girl, set out to address. This is a dystopian novel, but a kinder gentler sort than some others, intended for the teen and preteen readership – no one gets shot in this book, and no teen is forced to kill their friends.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

by L. Frank Baum
adapted by Eric Shanower
illustrated by Skottie Young
216 pages / 2010

Some classics, even with specifically unChristian elements, are still worth reading for the sake of cultural literacy. Examples would include the Greek myths, George Orwell's 1984, and Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz is another of this sort, a book so famous that is has spawned multiple plays, many films, near countless books, and now a series of graphic novels.

Marvel Comic's adaptation is faithfully done, and large enough to include all of the key plot points. Here's how it begins: Dorothy, a girl from Kansas, gets picked up, while inside her house, by a tornado and dropped, house and all, in a very strange land and on top of a very wicked witch. Then she is off to see an oh-so-wonderful wizard to find out if he can help her get back to Kansas.

As she sets off towards the interior of this strange land – the land of Oz – she picks up three strange companions on her way: a talking scarecrow in want of a brain, a tin woodsman wishing for a heart, and a enormous lion who desires courage. When she finally gets to meet the Wizard of Oz, he says he will only help her and her friends if Dorothy kills Oz's only other wicked witch (Dorothy did in the first when her house landed on the evil creature).

That's the gist of the story. The fun of it is that her three companions – brainless scarecrow, heartless tin woodsman, and cowardly lion – all want the wizard to help them get what they lack.  But along the way we learn that, despite what the three think themselves, they really aren't lacking in those departments at all.


The problems with the story, from a Christian perspective are:
  1. Not all the witches in it are bad. The land has two wicked witches, but also two good witches, one of which plays a major role. That conflicts quite directly with God's condemnation of witchcraft.
  2. Second, the heroes all find what they need is inside themselves already. This, on the one hand, is no big deal. It is a good lesson for all of us to learn that courage is not "not being afraid" but rather being afraid and acting anyway, and while the cowardly lion never learns this, we do, by watching just how brave this coward can be.

    Similarly we also learn from the woodsman that it is not the having of a heart that gives us compassion, but acting compassionately that shows compassion. It is the act, and not even the feeling (which the woodsman also has) that is key, and certainly not the having of a heart.

    The Scarecrow gets his brains via the insertion of some sharp tacks where he previous had only hay but he has shown his ability to think long before. (Here the movie version does things better. The Scarecrow is told brains are overrated, and that many a graduate finishes school without one, but that they have one thing that he doesn't: a diploma, which the Wizard then gives him.)

    But the fact that these three companions, turn out to already have the very thing they've most been seeking, and it's already inside themselves, is also an example of humanistic "all I need is me" self-worship. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Hiding Place

by Corrie ten Boom
with John and Elizabeth Sherrill
272 pages / 1971 (2006 reissue)

This was such an encouraging story!

If you know only the barest details of Corrie ten Boom's life story you might mistake her for a superwoman. After all, this is a lady who lost her father and sister to the Nazis, and who had to endure depravation and cruelty of a German concentration camp and yet she still managed to forgive the very people who did her so much harm. That certainly doesn't sound like any ordinary person!

However, while Corrie was most certainly a special woman, her biography is all about God's greatness and not her own.

In the first third of the book she sets the scene, telling of her early life, and sharing the sage wisdom of her father. Once, when she was a little girl she overheard someone talk of "sex sin" so she went to her father and asked him, "Father what is sexsin?"
He turned to look at me, as he always did when answering a question, but to my surprise he said nothing. At least he stood up, lifted his traveling case from the rack over our heads, and set it up on the floor. "Will you carry it off the train, Corrie?" he said. 
I stood up and tugged at it. It was crammed with the watches and spare parts he had purchased that morning. "It's too heavy," I said.  
"Yes," he said. "And it would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little girl to carry such a heavy load. It's the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger you can bear it. For now you must trust me to carry it for you."  
And I was satisfied. More than satisfied– wonderfully at peace. There were answers to this and all my hard questions – for now I was content to lave them in my father's keeping. 
Later she, still as a child, she has her first encounter with death – a small baby in an apartment on her same block has passed away - and she can't stop worrying about what she would do if her father and mother died. She can't eat, and can't stop crying. In response her father points his little girl to her Heavenly Father.
Father sat down on the edge of the narrow bed. "Corrie," he began gently, "when you and I go to Amsterdam – when do I give you your ticket?" 
I sniffed a few times, considering this. "Why, just before we get on the train." 
"Exactly. And our wise Father in heaven knows when we're going to need things, too. Don't run out ahead of Him, Corrie. When the time comes that some of us will have to die, you will looking into your heart and find the strength you need – just in time."
And that is just what Corrie finds, when years later this ordinary woman, who led such a quiet life for her first 48 years, finds herself as the leader of a Resistance cell, hiding Jews and members of the underground, stealing ration cards from the Nazis, and providing whatever help she could to whoever came asking. And that is what she found still in the midst of the Nazi concentration camp, surrounded by cruel guards and biting fleas. God gave her just what she needed, just when she needed it.

