Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Life in the Father's House: A Member's Guide to the Local Church

by Wayne A. Mack and Dave Swavely
2006 / 280 pages

I reviewed a similar book a couple months ago, but this is a really even better read about being what the Heidelberg Catechism calls "a living member of" the church.

Wayne A. Mack and Dave Swavely write from a Presbyterian perspective on how you and I can build up our local congregation. They deal with, first, realizing the importance of the local church and therefore committing ourselves to church membership, basing their argument on the Bible's stress on the local church, and quoting Chapter XXV of the Westminster Confession, Jay Adams,  and Charles Spurgeon.

After nailing down these foundational issues, they deal with how to choose a good church, expounding the importance of such traits as devotion to the apostles' teaching, a God-centered focus, and a loving concern for the needs of people (including the need for church discipline). The traits they enumerate fit very closely with the Belgic Confession's list of the marks of the true church.

As far as life itself "in the Father's house" is concerned, the authors deal with the following:
  • relating to church leadership;
  • fulfilling our roles as men and women in the church;
  • participating in worship services;
  • using our spiritual gifts;
  • confronting one another in love;
  • preserving unity in the body; and
  • praying for one another.
The conclusion deals with the all-important issue of motive, what they call "The Heart of the Matter" - gratefulness to God in Christ, and service to Him and our neighbor. The following features increase the book's value: 
  • the introduction by John MacArthur;
  • a study guide that goes beyond just the details in the book to challenge us to demonstrate our love for the body of Christ; and
  • an extensive Scripture index. 
If you think that Mack and Swavely can show you how to live a fruitful, God-glorifying life in the Father's house, you can find it here for US readers, and here in Canada.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Luther

by Rich Melheim
illustrated by Jonathan Koelsch
2016 / 72 pages

I've reviewed other "comic biographies" and never enjoyed one more. Luther is scripted like a movie, has witty dialogue with actions scene interspersed, and the artwork is of the same sort you would find in Marvel or DC comics – it is fantastic!

Educational comics, as a genre, are valuable in that they make learning history a lot less painful. But very few of these graphic novels are the sort of comic that a teen would just pick up and start reading. Luther is the exception. I don't want to over-hype it – a kid who reads nothing but superhero comics will still find this a bit of a stretch – but it really is as good a comic as you will find.

Cautions

Since this is intended for teens, I'll note a few cautions about language. The word "crap" is mentioned three times, "ass" once, and "old fart" once. But when you consider this is a comic about the notoriously potty-mouthed Luther, this is really quite tame.

I'll also note that a depiction of Christ shows up on the inside back cover of the book. It is not part of the story, but rather part of an ad for other comics by the same publisher.

Teens should be told that while the general storyline follows real events quite closely, specific details are often made up. For example, while we know Katharina von Bora was a self-assured woman, it seems doubtful that she popped the question to Martin Luther. Also much of the dialogue is made-up. Some of it is made up of quotes or near quotes from what Luther did actually say. But since most of Luther's day-to-day conversations were not recorded, these parts had to be made up.

One final caution: the comic treats as fact that famous, but unconfirmed, conclusion to Martin Luther's speech at the Diet of Worms, where he is said to have declared, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen." There is good reason to doubt he said these words.

Conclusion

The comic has several strengths including the overall picture it gives of the happenings going on in the broader world that made it possible for Luther to both spark this Reformation and live into old age and die a natural death.

Another strength is that while this account is sympathetic, it notes (briefly) one of Luther's weaknesses: that sometimes Luther's pen got the best of him and he could write some "terrible and hateful words" denouncing Jews, Calvinists, and Anabaptists alike.

Overall this is a comic that teens and adults (who aren't embarrassed to be seen reading a comic) will certainly enjoy.

I've reviewed another graphic novel on Luther's life, and I think the two of them perfectly compliment each other. This Luther is the more exciting of the two, but it plays a little looser with the details. Meanwhile Luther: Echoes of the Hammer is a more reliable history lesson, but it isn't nearly as dramatic.

If you buy Luther (or anything else) at Amazon.com here or Amazon.ca here you can support this site at no cost to yourself.

Other reviews related to Martin Luther

Another solid comic about his life Luther: Echoes of the Hammer
A comic about his wife Katie: Mother of the Reformation
The 1953 Oscar-nominated film Martin Luther
The short biography The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther
The children's picture book about Luther teaching The Barber Who Wanted to Pray


Sunday, October 14, 2018

Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion

by Jonathon Van Maren
2017 / 171 pages

As an English teacher, I have compiled a list of about 70 books that I consider to be really good reads for high school students. I thought that the list was finished... But Seeing Is Believing is really good enough not only to make this blog, but to join my list of all-time really good high school reads.

Why? Because Jonathon Van Maren, a front-line soldier of The Culture War (another of his books), makes a compelling case for the use of abortion victim photography – for the use of  graphic pictures. 

His argument is based on not only its current effectiveness, but on the history of social reform movements that have been successful because of their proponents' willingness to bring the ugly truth of oppression and injustice before the public, even at the cost of criticism and controversy.

That long sentence pretty much summarizes the book, but let me work it out a little further. Van Maren demonstrates, in Chapter 1, how four different reform movements – targeting slavery, oppression in the Congo, child labor, and civil rights abuses in the U.S. – used visual evidence of these evils to influence not only minds, but also hearts. The next chapter describes how photographs of abortion victim effectively re-stigmatizes abortion. Chapter 3 zeroes in on how abortion particularly traumatizes those who work in the abortion industry. 

Chapter 4 addresses the objections of pro-lifers to abortion victim photography, while the next chapter responds to more general objections to abortion victim photography. Chapter 6 gives a series of specific examples of people whose views of abortion, or potential decisions regarding abortion, have changed due to abortion victim photography.

Finally, the conclusion refocuses us on the real reason for using graphic visuals – the unborn child whose life is saved when his or her mother changes her mind about having an abortion.

Two appendices from other writers give the history of graphic images in pro-life work and a statistical analysis of the effectiveness of abortion victim photography.

If you think that Jonathon Van Maren can help you convince others that "our culture must face the victims of abortion," you can order it here, or here in Canada.

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Great Cake Mystery

by Alexander McCall Smith
73 pages / 2012

Precious Ramotswe must ranks up there with some of the best-loved fictional detectives of all time, rubbing elbows with Hercules Poirot, Cadfael, and Father Brown. But as beloved as she is among adults, did you know that the star of Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is also popular among children? McCall Smith has written a series of mysteries for children, featuring Precious when she was just eight years old.

For those who don't already know, Precious lives in Botswana. In The Great Cake Mystery Precious doesn't think of herself as a detective yet, but her dad thinks she has it in her. So when a classmate is accused - without any proof – of eating someone else's sandwich, she is upset. Precious, you see, is a kind girl who wants to help others. In this case helping means setting a trap to catch the real snack stealer.

