Monday, October 14, 2019

Classical Me, Classical Thee: Squander Not Thine Education

by Rebekah Merkle
99 pages / 2017 / Canon Press

At first glance, the title rules this out for the general reader, but Classical Me, Classical Thee is a really good discussion of the basis for any Christian education. While Reformed Christian schools, for example, may not emphasize the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) of classical education, the justification for the subjects covered in classical Christian schools applies (or should apply) to Reformed education as well.

Rebekah Merkle uses several analogies to explain the "superpowers" that the classical curriculum gives to students (powers that a good Christian education will also provide). She stresses that such education is not only a "pizza with extra toppings" in comparison to public education but "a fundamentally different pizza." Why? Because the classical curriculum offers a more coherent view of life, the universe, and everything, since in addition to the seemingly miscellaneous puzzle pieces (facts and figures) of a secular worldview, classical education shows how to  comprehend and connnect those pieces by using the picture on the box (a Biblical foundation for students' varied studies).

So what are the superpowers bestowed by classical (and good Christian) education? For instance,

  • in Latin, we are given the basic structures of language that enable us to speak and write clearly (a good reminder of the importance of grammar studies in the English language as well);
  • literature teaches us to read for detail - something that reader-centered study of literature does not equip students for in post-secondary education or the real world;
  • logic prepares students to see through the false claims of our secular culture;
  • rhetoric, on the other hand, enables both classical and Christian students to defend the truth - and worldview study enables them to know what that truth is;
  • math and science show us not only the order in the universe, but also the divine source of that order - something hidden from public school students; and
  • history shows us how we got to the misunderstandings of secular culture, and therefore how to fruitfully address those misunderstandings.
Merkle's chapter on the Trivium is less relevant to the student or teacher of a general Christian school, but her conclusion is an urgent appeal to invest the superpowers (also known in Jesus' parable as talents) developed in Christian education to serve God in "faithful, creative ways."

If you think that Rebecca Merkle's book can help us in both classical and general Christian schools to "squander not thine education," you can get her book here, or here in Canada

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Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Amazing Dr. Ransom's Bestiary of Adorable Fallacies

A Field Guide for Clear Thinkers
by Douglas Wilson & N.D. Wilson
illustrated by Forrest Dickison
320 pages / 2015 / Canon Press


The authors of this guide to discovering and disarming logical fallacies have indeed revealed the adventures of an amazing globetrotting fallacy hunter, and their narrative will help us hunt down (and on occasion, kill) fallacies in our own interactions with fallacies and the people who love them.

That's exactly the problem (for all of us) with fallacies - they're so loveable. "The Amazing Dr. Ransom" (who claims to have been born in 1837 and have stayed healthy through the use of spider milk lotion) tells us how easily people allow fallacies into their lives and minds. Ransom deals with 50 fallacies in the following four categories: fallacies of distraction, of ambiguity, and of form; and millenial fallacies. Each of the fifty chapters

  • defines the fallacy and its dangers (showing it as a cuddly but vicious animal);
  • shows the fallacy, in Forrest Dickison's illustrations, in repose and on the attack;
  • explains how we, like Ransom, can defeat it;
  • gives the fallacy its other (sometimes better known) names; and
  • provides both discussion questions and exercises in recognizing examples of both fallacious and logical arguments.
The book also includes answers for all the questions in the back, as well as a schedule for teaching, reviewing and testing students' knowledge of logical fallacies, which helps make it ideal as a textbook for an English or philosophy course. But what makes the book fun is that both Ransom's adventures in confronting fallacies and the examples given are presented with satirical wit. I have never enjoyed reading about and puzzling out fallcies more.

Which brings me to the two cautions:
  1. On occasion the Wilsons, arguably, step over the line of discretion and good taste in the description of Dr. Ransom's confrontation with fallacious fools (always a peril in satire).
  2. The recognition exercises' answers in the back have no explanation. It helps if you share the Wilsons' Christian worldview and principled conservatism (as I generally do), but even then, I did not always agree with their answers. If I were to use this in my classroom, I would have to discuss every answer with the class as a whole (not in itself a bad thing).
Despite these considerations, I would love to see this as a textbook for my courses. If you agree that this book could help you defeat the fallacies that stalk us along all our mental trails, you can find it here, and here in Canada.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

If we survive

by Andrew Klavan
352 pages / 2013

This is a very different sort of story. When's the last time you've read Christian fiction that had someone dead by page 2?

Will Peterson is a 16-year-old visiting a small Central American village with his church's mission team, there to help rebuild the local cinder-block school. They've finished the work and are waiting in the cantina for the bus to take them back home when the room is suddenly filled with rebel soldiers and the pot-bellied, smiling waiter, who had been joking with them only moments before, is now on the floor, shot dead by the rebel leader.

What happens next is a not-so unusual chase-type adventure. The rebels have taken over the government and are executing anyone for any reason, and they don't want to let any American witnesses get out of the country alive. So now these church kids, along with an unexpected helper, are on the run, barely staying ahead of these murderous bandits.

What makes this something special is the characters in it. The most intriguing might be Jim Nolan, a 16-year-old intellectual who has read the biography and op-ed articles of the country's rebel leader...and who believes everything he's read. Even when the rebels start killing people, Jim is sure they're fighting for justice. Even when the guns are turned their direction, he's just as sure that it's all a horrible mistake, and if he can only talk to someone, things can straightened out. Jim steadfastly holds onto his rebel sympathies despite all the bloodshed around him. Author Andrew Klavan makes clear why Jim remains so loyal: because a lot of what he's being reading, about how the government was oppressing the country's poorest, is entirely true. Klavan isn't taking a cheap shot at the naivety of liberals here – this is a more nuanced look that admits the problems the Left points out might well be problems, even as the solutions they suggest are no solutions at all. Or, in the context of this story, just because the government is bad doesn't make the rebels good.

Will is also a well developed character. He came on the trip as a way of escaping his home life: mom and dad are always arguing and, he thinks, on the path to divorce. But now, unbelievably, things have gotten a whole lot worse, and as Will and the others bounce from one crisis to another, he has to battle a very understandable sense of panic. He does so by remembering two things:

  1. a Hemingway quote that cowardice is "a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination."
  2. advice from his youth pastor, who once told the group, "Don't worry about anything – pray about everything." 

CAUTIONS

While praying is always good advice, the way Will's prayers are depicted in the story makes it seems like it is more the act of praying, and not the God he is speaking to, that really helps Will.

Another caution worth noting is that while the church mission group is Protestant (and seemingly some sort of conservative Evangelical) there are postive, if brief, portrayals of other religions. This includes Roman Catholicism, in which a priest has a key role in saving them, and the villagers' ancient spirituality, when the missions group is invited to sit in on a pagan festival of lights. However, in both cases Will keeps to the facts, describing what they saw, but not digging into what it all means. A discerning reader would have reason to presume Klavan believes Roman Catholicism isn't importantly different from Protestantism, but that isn't a message the author is trying to hammer home here.

