Monday, September 14, 2020

Why Pro-Life?

Caring for the Unborn and Their Mothers

by Randy Alcorn
172 pages / Eternal Perspective Ministries / 2012

Randy Alcorn has written a much longer pro-life book called Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments, but while I would recommend it highly as a pro-life reference work, at 455 pages, it's a bit much to take in in a short period.

Why Pro-Life?, on the other hand, is an excellent concise call to love both mother and child in a crisis pregnancy. Randy Alcorn's book was originally published in 2004 (available as a free PDF at the last link below), but it was updated in 2012. Both editions include sections on the following:

  1. The Basics;
  2. The Child;
  3. The Woman;
  4. Other Important Issues; and
  5. Spiritual Perspectives and Opportunities.
The 2012 edition updates every chapter and adds the following:
  • the chapter " Do Birth Control Pills Cause Abortion?"
    (an issue that has also been recently covered here); as well as
  • appendices on
    • Abortion in the Bible and Church History;
    • Biblical Passages Relevant to Life Issues; and 
    • Talking Points for Communicating the Pro-Life Message.
Both Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments and Why Pro-Life? are typically insightful looks at an important issue from Randy Alcorn, but the latter will be invaluable for both those skeptical of the pro-life position and those who are new to the pro-life movement.

If you want a clearer understanding of how to be pro-life for both mother and child, or want to expose someone else to the pro-life perspective, you can get the 2004 version of Why Pro-Life? for free here or buy the 2012 edition on Amazon.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Henry says good-bye

When you are sad
by Jocelyn Flenders
edited by Edward T. Welch

32 pages / 2019

This book is part of an excellent series put out by the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF) called "Good News for Little Hearts." Each title addresses an area of counseling that might be of use to "little hearts" and in this one the issue is grieving the loss of a loved one.

Of course, they don't tackle it head-on – that would be abrupt, and too distressing for the very children the book is intended to help. So instead of a person, we have Henry, a little hedgehog, and instead of the loss of a relative, he is trying to deal with the death of his pet ladybug Lila. Sad and angry, and he doesn't want to be around his other friends, whose pets are all still alive. But what his parents model is how to take our grief to God. Henry's dad shares relevant Bible passages, pointing his son to the God who has promised to one day dry every tear.

It is a wonderful book, and brilliantly illustrated. It would probably be most useful if read before there was a need, but even after the death of a pet, or of a loved relative, the book's Scripture citations, and instructions for parents found in the back, will be incredibly helpful.

Overall I would recommend it to parents of children 5-10.


Friday, August 21, 2020

God made me unique

Helping Children see Value in Every Person

by Joni Eareckson Tada and friends
32 pages / 2019

Everyone is unique, but some of us are more unique than others. So how do we teach our children to embrace and include others who might act differently, or who might have different needs than their own? 

This little picture book could be helpful for parents and teachers by making the unusual less surprising. The book is set in a classroom right before a new student with special needs is going to join them. The class is already made up of students who have disabilities and challenges, and by showing some of the many ways we can be different from one another – a child in leg braces, one in a motorized wheelchair, another who is deaf, and one who wears headphones because she doesn’t like loud noises – our own children can get used to the idea that unique isn’t that unusual after all. But this title’s most important point, made repeatedly, is that we are all made in God’s image.

Bright colors and rhyming text make this an attractive for reading aloud with a class. I don’t know if it is the sort of book children will read repeatedly on their own, so that might make it more of a church and school purchase, where it can be borrowed, rather than something every parent will want to get. 

Friday, August 14, 2020

In the Face of God: The Dangers and Delights of Spiritual Intimacy

by Michael Horton
241 pages / 1996

If you have watched or read about the video American Gospel: Christ Alone (reviewed here), then Michael Horton's book will be a great way to pursue in greater depth the vital issue of what true worship and intimacy with God really means.

The video American Gospel reveals how the proponents of the "word of faith" doctrines are preaching a false gospel that promises deliverance not from sin, Satan, and God's just judgment, but from suffering - in this life. Horton, twenty years earlier, traces the roots of the word of faith errors in the heresy of gnosticism.

Gnosticism promises salvation through direct knowledge of the spiritual realm, knowledge outside of what God reveals in His inspired word, the Bible. This pursuit of spiritual enlightenment is part of the sell job behind the very first sin: "You shall be like God, knowing good and evil."

Horton says that in gnosticism, faith becomes magic - a way to manipulate God or spiritual power. At the same time, gnosticism rejects the goodness of matter, focusing instead on the inward journey into your own spirit. Just as in the New Testament period, such rejection of the body and the world leads to either extreme asceticism or extreme hedonism. In the evangelical world, gnosticism can be seen in the focus on individual fulfilment and the rejection of church authority.

So how does one commune with God? Horton stresses that we cannot approach God on our own, because of our sin and His holiness. Instead, whoever has seen Jesus Christ - the Son of God, and the savior from sin - has seen God the Father, and the only way to see Christ - and to live in Him - is through the means of grace God has provided: the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments. Any other "way to God" - like the tower of Babel or the so-called righteousness of the Pharisees - brings us under God's wrath.

Horton calls the attempt to "touch God" under our own steam the "theology of glory," borrowing the term from Luther, who heartily condemned it. Only the "theology of the cross" can save us - the knowledge of and trust in the work of the One who suffered the cross for us. Instead of seeking to climb up to God, we need to rejoice in the God who came down to us in Christ.