SPOILER ALERT: Precious bakes a cake full of glue, covers the whole thing with icing, and places the cake outside the classroom "on the shelf where the children left their bags." And not too long afterwards the whole class hears the howling cries of the little thieves - monkeys! Precious has saved her friend from the mean accusations of their classmates. And, this being a old-fashioned sort of book, those classmates are truly sorry for what they thought and said.

This is a charming book, made all the more so by the folksy illustrations throughout, at least one on every two-page spread. McCall has written four other children's mysteries starring the young Precious, with The Great Cake Mystery billed as "Precious Ramotswe's very first case." (In a confusing twist, that same billing is shared with at least one edition of another book in the series, Precious and the Monkeys. Whether The Great Cake Mystery is the first or not, it serves as wonderful introduction to the young detective-to-be.)

CAUTION

We've read two other "young Precious" mysteries so far, and our daughters have loved both The Mystery of Meerkat Hill and The Mystery of the Missing Lion. I had a slightly different take. While I loved the former, I thought the later was marred by a insertion at the end where they treat a lion as if he were a person. Precious ends up giving a brief lecture about how all lions should live free, including the missing tame lion they'd just recovered, and all the adults side with the child.

It is, on the one hand, no big deal - it is only a few pages in an otherwise enjoyable story. But it rankled me because this childish "feel-good-ism" is rampant in our culture, and I don't think we need to be feeding any of it to our undiscerning children. The fact is, a tame lion would most likely die in the wild and a well-treated tame lion is not an oppressed lion. So what Precious proposes is both completely unnecessary, and quite likely very harmful to the very lion she wants to help. We're taught that good intentions are what really matters, but God says otherwise (Prov. 27:14) – if our well-meaning efforts cause damage, then we need to stop doing this well-meant damage!

CONCLUSION

My wife and I didn't know about this brief lecture until we came across it in the audiobook with the kids listening along. It wasn't objectionable enough to stop listening to the book we were already three-quarters of the way through, but if I was buying this series for a Christian school library I would get The Great Cake Mystery and The Mystery of Meerkat Hill, but give The Mystery of the Missing Lion a pass. There are two others in the series but we have yet to read (or listen to) them.
       
I should note that the audiobook version are truly remarkable, with the reader delivering all sorts of wonderful accented voices.

Oh, and if your kids like this series, they might also enjoy a five-book series McCall Smith wrote about Akimbo, a boy who lives on a game reserve in Africa. I've reviewed those here.

All, in all, these are books that children even as young as 5 may really enjoy listening to, and 9 year-olds and up could really enjoy reading. Our whole family was thoroughly charmed.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Far Side Of The Moon: The story of Apollo 11's third man

by Alex Irvine
illustrated by Ben Bishop
64 pages / 2017

Everyone's heard of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. And many of us know the name Buzz Aldrin too, the astronaut who accompanied him, and who was the second to walk on that cratered, barren, surface.

But did you know the Apollo 11 mission actually shot three men into space?

Who was the forgotten third man?

In this short graphic novel we get to experience the moon landing from the perspective of Michael Collins, the third man in the capsule – best known as one who "didn't get to walk on the moon." He travelled the same 200,000 miles through space right along with them, but someone had to stay behind in Columbia, the orbiting Command Module, while Armstrong and Aldrin headed to the surface in The Eagle, their Lunar Lander. Collins stayed behind, circling the Moon 14 times as he waited for their return.

Far Side of the Moon seems intent on conveying both how remarkable his story is – he flew to the moon! – and how melancholy – he never got to touch it. The muted pallet of black, white and spot color purple, creates just the right mood.

That muted pallet also means that even though the drawings are solid, this isn't a visual feast, and it isn't likely to grab the eye of a young reader. But if a boy, maybe 10 and up, already had any sort of interest in space-exploration, then they'd be sure to enjoy all the details about Michael Collins' training and about the different spacecrafts he flew. It might need a teacher's or parent's involvement; they might have to put it in his hands. But if they got started on it, I think most tween and even teen boys, and some girls too, would find this a really enjoyable book.



Wednesday, September 19, 2018

AUDIOBOOK: Sir Malcolm and the Missing Prince

Lamplighter Theatre
120 minutes / 2009

"This isn't a phone; this is a duck."

It's not the most relevant piece of dialogue in this audio production – the bulk of the story is set in pre-phone feudal times. But this bit of goofiness, popping up in the opening couple of minutes, serves as a pledge of sorts that what's coming is going to be fun. And that promise is kept!

Sir Malcolm is actually a story within a story. The "outer story" involves a harried businessman Thomas arriving at a mysterious bookstore looking for a phone. His car won't start, his cellphone is dead, and he needs to call for a tow truck. The kindly shop owner, Finnian, is happy to direct him to a duck-shaped phone, and then, as Thomas waits for his tow, Finnian helps by asking the businessman some pointed questions about just why he is so harried.

It turns out Thomas has a rebellious teen son back home. And Thomas feels too overwhelmed at work to do much about it.

That's when the story within the story begins: Finnian hands him a book called Sir Malcolm and the Missing Prince and from then on we jump into the soon-to-be missing prince's world. The young Prince Hubert has no respect for the peasant people he will one day rule, so the king turns to his most trusted advisor, the wise Sir Malcolm, to devise a plan. And quite a plan it is. Sir Malcolm is convinced that the prince could learn to sympathize with the peasants' plight if he was forced to live as one!

The king loves his son but he loves his people too, and knows that something must be done to refashion this unworthy prince. So, reluctantly, the king hands his son over to Sir Malcolm.

The fun begins when the spoiled Prince Hubert is dropped at the doorstep of a quiet, and quite poor, peasant woman named Dame Martha. There is fish out of water scenario: Hubert doesn't know a thing about living in such humble surroundings. When he won't do his share of the chores – due in equal parts to his arrogance and to his general cluelessness about what hard work really entails – Dame Martha doesn't push him or punish him. But as he sees her working hard, and as the boys his own age shame him for his laziness, the boy prince does start taking some tentative steps to becoming a servant king.

That's the gist of the story, but it doesn't capture the wonderful production values. This is Lamplighter Theatre’s very first audio production and they went all out for it, even enlisting John Rhys-Davies (Gimli from Lord of the Rings) to serve as the host. The story is based on Sidney Baldwin's 1931 children's book Young Prince Hubert, which has been wonderfully updated here.

CAUTIONS

The only caution I can think to add is that in the story that surrounds the story, Thomas is encouraged to fight for his son. This is only a couple minutes worth of content in the two hour production, but it is content aimed at parents, rather than children. And it isn't so much problematic – it won't do children any harm to hear parents encouraged to make time for their children – as it is just somewhat odd to have this bit of parental encouragement inserted into a children's tale.

CONCLUSION

We were so delighted with this audio adventure, we went looking for other Lamplighter Theater (Lamplighter.net) material at our local library. While the production values were always high, and the morals were what we'd hope for (Lamplighter Theatre does seem to be a Christian company) we haven't found another one of their stories that really grabbed our girls like this one did. I suspect that when they get older (our oldest is just 8) that might change.