CONCLUSION

This is a gripping read that any teenage boy would really enjoy, and dad might not mind either. And if dad does join in, this could be a leap off point for some really good conversations about:

  • the American role as policeman of the world
  • one-sided news coverage, both from the Left and Right, and how that compares to what God tells us about the importance of hearing both sides in Prov. 18:17
  • courage and what it really involves
  • what prayer to God is actually
  • why we find nice people following other gods, or worshipping God in wrong ways
So, overall, I'd recommend this for teen guys with a little discernment, and a willingness to talk things through with their parents. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

A Tale of 61 Biographies

60 People Who Shaped the Church:
Learning from Sinners, Saints, Rogues, and Heroes
by Alton Gansky
316 pages / 2014
Baker Books

Jonathan Edwards: Lover of God
by Owen Strachan and Doug Sweeney 
155 pages / 2010
Moody Publishers

They were the worst of times; they were the best of times. In church history, as in Charles Dickens'  view of the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities, those statements could be applied simultaneously to any given era, since the church is both in the middle of fierce spiritual warfare, and yet she has already won in the victory of her Saviour over our sin and guilt. The two books shown in the titles above demonstrate how God uses saints, sinners, rogues, and a lover of God to spread the gospel, glorify Himself, and build up His church - and one of them is especially strong in applying that understanding to God's people today.

Alton Gansky shows us the lives of 60 "people" who shaped the church. The book could be called 60 Men Who Shaped the Church if it were not for the story of Fanny Crosby, the one woman profiled in the book. Her biography, like many of the men's, inspires us with both her attitude - not despairing in spite of being blind from infancy - and her contribution to the Christian church - over 9000 hymns, many still well known. In a collection of stories like this one, we could always name people who should have been dealt with, or quibble with the choice of some that were tackled, but Gansky deals with many figures who had impressive influence on the church.

The main caution that I would urge about Gansky's book is that he treads too lightly where the person discussed had a significant negative effect on the purity, doctrine, or practices of the church. For example, he does not mention the effect of Constantine's making Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire - the influx of many into the church whose profession of faith was likely not genuine. The same problem relates to the introduction of Arminian doctrine or Arminian methods of evangelism into the church. Gansky says nothing about the problems involved with these innovations.

Strachan and Sweeney have the advantage of dealing with a man who is well known for his solidly Reformed writing and preaching: Jonathan Edwards. What makes their biography particularly valuable is the application, at the end of each chapter, of Edwards' insights, virtues, and flaws to our own lives as "lovers of God." Their book is the first of five in The Essential Edwards Collection, and based on this one, the rest of the series promises to show us clearly how this prominent American theologian and preacher is both a source of insight and an example for our lives lived to the glory of God. My only caution would be that in urging our "duty to fight doubt" (as Edwards did), the authors recommend Tim Keller's The Reason for God - a book that indeed addresses many of the reasons for doubt, but also compromises with the theory of evolution. Other than that, this is an excellent introduction to an American whose work and life both have much to teach us.

If you think that you can learn from saints, sinners, and rogues about how God built up His church, you can find Gansky's book here, and here in Canada. And if you think that we can use the example and wisdom of Jonathan Edwards to grow in your love for God, you can find Strachan and Sweeney's book here, and here in Canada.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

You Who? Why you matter & how to deal with it

by Rachel Jankovic
235 pages / 2019

I began reading my wife’s copy of You Who? only after she shared comments from the online critics who were savaging it. A good encouraging review won’t necessarily sell me a book – I have too many others stacked up already competing for my attention – but when a certain sort of critic just hates a book then my curiosity is piqued and I want to know, “What could have gotten them that riled up?” So I owe Rachel Jankovic’s detractors thanks for getting me started on one of the best books I’ve read this year.

The author’s premise is simple: “Who am I?” is a question everyone asks and most of us answer badly. The most common answers involve our jobs: people will say “I’m a farmer” or “I am a small business owner.” But there’s a problem with identifying with our career: we can lose our job, or retire from it. And who are we then?

Others will identify themselves with their abilities or interests (“I am an artist,” or “I am a surfer”), or in their marital status (“I am single”), what groups they belong to (“I am Canadian”), or in not belonging to any groups (”I am a free spirit”). And many women look for their identity in the roles of wife and mother.

But here, too, problems exist because here, too, things can change: over time our abilities fade and our interests can shift. Over time the country we were once proud of may betray the values we thought it held. And over time even the most loving spouse will repeatedly let us down. Sure, our children can be a frequent source of pride and joy, one week sitting side by side in the church pew, hair combed, shoes polished, lovingly sharing the songbooks, but the next week it’s just as likely you’ll be taking two out at a time, their legs kicking and little lungs giving full vent to their protests in front of the whole congregation. If we find our identity in being the perfect parent, it doesn’t take any time at all for that bubble to burst.

So if those are all wrong answers to the "Who am I?" question, then what’s the right one? Jankovic wants to:

“encourage and equip believing women to see their identity in Christ as the most essential part of them, and to see all the ways that will work its way out in their lives, manifesting itself as strength, dignity, and clarity of purpose.”

Encouraging believers to make Christ our first and foremost shouldn’t be controversial. So why were critics upset? Because they were confused, mistaking Jankovic’s call to God-honoring obedience for some sort of legalistic works righteousness.

There’s a sense in which that’s understandable. Legalism (or works righteousness) and antinomianism (or lawlessness) are a set of paired theological errors. The legalist can’t believe God’s grace is really free, so he wants to earn it by obeying God’s law and, like the Pharisees of old, will even add to and expand on God’s laws. Meanwhile, antinomians recognize that the law can’t justify us and conclude that since we can’t measure up to God’s standard then Jesus must have come to abolish all those pesky Commandments.

These are huge, dangerous errors, but if you speak out against one, it’s inevitable someone will mistake your point and think you are a proponent of the opposite error. And that’s what’s happened here.

In the Reformed circles that this magazine serves we all know we can’t earn our way to heaven, but if we have a tendency to err in one direction or the other then we’re probably more likely to tip in the legalistic direction (just think of all the additional rules we once had for Sunday and how often we heard "dat niet op Zondag").

But in the evangelical world – Jankovic’s target audience – the error is on the other side. In those circles many believe sin is no big deal because, after all, the more we mess up, the more it just shows how gracious God is. Or as the current star of the Bachelorettereality TV show (a self-professing Christian) put it this past month, after she had sex with one contestant and went naked bungee jumping with another:

“I refuse to feel shame….I am standing firm in believing that maybe God wants to use a mess like me to point to his goodness and grace.”

What this neglects is the Apostle Paul’s answer to the question, “Shall we then continue in sin that grace may abound?” to which he gave a definitive, “By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2). Of course, we shouldn’t expect solid theology from reality TV. But this antinomianism – lawlessness – is working itself out in the audience of evangelical wives and moms that Jankovic is speaking to.

There we find that the false identities some Christian women are adopting, are giving them reasons to disobey God’s call to faithful, mundane, day-after-day obedience. A mom who finds her identity in her abilities will ignore her children in favor of her career aspirations. Or if she’s made herself the center of her world, then she’ll have every reason to skip the laundry folding and partake in a little “me time” instead. And if her kids become her identity, then neglecting her husband to give the little ones more attention can be spun as downright virtuous.

