Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Great Brain

by John D. Fitzgerald
175 Pages / 1972

The Great Brain is the story of Tom Fitzgerald, a ten-year-old boy living in frontier Utah in a time so long ago that indoor toilets were considered a novelty. His hometown of Adenville is, like most Utah towns, populated mainly by Mormons who live beside a handful of Catholics and Protestants. For Tom that doesn’t matter since he can out think them all.

The all consuming love of Tom’s life is money. If there’s a way to get it, Tom puts his great brain to work so that the money can be his. Not surprisingly, Tom’s great brain finds other things to work on, including finding kids lost in a cave, and getting even with his teacher.

This book is fun to read as the schemes dreamed up by the “Great Brain” are often hilarious and crazy and almost always successful. Yet though Tom’s fascinating schemes are not always something to admire, there’s a wonderful sense of morality that runs through the book.

The whole tale is told by Tom’s younger brother, John. He is often taken in by Tom’s smooth justifications of his actions, but John always lets you know that he’s still left with nagging doubts. Part of John knows, however silky the Great Brain’s explanations might be, that his schemes still aren’t quite right. Tom also has great parents who are almost always on the ball. They catch onto his antics, punish him, and force him to make restitution to those he’s swindled.

In the end, though, the Great Brain sees that there’s more than money. While there isn’t an overt religious message in the book, Tom actually saves a friend’s life and passes up a great money making opportunity that went with it. It makes him feel “extra good inside. Sort of clean and warm and Christmasy.”

This is a fun book, good for anyone 9 and over. I absolutely loved it when I first read it as a kid. While it tells the story of an entertaining and sometimes shady child, it doesn’t glorify his antics. Ultimately Tom’s activities are clever, entertaining, confounding and successful, but you still are left with a clear sense that they’re wrong. It’s a fascinating tale with an “old fashioned” sense of morality; good must ultimately win out.

The best part is that not only is this a great book, but if you love it as much as I did, there’s a number of sequels to enjoy.

You can pick The Great Brain up at Amazon.com here, or Amazon.ca here.

- reviewed by James Dykstra

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Flags out front


A Contrarian's Daydream
by Douglas Wilson
196 pages / 2017

In Flags out Front, Douglas Wilson has crafted something that is as inspirational as it is fictional.

What if a Christian public figure took a stand on principle and, no matter what pressure came, just would not back down? What might happen if, instead of wilting under that pressure, or trying to avoid it, a Christian leader embraced it, and fought back fearlessly?

In Flags out Front we get to find out. Tim Collins is a "mild mannered president of a dwindling southern" Bible college who never meant to cause a fuss. But he
arrives on campus one day to find a prankster has swapped a couple of the flags at the campus entrance. Now instead of the American flag flying above all, there is the Christian flag waving from on high, with the Stars and Stripes just below. Collins doesn't know quite what to think. But, upon reflection, he concludes the change is a good one and leaves it.

Then the phone calls start coming. He gets calls from conservative, patriotic sorts, wondering why the American flag is not in its central place. And he hears from the other side too, from those who'd be happy enough to burn the flag, but don't want to see it waving below a Christian flag.

Protests to the right, threats from the left, and Collins quietly stand his ground. He's willing to do it, even if it means standing alone...but alone is one thing he's not going to be. Quiet, meek, Dr. Collins, becomes the rally point for Christians of all sorts...including some clever college students who know how to make some noise.

This is how is should be, and, maybe could be. Who knows what God would do with a fearless few? Actually, we already know: this year we're celebrating the 500th anniversary of the firestorm God started with one monk and his mallet.

Flags out Front is a funny, clever, comedic novel that most anyone would enjoy, particularly if they have an interest in politics. I've foisted this off on a number of friends and family (and read about half of it out loud to my wife) and the response has been enthused all around.

You can pick up Flags out Front at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Visit the Sick

Ministering God's Grace in Times of Illness
by Brian Croft
94 pages / updated in 2014

One of the ways that Jesus described the difference between "the sheep and the goats" as the members of the church come before Him on Judgment Day is that the sheep visited the sick. Clearly visiting the sick is one important fruit of true faith in Jesus Christ.

Brian Croft's book not only shows the theological foundations for and purposes for visiting the sick, but also gives practical guidelines on how to do so in a way that builds up those beset by illness or injury, their family and friends, and those who do the visiting.

Croft starts by showing God's care for the sick after man brought the curse of disease into the world through sin - His care in the nation of Israel, in the life of Christ, and in the New Testament church. He next makes clear how our care for the sick can build up others spiritually through leading questions, the reading of Scripture, praying the gospel (especially when there are non-Christians on their deathbed), affirming God's promises, and trusting God's sovereign plan. This second chapter also gives a useful list of Bible passages to comfort and bring the gospel to the ailing.

Croft's third chapter on "Wise Care for the Sick" reminds us to prepare our hearts, watch our time, listen to the sick members without the immediate compulsion to resolve all their questions, leave a note when necessary, and enjoy the opportunity to grow in the Lord ourselves through our visits. "Skilled Care for the Sick" (as the fourth chapter is titled) also requires us to make effective eye contact, use appropriate physical touch, be pleasant in our manner, be sensitive to the sick person's situation, and even to keep our breath fresh! Croft's last chapter gives several ways for pastors to encourage their congregations to visit the sick.

The conclusion and afterword give a concrete example (in the life of the famous preacher C. H. Spurgeon) of how effective our ministry to the afflicted can be and why it is so important. The appendices give a single-page checklist of what to remember when we visit; pointers on how to start and move spiritual conversations forward; a series of "Frequently Answered Questions;" a summary of J. C. Ryles's essay on the prevalence, benefits, and duties related to "Sickness"; and a bibliography of very useful resources.

In just 94 pages, Croft gives a wealth of ideas to motivate and prepare us to visit ailing members, to their benefit and ours. If you think that Brian Croft's book will help equip you and others in the communion of saints to Visit the Sick effectively, you can order the book at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Pollyanna

by Eleanor H. Porter
abridged and modernized by Kathleen Olmstead
150 pages / 2007

I'm not one for abridged classics – why not just read the original?

However, there is an exception to every rule. I recently realized that my little ones could benefit from learning about Pollyanna's "glad game" but they just weren't old enough yet to sit through the original. Fortunately Sterling Books' "Classic Starts" has a very good abridgment. At first I was wondering whether this even was an abridgment - had they maybe just tweaked the language a bit? But it is, in fact, about half the size. And that made it the perfect size for my girls.