But family members of any age will be able to appreciate Sir Malcolm and the Missing Prince. Two very enthusiastic thumbs up!

Friday, September 14, 2018

What Is a Healthy Church Member?

by Thabiti M. Anyabwile
127 pages / 2008

In ten short chapters, Thabiti Anyabwile lays out ten marks of a “healthy church member.” His list is one well worth considering.

The first three marks Anyabwile discusses parallel the Belgic Confession's statement that Christians must submit to the instruction of the church. Anyabwile focuses on healthy members being:

  • "expositional listeners" (taking seriously the expositional preaching of the Word)
  • "biblical theologians" (studying the gospel systematically)
  • "gospel-saturated" (orienting our hearts and lives around the gospel)

In breaking these three points down, Anyabwile outlines: four benefits of expositional listening, seven ways to become a Biblical theologian, and five ways to saturate ourselves in the gospel.

Anyabwile's next three points compel us to consider whether we are merely nominal members of our church or true Christians:

  • Are we genuinely converted?
  • Do we earnestly desire others to be converted?
  • Are we committed to God's people? 

Like a good, hard sermon, Anyabwile may thus make us profitably uncomfortable and provoke necessary repentance.

Anyabwile then deals with some major ways to demonstrate our commitment to our local church: seeking discipline, and being "growing disciples" and "humble followers." Finally, Anyabwile deals with what the Heidelberg Catechism calls "the most important part of our thankfulness" - being "a prayer warrior," discussing why, how, when, for what, and for whom we pray.

CAUTIONS

The only caution I can think of relates not to this book itself, but to another in the same "9Marks" book series. Anyabwile's What is a Healthy Church member? is a response and continuation of sorts to an earlier book in the series called What Is a Healthy Church? by Mark Dever. While the series is written from a broadly Reformed perspective, Mark Dever's What Is a Healthy Church? makes mention of the author's opposition to infant baptism, and it also endorses a congregationalist style of church government. As well, readers should note that Dever's list of characteristics of a healthy church corresponds only roughly to the marks of a true church listed in the Belgic Confession.

CONCLUSION

Any one of these ten chapters repays careful study, as they are filled with strong Scriptural backing and life-changing, practical, wisdom. The ten together would make excellent training both for those who are thinking of becoming church members and for long-time members who are willing to examine themselves. If you believe that Anyabwile's book can help you be a healthy member of your own congregation, you can get it here, and here in Canada.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Love That Dog: A Novel

by Sharon Creech
Joanna Colter Books,
2001/ 86 pages

A review of a read-aloud book, to be read aloud

As I started reading the very first page of this book, I thought it was dumb. I’ve never been a fan of poetry, particularly if it was the type of poetry that didn’t even rhyme. And that’s what was in this book.

But I kept reading and found out, on that very first page, that the author agreed with me! The book is by Jack, a boy in elementary school, who doesn’t like poems either. Each day he writes a journal entry, for his teacher Miss Stretchberry, and there on the very first page, in his first entry, he tells her his thoughts on the poem they have just read in school. He writes:

If that is a poem
about the red wheelbarrow
and the white chickens
then any words
can be a poem.
You’ve just got to
make 
short
lines.

It was a book of poetry, by a boy poet, who didn’t like poetry!

So I kept reading, and I started learning. Jack’s teacher showed his class poems. Some did rhyme, some were by famous writers, and some weren’t very good at all. But I started learning, along with Jack, that poetry doesn’t always have to rhyme, or even have a set rhythm. Sometimes it can just be a different sort of way to express your thoughts, to lay them out, so people understand them better.  Poetry can be easier then teachers sometimes make it. And it can be powerful. And it can make you cry. 

I started reading this book, about a boy learning about poetry, and making poems, and expressing beautiful thoughts about his beautiful dog, and by the time I got to the end of it I realized it wasn’t dumb at all.

Love that book.

You can get a copy of at Amazon.com by clicking here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God

by Mark Jones
240 pages / 2017

If you want a free book dealing with this topic, try J. I. Packer's Knowing Godwhich was published 45 years ago. So, why do we need this really good read now (really good enough to be used in a Bible class!)?

Mark Jones's God Is has indeed been compared (favorably) to Packer's book. What Jones has to add is a devotional and systematic look at 26 of God's attributes as revealed in His Word. What makes these looks at who and what God is even more valuable is this insight from Jones's Preface:
"The true and living God is too much for us to bear, to handle, to conceive, to adore, to know, to trust, to understand, and to worship.... However, that the Son became flesh makes our human nature appear lovely to God. But he also makes God appear lovely to us."
This is why each chapter has the following sections:
  • the "Doctrine" regarding an attribute of God;
  • how Christ makes that attribute more beautiful;
  • how our knowledge of each attribute has "Application" to our lives before His face.
What deepens each section's insight, and will deepen our insight and its effect on us, is Jones's use of content from two main sources:
  • most importantly, each section is peppered with Scriptural quotations, which makes it suitable for use in your daily devotions (26 x 3= at least 78 days worth! - more if you simply work through the Scripture references at the back in light of the attributes of God they demonstrate);
  • secondarily, Jones's use of meditations from the Puritans and others in church history connects us in our contemplation of God's awe-inspiring greatness with His people across the ages.
Both the Bible and church history demonstrate how "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8), and Jones shows just how magnificent God's presence in Him is. If you think Mark Jones can help you understand and be awed by who and what God is, you can get it here in the US, and here in Canada.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Take Heart: Christian Courage in the Age of Unbelief

by Matt Chandler (with David Roark)
123 pages / 2018

Why Take Heart, and how - especially as we face "the end of Christendom"? That's Matt Chandler's concern.

Chandler describes three ways that Christians often respond to "the age of unbelief":
  • seeking to convert culture,
  • condemning culture, and
  • conforming to culture.
While each of these has a place in our approach to North American society, the problem with all three is that they are motivated by fear. Instead, we need to approach culture with courage.

Chandler tells us that "the end of Christendom" is a good thing, because the church has always thrived on the margins, as nominal church members leave the fold and those left have a new chance to demonstrate Christian courage. And how do we gain that courage? By knowing how great is the God whom we serve (freeing us from focusing on our own smallness), and realizing that He is "playing the long game" (freeing us from looking narrowly at our own situation).

And just how great is our God? Chandler borrows the title and ideas of the book God Is a Warrior to show how God has fought for His people and against His unfaithful people, promised to be their warrior among His people and then fulfilled those promises in Christ. Since Christ's ascension, His people proclaim His victory to the world, as well as His return as a warrior to finally defeat His enemies and reestablish the reign of peace (shalom) that was broken by the fall into sin. With a Warrior God like that, how could we not be courageous?

But what does that courage look like? Chandler draws on 1 Peter to show how courage in Christ involves holiness (which is shown by integrity), devotion to our church and the common good, and evangelism. Perhaps the most surprising way to begin that evangelistic response to the Great Commission is through hospitality: welcoming everyone you meet, engaging with people, and making dinner a priority (including invitations to the outsider and the outcast) - following Jesus in His faithfulness to His Father and His love for the people on the margins. Finally, Chandler refers to Psalm 139 to show how literally, "you were made for now." God has put the nations within their boundaries (Acts 17:24-27), and us in specific places within those nations, to bring God's victory to the people of those nations. No wonder, as Chandler sums up, that "This is a great time to be a Christian. Take heart."