That’s what it can look like, but as much as these identities promise us meaning and fulfillment, they never deliver. Jankovic wants us to understand we were made to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Our identity is in Christ. We were made to worship. That’s our identity: God worshippers. And His people give Him glory by doing the good works that He has prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:10).

Does that mean folding laundry is the key to pleasing God? Well, God might be calling you to get at that pile of clothes and, if so, then you should obey. Then that is how you can glorify Him. But the kids' homework might be a more important priority, and then that unfolded pile can also glorify God as you, in loving obedience, help with homework instead.

I am not a mom or a wife, but this book was a help to me too. There wasn't all that much in here that I didn't already know but it served as a much-needed reminder that I am not what I do. I’m at that stage of life where joints are giving out, and it’s more obvious now than it has ever been that I am no athlete. Before I read You Who? that was getting me down. But there is joy to be found when, instead of finding my identity in my athletic ability (or lack thereof) I bow my knee and ask my God and King, “How can I honor You?” When I make Him my focus, then it turns out I’m still able to throw a ball far enough to play with the three kids God has given me to raise and nurture. I can't glorify myself anymore in my athletic endeavors, but in playing with the kids He's given me, it turns out I can glorify Him. I can still, in this way, do what I was made to do. And instead of being depressed at being able to do less, I can be content knowing God isn’t concerned with the declining volume of my output.

But, as Jankovic notes, He does demand everything I have to give. If that sounds like a lot, of course, it is. Jankovic emphasizes obeying God in the day-to-day grind, making every moment about Him. We're not going to succeed at that, but when we understand what Christ has done for us, and how we are His, then we will want to try. And in trying, we will glorify Him. In failing we will also glorify Him. And we can glorify him, too, in repenting and then, secure in what Christ has done for us on the cross, going to bed assured of forgiveness and getting ready to do it all over again tomorrow.

If I’m not making this sounds exciting, then that’s a good reason for you to pick up You Who? where Rachel Jankovic says it a lot better. And if you are excited, well, what are you waiting for? You're going to love You Who?

I’d recommend it for any study group, women or men, and if your group is interested, then be sure to check out the study group e-book that you can download for free here.

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the plot to kill Hitler

by John Hendrix 
176 pages / 2018

The world “pastor” is not often paired with words like “plot” or “kill.” But when the Nazis took over Germany, and used nationalism and intimidation to silence its churches, and then set out to conquer the world, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to do something. And he felt himself pulled to do what would once have been unthinkable to him: Bonhoeffer joined a conspiracy to kill his country’s leader, Adolf Hitler.

At 176 pages, and text-dense, author John Hendrix has a lot of space to explore Bonhoeffer and his time. He starts with his birth and family life, before showing how World War I impacted the Bonhoeffers – one of Dietrich’s older brothers was killed – and how the runaway inflation that came shortly afterwards destroyed everyone’s savings. In 1921 a German could exchange 75 marks for 1 US dollar, but by the end of 1923 to get that same US dollar he would have to bring a wheelbarrow, or maybe a dumptruck, to carry the 4 billion marks that’d now be needed. Money, jobs, and hope were scarce, and this set the scene for the rise of Hitler. Germans wanted a way out, and Hitler presented himself as a savior.

 Meanwhile, Bonhoeffer was learning, via travels in Europe and America, that a love for one’s country doesn’t mean you have to support everything your government does. So when the Nazis, only a few months after they came into power, fired Jews from any government positions, Bonhoeffer was one of the few church leaders to speak out. He published a public paper called “The Church and the Jewish Question” in which he laid out an explicitly Christian justification for resisting the government. He described three ways the Church can and should respond to an evil government.

  1. Question the State and its methods: a True church must reject government encroachment on its beliefs 
  2. Aid the victims of State actions: the Church has an unconditional obligation to the victims… 
  3. Strike back: it is not enough to just bandage the victims under the wheels, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself! 

As you can tell, this “comic book” gets into some big and heady topics. What’s more, “how to deal with a hostile State?” is a topic of growing relevance these days. That makes this an important book, but also one that should be discussed between parent and child. There is some serious theology here, and while the general thrust is right on – we owe our allegiance first and foremost to God, even if that means resisting the State – what exactly it looks to live that out, back then and today, is a topic too weighty for a teen to work out on their own.

This is a graphic novel worthy of both a teen and adult audience. The thought and research that’s has gone into it is evident throughout. Even the coloration of the book is fascinating, with Bonhoeffer consistently shown either in teal or with a teal background, the Nazis always highlighted with the use of red, and when death makes an appearance there is a predominance of black.

I’d recommend The Faithful Spy for any teen who has begun to think on big issues, and anyone interested working through what it means to live to God’s glory in tumultuous times.


Saturday, July 20, 2019

Bolivar

by Sean Rubin 
224 pages / 2017

New York is the busiest city in the world, and people there are simply too busy to notice much of anything going on around them. Except Sybil. Sybil is a little girl who does notice things. And she recently noticed that her next-door neighbor is, in fact, a dinosaur.

Sybil keeps getting peeks at the mysterious, very large fellow next door. But try as she might, she can’t get the evidence she needs to prove his existence to anyone else. Her parents, her teacher, and her classmates all scoff. A dinosaur in New York? How ridiculous! 

Now in a secular book that tackles dinosaurs, you might expect some sort of reference to evolution. But nope, there’s none of that. This utterly charming graphic novel is, in one sense, simply a chase story, with Sybil tracking her prey through New York boroughs, the museum, the subway system, never quite getting near enough for the perfect photograph. But the enormous size of this book – 1 foot by 1 foot, with 224 pages – also gives author and illustrator Sean Rubin an opportunity to show off a city he clearly loves….even as he gently mocks residents for their self-absorption.

With a girl and a dinosaur as the main characters, this is a fantastic book for boys and girls from Grade 1 on up (I loved it!).

This might also be the perfect book for a reluctant reader. The big bright pictures will draw them in, and the size of the book will give them a sense of accomplishment when they finish it, while the limited amount of text per page means this is a book they can finish.

Bolivar is a gorgeous goofy adventure and I can’t recommend it highly enough!


Sunday, July 14, 2019

Love Thy Body

Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality
by Nancy R. Pearcey
2018 / 335 pages

Nancy Pearcey's Love Thy Body is  such a really good read that I would like to put it as on option on my Grade 11 and 12 English classes's reading lists (more on that reading level later).