Pollyanna is a poor but cheerful orphan girl who goes to live with her rich, strait-laced aunt. Hilarity ensues, and the aunt is gradually won over. I won't tell you more, other than to say there is one shocking/sad moment that could cause young listeners some distress – Pollyanna gets hurt quite badly. I peeked ahead and made sure that the chapter with the accident was one I would begin an evening with, so that, before concluding for the night, I could read two more chapters where things took a happier turn. That helped my audience work through this tense section.

So what is Pollyanna's "glad game"? It's something her father taught her - he explained that even when things aren't going our way, there is always something to be glad about. He first taught her the game one Christmas when Pollyanna was hoping for a doll, but the only gift sent to her poor family was a pair of tiny crutches. So what is there to be happy about that? It took some thinking, but eventually father and daughter came up with something: they could be glad about the crutches because at least “we didn’t need to use them!”

Pollyanna teaches her game to many others, and in doing so, transforms her community - they too, start to see the silver lining to each dark cloud.

Of course, this game can be taken to extremes. When an older man breaks a leg, Pollyanna notes he could be glad that he broke just the one leg. Well, okay. But, as the Preacher said, there is a time for everything, and that includes mourning. So maybe it is fine for the man to just simply be sad for a time at the pain and suffering that's happened to him.

But while Pollyanna's game can be taken to extremes, I don't think many of us are in danger of doing so. Couldn't we all do with a good dose of this Pollyanna-ish thinking?

You can pick up this wonderful book at Amazon.com or Amazon.ca but there are other abridgments, and not all as good, so do make sure the one you get is the Sterling Books' "Classic Starts" edition

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Then comes marriage

by Angela Hunt and Bill Myers
2001 / 137 pages

This is a great book. It’s funny and serious, goofy and intellectual all at the same time.

Then Comes Marriage is the story of Heather and Kurt Stone as they celebrate their first anniversary. While Heather and Kurt are madly in love, you’ve likely never met two more clueless individuals. As an anniversary present he gives her a four-wheel drive truck, and she gives him a collage of photos and ticket stubs from the months of their courtship. What neither seems to understand is that the present they give the other person is really what they wanted themselves.

Fireworks result, and this short novel or “novella” is spent sorting out the mess, and trying to figure out just what it is that God wants Heather and Kurt to bring to their marriage.

The story is definitely funny, and it makes some wonderfully serious points in a light-hearted way. It’s rarely preachy yet manages to provoke thought. This would be a wonderful book to stir discussion in a marriage preparation course or perhaps in a high school life skills course. Of course, it’s also great to read just because you want to dig into a good book.

The only real problem I had with the book is the price. At nearly $20 Canadian new, it’s a lot of money for such a tiny book. On the bright side, the book comes very solidly bound in a nice hardcover edition. And there are lots of used copies going for just a few bucks.

This is the kind of book that’s meant for sharing because of it’s lively story and important message, and with it’s rugged construction, it’s the kind of book you should be able to share for years to come. Then Comes Marriage is not only a book worth buying, but a book worth keeping.

You can buy a copy at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Reviewed by James Dykstra

Friday, November 24, 2017

Eric says...thanks, sorry, and please

Dai Hankey has a great voice, and has paired up with a fantastic illustrator for his three books about Eric, and how this little fellow learns to say thanks, please, and sorry. Usually an author's voice isn't all that relevant, but in the three videos below we get to listen in as he reads his books (which can all be found at Amazon.com or Amazon.ca). Fun stuff!

Eric Says Thanks
32 pages / 2016

In Eric Says Thanks this little boy models some fantastic enthusiasm as he learns Who to give credit to for the goodness he's been giving in his "brecky."



Eric Says Sorry
32 pages / 2016

When Eric messes up he tries all sorts of way to get out of trouble, but lying, shifting blame, and coming up with excuses don't get him anywhere. But when his dad gives him grace - epic grace! - and pays for the broken pot, Eric gets a glimpse at the grace God gives us. We can't earn forgiveness. But we can ask for it.

Parents with highly developed "arminian sniff detectors" might detect a hint of this theology in the author's commentary after the book concludes. But if it's there (and I don't know if it is) it certainly isn't anything that children will notice or be impacted by. And, more to the point, it doesn't come up in the book.



Eric Says Please
32 pages / 2017


Eric wants to show he can do it all himself, but the little fellow soon learns that pride goeth before a fall...right out of a tree!  When Eric finally realizes he can't do it on his own, his grandfather points Eric to Who he can go to, to ask for help.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Literature Through the Eyes of Faith

by Susan V. Gallagher and Roger Lundin
192 pages / 1989

I am not the only person I know who considers this a really good read. At a teachers' convention I attended recently, a university professor quoted paragraphs from this book several times, and this presenter also referred to it as a "trusty guide" (or words to that effect).

So why is this nearly 30-year-old textbook still worth reading? Well, as the Foreword (by Nicholas Wolterstorff, himself a generally trusty Christian guide to philosophy) shows, Literature Through the Eyes of Faith carries out two important tasks in responding to literature. It both maps out a more than merely Romantic way of looking at literature and outlines how to respond to (fairly) recent critical approaches to literature.

So... what does that mean? Well, let's start with the "Romantic" view of literature. The authors show how as the Enlightenment undermined Western cultures' trust in Biblical revelation, writers and critics began to justify the writing and study of literature as a search for wisdom and self-improvement. The problem with that approach is that it treated literature as almost inspired. It also ultimately left no room to evaluate literature by outside standards (like the Bible).

At the same time, the authors stress "that the reading and writing of literature are forms of human action and... have the same potential for good or evil as any of our actions." In other words, the same piece of literature can indeed point to the truth (as the Romantics emphasized) - but can also be used to glamorize or justify evil. Of course, if literature is truly capable of promoting both good and evil, the interpretation of literature becomes very important. The authors show the problems with both many secular methods of interpreting literature and naive approaches to literature by well-meaning Christians who fail to account for the contexts and purposes of the stories, poems, and plays they read. They show both that not just "anything goes" in evaluating a work of literature, but that we must be willing to give time and careful reading and study to given works, authors, and forms of literature before we label any of them as being not worth a Christian's time and energy. The same is true when we consider what works are worthy of being included in "the canon" - the literature that everyone should study.

What makes all this more than dry definition is the range of people drawn into their discussion - from church fathers and classic Christian writers to scientists to writers promoting the American mythos: Augustine, William Bradford, Emily Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Irenaeus, Stephen King, C. S. Lewis, John Milton, Sir Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, and Mark Twain (to name only the more obvious ones that are dealt with over several pages each).

My only quibble with the book might demonstrate my ignorance, rather than their mistake. The authors make a different distinction between form and genre than I typically use with my students. I have called form the description of HOW a story is told - for example, in poetry, in a novel, in a short story, or in a play. Genre, in my use of the term, refers to WHAT the story is about - a romance, a western, a fantasy, an adventure story, a war story, a comedy, a tragedy, or many, many others. As for the authors' use of these two words, you will have to read the book to see whether it is more accurate or useful than mine.