This is a wonderful story that will be encouraging to anyone contending with discouragement, sickness, death. Miss ten Boom wants us to know that God never stops being good, even when we ourselves are wavering as things around us go so very badly. We can trust Him. We can count on Him. He loves his children!

I'd recommend it to anyone 16 and up and suggest it as a very good offering for any reading group - it would foster some wonderful discussions.

There is also a "young reader's edition" which has been abridged to about half the length. But they accomplished this feat by taking out all the charm. The original reads just as you might expect an older Dutch lady to talk, but the abridged version has only a flat, generic narration to it - Corrie's unique voice is gone. So give it a skip, and go with the original, even for "young readers." You can buy it at by clicking here.

I just noticed my brother Jeff also reviewed Hiding Place and you can read his review here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons

edited by Michael Brown
2010 / 274 pages

There are times when my quest for really good reads seems doomed by the fact that people keep making me read their idea of a really good read... and then there are the times when people are right, and the book I have to read is well worth the time. This is one of those times.

Our (Canadian) Reformed council is studying the book Called to Serve, which includes essays by such notable (United) Reformed writers/pastors as Daniel R. Hyde and Michael S. Horton. Of course, those 'big names' are not the point, but they do highlight the fact that the book is a reliable look at what it means to organize a church by Reformed standards.

The sixteen chapters of Called to Serve are divided up in an appendix to allow officebearers, or prospective officebearers, to study, over ten 'lessons,' the topics of
  • the nature of and qualifications for officebearers - that they are both rulers and servants;
  • the duties and spiritual life of officebearers - that a good officebearer is first of all a good congregation member;
  • our Reformed heritage - from the Reformation to the origin of the United Reformed Churches;
  • the importance of the Reformed confessions - one lesson on the need for officebearers to love and defend Reformed doctrine and the second on the specifically Reformed doctrines defended in the Canons of Dort;
  • the defense of infant baptism and how to deal with prospective members who do not accept it;
  • the beauty of the Lord's Supper and who should be admitted to it;
  • a lesson on liturgy based on a brilliant chapter on Reformed liturgy, including some aspects dating back to Calvin, that not all Reformed churches currently use to structure their worship;
  • the basics of church government and discipline, including such seemingly trivial matters as how to get through a council meeting, as well as the more important matter of the necessity of church discipline; and
  • the rationale for, and proper use of, home visits, for both elders and deacons.
While the book is written specifically from a United Reformed perspective, many of the matters dealt with either pertain equally to other Reformed federations or offer insights or ideas that other federations could benefit from. If you agree, you can purchase the book here.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Why the Chinese, and Dutch, give their children short names....

Tikki Tikki Tembo
retold by Arlene Mosel
1968 / 48 pages

My first name is Jonathan, but long ago I learned there were benefits to using a shorter form. In basketball, for example, if a teammate was streaking up the sidelines and yelled for a pass, by the time he got out all three syllables of Jon--a--than he wasn't open any more. But "Jon!" would get my attention, and him the ball, much quicker.

Tikki Tikki Tembo is about this same lesson but in a very different setting. We are told that long ago Chinese families would honor their first born sons with long names, and give their other sons very short names. Our story takes place in a small mountain village where a mother had two sons. The second was simply called Chang, while the first was named Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo. Now if these two played sports we can be sure who would be making all the great passes and who wouldn't even make the team (try fitting that name on a jersey!).

Of course, they didn't have basketball in ancient China, so their names come into play a different way. This is a charming book so I don't want to give away the ending. Let it suffice to say that as in basketball, so too in aquatic events it is better, and less hazardous, to have a shorter name.

The story is wonderful, the illustrations fun, but more than anything else this is such a joy to read out loud: Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo is not only a long name, but a lyrical one, and each time it gets repeated in the story it gets funnier. This is a classic for a reason!

You can buy a copy at by clicking here.

Larry Bendeco Johannes Von Sloop

by Larry V. and Mark Kumer
2014 / 32 pages

In some respects this is Tikki Tikki Tembo in a modern setting with the two brothers being Dutch instead of Chinese. One is named Bob and the other Larry Bendeco Johannes Von Sloop.

The two brothers are both bakers, but Bob specializes in plain and delicious, while Larry Bendeco Johannes Von Sloop is more concerned with fancy appearances - his cakes looks great, even if they don't taste that way.

As in the original, a long name eventually proves hazardous, but there's more to this story. When his long name causes the destruction of his bakery Larry Bendeco Johannes Von Sloop is blessed with a brother who is more than happy to help him out.

While this is an imitation of the original, the author has given it a creative twist that makes it the equal of its inspiration. It's read-out-loud fun, and will be a sure hit with the kids.

You can buy a copy at by clicking here.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Ella's Big Chance

by Shirley Hughes
48 pages / 2003

Shirley Hughes' unique spin on the story of Cinderella is so very good it improves on the original. Some of that is due to Hughes artwork, and the setting: this is a "Jazz-Age Cinderella" pushing the story forward to the 1920s. Ella and her father run an elegant dress shop, making the finest of clothes. The evil stepmother in this case has some business acumen, and turns the small shop into an even bigger success. But the greater the demand, the more work there is to do for poor Ella.