If you think that Matt Chandler's exhortations can encourage you to confront our culture with holiness, devotion, and evangelistic hospitality, you can get his book here and here in Canada.



Saturday, July 7, 2018

A Family Secret

by Eric Heuvel
2009 / 64 pages 

It’s Queen’s Day in the Netherlands, and the celebrations include nation-wide rummage sales. So young Jeroen heads to his grandmother’s house to see if she might have anything she’s willing to give him to sell. And like grandmothers everywhere, she is quite obliging to her young grandson, and sends him upstairs to the attic to let him see what he can find. In his searching Jeroen discovers his grandmother’s old scrapbook… and while paging through it uncovers a secret she has kept to herself for more than 60 years.

His grandmother then tells him the story of how World War II divided her family. She was best friends with a Jewish girl named Esther, and along with her mother and one brother didn’t want anything to do with the Germans. But while this brother fought in the resistance - the Dutch Underground - her father chose to work with the Nazis, and her oldest brother decided to go fight for Germany on the Russian front.

This is an amazing graphic novel, drawn in the style of Tintin, and published by the Ann Frank House and the Resistance Museum of Friesland. It’s gripping enough for adults, but for children this is an absolutely amazing way to teach them about World War II, the Dutch Resistance and the Holocaust. 

I'd particularly recommend this as a book for grandparents to give their grandchildren. Every year we set aside a day to remember the sacrifice of those that fought for our freedom. Giving this book to a grandson, and talking with them afterwards about the war - about why some fought the Nazis, why some did nothing at all, and why some even joined them - is one very good way to ensure we never forget.

There is a sequel of sorts called The Search in which we learn more about Esther. It is also very good, but if you are only going to buy one, should get A Family Secret.  

You can pick up The Family Secret at Amazon.com by clicking here or at Amazon.ca by clicking here.

RELATED REVIEWS: Other graphic novels about war

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place


by Andy Crouch
224 pages / 2017

There have been some excellent reviews of Andy Crouch’s book and I don’t want to duplicate those efforts. So in my review, I would like to work with Andy Crouch's own idea. At the end of each chapter's look at another way of "putting technology in its proper place," he gives a "Reality Check" about just how well his family (and he himself) have been doing that. I would like to give my own reality check for some of the chapters' insights.

For instance, the introduction speaks of "the value of the nudge" - changing the environment in small ways to make it easier to do the right thing (like sitting where there are no screens to distract us). In our own house, we have nudged our living room into a higher priority than our "rec room" by putting our nicest couch there and putting a puzzle on the coffee table - an activity that makes real conversation more likely than watching the latest on Netflix or the news. At the same time, I can't say that I have been as faithful in keeping to the "disciplines" that Crouch defines as deliberate routines to give us "spiritual resources" necessary for fruitful living. More on those disciplines later.

Among the ten commitments that Crouch urges us to make wisdom and courage the goals of our life together as family – a worthy goal, and one I would have loved to have been challenged with years ago. We did seek to make the Sabbath a feast day, at least in the evening, but I'm not sure whether we ever made it an intentional rest from the continual distraction of our screens – a practice that would have made more time for meditation on the Word we heard preached that day. And while I have never needed to take my phone to bed, some of our children used the alarm excuse to keep theirs at night - not something that leads to real nighttime refreshment.

Crouch's fifth commitment is an interesting one to ponder for me as a teacher: no screens before "double digits" - 10 years old - at school and at home. Our school does use Chromebooks extensively before age 10, but I think that they are well integrated into the language arts program in those grades. More to the point, this year I drifted into allowing junior high students the opportunity to play video games on computers at lunch – better than playing in isolation on their phones, I thought. Next year, we will be cutting off the "arcade," and have already begun to supply a growing hoard of board  games as more social, brain-engaging alternatives for the non-gym-inclined kids (much like myself!).

Crouch's seventh commitment - "Car time is conversation time" - is one that we have adhered to often in the last few years, but we did have one of those vans with the DVD player, and we did rely on it on long trips. Maybe that was a good exception. Now the DVD player is out of the picture, and in the few trips that we still have with our youngest adult son, we enjoy a mix of radio, podcasts, music CDs, audiobooks, and conversation. Does that leave enough time to get past the seven-minute barrier that Crouch says is necessary for deeper, risk-taking conversational revelations? I hope so.

I love listening to compact discs, so Crouch's commitment to make singing (our own singing, not recorded music) a prominent part of family life and church worship intrigued me. We could certainly make that a greater part of our family's devotions, but I am especially looking forward to our own congregation's making singing together not only part of worship, but also an "event" on its own, in a Sunday potluck dinner plus singalong.

Keeping in mind that I have not dealt with all Crouch's ten commitments, I hope that these reality checks show that his book provoked a great deal of reflection for me on technology's place in family, school, and church life. If you think that The Tech-Wise Family can help you in putting technology in its proper place, you can get it here in the U.S., and here in Canada.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Snow White

by Matt Phelan
216 pages / 2016

This is Snow White inventively reimagined as a 1920s Depression-era American tale. The "king" is a stock trader who has managed to survive the stock market crash. The stepmother is still a queen, but this time of the Ziegfield Follies, a popular Broadway show. The mirror is now a stock ticker, and the seven dwarves are seven street-smart kids. Prince Charming? Well, I shouldn't give too much away!

Though over 200 pages, this is a very quick read, because it is much more pictures than text - several times there are stretches going on for pages, where there are no words at all.

It's hard to pick exactly who'd be the ideal audience. Fairytales are typically for children, but this is too somber to attract little ones. Done in a black and white, it has a dark, noir style...all but for the last few pages with their happily-ever-after full-color conclusion. So this is something adults could enjoy it, but I don't know how many would pick it up. This is listed as for teens at my local library, and I'd agree that is the ideal audience. However, I'd suggest this as better to borrow from the library, rather than buy. It is simply too short a read – maybe half an hour? – for the $27 Can. purchase price.

Cautions

There are no real cautions to offer - if a child is old enough to read the original, then they will be old enough to read this one. There is a drop or two of blood here and there, but no gore. The worst is probably the pig or cow heart we see in full color at one point. And there are no language concerns either.

Conclusion

This is an inventive, and very intriguing tale, done with style. Adults can't help but appreciate it, but it's really teens who will most enjoy it. But get your library to make the purchase, because it is so expensive. Still, if you are looking to buy it, you can get it at Amazon.com here or Amazon.ca here.