Two appendices add a great deal to Horton's argument. The first compares focus on the self of the contemporary Christian music of Horton day (the 1990s) to the focus on the objective truth of Christ's work in classic Christian hymns. One can see the same problems with sentimentalism and emotionalism in much of the music on Christian radio today.

Appendix B is the most useful. Having shown the problems with modern gnosticism, Horton answers a number of questions about what the church needs - Biblical liturgy, Christ-centered preaching, the administration of the sacraments, a Biblical structure of church governance, and a proper understanding of God's work of providence versus His work of miracles. Although this section would be extremely beneficial for the consideration of someone seeking a more Biblical way to follow Christ, there are a few potential rough spots in this how-to guide - the use of terms like common and saving grace, invisible and visible church, as well as a perhaps overly broad view of interchurch fellowship.

The only other major problem with the book relates to its age. The end of my edition promotes the work of Christians United for Reformation - a group that no longer exists under that name. However, Horton's summary of the organization's basis - the five solas of the Reformation, as well as the idea of the priesthood of the believer - is still a great defense of the Reformers' doctrines.

If you want to know more about the dangers and delights of spiritual intimacy, you can find it here      and here in Canada.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Pro-life kids!

by Bethany Bomberger
48 pages / 2019

What I most liked about this book is that my kids just picked it up and started reading it. This is the sort of book they really ought to read – it is educational, teaching them about the unborn, about what they can do to stand up for these babies, and about how the unborn are being dehumanized by those that want to kill them – but educational doesn't always mean enjoyable. So it was a very pleasant surprise to find out this one hit both marks.

Illustrator Ed Koehler’s bright colors got them to open it in the first place, and then author, Bethany Bomberger’s rhyming text kept their attention. One example:
Sadly there are those who don’t understand
That life has a purpose whether planned or unplanned
Throughout history many believed a lie.
“You’re not a person! No way!” they cried
Today many people think that lie is still true
That babies in wombs aren’t people too….
After describing the problem, the book concludes with a rallying cry for all the readers to be
…pro-life kids ‘til in justice ends!
We are pro-life kids. It’s life we defend!
I’d highly recommend this for every school or church library!


Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Noah

by Mark Ludy
60 pages / 2014

Mark Ludy's wordless account of Noah's life will fascinate young and old. There's so much to see on every page, and the wordless nature of it invites parent and child to discuss all that's going on.

The danger with such an account is that for some it might come to replace the original biblical version. As children pore over this picture book's pages repeatedly, they could easily forget that even as it is reasonable to believe Noah might have made use of the strength of a dinosaur or two, the Bible doesn't actually say he did.

But what such a book can also do is help us re-evaluate some other non-biblical assumptions we might have inadvertently adopted.

Noah's wife is shown here as a lighter colored black, while Noah himself is maybe Grecian, Roman, or perhaps Sicilian. What both most certainly are not – and what they most probably were not – is a British or Scandanavian sort of white. That might bring questions for the many a child and adult who, having grown up with picture Bibles that have a white Adam and Eve, and a white Jesus too, have presumed Noah was white as well. But it is more likely that Adam, Eve, and maybe many of the generations that followed had some sort of middle brown skin, as that genetic coding can contain within it the possibility of both darker and lighter skin in the generations that follow.

Another corrective: while evolutionary theory portrays Man as being much simpler back in history, the Bible details some big advances being made from one generation to the next (Genesis 4:20-22). They were no primitive dummies so it is helpful to see Noah shown as living in a fairly advanced level of industry and technology. They aren't in a rocket age, but they also aren't living in caves either.
Finally, we also get a good idea of the sheer magnitude of the Ark, correcting the silly bathtub toy picture some might have stuck in their heads.

This is not a book that we shouldn't ever let overshadow the biblical account, but when we put it in its proper place – like that of a commentary that helps us reflect on what Genesis 6-9 is actually saying – then it can be a wonderful aid.

I will offer a couple of critiques: while there's a dinosaur and some mammoths to be seen working on the ark's construction, neither can be found in it. Also, while animals two by two can be seen making their way to the ark, there don't seem to be any groups of 7 (Genesis 7:2). Of course, we don't see every animal arrive, so maybe we just missed those, and they'll be found in any expanded future edition of the book.

So who is this for? We probably all think of picture books as being for children, but I really think everyone will love it, from ages 3 on up to 103!

You can take an extended peek here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr.

by Kirsten A. Jenson
2017 / 40 pages

Talking with our kids about pornography on the Internet is not a conversation any parent wants to have. But we need to do it. So when I saw this book online I ordered a copy, thinking it might make things easier.

And it did. Once I put it to use.

Amazon delivered it quickly, as is their custom, but then it sat on the shelf for probably half a year. I don't know why it took me so long, but this last week, I looked up from my computer one summer vacation morning to find all of my young charges in my office together reading. I love the company...at least when they are quiet. But this time around they were twitching and tapping and whistling and chatting, making my work impossible. It was either time to chase them back down the stairs or...time to read a book together. So, I finally got to it.

Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr. is best suited for children from 4 to 7. In my case, my audience consisted of one in that range and two above it, but it worked because the older two were just listening in. I had tried the original version intended for 8 and up (with the same title, but lacking the "Jr.") with my oldest, and found it really helpful, but on the long side. We'd gotten interrupted 15 minutes in, and only about a quarter into the book and we've never gotten back to it since. While I do intend to read it with her at some point, this picture book version of the same message was a good substitute for now.

The book, after all, is just meant as a prompt for the discussion parents need to have with their kids. So as we read along, we all did a lot of talking. The book could probably be covered in just 5 minutes, but the discussion took at least another 15.