The story follows along the familiar course of many an other Cinderella version, but with pictures all the more stunning, and a twist at the end in which (SPOILER ALERT!) the love-at-first-sight duke finds his Ella, but doesn't get the girl! This is really what sets this version apart and above - none of this nonsense about knowing someone for an evening and then getting married when next you meet again. Nope, Ella ends up with the store's delivery boy, who has always been there for her, and wanted to be so evermore.

While Hughes artwork is wonderful, the prose is superb as well. It flows so very naturally that, as I read this out loud to my girls, I felt as if I was one of those professional readers. I sounded good! But that is all to Hughes' credit, and not my own - there is a wonderful flow to each page of text.

I will add one caution: there is one use made of the term "good heavens," which some view as a substitute oath, and too much like a real blasphemy for their liking. Though I don't agree, I do sympathize, and want to alert readers to its use.

I would give this two very enthusiastic thumbs up, and recommend it highly to anyone who has three- to ten-year-olds. Oh, and this is probably far more a girl book than boy (though I have to say I really liked it too, and I am a boy).

You can buy a copy at by clicking here.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!

by Mo Willems
2006, 34 pages

My kids and I love this for two very different reasons.

They love it because they get to interact with the book. Pigeon desperately wants to stay up late. But a sleepy-looking fellow at the start of the book (the bus driver from the previous book Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus) asks us to make sure the pigeon goes to bed. But the pigeon, like many a child we all know, doesn't want to go to bed and has all sorts of excuses as to why he just has to stay up a little while longer.
  • "I'm not even tired!"
  • "How about five more minutes?" 
  • "Can I have a glass of water?"
  • "Pleeeeeeaaaasssseeeeee!"
  • "I'll go to bed early tomorrow night instead!"
  • "My bunny wants to stay up too!"
He has all sorts of strategies - sulking, whining, begging, reasoning - but it's the children's job to respond to each one with a firm "No!" They love laying down the law!

I love the book because it gave me a helpful word to sum up my children's bedtime behavior. "That's enough guys," I'll tell them, "You're being pigeons and it is time to stop." They know exactly what I mean, and on a good night pointing out what they are doing in this quick and clear way is all I need to bring bedtime to a close. I'm not going to say it works every time - this isn't magic - but I do think any parent will benefit from having this bit of verbal shorthand in their parental toolbox.

You can buy a copy at by by clicking here.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Song of Songs: The Greatest Love Song

by Matthew H. VanLuik
208 pages / 2015

Way back in 1979, Victor Kiam coined a phrase in a Remington electric razor commercial: "I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company." While I don't recommend much else of what Kiam said, this little quip came to mind when I decided to review Rev. VanLuik's commentary on the Song of Solomon. Here's my version: "I liked the book so much, I recommended it for my classroom." Here's a lightly edited excerpt from my recommendation:
One of the greatest challenges today for adolescents in Christ’s kingdom is the world’s increasingly obsessive focus on self-determined sexuality. As much as we must often critique the world’s misplaced passionate focus on sexuality as the purpose of life, an even stronger obligation for us as parents and teachers is to show the responsibilities and rewards of Biblically guided intimacy within marriage.
That is why I am requesting a class set of Rev. Matthew H. VanLuik’s The Song of Songs: The Greatest Love Song, a strongly Biblical, Christ-centered view of the Song of Solomon that shows the ups and downs of love and marriage, both the day-to-day necessity to give of ourselves and the beauty of indeed being and becoming one flesh. Over and over he makes clear also that one cannot have a truly fulfilling marriage relationship without a living relationship with Christ. 
The book divides the Song of Songs into 16 sections that could each form a useful guide for note outlines made by a student or pair for presentation to the class, noting which stage of the relationship is dealt with, the problems and positives of that stage, the analogy to Christ’s relationship with His bride the Church, and the application to the issues that the students themselves face. 
These would become textbooks in our Wisdom Literature course for either Grade 11 or 12, which means that every student in the high school would eventually use them… and, I am certain, benefit from them.
Of course, it is not only teens who could benefit from a clear Biblical view of sexuality courtship, love, and marriage. If you believe that this commentary could help you and your family in, as the cover's subtitle puts it, "exploring the mystery of love in courtship and marriage," you can order it from by clicking here.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Don't make me count to three

by Ginger Hubbard
155 pages / 2003

Soon after my first little one became old enough to articulate her sinful nature ("no" wasn't her first word, but it was the first she learned to shout with conviction) I asked friends who had travelled this route before a very practical question: "How often do you spank your kids?"

I was the youngest in my family and as far as I could remember my dad had spanked me less than a dozen times. Of course I don't remember much of what my life was like before Grade One, so I suspected the true count could have been greater by an exponential factor.

So I asked around. I knew spanking was biblical, but what I didn't know was whether it was something to be used only in the rarest of circumstances, maybe once a month or less? Or was spanking the sort of thing that might occur weekly, daily, or even a few times a day?