RELATED REVIEWS: Other Fairy Tales Reimagined


Monday, May 14, 2018

God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Life: The Myth of the Modern Message

by Ray Comfort
128 pages / 2010

Reformed Christians confess the importance of God's law with the second question of the Heidelberg Catechism:
What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort? 
First, how great my sins and misery are....
Ray Comfort agrees with them and wishes more people did. In this book Comfort is confronting an enormous problem that he argues is related, at its root, to a lack of concern for the law – that 90% of seeming converts in Christian crusades are gone from the church within a year, and many never set foot in a church at all. He argues the cause for this distressing statistic is the "modern message." Unlike the Bible and church history, which show persecution as the likely result of following Christ, the modern message promises earthly happiness for those who turn to Him.

This poses a further question: What should be the message of the gospel? Comfort tells us that the "lost key" is the use of the law. Only knowing our sin - specific sin, not just our weakness or brokenness - begins "making grace amazing.” 

To illustrate this, Comfort makes a brilliant analogy about giving parachutes to two airplane passengers. The first man is  told that the chute will make his flight much more comfortable. When, instead, he finds that wearing it makes him feel silly in the eyes of the other passengers and makes it hard to sit in his seat, he gives it up in frustration. 

The second passenger is told that the chute will save his life when (not if) the plane crashes – a metaphor for our inevitable appearance before the judgment seat of God. You can imagine how much more grateful he is for his "gospel chute."

Comfort next makes it clear that Jesus Himself used the law to convict sinners of their need for forgiveness through God's grace – the only chute that can save us from the crash of our condemnation – and concludes by stressing that churches filled with false converts are no testimony to the power of a false modern message.

The appendix is a model of "gentleness and respect" as Comfort passes on a word "For My Campus Crusade Friends," demonstrating that some of the organization's own leaders have come to see the necessity for the law in the proclamation of the gospel. 

Cautions

This is not the first book by Ray Comfort that I have read. The previous one, Revival's Golden Key, was a good read, but this one is a really good read. The two books have similar messages, but God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Life is a better read for two reasons:
  1. It's almost 100 pages shorter.
  2. Comfort's use of Scripture is simpler and more literal.
In Revival's Golden Key, Comfort sometimes slips into an allegorical interpretation of particular passages to support his contention that it is the law of God that brings sinners to true Christian conversion. The Myth of the Modern Message sticks to texts that clearly relate to preaching and evangelism to make the same point.

Conclusion

If you believe that Comfort can show a better way to obey the Great Commission as Reformed churches begin to make evangelism a greater priority, you can get it in Canada here and the US here

You can also download a pdf version for free here.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Classic Starts: Robinson Crusoe

by Deanna McFadden & Daniel Defoe
143 pages / 2008

Sometimes whether a book is really good or not depends on how you are going to look at it, and what you are comparing it to.

A bad book?

If you were to compare this Classic Starts retelling to the original Robinson Crusoe published in 1719, there are a number of ways where the retelling falls short:
  • It is, at most, just one quarter the size and that means significant parts of the story had to be left out (Robinson's encounter with a pack of wolves, for example).
  • Historically inaccurate political-correctness has snuck in, with Robinson's native servant, Friday, now simply his native friend.
  • And most significantly, the general Christian worldview that is a big part of the original is almost entirely absent. A non-Christian won't think this a Christian book at all. However an astute Christian reader will still see hints of it.
Why it's good

Now let's do another sort of comparison. When I'm trying to find a book that I can read to my girls – 4 though 8 years old – I know that the original Robinson Crusoe is simply too tough a book for them. My 8 year old might be able to enjoy it, once I got her hooked, but how could I expect my Elephant and Piggie-loving 4-year-old to come along for the ride?

So, I need something simpler. But I'm also tired of reading just Elephant and Piggie-type books. They're too simple for the 8-year-old, and I wouldn't mind trying to stretch them all, at least a little bit.

Of the chapter books at my local library, it's hard to find gems. It's shelves full of kids talking disrespectfully, swapping potty-humor jokes with friends, turning into witches, or having adventures with ghosts. It's just row after row of juvenile silliness. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between.

So then I hit on this "Classic Starts" series. It's put out by Barnes and Nobles' Sterling Children Books, so, as you might expect of a secular company, their retellings aren't going to be particularly careful about preserving an author's Christian worldview. But because they are classic stories, and many of the authors did indeed have a Christian worldview, even when retold, the stories are still good clean fun for the whole family. So, suddenly, I had a dozens of titles to consider...and that got me very excited. Our girls (and mom and dad too) have already enjoyed their version of PollyannaThat one might actually be better than the original.

So, let's look at this Crusoe retelling and focus on the highlights. It is a really good read because:
  • At one quarter the size, this is a story that 4-year-olds can enjoy. And because the retelling is polished, and the original material is so rich, this is something mom and dad can enjoy too. That makes it great for the whole family in a way that the original isn't. 
  • There are still hints of the Christian worldview here. And it isn't as spiritually deficient as 99% of what you will find on the public library shelves. If we didn't know about the original, Christian parents would love these without reservation. 
  • This is a gateway to the original. Kids like to hear the same stories more than once. I had a retelling of Around the World in 80 days, that while a radical abridgment, was still too long for my littlest. But then I read a comic version of the story to her and that got her interested in the book. And just as the comic led to the abridgment, my intention with these Classic Start retellings, is that, with at least some of them, I hope to use them as lead-ins to reading the originals. 
I'm not recommending the whole Classic Starts series – we've only read two to this point. But I did want to let parents know about them; this seems, at the very least, a good series to investigate further.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Can I smoke pot? Marijuana in light of Scripture

by Tom Breeden and Mark L. Ward Jr.
103 pages / 2016

This book is valuable in two very different ways.

First, it's valuable for anyone considering the title question: Can I smoke pot? For some that might be a personal interest, while others simply want to know how to answer the question when it comes up.

Second, about half of the book is spent making the argument that the Bible is our go-to whenever we have questions. We might not think that when it comes to marijuana, since the Bible never mentions it directly. But if we want to know God's thoughts on the subject, then it doesn't take much digging to find principles which are applicable. The Bible does offer us the guidance we're looking for. As Cornelius Van Til put it:
“The Bible is authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything.” 
That makes this a very useful book for anyone interested in learning how to use God's Word as a guide for all of life.

Shorter answers are available to the title question. If you want the article-length response, I give one here. But the value in this book is that, even though it is short – at 100 pages it can be read in an evening or two – the authors have the room to delve deeper. So some of the topics they address include:

  • the role of government and when we do and don't have to listen to it
  • what the Old Testament and New say about the use of medicine
  • what questions we need to ask when considering the wisdom of using marijuana for medical use
  • how recreational marijuana use compares to recreational alcohol use
  • is it possible to smoke marijuana recreationally in moderation?

So what answer do the authors ultimately give to their title question? There is a sense in which they don't give a simple yes or no answer. But when it comes to recreational use, they want Christians to understand there are many reasons why we should just say no.