If you think that Gallagher and Lundin can help you see Literature Through the Eyes of Faith, you can order it at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.




Saturday, October 28, 2017

Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

by Christopher R. Browning
271 pages / 1992

This is a really horrifying book.

Ordinary Men tells the World War II story of German Reserve Police Battalion 101. Police battalions were units sent into occupied territory to quell civil unrest and to take care of any remaining partisan forces. They generally consisted of men too old for the regular military draft, or sometimes volunteers attempting to avoid conscription into an active military unit. They were formed of men with families and careers, the sort of men you might meet at the grocery store, or perhaps go bowling with. The men in police units were not normally those you'd consider likely to become mass murderers.

On July 13, 1942, that all changed. The nearly 500 men of the battalion were sent to Jósefów in Poland. Upon arrival, Major Wilhem Trapp, the battalion commander gave the men their instructions. In tears he told them that they were to round up the 1500 or more Jews in the town and execute them. In an unusual move, Trapp invited anyone to step forward who did not want to carry out the task at hand and be assigned to other duties. Only 12 of the nearly 500 took Trapp up on his offer.

Those who didn’t stepped forward were set to work, and an initially small group of them was brought to the nearby woods where they were instructed on how to execute the Jews in as swift and tidy a way as possible. With their victim lying face down on the ground, the policemen were instructed to place the bayonets of their rifles at the base of their victims' necks, and then fire. This method ensured a swift death for the victim, and was as clean and tidy as a mass execution could be.

Later groups that carried out the executions that day were not given the same precise instructions, and often shot wildly. This meant that the victims' skulls were frequently blown apart, splattering the formerly tidy uniforms of the police with blood and brains of the victims. As might be expected, many of the shooters were unable to continue and were allowed to assume other less distasteful duties. Unit discipline was surprisingly loose that day, and many of those doing the shooting simply abandoned their posts without permission and slipped off into the woods. They were able to do this without any punishment from their superiors. Despite how easy it was to avoid being one of the executioners, 80 per cent or more of the battalion continued rounding up and executing the Jews until the job was completed.

Upon returning to their barracks, most of the men of the unit quickly got drunk.

As with most tasks that assault our conscience, repetition numbs our response – executing the Jews became easier, and even a source of merriment at times.

Battalion 101 did few actual executions on their own, generally providing police cordons to prevent doomed Jews from escaping their fate. While Lithuanian "Hiwi" units did much of the actual shooting, the men of Battalion 101 were involved in the execution either directly or by providing a security cordon to at least 38,000 Jews from July 1942 until November 1943. Additionally, they forced at least 45,200 other Jews onto trains bound for death camps like Treblinka.

Story of those that killed

This is a horrifying book, but not so much because of the number of men, women and children who were innocently executed. This book is not the story of those who died, but of those who killed them. After the initial incident at Jósefów, battalion discipline was tightened. Despite this, men who didn't want to be involved in the executions had little trouble avoiding the duty. When officers set up details, they generally picked volunteers. On those occasions when they simply chose people at random, it was still easy to avoid the duty by moving to the back of the crowd. It quickly became apparent that men in close proximity to the officer got picked, so avoiding this unpleasant job was a relatively simple affair.

The horrifying part is that despite it being easy to avoid execution duties, it was never a problem finding volunteers, eager to go out and join the latest squad. There were always other more seemingly honorable tasks available for those who chose not to join the execution squads, such as joining a patrol to eliminate partisan resistance fighters. None the less, there was a conspicuous number of men in the unit who appeared to prefer the task of killing unarmed civilians.

In reading a book like this, one has to ask how an average man could become a mass murderer. The author is quick to emphasize that these were not men trained to kill. As police officers, their military training was no better than the average. They had received no special indoctrination that prepared them for their task. Being, for the most part, middle aged men set in their ways, they were, if anything, less susceptible to the worst of the Nazi propaganda than most of the younger soldiers conscripted into military units. Only about 25 per cent of the policemen were members of the Nazi party and most of those were late joiners, coming into the party after National Socialism had become well established in Germany. In other words, most of these men weren't even committed Nazis. The author emphasizes that in almost every conceivable way, the men of Battalion 101 were average. They were, quite literally, ordinary men. They could well have been your neighbor next door, or the guy from down the street.

So how do you explain something like this, when ordinary men become willingly involved in extraordinary evil? The author notes that psychological experiments suggest humans will readily inflict severe pain on other human beings when ordered to do so by an authority figure. It seems that the average man's conscience can be put at ease if someone else has told him to cause pain, for perhaps then he might be able to convince himself he is not morally responsible.

In the case of Battalion 101, however, the normal stern authority figure who ordered the killings was a kindly older man, so distraught about the orders he brought that he was literally in tears. His instructions to clear out the ghetto in Jósefów came less as an order from an authority figure than as a request from a man deeply uncomfortable with his task. The standard explanation of many accused of heinous crimes - "I was merely following orders" - simply doesn't apply here for it was almost always possible to avoid the order with no adverse consequences. The authority figures of the battalion never took a stern line and never forced the men to kill.

Rationalizing evil

Some of the men of the battalion rationalized their actions in strange ways. One explained that he always paired himself with another policeman who would shoot the parent of a child. Since the child was now an orphan, it seemed only merciful to this individual to also shoot the child, for this would "deliver" him from the lonely, miserable life that orphans have often experienced. It may not have been intentional, but the policeman justifying his actions used a perverse pun. The same German word he used to suggest he delivered the child, also means "to redeem." It seemed shooting these Jews almost took on a religious significance for him.

The author also contrasts the policemen with the bureaucrats in Berlin who issued the orders that Battalion 101 followed when they executed civilians, or forced them onto death trains. These bureaucrats, he notes, were able to issue their directives with relative ease because they never actually had to face the people whose deaths they were responsible for.

The men of this police battalion never had that excuse. They couldn't claim that they were emotionally distant from their victims as they escorted them, one by one, to the areas in the forest where the killing was taking place. The policemen saw their victims close up, and were able to look them in the eye. The men of the battalion indicated they even struck up conversations with the men, women, and children they were about to kill though one is left to wonder what kind of a conversation could possibly have occurred. The policemen could not claim a moral distance from their victims like the bureaucrats in Berlin could. They looked many of their victims in the eye and treated them like human beings until the very last possible moment.