I asked around and the response I got was wry grins, shrugged shoulders, and a variety of "I don't really recall" and "All kids are different" answers. No one seemed willing to clue me in.

A few years later and as a seasoned father of three, I think I now understand why – it's because no one talks about spanking. Ever. So no one has any idea of how often other parents spank their kids. In this informational void, who would want to own up to spanking their kids multiple times the previous day if it turns out that all your friends only have to spank their kids a couple times a year?

That's a long way of explaining why I love Ginger Hubbard's Don't Make Me Count to Three! It is a highly practical book that offers all sorts of answers. While she doesn't give an exact number as to how many times a day, week, or month we should spanks our kid, Hubbard does make it clear that spanking is not some nuclear bomb option to be employed only when all else has failed. She makes a clear biblical case that physical discipline should be applied with regularity (and at some points in a child's life he/she may well require multiple spanking in a single day).

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Autism Acceptance Book

"Everyone you know and everyone you will ever meet is special and different in some way.  The world would be a boring place if people were all the same. It’s our differences that make us all unique and interesting."   autism acceptance

That’s the starting point of the Autism Acceptance Book by Ellen Sabin, written to help elementary school students look beyond the often confusing surface to see what they have in common with classmates or friends with autism.

The direction this book takes is affirming and positive, starting with the perspective that a child with autism is “one of us.”  The first section discusses the ways that all people are the same and different, and that everyone has their own unique strengths and weaknesses.  Then the book takes a look at autism and the ways that people with autism may behave differently, and why.  For example, sensory differences are connected with the way all of us can feel overstimulated at times.  Behaviors are presented as both strengths and weaknesses – for example, covering ears may indicate very good hearing, and liking orderly spaces may be because of a strong ability to notice detail.  Throughout the book are suggestions for being a good friend in various situations.  All are respectful of the friend with autism’s perspective and ability.

special needs acceptanceThe book is laid out in an inviting, colorful workbook format, so it looks like it would be most useful with family members or friends.  However, an innovative teacher could easily take the information and opportunities for self-reflection to help them work through the ideas with a class, and more effectively include a student with autism.

Recommended for ages 8-12. You can buy a copy at by clicking here. Ellen Sabin has also written The Special Needs Acceptance Book, for a more general audience but with a similar format.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Time will run back

by Henry Hazlitt
368 pages / 1951

As novels go, this is intriguing. As economics textbooks go it is downright amazing.

Like 1984...

In Time Will Run Back author Henry Hazlitt envisions a future in which the communists won and have been in power for more than 100 years. As Henry Hazlitt himself acknowledges, his novel bears some similarities to 1984 (published two years earlier) since both take place in a dystopian future in which the government manages every aspect of citizens' lives. But Hazlitt didn't read 1984 until after he had finished the first draft of his own book, so no plagiarism was involved. Instead, as Hazlitt puts it, authors like Orwell, Aldous Huxley (and his Brave New World) and himself were:
plagiarizing from the actual nightmare created by Lenin, Hitler and Stalin....All the writers had done was to add a few logical extensions not yet generally foreseen.
In Hazlitt's envisioned future the government has not only taken over the capitalist West, but they've wiped away any memory of capitalism, even editing Karl Marx's books so that no one could deduce from them what sort of economic system it was that Marx was writing against.

Into this setting Hazlitt places the ultimate outsider. The world dictator's son, Peter Uldanov, has grown up far away from his father, isolated on a Bahama island. When his mother and father split, he agreed to let her take Peter, so long as she agreed not to teach Peter anything about history, politics or economics. So when the world dictator calls his now adult son to Moscow and informs Peter that he is to succeed his father as dictator, father first has to bring son up to speed in these three key areas.

Peter's education takes up the first third of the book, though there is some palace-intrigue as well: the second-ranking member of the ruling Politburo is eager to see Peter dead, but doesn't want to be caught doing the deed.

...and Screwtape Letters

This first third bears more than a passing resemblance to C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, with Peter's teacher filling the role of the elder Screwtape explaining to his younger devilish charge why they do things the way they do them. For example, at one point Politburo member Adams and Orlov, the editor of the world's state-approved and only remaining newspaper, explain to Peter how what is carried in the paper has nothing to do with the truth, but instead has to do with what is useful for the masses to hear. It turns out "what is useful" can be hard to determine.
"It is for the Politburo to decide, for example, whether we shall say that the production record is very bad, in order to exhort and sting everyone to greater output; or whether we shall say that it is very good, in order to show how well the regime is doing and to emphasize the blessing of living under it."
"These decisions are sometimes very difficult," Adams put in. "We often find that a zigzag course is best. For example, if goods are shoddy and fall apart, or if too many size nine shoes are made and not enough size eight, or if people cannot get enough to eat, there may be grumbling and complaints – or silent dissatisfaction. We must make sure that this unrest does not turn against the regime itself."

"Therefore," said Orlov, "we must lead the complaints. We must ourselves pick scapegoats to denounce and punish."
In the middle third of the novel Peter takes on the role of the ultimate benevolent dictator. He wants to help his citizens, so he tries desperately to figure out ways to make socialism work. He has the help of his country's greatest minds, and near absolute power, so he is in the best sort of situation to make it work. But try as he might, they can't make it work.