So read the book, and then share it with your friends, your kids, and your church. Let's have a ready answer for this increasingly common question.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Post-Christian Mind (and Heart)

Death in the City
by Francis A. Schaeffer
143 pages / first published 1969

The Post-Christian Mind
by Harry Blamires
209 pages / 1999

I actually started Blamires' book first. Only after I started reading Schaeffer's work did I realize that both dealt with the post-Christian mind. Once I noticed that, a comparison of  the two seemed like a 'really good' idea. Blamires began with two advantages: fame and currency.

What do I mean by that? Well, Blamires is known for his minor classic The Christian Mind, and The Post-Christian Mind was published thirty years later than Schaeffer's work. Given these facts, I anticipated that Blamires' work would be the really better read of the two, or at least more useful in reacting to the post-Christian mind - the mind that continues to shape our Western culture today. Read on to find out whether I was right.

What intrigued me most about Blamires was that he was a student of C. S. Lewis (more reviews of Lewis lore here), and you can see Lewis's influence in Blamires's book. Blamires' analogies, like Lewis's, often show vivid insight into things that I had never carefully thought about. For example, he illustrates the difference between quantitative reasoning and qualitative reasoning with the contrast between saying 'This garden covers two acres' and saying 'This garden is beautiful.' Both types of description can apply to a garden, but if we determine morality by consensus (quantitatively), we are stuck with, as Blamires calls it, 'the tyranny of the average.'

Blamires' best moment is perhaps his qualified justification of democracy: "Thus the principle of democracy does not in itself testify that everyone is so competent that their opinion must be acted upon. The principle of democracy testifies that everyone is so subject to corruption that the reins of power must not be left for long in anyone's hands without check."

On the other hand, his view of insurance and advertising has nothing clearly Christian (or commonsensical) about it. He views both as a kind of taxation, since we cannot choose whether we will pay for either, as both get folded into the prices of products we buy. While there is certainly much to criticize in the content of advertising, his criticism ignores the necessity of information to make wise purchases. If we don't want to pay for advertising, we can find information on less adverised products from sources like Consumer Report (which we would, of course, have to pay for). As for insurance, aside from the insurance that is required by law, we could, perhaps, avoid insurance by only buying products when we have enough savings to replace them if necessary - a tall order! In other words, insurance is not merely a tax, but is an actual service.

In the end, Blamires' analyses too often sound like the rants criticized in Ecclesiastes 7:10 - "Say not, 'Why were the former days better than these? For it is not from wisdom that you ask this." In contrast, Francis Schaeffer's Death in the City avoids sounding like mere complaint, even though Schaeffer's analysis of our culture relies strongly, to begin with, on his analysis of the relevance of the "weeping prophet," Jeremiah.

If Schaeffer has a weakness, it is that his exegesis of prophecy and lament from Jeremiah identifies the city and nation of Jeremiah's time with the city and Western nations of our time. While that may be questionable, given that Western nations are not, and have never been, God's covenant people, there is a strong parallel between the apostasy of Judah and the post-Christian rejection of God by cultures, as a whole, that have benefitted from Christian values, especially since the Reformation.

The strength of Schaeffer's analysis, on the other hand, is his compassion, his identification with the despair of post-Christian culture, and his focus on reacting not only to the post-Christian mind, but also the post-Christian heart. The first chapter speaks of the literal hunger of Jerusalem's people as parallelling the spiritual hunger of our time (his 1969 not being all that different from now, almost 50 years later); however, Schaeffer does not let modern man off the hook. It's not the case that man is searching for God; rather, people look for meaning in anything and everything but God. Schaeffer also warns Christians that we too must be persuaded that there is no cure for our culture but the Word of God, so that, of necessity, compassion for people trapped in the lies of our post-Christian world will include a message of God's judgment.

Schaeffer also cautions us in the church (and in our Christian organizations and educational institutions) not to fail to speak that message, not to fail to speak it passionately, and not to soften it with a rejection of any part of the truth of God's Word - as the leaders of Jeremiah's time did with his word from God. He exhorts us not only to preach the truth, but to live it, to face the cost of  preaching and living the truth of God's word - as Jeremiah was told that he must do - in a society that has rejected God.

The last four chapter turn from Jeremiah in Jerusalem to Paul bringing the gospel to the Romans. Schaeffer shows how Paul first speaks to the man without the Bible, showing how man is lost, but great - a rebel, yes, but a rebel made in the image of God - so that the gospel is the power of God not only for a narrow kind of otherworldly salvation, but also for the rebuilding of the whole man in all his cultural endeavours. Schaeffer gives examples of how, since the meaning of life can only be received from God Himself, people have demonstrated the judgment of Romans 1 on those who reject God - that they also reject and lose touch with reality. On the basis of Romans 2, Schaeffer demonstrates that God is just in judging the man without the Bible, because we judge ourselves every time that we judge others by whatever standards we know through our being created in God's image.

But this universal guilt also brings us as Christians a universal responsibility - to treat our fellow rebels with compassion. As we do so, however, Schaeffer uses the image of the universe with two chairs to call us not to sit in the chair of the materialist. Materialists explicitly believe that there is no God in the universe, but Christians can easily act as if that were true. We are exhorted to live by faith in God - facing the lostness of man without God, but extending compassion to others in the name and in the power of Christ.

Whichever of these two you find to be the more useful in coping with or reaching out to our post-Christian world, you can find Schaeffer's book here, and/or Blamire's book here.




Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Elfin Knight

Book Two of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene
updated and annotated by Toby J. Sumpter
282 pages / 2010

Last month I reviewed an update of Book One of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. I knew that I would be reviewing the next volume in the series soon, but I was a little worried that it would not be as good a read. Book I, after all, was based on the legend of Saint George, the patron saint of England. How could Book II be as good? Hollywood has shown how few sequels measure up to the original.

Of course, the second book of The Faerie Queene is not really a sequel. Rather, it's a totally new adventure showing us, symbolically, another aspect of the Christian life. Our new hero is Guyon, who stands for temperance. Ironically, we meet him first when he is almost tricked into attacking Saint George, the Redcrosse Knight who is the hero of Book I. This near double homicide illustrates just how difficult it is to keep one's temperance.

Toby Sumpter's introduction and generous footnotes make it clear that Spenser is showing that temperance – taking the middle way – is not merely a passive quality, but involves using wisdom to find the right path, and then pursuing it with full heart. In a world where temptation tests temperance tenaciously (pornography, the glorification of violence), it is important to see that maintaining a temperate approach is ultimately an adventure - the spiritual warfare that Paul tells us about in Ephesians 6.

Like Saint George, Guyon has a sidekick. While Guyon represents the strength of the temperate man, his companion, the Palmer, represents the wisdom needed to find the right path. Book II also has a counterpart to the House of Patience - a castle laid out like the human body that shows how temperance combats the temptations of the seven deadly sins and the moral challenges brought to us through our five senses, in a couple of epic battles that end with the triumph of another figure from Book I - Prince Arthur. What makes Prince Arthur a little more fun in this volume is his reading of the history of England (including a version of the story of Shakespeare's King Lear) - a story that ends just before the rise of King Arthur. Hmmm... Prince Arthur, King Arthur - any connection?