True cowardice

So what could be the cause? There is, perhaps, only one explanation that makes sense and even partially accounts for what occurred. Twenty years after the fact, when facing criminal prosecution for their actions, men of the battalion were asked why they didn't step forward and avoid becoming a mass murderer when offered the opportunity by Trapp. Most explained they didn't want to appear cowardly. It was one thing to start with the executions and then be unable to finish. It was quite another to not do the executions at all. That was cowardly. Only one individual seemed to understand his own motivations clearly. When asked why he didn't step forward when given the chance, he didn't say that he was trying to avoid being a coward, but that he didn't step forward precisely because he was a coward. He was less afraid of killing innocent children than he was of the peer pressure exerted by his comrades.

The true story of Battalion 101 is a horrifying tale. There was, no doubt, enormous pressure from the rest of the battalion to conform and to join the executions. Yet peer pressure is not an excuse. We don't excuse kids at school caught smoking who gave in under pressure from their peers, and, though the crime is larger, people caught in the situation of the battalion cannot be excused either. Peer pressure helps to explain their actions, but it doesn't take away the guilt.

Perhaps the most obvious element lacking from all the excuses provided by the policemen is any sense of morality. Twenty years after the fact when criminal investigators interviewed these former policemen, there was no longer an immediate sense of peer pressure. The rest of their unit no longer had the same sway over them, and even that long after the events the policemen overwhelmingly indicated they had done what they did because they didn't want to appear weak in front of their comrades. They hadn't been motivated by a belief in Nazi values. Twenty years after the fact they expressed little remorse for what were clearly morally repugnant actions. Even those who had not been involved in the killing did not claim to be "too good" to kill, but they were "too weak." It is almost unbelievable that crimes of this magnitude could be discussed without any reference to morality.

In all of us

Though this is a work of history and not theology, and though the author reveals no obvious religious bias, his conclusion sounds like something straight out of the Bible. He warns against the smugness many feel when discussing the evil actions of others. As he notes in his final sentence, if under these circumstances the very ordinary men of Battalion 101 could become mass killers, "what group of men cannot?"

It is in this last comment that it might be possible to finally understand the actions of these men. The Heidelberg Catechism explains that we are "incapable of any good and prone to all evil" and the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confessions states that mankind is "wholly inclined to all evil." This is why the tale of Battalion 101 is so utterly horrifying. Their actions are not horrifying because they're so unusual, and so implausible, but because they're something we're all capable of. The level of evil to which they descended - the same evil we've seen repeated in places like Rwanda, or by individuals like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahlmer, or Clifford Olson - is something that lies in the hearts of all of us.

Reading a book like this is not for the faint of heart, or those prone to nightmares. As one of my grad school colleagues commented, it is almost senseless to talk about preventing these kinds of actions, for without the regenerating work of God the cause of the evil remains unsolved. Despite its disturbing story, the book is one well worth reading for it illustrates in a brutally clear fashion why reaching out to our neighbors is so urgent. If you ever needed a slight push to talk to co-workers, or the people just across the back hedge, to explain to them "the reason for the hope that you have," this book will do that for you.

You can pick up Ordinary Men at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Two novels that ask, "What if we found Jesus' bones?"

In 1906 a momentous discovery was made. While digging in Turkey, Hugo Winckler, a German archeologist, discovered the ancient ruins of the Hittite capital city of Hattusa.

This discovery was momentous because, up until that time, many had been sure that Hittites didn’t exist. The only mention of them was in the Bible, but since no solid archeological evidence of Hittites had been found, there was a growing speculation that the Bible had made them up. It was seen as evidence, then, that the Bible was in error.

Prior to 1906, conservative Christians still believed in the inerrancy of the Bible, even though the archeological evidence (or lack thereof) seemed to be stacked against them. In a way the 1906 find was hardly relevant to them – they believed before this discovery and continued to believe afterwards. The discovery did, however, illustrate two important points:

  1. Archeological, and other evidence, continues to verify parts of the Bible.
  2. It is illogical to base our faith on the latest scientific or archeological, finds since some evidence might seems – at least for a time – to differ with the Bible.

It is the logic and limit of trying to prove the Bible that is the focus of these two novels. Both books are built on a very similar premise: What if the bones of Jesus were discovered? Or to put it another way, what would the Church, and world do if the archeological and scientific evidence was stacked against Jesus’ resurrection?

Wil’s Bones
by Kevin Bowen
Engage Publishing, 2000, 244 pages

With short chapters (frequently two and three pages), this novel is a quick read. Wil Wilson has grown up to be the preeminent Biblical archeologist of the day. He is not a Christian though. The hypocrisy of his father, a respected deacon in his church, and an abusive womanizing drunk at home, has killed Wil’s faith. In fact, Wil first becomes interested in archeology as a way to hurt his father. If Wil can only find Jesus’ bones he can destroy his father’s church, his faith, and his respected position as deacon.

When the bones of a crucified man are found in a hidden section of the Garden Tomb, Wil thinks he has found what he is looking for. However, the enormity of this find leaves many highly placed people nervous. How will the world’s 2 billion Christians react when they hear the news? This is the most interesting part of the book, as ministers specializing in apologetics suddenly start wavering. Liberal Christians start winning more and more recruits and the President of the USA renounces his Christianity and launches his reelection campaign with the slogan “Leading you into the Post-Christian age.”

A solid, entertaining book that deals with some very serious ideas, this novel is still a pretty light read – parts of it might even be described as corny. I definitely recommend it, but not as some sort of great work of literature. If you are the type of person who only reads weighty fiction, then this is not the book for you. But if you are looking for something fun and intriguing, in which the writing, while middling, doesn't get in the way of the story, then I think you may enjoy this as much as I did. 

You can pick up a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here and Amazon.ca here.

A Skeleton in God’s Closet
by Paul Maier
Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994, 336 pages

The hero of this story is Dr. Jon Weber, a biblical scholar, and son of a pastor. Invited to a dig in Israel, he discovers what he thinks are the bones of Joseph of Arimathea. However, as the dig proceeds his first evaluation changes and he starts to wonder if these bones might instead be the bones of Jesus.

This is in many ways a mystery novel. As this is a Christian book, readers know from the start that this must be a hoax (I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that) but how could a fraud of such magnitude be pulled off?

The author, Paul Maier delves a good deal deeper into the world’s reaction to this find. When it is first revealed the evidence seems to be utterly beyond question, and even Jon Weber’s father, a Lutheran pastor, is disturbed. But while some people start renouncing their Christian faith, Pastor Weber, continues on, knowing that the find must not be true. This is a very intriguing element in this story, since Pastor Weber knows that his own son believes that the bones belong to Jesus. So even though his son found the bones, Pastor Weber’s faith remains steadfast. And of course, in the end, he is proven right.

Another intriguing part of the book: Maier is an Old Testament scholar and his expertise comes out. Throughout the story we learn many fascinating details about how archeology is done, and what both ancient and modern Israel looks like.