The biggest trouble Peter keeps running into is trying to figure out the value of what they are making. They have no money (since no one buys anything, but is instead given what they need) so they can't use price to calculate how valuable one product might be compared to another. And if they can't calculate value, then they also can't determine if the country is producing more overall this year vs. the last. Sheer tonnage is one proposed measure – that could use that to compare how much grain they grew from one year to the next. But even this falls short, because grain can come in different qualities. How then should they evaluate things if one year more grain is produced but of a lower quality, and in another year there is less but of a higher quality? Which was the better year?

After ruling out tonnage as a helpful means of measuring output, one alternative after another is proposed only to have the shortcomings of each then exposed. The alert reader will see where this is leading: what this socialistic  economy lacks are markets in which the value of a product is assessed by consumers as a whole.

In the final third of the book Peter gets more desperate and more radical in his efforts to make real improvements and give citizens real freedom, and he ends up discovering some economic principles that really help: open competition, property ownership, and the rigorous prosecution of cheats and swindlers. To help his citizens he is forced to invent capitalism!


Though the book is most obviously about communism, the warning Hazlitt offers here - that freedom and prosperity cannot co-exist with an economic system that prioritizes equality of distribution – is directly applicable to communism's democratic twin, socialism.

This book sat on my shelf unread for many years because I didn't believe a world-renown economist could also be a credible novelist. I was wrong. There is a conversation here and there that gets bogged down by the economic lesson Hazlitt is trying to teach, but overall this is not just readable, but engaging and entertaining, able to stand up to comparisons with 1984 and Brave New World, which themselves are not read for their wonderful prose, but rather for their insightful investigations of human nature in the face of tyranny. So this is a readable, intriguing and important novel with a few slow bits. And as an economics textbook, there is none better – Hazlitt makes a strong and compelling case for the free market.

The e-book can be had for free here. Or you can buy a paperback copy at here and here.

Note to Teachers

Though 1984 and Brave New World are important books, they both have sexual content (Brave New World more so) that make them problematic to discuss even in the high school setting.

Sex is also discussed in Time Will Run Back but in a way that parents and teachers may find more palatable: brief mention is made of how the government manages even citizens' sex lives, mandating that no one can pair up for longer than a month, lest they form familial bonds that compete with the bonds they should have to the state. But this is sex at is most boring - nothing titilating here.

I believe you'll find find Hazlitt's offering a worthy substitution for either of these other two - just as engaging, as insightful, as thought provoking, and without the sexual content.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Freedom, Justice, and Hope: Toward a Strategy for the Poor and the Oppressed

by Marvin Olasky, Herbert Schlossberg, Pierre Berthoud, and Clark Pinnock
(foreword by Tetsunao Yamamori)
1988 / 171 pages

Here I am again, recommending a book that's more than 25 years old. At least one of its authors is still writing, though, and the situation it examines is still an ongoing problem, so it's worth your reading time.

Freedom, Justice, and Hope (FJaH) is an ideal read alongside a book I recommended two months ago, When Helping Hurts, which clarified some of the basic Christian principles behind effective relief and development. In a sense, FJaH  prequels When Helping Hurts by debunking some of the myths behind Christian development initiatives motivated too often by guilt and hostility to free markets. That debunking left room for the much more Biblical proposals of When Helping Hurts.

So what does FJaH reveal that is still very relevant today? The foreword, by Tsetsunao Yamamori, the president of the aid organization Food for the Hungry International, sets the stage by posing three questions about relief and development: "..are we spending funds in a way that truly helps man and glorifies God? Are we providing material and spiritual nourishment? Are we following the Bible or worshiping the idols of our age?" The rest of the book, a collection of papers shared at the 1987 Villars Conference on "Biblical Mandates for Relief and Development," answers these questions.

Marvin Olasky (who has three other books recommended in this blog) opens the discussion by asking "Is There a Way Out?" - dealing with the frustrations involved in seeking to save Ethiopians from the famine ravaging their country at that time. Olasky stresses that material aid without spiritual change and diplomatic pressure on oppressive governments that divert that aid to their own military is useless, and possibly worse than useless, since it feeds into our materialistic views of relief and development. Jesus Christ gave the poor of his day more than material aid, and so should we, in His name.

Pierre Berthoud's essay, "Prophet and Covenant," explains the implications of the prophecies of Amos, a book that is often used by left-wing Christians to justify governmental and even Marxist approaches to helping the poor. Berthoud reveals that the book of Amos is not "a call for class warfare...." Rather Amos condemns Israel's refusal to to acknowledge God as the only Lord of creation, to work out God's creation mandate, and to recognize God's image in other human beings. All of these sins and failures still hinder development today, and understanding that makes clear that more than food and funds are necessary to help the poor.

Two of the essays following, both by Herbert Schlossberg (author of the excellent Idols for Destruction), contrast the subjective reasoning and fallacies behind models of development that stress the need for centralized planning (i.e. government control) with the objective research into the success of the free economy. Sandwiched between these two essays is Clark H. Pinnock's analysis of "The Pursuit of Utopia," revealing why failed statist programs keep coming back - because human beings want to set up the kingdom of heaven on earth, without acknowledging the King.