Another parallel to Book I is Guyon's own epic quest - to destroy the Bower of Bliss, a sensual but ultimately false paradise that subverts the manliness and the very souls of the knights who become entrapped by the wanton pleasures of the witch Acrasia. Guyon has encountered the temptations of both male fury and female beauty earlier in the story, but, having seen the death her enchantments have already brought, how will he handle her added lure of illicit artistic depictions?

Roy Maynard's followed his update of Book I of The Faerie Queene with an insightful epilogue. Sumpter ends his with a short play that picks up on the most approachable plot points of the story for students to act out – a nice little bonus that shows that temperance is more than just thrift or prudish abstinence. Like Spenser, Sumpter shows us that temperance is well-directed generous and zealous effort.

If you think The Elfin Knight is joust what you or the young warriors in your life needs to remind you of just how courageous it is to resist temptation, you can get it here.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Golly's folly: The prince who wanted it all

by Eleazar and Rebekah Ruiz
illustrated by Rommel Ruiz
36 pages / 2016

Loosely based on the Preacher's denouncement that "all is vanity," this is the story of Golly, a prince who wanted more and more and more, but found that nothing satisfied. It's all done in rhyme, which along with the bright pictures makes this one that kids 3 and up will adore!

Our story begins with Prince Golly looking to power as the way to happiness. He convinces his father to give up his throne, so Golly can be king. And he is happy...for a time.

Next he turns to things, telling his trusted advisor:

"I want flocks of animals, and a farm on a hill.
Get some of all kind – what a thrill!
Build lots of houses, find rings for my hand.
Oh – and I'd like my very own band."

But the buzz from all this stuff only lasts for a while. And so Golly turns to food, partying, knowledge, but none of it brings him happiness and contentment.

In his despair, he starts to cry. And then his father comes by.

(It is hard to write a review of a rhyming book, and not start doing it yourself.)

In Ecclesiastes the world turns out to be vanity, but life under God is not. In this story Golly also learns the world is vanity, and he looks to find contentment in submitting to his father. In doing so the story almost presents "family" as the ultimate good and the one true way to happiness and contentment.

But, of course, his father, King Zhor, is meant to point us to our Father in heaven. That analogy shouldn't be pressed too hard, though, because while King Zhor gives up his crown, our Father doesn't. Maybe, in this act King Zhor is more comparable to Jesus humbling himself in becoming man. But it's not a direct parallel – like any analogy, the connections are partial, and incomplete. It's the gist that matters, not the details.

This is a great one to use as a conversation starter about seeking contentment in what the world offers. I read this out loud to my kids once, without the pictures, and they already liked it. And the pictures are so vivd, that makes it all the more remarkable. I'd recommend as a fun one to read in a family setting with kids of all ages.

You can get the e-book for free if you subscribe to the publisher's newsletter here.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

If I built a car

by Chris Van Dusen
40 pages / 2007

Rhymes and a kid’s big ambitions: it makes for one engaging read-out-loud story. The “hero” is a little boy who wants to make a new sort of car, with a couch, fireplace, fish tank, its own pool, and much, much more, all tucked inside.

The rhythm and rhyming make this a real treat for a parent to read out loud to their kids – you can’t help but sound good! And the crazy fantastical imagining make for quite the adventure.

There’s also a sequel, If I built a house, which is every bit as good. The only caution I might add is that in the house story there is one bathroom scene that might get giggles from some readers – the imaginative boy has come up with a “scrub-a-dub” shower/bath machine:

"Just step on the belt, and it washes you clean, 
even the places you never seen.”

The boy is shown getting cleaned, and while his nakedness is entirely covered up, some kids seem to think it titter-worthy nonetheless.

What's great about this sort of book is that it'll get boys and girls to grab their crayons and start making plans for their own special car. So mom and dad, be ready for that, and if your energy permits, grab a pencil right alongside of them, and see what sort of car you can come up with!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves

Book I of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene
updated and annotated by Roy Maynard
236 pages / 1999

Clearly Edmund Spenser knows how to make a really good read, since both my brother and I have reviewed books based on his treatment of the legend of Saint George and the dragon.

Saint George is the first clearly Christian dragon-slayer in English literature, but his story is much more interesting and significant than the single-paragraph summary that it usually rates. George is a complex and flawed knight, much like the heroes of King Arthur's Round Table. What makes Spenser's story more significant is how George's failings, and the help he receives in his failures, parallels the spiritual struggles and blessings of Christians involved in the spiritual warfare of Ephesians 6:10-20.

Spenser's poem is full of rich allegory, of greater depth and variety than John Bunyan's simpler Pilgrim's Progress (also reviewed in this blog). As well as extolling the reign of Elizabeth I, Spenser shows how George vows to help Una (whose name shows her as a symbol of the one true faith), but is tempted by Duessa (whose name shows her duplicity and false faith). Along the way, both of them meet (among others, both good and evil) Prince Arthur (the young King Arthur), who shows the best of English virtue. When Saint George avoids being trapped in the house of Pride, but becomes the captive of Pride in the form of the giant Orgoglio, he needs the help of both Prince Arthur and the house of Holinesse. Finally, in an epic three-day battle against the dragon (wonder who that represents?), George is given supernatural aid that symbolizes the spiritual help that is available to every Christian in our struggles against the devil, the world, and our own flesh.

But why this edition in particular? Roy Maynard's often amusing footnotes and slight updating of the poem's language make clear just how full of gospel good news Spenser's story really is, and the questions at the end of each Canto (the poetic equivalent of a chapter) help us keep the story straight.

As well. this edition contains an insightful introduction, as well as occasional brief articles about such topics as Arthur, Merlin, the Crusades, dragons in the Bible, and Saint George himself. Finally, the Epilogue clarifies the importance of reading and understanding the meaning and historical context of Spenser's work.

If you want to see everything that leads up to the Fierce War with one of the great (and terrible) English dragons, you can get Roy Maynard's adaptation of Book I of the Fairie Queene at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Saint Patrick

by Jonathan Rogers
2010 / 132 pages

My mom was born on St Patrick's Day, and that was reason enough to check out Jonathan Roger's short, engaging biography of this Irish legend.

St. Patrick (385-461) is famously credited with driving the snakes out of Ireland. Other Patrick legends are equally impressive, and just as erroneous. But while legends abound, facts are hard to come by. As Jonathan Rogers explains, the most substantive information we have about Patrick comes from just two documents, which are the only pieces of writing we have from the man himself.

The first, The Confession of Saint Patrick, lays out his theological beliefs, even as he shares the story of his capture and escape from the Irish raiders. The second, The Letter send to the soldiers of Coroticus, was a plea to a British raider to return the newly baptized Irish Christians he had stolen and taken off to slavery. These two documents are included, in their entirety, as appendices in the back of this slim volume, and amount to 29 pages.

Rogers uses the remaining 100 pages to put Patrick's writings in a historical and cultural context, with perhaps the biggest eye-opener being that with the Christianization of the Roman Empire, people of the time saw outside the Empire as being outside the Church. That's why Ireland hadn't been evangelized to this point. It was outside the Empire, so it almost unthinkable that the people there could still become Christian.