So which of these two books is best for you? Both are fun, but Skeleton is the more sophisticated – it would be Adult Fiction, whereas Wil's Bones is more Young Adult.

If you like it you'll certainly enjoy the rest of Paul Maier's fiction. In fact, the only book that doesn't quite measure up is a sequel he wrote to this one called More than a Skeleton - the same characters return, which is great, but they run through the same plot, which is not.

You can pick up A Skeleton in God's Closet at Amazon.com by here and at Amazon.ca here.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Power Encounters: Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare

by David Powlison
160 pages / 1995

Powlison's book references two reasonably good reads by Frank Peretti: This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness. Peretti wrote his novels partly to sensitize Christians to the spiritual warfare going on all around us. The problem that arose was that people began to believe that we could fight  our spiritual battles using methods that are closer to occult than Christian.

Powlison, a frequent contributor to the work of the Christian Counseling Education Foundation, begins by showing how "claiming the power of Christ" over demons glorifies our will rather than God's work and actually makes a mockery of Christ's name by assuming that our sin is the result of God's not acting (yet) to counter the supposed demons of lust, anger, and other sins. He then defines the term EMM (ekballistic mode of ministry) - describing an emphasis on the casting out of demons or their influence rather than repenting of sin and seeking guidance and strength to fight temptation from God in prayer and Biblical meditation.

Powlison next looks at some errors made in reading the Bible that lead to a misinformed hunt for demons rather than disobedience in situations of habitual sin. With better reading of Biblical texts in context, he leads us through the Old Testament, the ministry of Jesus Christ, and the work of the apostles to show how a focus on the dark powers was typically one of the problems rather than the solution in the rebellion of God's people against His will.

Then Powlison takes the discussion into the current situation - how focusing on our own sin and God's grace and power equips us for spiritual, ending with two case studies that show how fighting against sin, day by day, hour by hour, yields fruitful growth in obedience to God and fruitful relationships with others - to God's glory.

Only two problems with this book: It is definitely dated, and so is more of an introduction, rather than a comprehensive guide, to the problems with seeing demons, rather than our own sinful hearts, as the source of sin in our lives. The other issue is that the book is out of print, and may be hard to find.

With that said, if you think that Powlison's book could help Christians reclaim spiritual warfare from a Biblical perspective, you can purchase used copies at Amazon.com or Amazon.ca.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Katharina, Katharina

by Christine Farenhorst
328 pages / 2017

In the past year, inspired by the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing up his 95 theses (or did he?) I've read about a dozen works on Luther. This is a favorite.

One reason I love it so, is because it offers something very different from the others – this about is Luther and his time, but he isn't the main character. He isn't even a minor character, never making an in-story appearance. The events take place miles away from Luther's Wittenberg, in the French city of Strasbourg, on the border with Germany. The story centers around a middle daughter of the middle-class Schutz family. Like their neighbors, the Schutz's read and discuss Luther's pamphlets.

By taking a step back from the man himself, author Christine Farenhorst (a long-time contributor to the magazine I edit, Reformed Perspective) give her readers the opportunity to encounter Luther's ideas in much the same way as the people of his time did. They didn't debate his ideas at the start, so much as wonder what to think of them. Some of his points they could readily agree with – many saw a need for at least some sort of reformation of the Church. But his thoughts on indulgences... might he be right?

We follow the title character from childhood up until her mid-twenties. Though Katharina Schutz is a real person, this is historical fiction – all the big events are true, but the day-to-day details of Katharina's life have been made up. This is why, even as a background character, Luther still dominates the story. Katharina's life is fascinating reading but because much of it is speculative, it serves as the foundation while what we learn about Luther here is his real, actual history.

One of the strangest bits of true history in the book is the dancing plague of 1518 that hit Strasbourg. Victims couldn't help but dance. It would have been funny except that this stilted, clumsy dancing never stopped - as many as 400 dancers kept going for days and days, beyond exhaustion, and even to the point of heart attacks and strokes.

Target audience

This is a teen to young adult book, but like any good children's book, adults interested in their church history will find it fascinating. However, as a third of all children at that time died before they hit age 5, there are some parts to Katharina's story that would be bawl-inducing to anyone under, say, 10.

The somewhat slow beginning – it took until chapter 4 to really grab me – also makes it better suited for readers with a little maturity to them.

Conclusion

There is a real benefit to learning about Luther in this one-step-removed fashion. I was fascinated by what I learned about the people and culture of that time. It gave me a deeper understanding of the pressures that Luther faced, and insights into how God prepared the ground for the Reformation Luther sparked.

In the US you can pick up a copy at Amazon.com, and in Canada here at Amazon.ca.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Luther in Love

by Douglas Bond
2017 / 320 pages

Luther in Love shows us the Reformer from the perspective of his better half. The story begins with 62-year-old Luther spending an evening in his chair. He's not in the best of health – worn out from a lifetime of controversy and conflict – and his dear wife knows that it can't be long before he is gone.

So she has given herself a bittersweet project to complete. Others have written accounts of the Reformer, but always from one extreme or the other - either thinking him "the spawn of Satan" or "a living angel." She wants the world to know the real man, and she's going to record his story as he remembers it. But Katie doesn't want her husband to know what she's up to, so even as she's prodding him about the past, and has paper and quill at the ready, he thinks she's busy keeping track of the family finances and other business matters.

It's a great premise and let's Bond explore Luther's life through the appreciative, but far from naive perspective of his helpmeet. After all, who knows a man better than his wife?

One strength of the book is the thorough research evident throughout - we are immersed in Luther's world! And then there is Bond's writing – this is the fourth fictionalized biography Bond has written about Reformers, and he is a master of this form. Again and again I had to get up to find my wife and read sections to her that were simply too exciting, or too sweet, not to share.

Some of that sweetness comes up when the two are teasing and debating each other. Bond gives us a wonderful look at how two souls can grow old together and continue growing in love for one another. It's a book about Luther, but it's also a model for marriage.

Of the many books I've read about Luther, this is one of the biggest. But it might just be the fastest read. That's why I'd recommend it to anyone and everyone, teens and up. It is funny, entertaining, informative, sweet, challenging, and more.

You can pick up a copy at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here. (I was surprised at how cheap it is.)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

C.S. Lewis - Can you imagine?

by Catherine Mackenzie
illustrated by Rita Ammassari
24 pages / 2013

This book prompted me to ask, what is it that qualifies a book as being "really good"? Both my wife and I were struck by this children's biography of C.S. "Jack" Lewis, and yet in talking about it, we agreed on the book's notable shortcomings - the story just doesn't flow like it should.