First, we learned about how there are pictures all over, on our walls, on billboards, and on screens too. Some are good pictures, like pictures of puppies or family pictures or fun videos. "But some pictures," the author informs us, "are not good. They are bad for you." The definition given of a bad picture is very clear, and very G-rated: "Bad pictures show the parts of the body that we cover with a swimsuit. These parts are meant to be kept private."

In response to this page, one daughter brought up a billboard, where the "lady wasn't wearing many clothes." We discussed how it was good to bring that up with mom or dad, and that we'd want her and her sisters to wear more clothes than that. It also gave me an opportunity to go over the book's helpful definition of bad pictures and how this example both kind of fit but kind of didn't.

I'd recommend Good Pictures, Bad Pictures jr. for any parent, but note that if you don't already read to your kids regularly, don't launch into this one as one of your first. There was a reason I took so long to get to it: it is a weird topic. But what made it a lot less weird was that we do regularly read together, and talk about what we're reading.

So, two thumbs up for this great tool to help parents with an absolutely vital conversation.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

C. S. Lewis: Creator of Narnia

by Sam Wellman
202 pages / 2013

This biography of C. S. Lewis is part of the Heroes of the Faith series, which engage readers in the highlights of the lives of significant leaders in Christian history. Given the title of the series, you could predict that this book would not be an in-depth look at the strengths and weaknesses of C. S. Lewis's ideas, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how well the author caught the personal foibles and motivations of the title character.

Although (strangely) the cover and spine of my edition did not even give the name of the author of the biography, Sam Wellman skillfully shows how Jack (Lewis's nickname since childhood) went from a nominally Christian upbringing through a full-fledged embrace of atheism to being Surprised by Joy (his young self's hint at the reality of transcendence). Along the way, Wellman gives us glimpses of the sources, experiences, and inspirations behind Jack's writing, starting with his pre-Christian poetry, and progressing to his defense of and understanding of his Christian faith.

Wellman also shows us how Lewis was associated with other Christian writers, both influenced by and influencing them, including the famous Inklings. He portrays Jack's personal relationships with his father, with Mrs. Moore (the mother of a fellow soldier killed in World War I); with Jack's brother Warnie; and with Joy Gresham, the woman he eventually married. Wellman makes clear how Jack was an honorable man whose Christian faith enabled him to ignore personal attacks by unfair critics, but also demonstrates that Jack had to struggle with sinful weaknesses like the rest of us.

Anything missing from the book? As I mentioned above, Wellman does not critique his subject's ideas, and once or twice, in focusing on the critical and popular reactions to Lewis's book, gives some books less appreciation than I felt that they deserved. However, Wellman does often clarify the goals of Lewis's writing through thoughtful discussion of brief excerpts.

Wellman's biography will provide the younger or inexperienced reader of Lewis's writing with an overview of why and what he wrote, and may well encourage readers to check out more of his work.
If you would like to learn about how C. S. Lewis became the creator of Narnia (and Boxen, and much else), you can find this book here, and here in Canada. (There is also a shorter biography of Lewis by the same author entitled C. S. Lewis: A Lion for Truth, which I have not read, but which may be suitable for younger readers.)

Thursday, June 25, 2020

In Grandma's Attic

by Arleta Richardson
144 pages / 1974

When Arleta was a little girl she would visit her grandma, where she’d play up in the attic. There Arleta would find old treasures that she’d bring to her grandma, who would share stories about them, and about when she was young.

The first story is about how Mabel (Grandma) and her friend Sarah-Jane got into trouble with hoop skirts. They wanted to wear the wiry hoops to make all their friends jealous of them, but they were not old enough yet. Then Sarah Jane finds out that her cousin, who can wear hoop skirts, has two old ones that she is going to give up.  Sarah-Jane’s mom says that they can wear them for play, but Sarah-Jane thinks it is a good opportunity to make a big entrance at church. And that Mabel can wear one of the hoop skirts too!

The one thing that they don’t know is how to sit down with hoops. When they walk down the aisle and sit in the front seat, the hoopskirts spring up, which made their dresses fling up onto their faces! That is super funny! This was embarrassing for the girls but they also learned a lesson, how pride can go before the fall.

All of the stories are funny and also teach the reader the lessons that the mischievous girls gained while growing up. This book is great for readers who are comfortable with reading chapter books. And if you like these stories there are three more books in the series.

– Sophia Dykstra

Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy

by Nancy Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton
298 pages / 1994

I have reviewed another book in the Turning Points Christian Worldview series:  Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature. The series ended in the 1990s, but it has held up well since then. The book I am reviewing was the second-last book in the series. Because it surveys a broad swath of the history of science, Pearcey and Thaxton's analyis is still relevant.

Pearcey and Thaxton begin by demonstrating that far from being opposed by religion, has been founded on, especially, the Christian faith in the orderliness and rationality of the universe being guaranteed by the orderly, rational work of its Creator. The next chapter summarizes various approaches to the history of science - either judging early scientists by modern standards or recognizing their accomplishments in comparison to the knowledge and commonly held concepts they had in their own time.

Looking at "The First Scientific Revolution," Pearcey and Thaxton first show how various schools of philosophy would form the basis for later scientific endeavor - following the Aristotelian, neo-Platonic, and mechanistic. They stress that even classic Newtonian physics, which seems to treat the world as a vast clockwork, was not purely mechanistic. In the same way, biology was gripped by the tension between "romantic" biologists (inspired by neo-Platonism), and descriptive biology (inspired by Aristotles emphasis on function and purpose). Darwin later imposed a mechanistic frame of reference on biology in his rejection of purpose for life's functions.