Pearcey's point is that much of our culture's (post-)modern morality results from a debased view of the body. Many people today live as if their actual physical body is not relevant to their personhood. This separation of personhood and body leads to problems in the following areas:
  1. Because unborn children (and some born children) lack a specific level of cognitive functioning, many activists believe that even if they are human, they do not have the full rights of personhood - leading to abortion and even infanticide.
  2. The same type of dismissal of the personhood of the elderly due to a lower level of cognitive functioning leads to the advocacy of euthanasia.
  3. Treating the body as nothing more than a "wet machine" (a conclusion from evolutionary thinking) leads to the hookup culture, in which people (especially the young) use sex for nothing more than personal pleasure, missing the truth that sex is designed by God for both procreation and bonding between husband and wife.
  4. The same dismissal of the body's "designedness" leads both to confusion about both sexual orientation and gender.
Pearcey shows the benefits of Christian understanding on all these issues, both in
  1. the greater respect and love shown to women, children, and other vulnerable groups as Christianity transformed the ancient world, and
  2. the restoration of personal wholeness as people, both Christians and converts to Christian faith learn to understand the full meaning of the bodies God has given us, even when our feelings and our bodies don't seem to match.
Finally, Pearcey shows how we, as God's people, can help heal the modern disruption of the unity of body and person by showing the beauty of living life as God's children in both body and soul, and demonstrating our love for both body and soul with healing and hospitality for those wounded by the lies of our culture.

One caution: Because Pearcey deals with our society's response to the body, as well as the Biblical corrective to our culture's rejection of the body, the book deals with descriptions of, in particular, sexuality in the text and the notes that require mature reading to process, which is why I am planning to offer it as a reading choice only to Grade 11 and 12. However, for discerning readers willing to put in the extra effort or wanting to read the book alongside others, Pearcey's study guide and extensive notes will bolster the impact of the book in strengthening our understanding and the will to act out of that understanding.

If you believe that Pearcey will further your understanding of how a Christian worldview helps us to avoid and heal the personal and societal destruction that occurs that when you do not Love Thy Body, you can find it here, and here in Canada.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Winterflight

by Joseph Bayly
1981 / 216 pages

In this dystopian novel, Joseph Bayly takes us to a not-so-distant future in which abortion for disabled children is mandatory, euthanasia is compulsory soon after 75, and Christians are so confused about Romans 13 they think God wants them to submit to even these demands.

When Jonathan and Grace Stanton's six-year-old son Stephen falls off his bike, they don't know what to do. The fall was minor, but their son has hemophilia and he needs treatment.  However, by government law he shouldn't exist: had his condition been diagnosed prenatally the State would have required that he be aborted. Stephen survived only because he mother never visited a doctor during her pregnancy, and when the time came a friend helped her have a home birth. Now the Stantons wonder what the State might do, even six years later, if they bring their son in to see a doctor. Do they dare find out?

Winterflight was written almost 40 years ago, but it got my heart racing – it all seemed far too probable for my liking. Abortion is already being used to "cure" genetic disabilities like Down Syndrome and while it isn't mandatory, pressure from doctors and culture are such that in some countries 98% of Down Syndrome children are killed before birth.

When it comes to killing the elderly, we don't demand their deaths at 75, but we are already exploring the cost savings that can be had from their early departure. In countries where euthanasia has been legal longer, there are regular reports of involuntary killings. In Canada, attempts are already being made to make involvement on some level mandatory for all doctors.

But what hits closest to home is Bayly's portrayal of the confused Christian response to these government abuses. When Grace's elderly father is told he must report soon to be euthanized, their misunderstanding of Scripture has them thinking that they need to obey the governing authorities even in this, since those authorities are appointed by God (Romans 13:1). But at the same time, in saving their son, the Stantons show that on some level they do understand we must sometimes defy the State.

Is their confusion realistic? We'd never march ourselves off to the local euthanasia clinic just because the government demanded it. But why would we resist? Do we understand on what biblical basis we could reject such demands from the "governing authorities"? During World War II there was confusion on this point among some good Reformed Dutchmen. Among those who joined the Resistance, some felt guilty about it because they were worried that in acting against the Nazis they were resisting God's chosen rulers.

The confusion persists today. Even as we know the government shouldn't mandate euthanasia – even as we recognize that there are limits to their power – many Christians will still turn to the government asking it to solve our problems. We understand the government has limits, and yet we'll also ask them to do more and more. We are confused.

And that's why this book is well worth reading and discussing.

Cautions

There are just a couple cautions to note. First, there is a small bit of language – I think "damn" might be used two or three times.

Second, without giving away the ending, when the book was first published some Christians misunderstood the ending as being prescriptive – they thought the actions of the book's confused Christians were what we should do. So it's important to understand that's not so. These are confused Christians, under enormous pressure, acting in a confused way and the author is not endorsing their actions. In fact, in many ways the book is about warning us not to do as they do.

Conclusion

This is a fantastic dystopian novel, as prophetic as they come, and certainly unlike any other Christian fiction you've read.

The topic matter is weighty, but because there's nothing graphic this could be appropriate for as young as early teens. However the younger a reader might be, the more they'll need a guide to steer their interaction with the story, and particularly the not-at-all happy ending. It would also make great book club material, with fodder for some fantastic discussions.

Friday, June 14, 2019

On Reading Well

Finding the Good Life through Great Books
by Karen Swallow Prior
2017 / 267 pages

This is a really good read for English teachers (like me), for sure, but it's also a really good read for anyone who has read any of the books Karen Swallow Prior discusses and still wonders what the point was. Prior starts by defining what she means in the subtitle by the good life - and it's not the easy life, the fulfilling life, or the prosperous life. Instead, she discusses the power of the word good in a way similar to how God describes His creative work in Genesis 1 - doing the right thing, echoing in our lives the beautiful order that God Himself gave to the world He made (and still upholds).

Prior insists that the purpose of great works of literature is to point us toward virtue, to warn us away from vice, to demonstrate the path of the golden mean between extremes. Literature cultivates virtue both in the examples it provides and in the type of reading it demands.

Prior categorizes three types of virtues: the cardinal virtues extolled in the ancient world (prudence, temperance, justice, and courage); the theological virtues that can only be developed by the work of the Spirit (faith, hope, and love); and the heavenly virtues that contrast several of the seven deadly sins (chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility).

Let me just highlight some chapters each section to show you the depth of insight Prior offers. Her analysis of A Tale of Two Cities highlights how both London and Paris demonstrate the lack of justice that often governs human affairs, as well as the need for something that satisfies our sense of justice even when it is not fair - the Christlike sacrifice of one of the major characters. Her discussion of The Road domonstrates how hope functions in a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction that is even bleaker than the dystopian fiction that dominates the reading preferences of many young adults. What she says about Ethan Frome makes me wish I had read the novel already, in her discussion of how chastity both nourishes community and requires it. Her enthusiasm for George Saunder's short story "Tenth of December" also introduced me to a new author in a look at the virtue of kindness.

If you've ever wondered what's so great about the other stories that Prior examines -
  • The History of Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding;
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby;
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain;
  • Shusaku Endu's Silence;
  • The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy;
  • John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress;
  • Persuasion, by Jane Austen;
  • Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge"
her look at these works is equally illuminating.

A couple cautions: Prior, though herself a Baptist, seems to be writing from a very broadly Christian perspective. Reformed readers might find her frequent references to both classical authors and Catholic thinkers like Thomas Aquinas somewhat problematic. I was not personally convinced by her outlook on Silence, a novel about the 'hidden faith' of an apostate Catholic priest - an analysis that seemed to suggest that faith could be felt deeply even when not showing outwardly.