Schlossberg then outlines such "Imperatives for Economic Development" as a Biblical worldview, discerning oppression when it occurs, and Christian discipleship. Strangely, many Christian authors seem to believe that an economy can be successful without Christian values - when the people do not believe in developing the earth, when the nation is mired in corruption, or when leisure is more important to the people than work. No amount of aid will help a nation that, as a whole, rejects the fruits of the gospel.

Olasky then describes "The Beginning of Hope." He tells how even a pair of secular liberal reporters were able to discern the crippling effects of fatalism, a belief in evil spirits, a lack of respect for family, and the shunning of necessary work - although their proposed solutions (population control and still more government aid) were irrelevant to these forms of spiritual bondage. It is only the gospel that can change things in the Third World (or the "majority world") from the ground up instead of from the top down.

The last chapter of the book is a set of principles for economic development agreed upon by forty evangelical scholars, known as "The Villars Statement on Relief and Development." It summarizes the ideas of the Villars Conference, and affirms that Freedom, Justice, and Development are the best way to help the Poor and Oppressed. You can get a copy of this insightful book at here.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Green Ember

by S.D. Smith
2015 / 365 pages

“Rabbits with swords” – it’s an irresistible combination, and all I had to say to get my two oldest daughters to beg me to start reading.

As you might expect of a sword epic, this has a feudal feel, with rabbit lords and ladies, and noble rabbit knights and, of course, villainous wolves. This is children’s fiction, intended for preteens and up, so naturally the heroes are children too.

The story begins with siblings Pickett and Heather being torn from the only home they’ve known, pursued by wolves, and separated from their parents and baby brother. It’s this last detail that might warrant some caution as to how appropriate this would be for the very young. It isn’t clear if mom, dad and baby Jack are dead…but it seems like that might well be, and that could be a bit much for the very young (I’m planning on skipping over that bit when I get to it with my preschool daughters). They escape to a community that is hidden away from the ravaging wolves, made up of exiles, rabbits that once lived in the Great Wood. Their former and peaceful realm fell to the wolves after it was betrayed from within, so now these rabbits in exile look forward to a time when the Great Wood will be restored. Or as one of the wisest of these rabbits puts it,
…we anticipate the Mended Wood, the Great Wood healed…. We sing about it. We paint it. We make crutches and soups and have gardens and weddings and babies. This is a place out of time. A window into the past and the future world. 
Though God is never mentioned, and the rabbits have no religious observance of any kind, author S.D. Smith’s Christian worldview comes through in passages like this, that parallel the way we can recall a perfect past, and look forward to a perfected future. It’s this depth that makes this more than just a rollicking tale of rabbits in peril.

The only downside to the book is that we’ll have to wait until April 2016 for the sequel. There is prequel, The Black Star of Kingston that is also good, but very short – at 152 pages and a smaller page size it has maybe a quarter of the content of The Green Ember.

So, my overall take is two very enthusiastic thumbs up for anyone ten and up. To buy from Amazon click here for The Green Ember and for The Black Star of Kingston.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Old House

by Pamela Duncan Edwards
2009 / 32 pages

This is a sweet picture book about a self-absorbed house who learns to think about others.

Why is the house self-absorbed? Well, "no one had live in it for a long, long time" so it was quite lonely. And when people passed by they would often say, "Did you ever see such an unhappy old house?"

The house does have friends - birds, a squirrel, wildflowers, and a large oak tree - who do their best to encourage it. But it feels so empty inside that when people do come by to see the house would quickly leave again. "The only thing to do with that dump is to knock it down," a man sneered.

But then, one day, a family stopped by. They liked the house. They had never lived in a house before. But just as they were considering whether to buy the old house, it let out "one of its big, sorrowful sighs" and the family quickly left. "I think it might have rot," said the father.

Poor house!

When the family comes back for a second look, the house takes a long look at the family and saw wishful, uncertain, eager faces. "This family needs me," thought the old house... and it shook off its self-absorbed sorrow and stood tall. But the family left once again.

I won't tell you how it ends, but I will note that the house's friends – the oak and the squirrel – were encouraged that finally the house had stopped feeling sorry for itself. That makes this story with a moral that any kid can understand. Both my older daughters, 3 and 5, really enjoyed it.

If you want to get your own copy, you can find it at by clicking here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Big bad ironclad

by Nathan Hale
128 pages / 2012

If you only have a passing familiarity with the US civil war you might not know that it wasn't just a land-based battle. One lesser known aspect, investigated in this graphic novel, is the attempt by the North to use a naval blockade to stop the South from exporting their cotton. To break the blockade the South built a ship with an iron hull, a hull so strong that cannon balls would bounce off of it.

When the Merrimack was put out to sea it was every bit as devastating as it's creators had hoped, and was hampered only by an underpowered engine.

The North had heard rumors about the Merrimack long before she was completed and had gotten to work on their own ironclad ship. So not too long after the Merrimack set sail, the North's response, the Monitor was completed.