Pearcey and Thaxton's discussion of mathematics discloses just how important the belief in the orderliness of creation was in inspiring the pursuit of mathematical knowledge, but how the lack of confidence in that orderliness (because of the rejection of God as the one who created that order) has led to a loss of confidence in mathematics in general. Along the way, they look at such fascinating concepts as non-Euclidean geometry, Godel's paradox, set theory, and exactly what truth means in mathematics.

Finally, the two authors' look at "The Second Scientific Revolution" looks at the mind-boggling insights and paradoxes of relativity, quantum physics, and the information revolution that links chemistry and biology. The last one is the most important, as it makes clear how God shows his presence in the ordered and irreducible complexity of life and its information content.
It is important to recognize that Pearcey and Thaxton are surveying the various religious foundations of science, not specifically justifying the Christian understanding of creation. Nor does the basis of our Christian faith, Jesus Christ Himself, form a part of their discussion; however, there is an extensive list of resources at the end for those who wish to pursue the subject further. For a more specifically Biblical look at science, check this review of The Divine Challenge: On Matter, Mind, Math, and Meaning.

If you would like to explore The Soul of Science, you can find it here, and here in Canada.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Prince Martin wins his sword









by Brandon Hale
52 pages / 2018

At bedtime, my dad reads a lot of books to us – me and my two sisters. One night he read a rhyming book called Prince Martin Wins His Sword, and we all liked it. Prince Martin is a boy who wants to prove to his father the king that he is brave, loyal, and true. So he decides to explore the unknown forest, and while he was there he found four evil hogs who were bullying a baby deer. And there was a dog there too, protecting the fawn. And the dog was a knight, named Sir Ray! Prince Martin was scared, but then he dove right in, fighting side by side with Sir Ray.

The rhymes in the book are like this:
Should he help or go home, the boy had to decide.
And just how much help, could a mere kid provide?
It has lots of good pictures, but even without the pictures, the book is super good (I didn’t see the pictures the first time because I was in bed). Also, my little six-year-old sister doesn’t really like tension, and while this one was scary it wasn’t too scary.

I think this would be great for kids ages five through ten.

– Sophia Dykstra

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Fight: A Practical Handbook for Christian Living

by John White
1976 / 230 pages

We have already reviewed other books by John White, both fiction and non-fiction. This is another great non-fiction look at what it means to live the Christian life, which means to fight the good fight.

In White's fantasy series, the Archives of Anthropos, the protagonists fight evil in a world somewhat like Narnia. The Fight shows the spiritual fight that Christians must engage in, if they want to be faithful followers of their commander Jesus Christ.

White begins by showing how radically our allegiance has changed from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of Christ. The next nine chapters deal with the impact of that change in the following areas:
  • "Prayer" as the expression of our relationship with God;
  • Bible study as our way to hear God speaking to us;
  • how "Being a Signpost" points others to our Savior;
  • what it means that the devil is now our enemy;
  • how we grow in "Faith" by responding to God;
  • our "Changed Relationships" with others;
  • the way to know God's "Guidance";
  • how we can progressively reflect more of God's "Holiness"; and
  • our "Deliverance from Drudgery" in our daily work.
White ends by encouraging us to fight against the devil, the world, our own flesh, and our fear of death. Two things make this a particularly helpful book. The first is that as a practicing psychologist, White reminds us not to confuse our natural emotions and desires or false guilt with genuine progress or setbacks in our relationship with God - and then directs us, through Scripture, to the truth about our spiritual fight. The second is that most of the chapters end with a study of Scripture that make a good focus for intensely practical devotions.

The only caution I might give is that, in a couple places, White may sound Arminian; however, when that happens,  he demonstrates within a few pages, that God is the one who enables us to get into the battle. If you think that John White can help you in The Fight, you can get his book here, and here in Canada.


Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Hunger Winter












by Rob Currie
2020 / 236 pages

Author Rob Currie drops his readers right into the action in the opening scene, with an anxious neighbor furiously banging on the front door to tell 13-year-old Dirk Ingelse that the Nazis have his older sister. And they'll be coming for him next! It's November 11, 1944, and while the Allies have started liberating the Netherlands, the Ingelse farmstead near Oosterbeek, is still under German control. What makes it even more difficult for Dirk is that he has no one to turn to. His mother had suddenly passed away not too long before, and his father is in hiding, working for the Resistance.  That's left just him and his older sister Els to take care of their six-year-old sister Anna. Now Els has been arrested, and Dirk has to run. But where to? That's when he remembers his Tante Cora less than a half day's walking away.

The book is, in a sense, one big chase with Dirk doing his best to keep his sister safe, finding brief moments of calm, and then having to run again. Dirk shows himself to be a clever boy, and daring even despite his fears, as he finds hidings spots, and escape opportunities, and even figures out how best to fight the Nazis who are after them. As we follow along with Dirk and Anna, we also get occasional peaks into how Els is doing, facing her Gestapo interrogators.

In another way, this is all about Dirk trying to live up to the example his father set for him. He has a good dad who invested in him by spending time with him, so even though Dirk doesn't have his dad around right when he most needs him, the teen is constantly hearing his dad's advice come back to him whenever he needs to make another decision.