If you think that Karen Swallow Prior can help you find the good life through great books, you can get it here, or here in Canada.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Call

Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life
by Os Guinness
2003 / 292 pages

I picked up The Call because I had read a reference to it in another book I reviewed in this blog. I admit that I did not find Os Guinness an easy read (see Caution # 2 below), but he did get across the crucial distinction between our primary calling and our secondary calling. It is so easy to get caught up in trying to discern "God's will for my life," as if He is obligated to provide us with a road map showing our spouse and/or our ideal career, that we forget that God's first call on us is to follow Christ as Lord.

In a life lived following Christ, Guinness reminds us, we walk before "an audience of One," and so we are freed from concern about what others think of us. A life lived in Christ is also free from endless self-improvement, and instead focuses on the power of God to make us like Him. Finally, Guinness concludes over twenty chapters of reflection with his own inspiring call to follow Christ until we reach the final call that welcomes us into God's presence.

Two Cautions
  1. At least one of the historical anecdotes mentions some disgusting behaviour by one famous but arrogant artist that makes this book not suitable for immature readers. The use of such anecdotes is another reason for limiting the reading of this book to discerning readers, since Guinness includes anecdotes about non-Christians that do not always condemn their failure to understand and respond to God's call.
  2. The book is set up more as a series of essays than as a single connected argument; it is also not a "how-to" book. It is intended to be read slowly, a chapter a day, to provoke reflection rather than giving you a list of steps to follow. I recommend that you read a chapter one day, then the study guide questions and recommended Bible passage the next day. Reading it this way makes it a fruitful source for Biblical self-reflection.
If you believe that Os Guinness's book can help you find and fulfill the call of Jesus on your life, you can get it here, or here in Canada.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Janet's Thingamajigs

by Beverly Cleary
32 pages / 1987

While I thought this book made a good case for the beneficial application of spankings – both of these kids could have used one! – my Grade Oner thought this was a really good read. So here is her book report.

*****

Thingamajigs was a word that Janet's Mother always used when she was excited or in a hurry. When Jimmy, Janet's twin brother skinned his knee, Mother would always say "Where are the thingamajigs? What happened to the thingamajigs?" 

Janet wanted to know what she meant so she found things like a red paper clip, a little wheel, and a shiny bead. She would ask her Mother, "Are these thingamajigs?" And her Mother would say, "Those could be thingamajigs."

I liked this book because I just like the word thingamajigs. Janet is a really fun character because she is a little bit silly. I also think that Janet is very creative. I like that Jimmy just doesn't give up about taking Janet's thingamajigs.

This is a good book. You should read it!


Sunday, April 14, 2019

Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl

Wide-Eyed Wonder in God's Spoken World
by N. D. Wilson
2009 / 203 pages

The world is a wild ride, isn't it?

The fun starts already in the title of N. D. Wilson's book. Those of you who have ridden the Tilt-a-Whirl will recognize the analogy to our own spinning planet with an axis that is 23.5 degrees off the vertical.

Of course, the world is not just physically askew; it is off-kilter in just about every way you can think of. The presence of evil in the world is the argument that is typically thrown at Christians whenever we affirm God's claims on all of us. Wilson makes some important points throughout his book that undo (or cut through) this Gordian knot.

First, he asserts that evil is not a "thing," not a noun; rather, it is an adjective describing that which displeases God. Because He is good, whatever displeases Him is evil. Secondly, in response to those who then wonder why the world is still such an unpleasant place, Wilson does not use the oft-quoted answer that this is the best of all possible worlds; rather, he says, this is the best of all possible masterpieces, the best of all possible stories - and we are not, in our egocentricity, the best of all possible critics.

Rather than setting ourselves up as critics of God's story, Wilson insists, we need to learn to be good characters - to approach life with wonder, to laugh at ourselves and our often gloriously ridiculous place in the story - to glorify the Author, rather than to try to rewrite His work.

What makes Wilson's work so amusing is that he is willing to follow his own advice To give just two examples:
  1. When Wilson's son gets his wish of having a butterfly land on him, but Wilson warns him that "lightning does not strike twice" - that the butterfly will not be coming back, Wilson enjoys how God makes a fool of him by sending the butterfly to land on his son's shoulder a second time.
  2. Wilson laughs just as much when he trips over the step that he is sure must have moved as he does when the seeming squashed frog inexplicably springs back to life.
In the end, Wilson reminds us that it is the end that we have to cope with - our own earthly end, and the end of all current earthly things when the Author (the same one who became a Word in His own story) returns to wrap up the current chapter with His judgments on His cast of characters.

This is far too brief a look at a book that spends as much time mocking Christian sentimentality as it does attacking atheist defiance of our Author, but if you think Wilson can help you better understand and cope with our crazy, tilted world, you can get it here, or here in Canada.


Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Man in the Dark

by Douglas Wilson
258 pages / 2019

Some books only merit a quick read, others should be slowly savored, and a select few are so good you just have to read them out loud to your wife. This is that third sort!

Savannah Westmoreland, a self-assured school teacher, finds herself in the middle of a love triangle of sorts. Except that it wouldn't be accurate to call what the town's biggest businessman feels for her love – desire, hunger, lust, but no, not love. And while the church's newly arrived pastor is interested, and seems a worthy sort, he can't get past the walls Savannah has set up.

But events, and friends, conspire against Savannah, putting her repeatedly in the pastor's company. And even as uses these moments to make a good case for his marriable merits, Savannah is still actively discouraging him. Why? Something from her past still has a hold on her. The pastor is trying to get around this obstacle, but the businessman is trying to discover exactly what happened, so he can use it to control her.

This is Douglas Wilson's third novel, but first romance. It is the second of his books that I've read out loud to my wife, the other being Flags out Front. That's really the highest praise I can give a book. But lest you think Wilson is only a two-hit wonder, I'll share that his other novel, Evangellyfish, won Christianity Today's 2012 best fiction award. He knows how to tell a story.

As you might suspect of a book written by a Reformed pastor, there is a lot of theology in the book, from the dinner table conversations, to the metaphor underlying the whole story. But conversations about God are a great way to learn about God, and even though the book has a pastor, right in the mix, this is not, a sermon disguised as a story. This is, instead, great fiction telling something true. And if you think the ending a tad contrived, I might agree with you. But I'd also invite you to consider what the author is saying about this God of wonders that we serve.

And speaking of truth-telling, I should own up that as much as I enjoyed reading this out loud to my wife, she didn't get to hear the whole story. She fell asleep, and, well, I had to keep on reading.



Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Giver (graphic novel adaptation)

by Lois Lowry

adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell
2019 / 176 pages

My brother Jeff has done a great review of the book this is based on, so I'm not going to spend much time on the plot, and will instead focus on what makes this graphic novel different from the book

The story takes place maybe a hundred years in the future, and war has been eliminated by muting mankind's emotions and by eliminating the conflict that comes when we have to make choices. Not only are everyone's jobs chosen for them, so is their spouse, and even the kids they will raise. 12-year-old Jonas has been given a unique role, being trained by The Giver to know and understand the past, so he can use that knowledge to advise the community in times of crisis. But as he becomes the best-informed citizen in his community he discovers things that horrify him – choices are also being made for the citizens as to who will live and who will die.