So why did we also like it so? Because, in telling us about C.S. Lewis's life in a way that children can understand, the book introducing children in an age-appropriate manner to topics like the death of pets and of loved ones, doubting and denying God, unanswered prayers, and returning to God. There's more to the book - there is a page or two on how Narnia came to be, of course - but it is the "adult" topics presented in a real, but not forceful way, that makes this book something special.

The structure of the book is that each two-page spread is, effectively, its own short chapter. There are not actual chapters in the book, but every left hand page tells its own self-contained little story of Lewis's life, with the righthand presenting a corresponding full-page picture. This works for the most part, but there are a couple of times where the transition from the previous spread to the next is too ragged and jumpy with no clear transition marking what might be a leap of 5 or 10 years that took place in the page turn.

But if that's the book's flaw, the strength is in the depiction of Jack's fight, and submission to God. So, when his mother dies when Jack is still a boy, we see him ask "Why didn't God answer my prayers and make her better?" Then, as he goes off to war, we hear him say to himself, "God does not exist." But then, gradually (well, not that gradual - this is only a 24 page book), we also see God at work, pursuing and changing Jack, until finally he says, "I've spent years running away from God. I didn't realize that all that time God was really chasing after me." And after Jack gives in, we hear of his joy, but even here this little book doesn't gloss over the difficulty that Christians can face – when Jack's wife Joy dies, we hear him say, "Grief feels like fear."

This was a wonderful tool to talk with my daughters about topics that are important, but aren't covered in most other children's books. And it is done in such a careful and age-appropriate manner. So this gets two thumbs up from both my wife and I. And our kids enjoyed it too, even if not to the same degree as their parents.

You can pick up a copy at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

How can I be sure? - And other questions about doubt, assurance and the Bible

by John Stevens
93 pages / 2014

Without a doubt, this book is sure to be useful for any Christian who wonders whether he or she believes, or whether what he or she has always believed is still true. The author John Stevens demonstrates just how many reasons for and types of doubt there are when, in the book's introduction, he gives eight portraits of Christians who lack assurance in their faith in some form or another.

What makes this gallery of doubters so effective is what Stevens does with it at the end of the book. First though, in five short chapters, broken up into sections of two to four pages, Stevens
  1. defines doubt in six significant ways;
  2. demonstrates five dangers of doubt;
  3. shows how someone can know he or she is a Christian - in both faith and life;
  4. describes five ways to deal with doubt, including understanding doubt's four root causes; and
  5. outlines six ways to strengthen your faith.
Four of the five chapters also deal briefly with more specific questions like:
  • How do I respond when friends fall away?
  • How can I be sure that God loves me?
  • What is the gift of faith mentioned in the Bible?
  • If God is the one who gives faith, why do I still have doubts?
To see just how helpful this book is, let's look at the answer to the first question, one that many in my own congregation are struggling with. If friends are falling away, Stevens tells us, we should do the following:
  1. Pray for them and seek to share the gospel with them again, urging them to come back to Christ. (Sadly, excommunication in our churches often ends all contact with the former members, rather than making that contact much more deliberate, intentional and lovingly corrective.)
  2. Don't be surprised or think that God has failed them in some way. Stevens reminds us that unbelief is the responsibility of the individual.
  3. Make every effort to strengthen and protect our own faith, joining with other believers in prayer and studying God's word.
  4. Finally, the falling away of our friends should prompt us to examine our own doubts to be sure that they do not become unbelief.
Stevens' conclusion, as I hinted above, invites us to consider the doubters profiled in the introduction - why they are suffering with doubt, and how you could help them - and gives us his own view, as well as some final words of comfort and exhortation.

An appendix lists resources to help Christians struggling with doubts regarding science and God, history, suffering, homosexuality, the Bible, truth, and other questions. Two small notes for Reformed or non-British readers:
  • Stevens mentions his own doubts and change of heart about infant baptism now disagreeing with it, though he "respect[s] the views of Christians who come to a different conclusion."
  • A look at physical causes of doubt mentions PMT (a British version of PMS).
An edifying and comforting book! If you think that John Stevens has good answers to questions about doubt, assurance, and the Bible, you can purchase his book, at amazon.com or amazon.ca.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Once upon a banana

by Jennifer Armstrong 
illustrated by David Small
48 pages / 2013

I'd almost forgotten just how wonderful wordless books can be. But then I found this at the library, brought it home, read it once to my three girls, and then, moments later, my youngest, all of three, was off on her own "reading" the book to herself.

The fact is, long before kids can read, many really, really want to. Parents might find them, picture book on their lap, either trying to remember how the story goes, or trying to make up something that will fit the pictures. And all the while, just wishing they could read it for themselves.

Wordless books are a way to build on this enthusiasm. I did need to go through Once Upon A Banana the first time with them, pointing out things like how banana peels are supposed to be slippery, and how the book was giving us hints as to what was coming, by showing us some characters in full color, and the less important characters only in shades of blue.

But they didn't need much to figure it out. The story is one big chase scene, with monkey owner chasing monkey, and then grocer chasing monkey owner, and then some dogs join the chase, and a skateboarding judge, and a mom and her baby in its stroller. Oh, and there's a big garbage truck in the mix too. It's crazy and frantic with lots to look at on every page.

After I gave a short "lesson" on how to read this wordless book, my two pre-readers could do it all on their own. That means that, while wordless books aren't going to replace me any time soon, they do reduce the demand just a tad on Dad the book reader. And that freed me up to read something a bit more challenging, and at least a little bit closer to my own level, to my older girls.

The only downside to wordless books is that they take hardly any time to read. That means this isn't the best value for a parent - it'd be better to get it out of the library. But this is a good one for a school library. You can get it at Amazon.ca here and Amazon.com here.

And for more wordless wonders, see more reviews at the links below.

More wordless wonders


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Innocent Heroes: Stories of animals in the First World War

by Sigmund Brouwer
186 pages / 2017

Animals had a bigger part in the First World War than most of us realize. Author Sigmund Brouwer has taken stories of World War I animals at their most heroic, and paired them with stories of these animals in their perhaps even more important everyday work too.

While all the animals stories are based on real events, these animals served in a wide variety of Allied forces (Belgian, American, French and more), so, in the interests of making a continuous, compelling storyline, Brouwer fictionalized the accounts, placing them all in the confines of just one Canadian platoon, the Storming Normans.

While each chapter is built around the story of one particular creature –a cat, a bird, two dogs, a horse, a mule, and a lion – the book's main characters are three fictional Canadian infantry soldiers: Jake, Charlie, and Thomas, who help and are helped by these "innocent heroes."

In the trio of Jake, Charlie, and Thomas, the author gives us soldiers who couldn't have more different backgrounds, with Jake a farm boy, Charlie the city-dwelling son of a millionaire, and Thomas a Cree Indian. There is fun to be had in this "odd couple" set-up, particularly that of Charlie and Thomas: the snooty Charlie doesn't know anything about natives, but doesn't let that stop him from thinking very little of them, and Thomas, without hardly saying a word, manages to teach Charlie a lesson or two (which Charlie has to learn the hard way) and, eventually, wins him over as a friend.