CAUTION

There are no cautions to list, but maybe I'll note one disappointment: for a book by a Christian author, and put out by a Christian publisher, I would have expected God to be more than a minor character. Even as the importance of prayer is mentioned with some regularity, God Himself is not. Maybe the author is trying to portray a journey in Dirk's relationship with God, going from nominally Christian at the beginning – he doesn't pray, except at his little sister's insistence – to something at least a little deeper at the end. But God's near-absence is odd, especially considering this is a book about people in life and death circumstances.

CONCLUSION

That said, this is an intriguing, entertaining, and fast-paced story, with the whole book taking place over just three weeks. And while there are some tense moments, it all gets tied up nice and neatly, making this a great book for ages 10 to maybe 14. The Netherlands setting will appeal to the many RP readers who have a Dutch background, and the time period – the "Hunger Winter" of 1944-45, when Allies hadn't yet liberated all the Dutch, and the Germans weren't bothering to feed them – is one that teens may not have read too much about before. So there's a lot of reasons this is a very interesting read.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020
















A graphic narrative of a slave's journey from bondage to freedom
by David F. Walker 
Illustrated by Damon Smyth 
2018 / 173 pages

Frederick Douglass lived his first 20 years as a slave, then spent the next 25 speaking against the evils of slavery. After the American Civil War and the emancipation of American slaves, he spent his last 30 years fighting the bigotry that still lingered. And in his final decade, defying all social expectations of the time, he married a white woman, Helen Pitts.

While a graphic novel biography can't do this complicated figure full justice – the man himself wrote three separate autobiographies in the attempt – the size of this one, and the evident research backing it make for a very good introduction to its subject. As we follow his life, from plantation to town, to escape to the North, we get to meet along with him key figure in the American battle to end slavery. He knew Harriet Tubman, the lady who repeatedly ventured to the South to bring slaves to freedom in the North. John Brown hid at his house after the white abolitionist's unsuccessful attempt to start the Civil War some six years before it eventually began. Douglass was both an opponent and then an ally to Lincoln, due to largely Lincoln's vacillating opposition to slavery. Later he became a friend and then an enemy of women's rights advocate Susan B. Anthony, the change of relationship due this time to a compromise by Douglass when he decided to support black's voting rights even when they no longer came as a package deal with women's voting rights.

This is quite the story, and it is well told.

CAUTIONS

Its important readers understand that some of what's depicted is deduction, and not clearly established fact. But a read of the introduction will help readers tell what's what.

A word of warning is due for at least a couple uses of the "n-word" in the book, though with the topic matter, that is as you might expect.

There is also some partial nudity. None of it sexual, and it could even be described as modestly done: one scene is a black woman being whipped, naked from the waist up, but her front is either away from view, or hid in the shadows. There are also three completely naked slaves shown, but all are hunched over, in a seated, almost fetal position with arms wrapped around their knees so no genitals are shown, though the top of one's buttocks is.

The overarching concern would be the brutality. There is no gratuitous violence - but there is violence.

Finally, while we get to hear Douglass debate with himself about how slavery should be fought, and whether violence was warranted or not, and whether it was right to compromise on the women's vote, we aren't offered any other perspective. So readers will have to apply their own biblical lens to this for themselves.

Altogether that would make this a book for older teens maybe 14 and up.

CONCLUSION

The target audience for this book, teens, aren't always fans of history books, perhaps because they've been exposed to too many of the wrong sort, texts that make it all about dates and names. What a joy it is, then, to discover a page-turning biography like this. The Frederick Douglass we meet here, while not exhaustively explored, is fleshed out, and consequently memorable. We've now met him, and won't forget him.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did

by Randy Newman
2004 / 269 pages

If you have read Greg Koukl's book Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, you will appreciate an earlier book that covers much of the same ground. Randy Newman's Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did deals more explicitly with developing relationships based on sensitive questions - and answers both wise and compassionate to the questions of non-Christians both genuine and obstructive.

Newman starts by justifying the use of questions in evangelism, by appealing both to the example of Jesus Himself and to the guidance of Proverbs. His use of Proverbs is one of the strengths of the book in Part 2.

Part 2 deals with "What Questions Are People Asking?" - questions like
  • why Christians are (seemingly) so intolerant, homophobic, or hypocritical;
  • why to worship a God who allows evil;
  • why the Bible is reliable; and
  • what's so great about marriage.
What makes Newman's discussion of these issues so valuable is that he distinguishes between the responses of the one who genuinely want to understand and the one whom Proverbs calls the fool.

Part 3 is the most penetrating: "Why Aren't Questions and Answers Enough?" Newman deals with roadblocks to our evangelism: our lack of compassion, our anger, or our compulsion to speak when silence is necessary (for instance, when dealing with people's pain - or their foolish arrogance).

Finally, the Epilogue reminds us that our personal relationships with non-Christians is the most significant factors in our witness to them, and a Study Guide pulls it all together.

The major caution I would give involves some of the references Newman makes - at least in my edition - to other authors or groups that are either not orthodox (Brian Maclaren) or as credible as they once were (Exodus Ministries); however, Newman's points don't depend on their support. I have not read the introduction by Lee Strobel (it was not in my edition), but the value of Strobel's support is weakened by his tacit acceptance of theistic evolution. As well, some of Newman's evangelistic questions in Part 3 may or may not be acceptable within a Reformed understanding of evangelism.