But it wasn't inconceivable to Patrick. My takeaway from this book is that what made Patrick special was his zeal for lost people that others thought irredeemable.

I will add, though, that I don't think Patrick's a saint we really need to know more about. So, even as I think this is a really good read, I'd put a number of other biographies ahead of it. We only have so much time, after all, so if you don't know much about saints such as Martin Luther, Isaac Watts, or Corrie Ten Boom, those would be better people to start with.

Pick it up at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Winston Churchill

by John Perry
158 pages / 2010

Churchill had been dead more than 50 years now, but if the man himself is gone, the myth is enjoying a revival. Churchill has made recent appearance in the big screen productions Churchill and Darkest Hour, and has also shown up on the small screen in the British drama Crown. Of course, we all know the camera distorts, and it's not just the ten pounds it adds, so if you want a more accurate understanding of the British Bulldog, why not turn to  print instead?

Most Churchill biographies are the size of dictionaries, and since that exceeded my interest in the man I was pleased to discover John Perry's Winston Churchill was of a more reasonable size. Since it's part of Christian publisher Thomas Nelson's 16-book Christian Encounters biography series, I wondered if that meant Churchill himself was Christian. But, no, sadly it isn't so.

It turns out that while Churchill knew his Bible, and would sometimes speak of God – particularly in rousing speeches to the British public – he thought that, if there was a God, then God owed him heaven. So no, Churchill wasn't Christian.

As Perry makes clear, Churchill had a spiritual type of fatalism. Early on Churchill came to understand that no man is in charge of his own fate; the fact that one man lives through a battle and another dies has little to do with the men themselves. So when Churchill survived a number of dangerous encounters in his youth, he grew in his conviction that he had been destined for something great. Destined by Who? The answer to that question wasn't all that pressing to Churchill. But this conviction gave him confidence, and even a certain sort of humility... but it didn't result in worship. Churchill seemed to be the greatest being that Churchill knew.

CAUTIONS

As a rule I don't recommend (or even review) books that take God's name in vain – why would I praise someone who is mocking God?

This is especially true when it comes to fiction, however, a case can be made for exceptions when it comes to history. In detailing Churchill's agnostic attitude towards God (and his son Randolph's especially arrogant view) it would seem unavoidable that some of Churchill's blasphemous quips and comments would need to be shared. But while these quotes do seem necessary, this is an instance where less is more, so we can be grateful with the restraint in which Perry shares them.

CONCLUSION

Why, then, is Churchill being profiled in this Christian series of biographies? Because we can see God's hand on the man. From birth God was preparing him to be the right man, for the right time. And He so arranged things that Churchill was in the right place too, as the war time prime minister. This was all beyond Churchill's arranging, but looking back, we can see how God laid out events, and how He can use whomever he will because, whether Christian or agnostic, all are a part of His plan.

That's the real reason to read this biography – it is a treat to see how God has acted in history to preserve His Church. Churchill was a great man in ways, but he was also a petty one in others. Had he lived today, there might even have been unfavorable comparisons made between him and our least favorite politicians: he blew through taxpayer dollars to fund his own high living, and he was known to indulge in "alternative facts" in his writings. At a different time, this great man might have been run out of politics. That's the lesson here – the greatness of this great man can't be found in the man himself. Instead what's on display is God's gracious providence in providing for us the response we need to Hitler's Third Reich.

Winston Churchill is a quick, eye-opening read that both my wife and I enjoyed. I would recommend it to anyone, teens and up, interested in learning more about one of the pivotal figures of the 20th century.

Pick it up at Amazon.com here, and Amazon.ca here.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide

by Blaise Alleyne and Jonathan Van Maren
104 pages / Life Cycle Books

I hope that many who are reading this are wiser than I have often been, but I wonder if, as was the case for me, some pro-lifers found it difficult to oppose euthanasia as passionately as we oppose abortion. How do you help someone who doesn't want to be helped - who wants to die?

Of course, that emotional tension is exactly parallel to the hard cases that are typically presented to pro-lifers in the abortion debate. Just as in that debate, the key is to find the central issue. With abortion, the main question is, "Who is the unborn?" There are only two options. If the unborn is not human, there can be no justification for 'its' surgical removal, but if the unborn is human, then there can be no justification for killing  him or her. Similarly, the crux of opposition to  euthanasia is the question, "How do we help those who are feeling desperate enough to want to kill themselves?" There are only two options: either we prevent suicide, or we assist it.

That's where Alleyne and Van Maren's book comes in. These two men with extensive experience in the pro-life movement break down the debate in terms of that central question. They start with framing the debate
  • how to dialogue effectively;
  • how to define the three possible positions (the split position, the total choice position, and the pro-life position); and
  • how to approach the issue of suicidal despair (referencing Victor Frankl's insight from his experience in a concentration camp that "D = S - M," or despair = suffering without meaning).
The second chapter explores the first of those three positions. The job of pro-life apologetics is to show the inconsistency of the split position, which suggests that we should prevent some suicides while assisting others). The authors give ways to counter the reasons often used to justify some suicides, given by the acronym QUIT. They show that arguments based on Quality of life, Unbearable suffering, an Incurable condition, or a Terminal prognosis are fallacious, largely because they are based on ageism and ableism. In the same way as arguments against abortion bring out "two-year-old Timmy" to show that we should not be killing human beings at any level of development, arguments against euthanasia show us the healthy 19-year-old to help us realize that it is wrong to assist the suicide of anyone, of any age or level of health - because as the authors put it, "suicide is a symptom [of despair], not a solution."

Chapter 3 deals with those who are (sadly) willing to be consistent and advocate total choice for all who desire to be assisted in ending their lives. The only response is to insist that the suicidal need love even more than they need argument.

The fourth chapter shows how dangerous it is to accept either the split or the total choice position, because they have always involved a slippery slope toward more and more assisted killings, they reduce the willingness to prevent suicide, and they undermine the morale of everyone who works in any facility that provides suicide assistance.

Finally, the authors show the pro-life position. It is not mere vitalism, and so allows for
  • the refusal of burdensome treatment, as well as
  • the use of pain medication, even when that risks hastening death, as long as the intent of such medication is to alleviate pain rather than to kill.
The pro-life position also offers positive responses to the suicidal: psychological health resources, pain management, palliative care, and dignity therapy. The authors end with two pleas:
  • "Let death be what takes us, not lack of imagination." In other words, may no-one ever have their death hastened because we refuse to imagine how we may show more compassion.
  • "As people who believe in the dignity and value of every human life, it is our responsibility to.... persuade people that assisted suicide is wrong."
Alleyne and Van Maren admirably give us the tools to carry out that responsibility. Given the urgency of the push toward euthaniasia in both Canada and U.S., more of us should be reading this book.You can order it from Life Cycle Books (including the option to buy it in bulk for your pro-life group or circle of friends at greatly reduced prices).