It's clear the author had three goals with this book. He wanted to:
  1. share the story of these brave animals
  2. give readers an idea of what Canadian soldiers experienced in the trenches of World War I
  3. teach readers about how Natives were treated on the front lines and back home in Canada during this time period. 
This third element comes out in Charlie's early obnoxious treatment of Thomas, and also later when Thomas shares a little of his experience on his reserve, and in a residential school. However Thomas' quiet nature means this is only done in passing. It is only in the book's last chapter, after the soldiers have returned home, that we get a longer look at Thomas' life, and how natives were impacted by government policies back then that wouldn't, among other things, allow them to leave the reserve without permission from a government agent.

Cautions

One criticism some might have with this book is that it is not entirely realistic. All of our animal and human heroes survive, and though Brouwer details some battle scenes, I don't think we even read of enemy soldiers dying.

But considering this is intended for a pre-teen to teen audience, that's just keeping things age appropriate. In a two or three-page interjection at the end of each chapter, Brouwer includes a short account of the real animal that inspired the chapter, and in these short accounts he gives a few more of the grim details. But it is still done in an age-appropriate manner. In fact, though I did have to mute a few of the more descriptive details of a rat crawling on a soldier's face, Brouwer's tactful approach has allowed me to read this to my 5 and 7 year old.

The only other criticism might be that, when it comes to Natives' treatment, we hear only one side - the harm done to the Natives by the government. I don't know enough of that time to do anything but wonder if there was also harm being done to the Natives by the Natives too. But, I will say again, this is a children's story, so we can't expect it to dig too deep. Brouwer raises an important issue, and does it in a delicate manner appropriate for his audience.

Conclusion

My highest praise for a book is that it is so good I have to read it to my family. We're half way through this one, and my wife, and two oldest girls want me to keep going. And this even after one particularly touching chapter - the tale of a brave pigeon – left both me and my most sensitive daughter with tears in our eyes. I should also mention that other sections have had us laughing so hard I couldn't be heard over the howls!

Brouwer has weaved these animals' stories together into a compelling book that tackles some tough topics at an age-appropriate level. And he even manages to conclude it with a happy ending. Two very enthusiastic thumbs up!

You can pick it up at Amazon.ca or Amazon.com, or ask your local library to get a copy.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Why We Pray

by William Philip
109 pages / 2015

This book, written with humour, common sense, and Biblical wisdom, is a brief, easy-to-read response to questions that many of us may have: Does prayer intimidate you rather than refresh you? Do you wonder whether your heart is really in it?

William Philip, a Scottish minister who used to be a cardiologist, wanted to continue to deal with "matters of the heart" in this book. Rather than lecturing us on how important it is to pray more, he explains how prayer is a response to who God is. Philip uses examples from politics, sports, and his own life to clarify the four Biblical reasons why we may and must pray. As well, thoughtful questions at the end of each chapter invite us to ponder just how our own relationship with God is reflected in prayer.
We may pray, first, because God is a speaking God. He spoke creation into being and shaped it by his word, so creation "speaks" back visibly by displaying His power (see Psalm 19:1-6). God wanted more from human beings, though, because He made us capable of responding audibly. When we cut off the conversation through the sin of Adam and Eve (including hiding from God), He restored the relationship through Jesus Christ. Real prayer is responding in faith to God's call in Jesus Christ.

The second reason we pray is because we are "sons of God" (even the "daughters"!). Philip says that the reason we are called sons of God is because we, like sons in the ancient world, have an inheritance. We can pray to our (adoptive) Father in heaven because of the work of God's (natural!) Son, Jesus Christ. Because Jesus Christ was (and is) such a faithful Son, God gladly accepts us as His children - so we have the right to appear before Him. Like any loving father (only much more so!), God wants to hear His children speak to (and with) Him.

It is because, in the third place, God is sovereign that our prayer is so meaningful - though some do not necessarily see it. If God is so great, and is working out His infinite plan, some ask, then why pray at all? Philip compares our part in God's plan to being on an unbeatable sports team. Would any of us quit simply because we are so sure that the team is going to win? In His infinite power, God is not only a willing father, but also able to grant whatever we ask that is within His will.

Finally, God is the Spirit who dwells within us, and this makes sense of the requirement that we ask only what is within His will. The presence of the indwelling Spirit makes prayer into the conversation that God intended to have with us before the fall into sin. This gives us both hope and a significant responsibility. God wants us to pray for whatever we think we need, but He also speaks to us by His Word and Spirit, so that as we pray, our Biblically informed consciences enable us in time to see what His will is, and in the meantime to ask that He grant us only what is according to His will. In other words, as Philip tells us, prayer is to "think God's thoughts after Him."

If you think that William Philip's book can make  clear why we pray to our speaking, Fatherly, sovereign, indwelling God, you can get the book at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

(If you want to know about another book that makes clear how prayer is an expression of God's relationship with His children, read this review.)

Monday, August 7, 2017

Martin Luther

by Simonetta Carr
2016 / 62 pages

This is the perfect book for any 4th grader and up looking to do a school project on the Reformer. Like the other entries in Simonetta Carr's series of "Christian biographies for young readers" Martin Luther is a gorgeous book. It is a beautifully bound, with thick pages and includes 12 full-page paintings among its 44 illustrations.

It is also well-researched, and wonderfully detailed. I've read more than a dozen works on Luther, and was pleasantly surprised to be learning new things from a children's book. For example, I don't think I'd ever before heard that Martin had a special relationship with his young brother Jacob, nor that Jacob might have been with him when Luther was "kidnapped" on his way home from the Diet of Worms. And it was interesting to learn that Luther's famous "brand" - the Luther rose – was designed for him at the request of his protector, John Frederick of Saxony.

What makes this book special is how much Carr has managed to pack in its 60 pages. But that also means this while this is a picture book, it is probably too much for children in Grades 1 or 2. I think the best bet is Grade 4 and up.

Overall, Carr gives a generous assessment of Luther, focussing on this strengths. But she is willing to at least note his faults, the biggest of which is what he wrote about the Jews in his later years. He suggested Jews' books and money be taken, their synagogues burned, they be prevented from travel, and their rabbis killed if they wouldn't stop teaching their religion. Carr makes brief mention of it, noting that he "wrote against the Jews" and there is no "excuse for writing what he did."

I'd recommend this as a wonderful educational resource, and by that I mean that while it makes learning easy, this isn't the type of frothy, brightly-colored picture book that young children will pick up simply for entertainment. It will need a teacher's or parent's prompt. But any child who reads it will have an excellent overview and understanding of the man.