On the whole, though, Newman offers much food for thought, and much room for self-examination in an area of our Christian life that I certainly know I need to work more with. If you want to read about how to engage hearts the way Jesus did, you can find Randy Newman's book here, and here in Canada.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Animal Farm: The Graphic Novel

by George Orwell (and Odyr) 
2019 / 172 pages

For those that don’t know the original, Orwell wrote his allegory in World War II to highlight the dangers of creeping totalitarianism. Instead of a country, his setting is that of a farm, and instead of an oppressive government, things are run by Mr. Jones, who treats Manor Farm’s “citizens” – the pigs, horses, sheep, chickens, and more – like they were animals!

One night, Old Major, a pig respected by all, tells the others of his vision of a better world in which Man is overthrown and all the animals are free to benefit from their own labor. Two legs are the enemy, and all on four legs, or with wings, are treated as equal.

The animals embrace his vision, and when the old pig dies peacefully in his sleep, three younger pigs take it upon themselves to develop and expand on Old Major’s vision. They craft “Animalism” and appoint themselves as leaders of the movement. When the animals rebel against Farmer Jones, they successively drive him off and take over the farm.

The story that follows has clear parallels to that of the 1917 Russian Revolution, that began with noble-sounding aims – freedom from oppression, equality of all – but which quickly evolved into simply another form of totalitarianism. The animals find that, though they are free of the farmer, they aren’t free of having to follow orders. The pigs have them working harder than before, and they are fed no better. Their swine leaders are soon living in the farmer’s house and eating well. But they deserve it, right? After all, they need to be properly provided for, so they can provide direction! It soon becomes evident that while “all animals are equal…some animals are more equal than others.”

CAUTIONS

Because this is a graphic novel, there are a few pages of violent content depicted. But Odyr’s is a thick-line, smudged-pastel style, leaving the gory details mostly a blur. So while these pictures might be a bit much for a child, they are nothing that would disturb a teen.

The only other caution I’ll offer concerns the lesson being learned. Orwell was no Christian, so even as he makes a case against the godless tyranny of totalitarian rulers the world over, he isn’t able to offer a better alternative…so it is fortunate he doesn’t even propose one. However, that means Christian readers will have to do that work for themselves. We can agree with Orwell about the problem: that man has a bent for tyranny and that larger the government the more they can insert themselves into our lives (1 Samuel 8:10-22). But we also know there is a proper, though limited, role for government, specifically to punish evil (Romans 13:1-7).

CONCLUSION

This is a brilliant adaptation of Orwell’s classic work, with a mix of colorful and also stark images that will grab any reader’s attention. Odyr has made Animal Farm accessible to age groups and casual readers that might otherwise never read it.

While I highly recommend this as a gift for teens, it would be a waste to hand it off to your son or daughter and then leave it at that. Unless an adult helps them understand that message behind the story, they aren’t likely to see the real-world application, and will completely miss Orwell’s warning about the dangers of big governments of all sorts.


Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Divine Challenge: On Matter, Mind, Math, & Meaning

by John Byl
317 pages / 2004

The unfinished Tower of Babel on the front cover demonstrates the ultimate fate of our age's main attempt to challenge God's sovereignty over matter, mind, math and meaning. John Byl how materialistic naturalism seeks to establish a basis for human life apart from God, and demonstrates how it fails in the four key areas mentioned in the book's subtitle.

While I will outline Byl's argument below, what makes his work so compelling is how he sets up a debate between the proponents of naturalism and God Himself. Byl opens each chapter with quotations from famous naturalist thinkers counterpointed by quotations from God's word, the Bible. The rest of each chapter demonstrates how that debate has played out in naturalist thought and Christian understanding.

First Byl outlines the basics of a sound worldview, and then looks more specifically at the history and essential beliefs of naturalism. The next five chapters show how those beliefs impact naturalists' understanding of matter, mind, and math. After considering the failure of naturalism to find meaning in those three areas, Byl introduces the basic beliefs of the Christian worldview, and demonstrates how the Christian worldview brings meaning to the understanding of matter, mind, and math.

Finally, Byl concludes that because the Christian worldview, unlike the naturalist hypothesis, fits our natural, commonsense view of the world (matter), our own selves (mind), and our belief in infinity (math), it is uniquely able to withstand the onslaught of the chaos of post-modernism and paganism.

If you want to learn more about God's challenge to the secular quest to live life without Him, you can find John Byl's book here, and here in Canada.



Friday, February 21, 2020

Brave Ollie Possum

by Ethan Nicolle
373 pages / 2019

If you were ever a scaredy-cat, or if you might have one in your family, this could be a fun story to read together... though you might have to do so during the daytime, with all the lights on.

It's about nine-year-old Ollie Mackerelli, who is so afraid of things that go bump in the night that he's taken up permanent residence in his parents' bed. This is about how he learned to be brave. But his transformation doesn't happen quickly. Things start off with cowardly Ollie running to his parents' bedroom yet again to crawl under the sheets with them. That's a safe place to be, but it does come with a cost: three people in a double bed leave his dad with bags under his eyes and a scowl on his face. He wants to know when Ollie is going to grow up and stop being afraid of imaginary monsters. 

Then, mysteriously. Mizz Fuzzlebuzzle, a very strange, very large lady shows up at the Mackerellis' door. She offers to take their son to a "special go-away fun place where children like Ollie can be taken and all his fears will be gobbled up." Who is this lady? Her card says she specializes in "professional anti-scary therapy and comfortology." Desperate, the sleep-deprived parents hand off their son to the expert, hoping she'll be able to help.