The graphic novel version

Most graphic novel adaptations are much shorter than the source material they are based on, in part because all the descriptive passages in the book can become pictures instead, and also because the plot is usually simplified. But this one is every bit as long as the original, with every scene in the book included.

Jonas's discovery of color is a big theme in the novel. In the muted world in which they all live, citizens have lost the ability to see color, but as Jonas learns more about the past, he gains insight into the present and starts gaining the ability to see reds, and greens, and yellows. So first, adapter P. Craig Russell shares Jonas' muted world by depicting everything not simply in black and white (that would be a bit boring) but also with subtle splashes of blue. And as Jonas learns how to see more, we begin to see increasing flashes of vibrant color, to show his growing awareness of just how exciting and intriguing a place of discovery the world can be. It's fun to see in pictures this transition from dull to brilliant. In these sections, the comic might even be better than the book.

But pictures also present challenges. It can be hard to visually depict what's going on in someone's head. To make up for that Russell carries over a lot of the text from the book. But he can't use all of it, which is why in the original the characters are all a little deeper, a little more realized.

Cautions

And sometimes showing is more problematic than telling. In one scene in the book Jonas helps bathe the elderly. In the comic Russell uses just the right angles to ensure all we see are the knees down, or the shoulders and up.

Nudity of a sort comes up in one other scene, which is the book's most troubling, even without the visual element. [SPOILER ALERT] Jonas discovers that unwanted babies are killed via lethal injection, and even in muted pictures it's quite horrible. Russell is restrained, but the idea of murdering infants is so unpleasant that any pictures, even muted ones, just add to the horror. That said, the scene is not at all graphic. I'll also note that the baby is shown fully naked, with scant detail, but enough to tell that it is a boy.

Conclusion

This is every bit as good as the novel, though both have their different strengths. I'd recommend this to teachers as a slightly easier way for reluctant readers to access this book. But like the novel, and the film too, this comic needs to be discussed. Its teen audience needs to wrestle with the warnings given in this story – the danger of governmental control, the false compassion of euthanasia, the potential and peril of emotions – but they'll most likely need help. So this is a great conversation starter, but a guide will be needed.


Thursday, March 14, 2019

Do I Know God?

Finding Certainty in Life's Most Important Relationship
by Tullian Tchividjian
212 pages / 2007

Billy Graham is the only explicitly Arminian preacher I know of, and he wrote the Foreword to this book, but his grandson Tullian Tchividjian attended Reformed Theological Seminary. From that Reformed perspective, he deals with the issue that vexed many Puritans (another brilliant part of our Reformed heritage), as well as many Christians today - Do I Know God?

Tchividjian has a deep personal connection with the topic, as a returned prodigal, and as a minister who deals not only with people who lack assurance of their salvation, but with those who have a false assurance - hypocrites. He starts by exploring what he learned in his young adulthood - that knowing God means having a real relationship with Him. He describes the danger of various kinds of false assurance of salvation: merely praying the "sinner's prayer," making a "decision for Christ," being "religious," and being "spiritual." While all of these may demonstrate some level of understanding of God, none are sufficient to establish the certainty of a real relationship with Him. Neither is being a "good person" or claiming faith without responding in grateful obedient love.

Instead, Tchividjian stresses the importance of believing God's promises, particularly of fellowship with Him in Christ. That fellowship leads to both assurance of the truth of right doctrine about Him as found in His word and a joyful communion with Him. Both our belief in God's truth and our communion with Him then bear fruit in an obedience that makes "our calling and election sure." Obedience is not the ground of our salvation, but it is the fruit of it.

Tchividjian makes a useful distinction between our relationship with God, which is grounded in Christ, and our fellowship with God, which can be disrupted by sin. Either that sin, or God's care for us, can drive us straight through "the dark night of the soul" toward a deeper dependence on Him. Finally, Tchividjian urges us to hold on to our relationship and fellowship with God in Christ in the hope grounded in the knowledge from God's word that "the best is yet to come."

In addition to the insight revealed in the eleven chapters of the book, the study guide leads the reader through thoughtful, challenging questions and Scripture references that make the book ideal for either personal or group study.

Sadly, one strong caution: Tchividjian's own conduct has undermined the power of his insights. If he truly has a relationship with God, his fellowship with God must be very troubled, since he has been implicated in extramarital affairs in two of the churches he has pastored. While, clearly, all men sin, including sexual sin in our hearts, the leaders of God's people are called to a higher standard of purity.

If you, or someone you know, struggles with whether you truly know God, and you can separate the writings from the writer, you can get Do I Know God here and here in Canada.


Thursday, March 7, 2019

Why is dystopian fiction worth reading?


In dystopian fiction we get a glimpse at some sort of looming, foreboding future: maybe it's humans devolving into separate castes (H.G. Wells' Time Machine), mass infertility threatening the end of mankind (P.D. James's The Children of Men), a domineering government repressing all but the elite (Glenn Beck's Agenda 21), or maybe killer robots overrunning the planet (Terminator).

The word dystopia is coined from Ancient Greek and means simply "bad place." What makes this a genre worth considering is because the best dystopian fiction is prophetic in nature, warning us of the dangers of a particular ideology (or practice) by showing us the "bad place" we will end up at if we adopt it. Thus there are as many sorts of dystopian novels as there are ideologies.

But not all of the warnings given are…credible.

The Canadian "classic" novel and current Netflix hit The Handmaids Tale warns of a world in which the government uses the trappings of the Christian religion to sexually enslave women. That is so far from where we are, or could conceivably head, that the book isn’t useful – the author is completely wrong and there are no insights to gain from her. (That hasn't stopped the Left from embracing the novel, pretending that Trump's presidency is its very fulfillment.)

That lack of credible threat is a problem with many of the teen fiction dystopian series (The Maze Runner, Divergent, and The Hunger Games) that have appeared over the last decade. They might be entertaining, but they aren't prophetic. If we look hard enough we might be able to find something, like The Hunger Games and its warning against folks killing and getting killed for the entertainment of the masses. That has relevance in a world in which brutal MMA fights are now watched by millions (including ones in which women pummel women) and the NFL remains must-see TV even though it leaves most participants crippled in one way or another. But does that make The Hunger Games worth reading? No. Most teens aren’t likely to make that connection. More importantly, the books present a dilemma that's likely to confuse its teen audience – the "hero" seems like she will have to either murder others or be murdered herself. Mature Christian will understand that it is better to suffer evil than to commit it, but will younger readers?