This is a fascinating tale, with the whole civil war as a backdrop. While the information is well researched, the book itself is drawn in a very comical style, with one character, Gustavus Fox, actually presented as a uniform wearing fox. So this is great for someone trying to get a good overview of events – at 128 pages it has the size to give us much more than a glimpse – but it wouldn't be the sort of book that would be cited in the bibliography of any paper.

So, entertaining and educational. A great book for 12 and up. The only cautions I can add is that on occasion "swear symbols" are made use of, and in other books in this series (but not this one) God's name is taken in vain. For reviews of the other "Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales" click here.

You can purchase Big Bad Ironclad at by clicking here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Killing Calvinism: How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Theology from the Inside

by Greg Dutcher
2012, 111 pages

Quick quiz - what's YRR? I didn't remember when I started reading this book, but it stands for Young, Restless, and Reformed. It truly is a matter for thanks and praise to God that many of the young and the restless are turning to Calvinism to find the rest they are seeking; however, Greg Dutcher's book warns us that being, or becoming, enthusiastically Reformed has its dangers.

What makes Dutcher's cautions so effective is that he is humble enough to confess that he has not always been so humble in his embrace of Calvinist theology. Like a (small-r) reformed smoker, there is often no-one so obnoxious about his new life as the recent convert. Dutcher narrates his own story of his conversion to Christ -one that humbled him - and his subsequent acceptance of Reformed theology - an increase in understanding (and even in wonder) that often did not increase his humility.

Sadly, it is not only young Calvinists who lack humility. I know that I either personally have been guilty of some of the sins Dutcher identifies, or know of older members whose Calvinism leads to pride rather than humility.

For instance, Dutcher describes how Calvinists often love Calvinism as an end in itself - identifying themselves as Calvinists before they identify themselves as Christians. We also need to guard against becoming theologians instead of disciples - head service instead of heart service. Another issue that Dutcher deals with has also been raised extensively in many Reformed churches recently - the need to renew our love for the lost. One problem that I have seen of late on Facebook and other social media is one of our approach to non-Calvinists - scoffing at their hangups with Calvinism rather than lovingly seeking to understand the reasons for their resistance and deal with them with gentleness and respect.

The above challenges are only four of the ways Dutcher shows how Calvinists often discredit the Biblical truth of Reformed theology. He deals with four others (but you'll need to check out the book to find out which ones!). What makes each of the eight main chapters an even more winsome inspiration to self-examination is the fact that each ends with Calvin's own method of ending his lectures  - a prayer that God will work in our hearts a willingness to truly love our neighbour and glorify God in our Calvinism. If you believe that a better presentation of the beauty of the TULIP (summarized in the back of the book) would bring greater glory to God, and that this book will help you do that, you can get it at through this link!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Blame it on the Brain?

by Edward T. Welch
1998, 208 pages

A boy won’t sit still so the doctor wants to put him on Ritalin. An aging grandfather, suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, is starting to make inappropriate comments to his grandchildren. A mother is depressed and asks her minister what he thinks about anti-depressants. These days we’re regular confronted with “brain issues” but few of us feel equipped as to what God thinks on these matters.

Author Ed Welch notes that while going to the Bible would be the natural thing for us to do with most other matters, it might strike Christians as an odd approach in this case – after all, what does the Bible have to say about our brains? Welch answers that question by noting that God made us, so He knows what we are really like. And what God reveals about us – about how our body and spirit are both distinct and yet impact each other – is foundational to a good understanding of our brain.

Blame it on the Brain is divided in two parts. In Part One Welch offers up the theological resources Christians will need to be able to “dialogue with the brain sciences.” These are the biblically-derived principles by which we can interpret and understand the (mostly secular) brain research being done. Once we are outfitted with the proper theology and taught how to apply it, Part Two then explores some “modern diagnoses and experiences, all attributed to the brain, and considers them from a biblical perspective.

Then, in Part Two, Welch applies these principles to specific problems including Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia, head injuries, depression, bipolar disorder, anorexia, Attention Deficit Disorder, homosexuality, alcoholism and more. He groups them under three headings:
1. The Brain Did It
2. Maybe The Brain Did It
3. The Brain Didn’t Do It
Where Welch places different conditions will strike some readers as controversial. Doesn’t the world say all of these conditions should fall under the “The Brain Did It” umbrella? It does indeed, because the world think if the brain did it, then our sinful hearts can be excused. “Born this way” is supposed to clear us from any responsibility for our conduct.

But Welch’s three-fold division is less controversial when we understand that even conditions with clear physical causes, like dementia, will have a spiritual dimension as well – responsibility persists, even if it is to a far different degree.

For example, if a dementia patient’s confusion leads him to believe he has been waiting for his daughter all day long (even though she arrived right on time) she should try not to be bothered if he expresses some frustration. However, if the same patient starts making crude comments to the nurses, then that should not be dismissed as simply the disease talking. As Welch writes:
Does the disease create the sinful behavior? Definitely not…. Sexual thoughts, jealousy, private profanity, and anger can be neatly covered when our minds are intact. But when we are intellectually less competent, some of the private events begin to slip out.
Dementia isn’t the cause of this sin; it simply reveals what was always in the heart. In a situation such as this repentance should still be be sought. Even when our brain is damaged, we remain both physical and spiritual beings, and as in need of accountability, correction, and forgiveness as the rest of humanity.