But here's the twist: Mizz Fuzzlebuzzle isn't actually an expert in anti-scary therapy. She's actually an ogre. And all those bumps in the night? It's her pet monster making them. Ollie was right all along! But being right won't get him out of the clutches of this ogre. And to make matters worse, she wants to eat him. It turns out scared children are an ogre delicacy.

But despite being scared, Ollie gathers enough courage to spray the ogre with one of her own magic potions. Sadly, ogres aren't susceptible to magic potions. People are, though, so when the ogre spits the potion right back at him, Ollie is transformed into a creature that passes out in the face of danger: Ollie becomes a possum.

The rest of this rollicking tale is about Ollie, with the help of some animal friends, learning what true courage is: that it's not about being unafraid, but about facing our fears and going on anyway. The author of Brave Ollie Possum is one of the folks behind the Christian satire site Babylonbee.com so the book is every bit as funny as you might expect. Another highlight is the artwork. This is a full-size novel, but it could almost be called a picture book, with fantastic, fun illustrations every three pages or so.

CAUTION

The only caution I'll note is that this book about being brave is, at times, scary. I think it might be the book I am most looking forward to reading to my children, but there is no way I could read this as their bed-time story, or even in the middle of the day. I'm going to have to wait a bit, probably until they are all at least ten.

CONCLUSION

But for kids over ten, particularly boys, this will be so much fun. And for certain 9-year-old kids who are scared of what goes bump in the night, this could be a good day-time read with mom and dad to help a little one learn what being brave is all about.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Mission Statements: Two Books about What God's People Have to Offer the World

The Human Right:
To Know Jesus and to Make Him Known
by Rice Broocks
293 pages / 2018

What Is the Mission of the Church?
Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom,
and the Great Commission
by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert
283 pages / 2011

****

Is focusing on rights wrong? These two books explore whether the task of the church is to right wrongs, and secure rights; or whether instead, we must first of all witness to the right understanding of our need for Christ's righeousness before the face of God.

Rice Broocks's The Human Right contends that the most important human right is "the right to know Jesus Christ and to make Him known." There is a great deal of wisdom and inspiration in his affirmation of the necessity and power of the gospel to anchor and promote human rights. Vishal Mangalwadi's The Book That Made Your World covers similar territory by showing that the Bible changed Western civilization by showing the value of every human being as created in the image of God.

The problem with Broock's approach is not the foundation of his argument, but its direction. He moves from the desire for social justice in our world to the fact that such justice is best satisfied by the revelation God gives us in the Bible, to our own need for reconciliation with God in Christ through His satisfaction of the requirements of God's justice. Along the way, Broocks covers some compelling territory – the gospel as public truth, the reality of spiritual life, the authority of Scripture, the exclusivity of Christ, and the necessity to speak the gospel (not just "live" it) – but he ends, rather than begins, with the ministry of reconciliation and its fruit in the lives of believers.

DeYoung and Gilbert's book makes more clear the Biblical, rather than pragmatic, foundation for a missional approach to the gospel that begins with proclaiming the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ. They carry this out by:
  • defining the word mission in relation to the church;
  • outlining the Biblical narrative of God's work in redeeming his lost people;
  • clarifying the relationship of Christ's redemptive rule, social justice, and the Biblical concept of shalom to the task of the church;
  • describing the right motivations for doing good works, both as individuals and as churches; and
  • affirming the necessity of the gospel of the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ.
DeYoung and Gilbert end with advice for the young, motivated, and missional that demonstrates how passionate pastors should approach their congregations.

All in all, What Is the Mission of the Church points the way toward a Christian passion for, first, the saving work of Christ, and, as a result, the love of the world over which Christ has established His reign.

If you want to explore Rice Broocks' contention that the human right is to know Jesus and to make him known, you can find his book here in the US, and here in Canada. If you want to know how to make sense of social justice, shalom, and the Great Commission, you can find the book by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert here in the US, and here in Canada.

Friday, February 7, 2020

The Winter King

by Christine Cohen
351 pages / 2019

15-year-old Cora lives in a time of horses, and swords, and meat pies. It's also a time of poverty, and bitter winters, and threadbare clothing, and not enough food to make it through to Spring. To make things even worse, ever since Cora’s father was killed, the village has treated her and her family as if they are cursed, and as if that curse is contagious.

But no matter, Cora is resourceful, and she’ll do just about anything to ensure her family lives through the winter. But how does a young girl stand up, by her lonesome, to the village god, the tyrannical Winter King, who is taking their food?

I didn’t know quite what to think of this book in the early stages. While the village other villagers were religious, Cora was not. And she was the hero. So how was this a Christian book, then, if the god in the story seemed to be the bad guy? Well, as Douglas Wilson noted in his own review, this is a very Protestant book in that Cora rejects a false religion in favor of the true one. She rejects the false representation of the Winter King that the village’s religious authorities maintain. But then she uncovers a book that tells a very different story about this King, presenting instead, a God who loves.

CAUTIONS 

Cora is bitter and sometimes manipulative, and so driven to keep her family fed that she does stuff that she should not. There's good reason for her desperation – death is reaching for her whole family – but that it is understandable makes it tricky ground for the younger reader to tread. This is not a heroine in a white hat, and for the pre-teen, or even younger teen reader, used to simpler morality tales, they might not have the discernment skills yet to be able to cheer on a hero whose actions are not always praiseworthy.

I feel like I'm making Cora sound darker than she is. There is surely darkness in her – but there is also a darkness around her that she is fighting, futilely at first. But then hope comes.