So what books do warn of credible threats? The top two would have to be:
  • 1984 - Author George Orwell warns of the State using authoritarian power to so totally subjugate us that, if they insist, we'll say that 2+2 is 5. If the idea of the State reconditioning people to spout obvious lies sounds too extreme to be believable, just consider what's happening to people today who say there are only two genders, and there's no switching from one to the other, and you need one of each for marriage. Obvious truths, one and all, but if you say them – and we must – Big Brother will want to have words! And if it's like that now, how might things look in ten years time?
  • Brave New World - Aldous Huxley warns of the State enslaving us not by force but by pleasure. Pain is taken away via the drug soma leaving the population in a generally happy stupor. Some clear parallels can be made to our meek, sheep-like society. Our cradle-to-grave State care leaves us dependent on the government to run more and more of our lives and that's how we like it. And our smartphones, Netflix accounts, opioids, and Twitter feeds leave many citizens in a soma-like stupor – celebrity-aware but politically-illiterate. 
These two books cover both sides of how we’re being hit today – the carrot and the stick. As Neil Postman put it:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. 
As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that our fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.
The credible threat here isn't from one approach or the other, but from both together.

While both books have sexual content, in 1984 it is brief and boring. A great G-rated 1954 film-version does away with even that. This black and white film, or the book, could be shared with older teens with little worry. But Brave New World, with its focus on the enticements of pleasure, has more sexual content, and while it's still not explicit, it might be something that a hormone-riddled teen boy could struggle with. The rating site Common Sense Media (family-friendly, but not specifically Christian) suggests that 1984 is for 16 and up, and Brave New World would be for 14 and up, but I would reverse those and maybe even hold off Brave New World for college-age and up. (Interestingly, the kid's reviews on Common Sense Media also rates Brave New World as more problematic than 1984).

In the other books, and films, that fill out this genre, the most common threat is probably killer robots (2001: A Space Odyssey; Prey; Terminator; The Matrix; etc.). Technological advances mean there’s a legitimate reason for concern here, but it shouldn’t be our principal concern. We differ from the world in that we understand that we should not fear “them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28). Our true battle is:
not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12).
What Paul means here by “flesh and blood” is Man and all his deadly weapons…including killer robots. But if that’s not where the real battle is at, then where should we focus our attention? Our concern is the Devil and all the means he uses – including false ideologies and philosophies – to confuse our understanding of God, or pressure us to reject Him, or try to keep us from learning about Him.

With that in mind some credible threats worth considering include:
  • Lord of the Flies - William Godling warns us not to be naive about our sinful nature; Man, left to his own devices is no angel. 
  • The Giver - Lois Lowry warns again enforcing sameness in the name of equality (it is aimed at young readers, but adults can enjoy and be challenged by it too). There is a great graphic novel version (which probably takes just as long to read as the original).
  • Time Will Run Back Henry Hazlitt warns against Communism specifically, but socialism in general. This would be for older teens, not because of problematic content (this is far "safer" than Brave New World or 1984) but simply because of the depth and breadth of the ideas therein. This is my own favorite dystopian novel because I found it by far the most educational. 
  • Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury warns of censorship, though I wonder if the type of censorship he warns us about is far less likely than the creeping political correctness we actually face. There is content here too problematic for younger readers to handle. 
  • Winterflight – Joseph Bayly takes us to a not-so-distant future in which abortion for disabled children is mandatory, euthanasia is compulsory soon after 75, and Christians are so confused about Romans 13 they think God wants them to submit to even these demands (the Christian confusion in this book is almost too spot on to take).
  • Fatherless, Childless, Godless - James Dobson’s 3-book series warns against abortion’s results - a shrinking population. (One thing that bothers me about this series is how it occasionally takes God's name in vain. That happens in other books listed here too, but they aren't by Christian authors, and I expect more from Dr. Dobson.) 
This is a genre well worth exploring...with care and caution. It's like a big blank canvas that insightful writers can use to paint pictures of futures that they hope – by giving their early warning – may never come to be.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

God made me and you

Celebrating God's design for ethnic diversity

by Shai Linne
illustrated by Trish Mahoney
32 pages / 2018

Reformed rapper Shai Linne has written a children's book about racism. And it's really good! As those already familiar with his albums know, Linne loves to delve deep into God's Word, and his insights are not only profound, but he knows how to present them powerfully. This picture book is no different.

In response to racism Christians typically talk about how we all come from the same two parents so there is, in fact, just one race – the human race. Linne builds on this point, even as he makes another – yes we are all alike in one way, but in others, we are wonderfully different.

And as you would expect a rapper to do, he makes this point in rhyme. The book begins with a teacher arriving late to her class just as a couple of boys are making fun of other kids for their hair, clothes, and skin color. After telling the boys to ask for forgiveness, she teaches the class a lesson about how diversity is a testimony to God's greatness. She says:
In Genesis 1, what we see in each verse
Is God made a world that is REALLY diverse. 
The sun and the moon,
the planets and stars,
Saturn and Jupiter,
Venus and Mars... 
Each one is different...
Class, why did God make this?
He made it to show off
His beauty and greatness.
And just as the variety and diversity in the rest of creation speaks of God's greatness, so too the diversity in Mankind.
He gave some curly hair
while others have straight.
It pleased God to fashion
each wonderful trait. 
Brown eyes and green eyes,
hazel and blue,
Each in their own way
works of art we can view. 
Some that are deaf
and some that are blind
All have great worth
in God's sovereign design. 
This is a morality tale, and sometimes this type of Christian books can be quite forced – more sermon than story – but the rhythm and rhyme of God Made Me and You carries us along. There so much to love in this fantastic book, from the much-needed message, to the bright colorful pictures kids will love, to the fun bouncing rhymes that make it great fun for mom and dad to read out loud. So two very enthusiastic thumbs up!

Linne has released a children's album, Jesus Kids, along with the book, and one track shares the same title as the book. You can hear some of the song in the book trailer below. You can also check out a 10-page excerpt from the book here.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Zoe's Hiding Place: When you are anxious

edited by David Powilson
illustrated by Joe Hox
32 pages / 2018

Children get anxious. This picture book, from the Christian Counseling and Educational Fund (CCEF) will help parents teach children how to deal with their fear and worry.

The story is about a little mouse named Zoe who's worried about a school trip to the art museum. The last time the class went, she became so fascinated by one painting that she lost track of where the rest of the group went. Then, when she looked up, no one was around, and "It felt like I was alone forever!" She's scared it will happen again. So now she's retreated to her hiding place – under the covers in her bed.

How can Zoe deal with her fear and worry? Her mom begins by listening. That's a good start. Then she explains to Zoe that what she is feeling is understandable. But when worry makes us feel like we're all alone, that's not true – God is always with us, and will never forsake us. Mom tells Zoe she can "turn each fear into a prayer" because God will help her. Her mom also helps Zoe think through ways she can stay with the group and not get separated.

 In the back of the book, the moral of the story is developed further with a two-page message to parents on "helping your child with anxiety." There the editor of this book, David Powilson – a very well-respected biblical counselor – has included a list of 10 "things to remember that will bring comfort to you and your child." Thoughts include:

  • Recognizing that in this world "We have good reason to be anxious and worried."
  • The most frequent command in the Bible is 'Don't be afraid.'
  • Reminding your child that the Lord has listening ears.