The only caution I have is not with what Ed Welch wrote, but with how a couple of passages might be misunderstood.

In the first, Welch states that with psychiatric problems there “are always spiritual problems and sometimes physical problems.” I’m afraid that some will understand him as saying psychiatric problems are always the result of sin. That is not what Welch is saying. Sin will sometimes be the cause of spiritual problem, but other times the spiritual problems will be better understood as spiritual needs. Welch notes counselors have to be aware that psychiatric problems almost always involve suffering so the diagnosed person and their family will need to hear from the Scriptures about the hope and compassion that God offers in the midst of suffering.

A second matter that might be misunderstood is how Welch designates homosexuality as something “the brain didn’t do.” If he denies the brain dictates someone’s sexual preferences, is Welch saying everyone chooses to be homosexual? No. Welch is only arguing that while the brain may have an influence it cannot be credited as the sole determiner of their sexual orientation – other factors have to be involved.


This isn’t a large book, but there sure is a lot to love! I must have highlighted half of the pages and I really can’t say enough good things about. Educational, thoroughly biblical, helpful, applicable, and it still manages to be enjoyably readable. This would be a valuable resource for minsters and elders, and a highly recommended read for everyone. We all need to learn how to think biblically about mental illness and matters of the brain and I can’t imagine a better introductory book for this topic. You can buy it at by clicking here.

Monday, June 22, 2015

John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock

by Iain H. Murray

240 pages / 2011

Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001 John MacArthur has been a help and a hero to me. The help has come from his insights on important issues like creation and evolution, psychology, Pentecostalism, gender roles, and the need for fruit in a Christian’s life. I really appreciated books like Charismatic Chaos (on Charismatics) and The Battle for the Beginning (on Creation vs. Evolution) which were educational and accessible.

But the reason I’m a MacArthur fan is due to his regular appearances on the Larry King Live show. This was an interview show on CNN and when the host wanted to talk about religious issues there would be MacArthur, alongside of Deepak Chopra, a full-on new age guru, and some forgettable weak-kneed Roman Catholic priest. The setting wasn’t exactly hostile – while Larry King is agnostic, he’s quite polite – but sitting there, in the midst of three fellows who not only had no idea what the truth was, but at points even denied there was a truth to be found, it was certainly a challenging position. MacArthur, as the sole voice for God’s Truth, had to not only present that truth, but in a winsome way that would give God his due. And he nailed it! It was just so encouraging to see him clean up, coming off as the only sane one on the panel. I think he even got me clapping, after a particularly good answer.

So, a help and a hero. And to top it off he’s Reformed. 

But he’s also Baptist. And he’s a Dispensationalist. He wrong about these major matters.

That’s why, when I found out Iain Murray had written a biography on him, I knew I’d have to check it out. On the matters where we differ with MacArthur, Murray does too, so his biography highlights the great good God is doing through this man, and takes gentle note of areas where both Murray and we too would differ.

Topics covered

What Murray offers us here is a more topical than chronological look (though it is that too) at MacArthur’s life. So, for example, a chapter is spent on his wife, both on her influence, and a major car accident that nearly killed her. Another chapter is spent on the spiritual state of Russians after the Berlin Wall fell when MacArthur was invited to preach and teach there. We also learn about the role MacArthur had in fighting the “easy-believism” that was found in many evangelical churches. Pastors were teaching that not only is salvation not due to our works, after we are saved we still don’t have to do good works! MacArthur’s book The Gospel according to Jesus was a response to this error. 

Of course, Murray does also give un a look at the man himself. One little factoid that I found of interest was that one condition he set on accepting the call to Grace Community Church, the church he has served these last 40+ years, is that they allow him 30 hours a week for Bible study. He said that if he was going to teach the Word he needed time to be in the Word. I’m sure he works more than 30 hours a week, but even if he was at his task 10 hours a day six days a week, this still amounts to half of all his time. How much time, I wonder, do we give our ministers to simply study God’s Word?

Murray clearly admires his subject, but that doesn’t stop him from, when needed, rebutting him. For example, Murray takes up the issue of Dispensationalism in a chapter titled “Objections and Corrections.” There is no better example of loving criticism to be found than in this chapter in how Murray corrects MacArthur!


While I loved this book – I liked it so much I took the luxury of reading through it slowly – it is not the sort of biography that everyone will enjoy. The battles MacArthur has fought have been of a spiritual nature, which doesn’t make for quite the same gripping nature as, say, a biography about a shot down World War II pilot who had to contend with actual bullets and bombs. But spiritual battles should be of interest too – after all, we’re all in one.

And for anyone who has read or heard MacArthur and wanted to know more about the man this will be a wonderful treat. Here is a man who sought the Lord first and foremost.

You can purchase it at by clicking here.