You can pick up a copy at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here. And for other Simonetta Carr biographies, click on the "Simonetta Carr" label below.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Martin Luther's 95 Theses

With Introduction, Commentary, and Study Guide
by Timothy J. Wengert
2015 / 90 pages

If you want to understand Luther and the reforms he began, can there be a better place to start than his 95 theses?

When I first got my copy in the mail, I was struck by how short it was. This is the Pope-shaking document that God used to start it all? Shouldn't it be...heavier? And if we were to take out the introduction, commentary, and study guide, Luther's 95 theses only amounts to 13 or 14 pages! 

Thankfully, Timothy Wengert stretches it out to (a still slim) 90 pages so he can present Luther's pivotal work in the right context. He uses his introduction to set the scene, explaining how the doctrine of indulgences evolved from bad to worse. He also includes two other documents – Luther's letter to the Bishop of Mainz in which he respectfully asks the bishop to consider the theses, and Luther's "Sermon on Indulgences and Grace" written a year later, in 1518, which was intended as an explanation of his 95 theses for the common people. In the theses themselves, Wengert fills almost half of each page with footnotes to clarify Luther's more difficult points.

So this is a short, but intense read – it will take some effort to work through it, but not all that much time.

And to make the going a little easier, Wengert has sprinkled in all sorts of fascinating facts.

  • Did you know Luther may never have posted his theses to the church door? The first published account of this particular detail occurs in 1546, four months after Luther's death.
  • If he did post them he probably used wax, not nails.
  • Luther's 95 theses were not the first he had written. This was a common communication form among students and professors, and just one month before, in Sept 1517, Luther composed 97 theses against scholastic theology.

Outside of God's Word itself, Luther's 95 theses might be the key document that our Father used to reform his Church. It isn't long. It is an education.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts

by Douglas Bond
163 pages / 2013

Titles can be dangerous things. The title of this book is appropriate, but perhaps misleading at first glance.

When I first read the title, I had the impression that the author was writing a tribute to Isaac Watts - lost in wonder at Watts' poetic skill. In one sense, that is true. Douglas Bond says in the book and in the video embedded below that Watts is personal for him. Watts' "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" helped Bond recognize that:
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
However, it is also this very hymn that makes clear the more significant meaning of the title. Bond contrasts Watts' hymns with the often mediocre worship music of our present culture. Bond gives two reasons that Watts' hymns are superior:
  • they are better poetry, and
  • they evoke Biblically based and Christ-centered wonder.
According to cyberhymnal.org, Charles Wesley reportedly said that he would have given up all his other hymns to have written "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." Bond relates in both the video and the book how Watts demonstrated that skill at an early age, to both the irritation of his father and the skeptical amazement of his mother.

Watts, however, was more than just a great poet. He was a humble servant of his Savior. The words "wondrous cross" demonstrate the preoccupation of his life and writing: to bring glory to God in Christ by demonstrating and evoking our wonder at His sacrificial love for us. As for his life, Watts devoted himself to the moral and religious growth of the children put in his charge as a tutor, and to the same end for children in general by writing hymns suitable for children, but just as theologically solid as his hymns for adults. His love for God was even expressed through his poetry written after the one woman he proposed to turned him down.

While Watts' life revealed his love for Christ, how about his poetry? One reason that Watts is more successful in evoking that wonder at Christ's life and suffering is that his hymns were based either on specific New Testament passages, or on the Psalms - but as seen through New Testament revelation. Bond gives many examples, of which one is in the Canadian Reformed Churches' Book of Praise, and the other is sung perhaps more widely than any other Christmas carol.

As for the former, Bond reveals how "Give to Our God Immortal Praise" is a beautifully updated New Testament version of Psalm 136, while the classic Christmas carol "Joy to the World" demonstrates the advent of Christ as the fulfillment of Psalm 98, especially of Psalm 98:2 -
The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
Bond makes a persuasive case that Watts, rather than tampering with the meaning of Scripture, was applying the same redemptive-historical method in his poetry as he did in his preaching, and so, in his poetic wonder at God's sovereign work in Christ (and through the Spirit), brought even one of his critics admit that with Watts, "Calvinism catches fire."

If you are beginning to sense and (I hope) share The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts, you can buy it at Amazon.ca here and Amazon.com here

And if you're not quite convinced, check out the video below, where Douglas Bond summarizes the message of his book.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The girl who never made mistakes

by Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein
illustrated by Mark Pett
30 pages / 2011

Beatrice, "The Girl Who Never Makes Mistakes," doesn't want to go skating with her friends, because she's worried she would slip and fall. She was once confident – she's good at just about everything after all – but an "almost mistake" has her worried that she's going to mess up. And that ruins all the fun for her...until she decides to just laugh at her big mistake.

This is a wonderful book for any family with a perfectionist. If you have a son or daughter who can't stand making mistakes, then you know the sorts of troubles they can cause themselves. As they craft their latest work of art, a stray crayon mark can leave them crying, and insisting that now they have to start all over. The self-induced pressure can mount to the point that they don't even enjoy coloring (or whatever the activity might be) anymore. And they want try new things because they're afraid they'll be bad at them (which, of course, they will be, because to get good generally involves first being bad).

For them, Mark Pett provides this gift - a mirror they can look into to spot their real flaw. And for parents it can serve as a short of "shorthand" – I know we've explained in the past to our perfectionist that she's ruining her own fun, but there's nothing like a story to make things clear to a child. And now, when she starts acting that way again, we can ask her whether she's pulling a "Beatrice."

Oh, and I should add, the bright bold pictures, and funny storyline make this an enjoyable read for the non-perfectionist as well.

You can pick it up at Amazon.ca here, and Amazon.com here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Corrie Ten Boom's Prison Letters

by Corrie Ten Boom
90 pages / 1975

This is a collection of the correspondence between Corrie Ten Boom and her family while she and her sister Betsie were being held in prison by the Nazis during World War II.
            If you haven’t already her remarkable wartime biography The Hiding Place, then you must read that first. It recounts how her family hid Jews, not because they were brave or courageous, but simply because they were obedient to what they knew God was calling them to do. We see how God sustained them. It is a book of doubts being answered, and God being found sufficient even in the most trying of circumstances.

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            If you loved The Hiding Place (and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t, which must be why both I and my brother have reviewed it!) then this collection of letters will act as a moving appendix to that remarkable book. It is the same story, but told a very different way, one letter at a time. However, because no correspondence was allowed in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, where Corrie and Betsie were sent last, the book ends abruptly. So, this will be a wonderful supplement to The Hiding Place, but it is not one to read simply on its own.