This is a wonderful book, meant for kids, but helpful for adults too. And the absolutely stunning pictures make this a pretty special morality tale. Yes, this is more an educational tool than an entertaining read. But it is a pretty entertaining read too. And the pictures are so fun to look at, a couple of my daughters have been paging through it regularly.

Two others

There are two other books in the CCEF's "Good News for Little Hearts" series.

Buster's Ears Trip Him Up is about dealing with failure. Buster is a speedy rabbit who thinks that winning is everything, so when his long ears trip him up and he loses the big race, he doesn't know how to deal with it. Fortunately, he has a big sister, and a wise father, who both know how to help him deal with failure. They remind him that God loved us before we had ever done anything so it really isn't about our accomplishments, but rather what Jesus accomplished on the cross.

Jax's Tail Twitches is about when we are angry. Jax is a squirrel whose big brother is pestering him and that makes him mad. What's worse, the neighbors next door are taking their nuts without asking, and that makes his dad mad. But even when there is good reason to be angry, our anger is, most often, the wrong response to that wrong situation. This is a lesson that mom and dad can certainly benefit from, even as we share it with our children.

Conclusion

I'd recommend Zoe's Hiding Place to any parents trying to help a child through worry or fear. With its firm grounding in Scripture, this will be a real help to both the child and the parent. For a 10-page preview of the book, you can check out this link here.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Finding Your True Identity

Classic Christianity
by Bob George
187 pages / 2010

Vivid
by Syd Hielema and Aaron Baart
130 pages / 2013

The communion of saints is a wonderful thing. First a brother-in-law, then my wife brought me two really good reads about who we are in Christ... and the difference that makes.

Bob George's Classic Christianity reminds Reformed Christians of what we already know, doctrinally - that our salvation is all of grace - but also of something we stress much less - that our relationship with God is about much more than salvation. George tells us that salvation (being saved from God's just judgment) is only the beginning of the story. We are not only given eternal life in the future, but are made alive in Christ's resurrection power right now. Our very identity has changed, because we know ourselves to be not only loved by God, but also unconditionally accepted as His adopted children, freed from slavery to the law, growing in grace.


Vivid makes many of the same points, but puts them in a more specific context - that of who we are not only in our personal relationship with God, but also in our role as workers in His kingdom. Here are some of the more thought-provoking insights:
  • Knowing God through His Son takes us from the counterfeit kingdom of Satan to the blessed kingdom of Christ.
  • Life in the kingdom, at various times in our lives (sometimes on the same day), is like a playground, a workshop, a battlefield, and an intensive care unit.
  • Even as we move through these aspects of kingdom life, God reveals our new identity by changing our desires, our character, our emotions, and our imaginations.
  • Changing our imaginations releases us from the foolishness of the American dream.
  • We can further the work of the Spirit in our transformation by cultivating spiritual disciplines, (which do not come in a one-size-fits-all form).
  • As we continue to be transformed by God, our calling becomes clearer - a calling which is more than a job, a calling which glories in the small things.
  • Like Jesus' original disciples, we are the "sent ones," so let us just go!
The only false note in the book is the use of "Pastor Rita" as one of the examples of life in the kingdom - an example consistent with the denominational background of one of the authors - but not consistent with Biblical revelation on the role of women in the church.

If you think that knowing more about who you are in Christ will make a difference now, and for your future, you can get Classic Christianity here (and here in Canada), and Vivid you can get from the Dordt College library.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Jonathan Edwards

by Simonetta Carr

64 pages / 2014

With Jonathan Edwards Simonetta Carr continues her series of picturebook "Christian biographies for young readers." This is one of 13 so far.

Two hundred years after Luther and Calvin, God used the Connecticut-born Jonathan Edwards to bring a Reformation of sorts to churches on this side of the ocean too. At the time there were many who professed to be believers, but who had no hatred of their own sins, and saw no real need to fight them. Then here came Edwards, preaching about the coming wrath of God against sin. Now, he preached on much more than this, but it was his fire and brimstone sermons that God used to spark a revival and shake people out of their ambivalence.

Edwards' "Sinners in the hands of an angry God" sermon is famous, as is his story about a spider dangling over a fire, which illustrates our own precarious state when we haven't yet reconciled with God. But the rest of his life isn't well known. People think, based on his "angry God" sermon that Edwards was all hell and damnation but as Carr shows, that wasn't at all true. She presents Edwards as a nature-loving young man as curious about science as he was about God's Word. The two, to him, seemed a natural fit.

Carr commissioned a dozen full-page color paintings to illustrate the book and makes use of a couple dozen other pictures to make this a true picture book – every two-page spread has a picture or two. It is also an attractively bound book, making this something that can be passed from one generation to the next. And she has summarized Edwards' life in a clear and compelling fashion.

That said, this is not a book that most children will readily pull off the shelf. It is beautiful, but it's not about cute cartoon mice, and it doesn't have bright garish colors so it will have a hard time competing with everything else out to grab children's attention. But while this one might not be the right choice for a present from grandma and grandpa, it is a book that every Christian school should own and every Church history teacher will be able to put to good use – it is a fantastic educational resource that makes learning about Edwards easy.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914


by John Hendrix
40 pages / 2014

I was raised with stories of the Dutch Resistance and the Canadian liberators fighting against the brutal Nazis – war, it seemed, had clear villains and obvious heroes. Later, though, I learned that right and wrong in war can be far more confusing: for example, in recent years we’ve seen US-backed groups fighting other US-backed groups in Syria.

John Hendrix’s Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914 presents parents with a tool to give our children a more nuanced understanding of war.

In a style that is halfway between realistic and cartoon, the author tells us the events of Dec. 24 and 25, 1914. On the day of Christmas Eve, 1914, all along the frontlines, the shooting slowed, and that night the Germans could be heard singing Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht– “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Then the next morning, on Christmas Day, in spots up and down the frontlines, German, British, and French troops spontaneously came out of their trenches and celebrated Christmas together.

Then the next day they resumed trying to kill one another.

Does that make this book sound anti-war? I’d say it is more an underscoring of just how horrible war is. Fighting is sometimes necessary, which is why we are grateful for the courage of the Dutch Resistance and the Allied forces in World War II, who understood that stopping the Nazis was worth risking, and even giving, their lives. We need to remember their sacrifice because it was noble, and selfless, and good.

But if war gives us examples to admire and imitate, there is also much that is foolish, and which we should learn to avoid. To give our children a more complete understanding of war, we need to show them that there are those who, under the guise of patriotism, rush to war, even though war should always be a last resort. There are leaders who do not treat their young men’s lives as precious, and World War One is an example of that right up to the last day when 11,000 soldiers died in fighting that occurred after the peace treaty was signed. Commanders who sent their men out on offensives on that last day – some from our side – should be remembered as murderers.

Shooting at the Stars is a gentle way of teaching the ethical complexities of war. It is gentle in that no blood or gore is seen (making this suitable for maybe Grade Three and up). The most war-like illustration occurs on a two-page spread where we see three corpses, as soldiers on both sides work together to bury their dead. What is striking is simply that there were men on both sides who could praise God together one day and fight to the death the next. That is a shocking bit of history. And it needs to be remembered.