CONCLUSION

From the cover to even the way the pages are laid out, this is a gorgeous book, with a deep and satisfying story. I'd recommend it for 15 and up, but I know adults will find this has real depth to it that they'll enjoy exploring.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Seraph’s Path

by Neil Dykstra
2019 / 475 pages

Maybe this is a bit odd to review, what with me sharing the same last name as the author. But this is a fantasy title, so I had to take a peek. And once I got started I wasn’t going to hand it off. Besides, the two of us aren’t actually related. I know Neil, but only well enough to recall he is the superior volleyball player, and nowhere near well enough to have had an inkling he could serve up something like this. It’s remarkable!

The Seraph’s Path has quite the cast of characters, but it is mostly the story of Dyrk, a young horse trainer who wants to make something of himself, in part, because his parents don’t seem to think about him much at all. Our story begins with Dyrk determined to enter a competition his father won’t even let him watch. Somehow he finagles his way in, and reaches the final round, a free-for-all among 16 mounted soldiers-in-training, with the last man standing guaranteed entry into the King’s own College. I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that for every good thing that happens to Dyrk something bad soon follows…and vice versa.

The wonder of fantasy fiction is that anything can happen. Young children can open a wardrobe and get transported to a world of talking beasts. Or little fellows with hairy feet can be trusted with a mission that the most powerful could never accomplish. Or a horse trainer can suddenly find himself delivering the mail mounted on a flying tarn.

The problem with fantasy fiction is just the same: anything can happen. That means if the author doesn’t have a tight hold on the reins the story can run amuck, and quickly lose all connection with the real world. If you haven’t read much fantasy, you might think a world of dragons, gryphons, and flaming swords couldn’t possibly ring true. But the author has pulled it off. In The Seraph’s Path, Dyrk doesn’t understand the opposite sex, and he’s prone to dig himself deeper via ongoing procrastination, and then he can’t figure out how best to ask for forgiveness. There’s something very real about this made-up world.

I was also impressed with how patient the author is and I’ll give one example. In this world, the god Arren is served by seven Seraphs. Dyrk sends his prayers via those angelic servants because he thinks Arren is too holy to approach directly. If that strikes you as Roman Catholic-esque, I’d agree. But isn’t Dyrk our hero? So how can he, via his repeated prayers, be teaching us something so very wrong? Well, a few hundred pages in Dyrk has his first encounter with people who talk to Arren directly. And he doesn’t know what to think about that.  By the end of this book, the issue is still unresolved, but our hero has been given something to think about.

CAUTION

I can only think of one caution worth noting. At one point a key character faces sexual temptation, and while the passage is not lurid – there’s nothing here that would make grandma blush – it is sad and realistic enough that pre-teen readers might find it distressing.

CONCLUSION

Dykstra has engaged in some downright Tolkien-esque world-building, with not only exotic creatures and nations to discover, but layer upon layer of legend and history shaping the events. If you never made it through The Hobbit, or you haven’t read a fantasy book with a glossary in the back to help you keep track of the characters, then this might be too intense a read for you.

But if you want a whole new world to explore, and a story that’ll not only entertain but really get you thinking, you’re going to love The Seraph’s Path. I finished this nearly 500-page tome in 3 days, and the only downside to it was the cliff-hanger ending. So I was very happy to discover that the 700-page sequel, The Seraph’s Calling has just been released. I look forward to finding out what happens next!

You can buy both books at Amazon.com and Amazon.ca.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Hyperinflation Devastation

by Connor Boyack
400 pages / 2019

Remember those “Choose Your Own Adventure” kids loved back in the 1980s? Readers would be brought to a fork in the road, given two options to choose from and if they chose Option A, they would be told to go to one page, and if they chose Option B then they would be directed to another. Afterward, they would continue on their chosen track with the adventure continuing to branch repeatedly thereafter.

In The Hyperinflation Devastation, author Connor Boyack has taken that concept and expanded on it, creating a 400+ page “Choose Your Consequence” adventure to teach teens various lessons about economics. 

In this, the first book in the series, Emily and Ethan Tuttle, a pair of 15-year-old twins, head out on their own to the small South American country of “Allqukilla.” If 15 strikes you as young to be out without parents, I’m with you. However, these two are a particular independent pair who have spent the last year planning and saving for this trip. They want to go to Allqukilla to check out the country’s ancient ruins. 


But is it to be? Right after their plane arrives, they see local news reports warning about an impending earthquake and it’s here that readers face their first choice. Are the Tuttle Twins going to have an incredibly short adventure and head back on the very next plane, or are they going to go on to their hotel? Of course, no reader is going to take the cautious route, so onward and forward the adventure continues. While exactly what happens depends on the choices a reader makes, the twins will encounter that earthquake, and then, with power disrupted, they’ll have to deal with roads in bad repair, hyperinflation, a lack of available food and water, and no cell phone service, as the two figure out their way home. 

The author’s economic outlook is a small government, libertarian one, which comes out in the lessons the twins learn. So, for example, in one story branch, they end up in a small village in the hills that still has power because they have never relied on the government to provide it. In another branch, they encounter some not-so warm-hearted help – entrepreneurial sorts who will do them good…for a price. The twins sometimes get entirely altruistic help, but the point is, they also get help from people who wouldn’t otherwise be helpful, except that it was in their own self-interest to do so. The lesson here is that the free market is important because it gives people a motive to provide things other people want. 


While this is intended as an educational story, Boyack doesn’t beat readers over the head with the lessons he’s trying to teach. Only once, in the 8 or so different story arcs does a character offer up a prolonged economics lecture. But even then, it isn’t too long. 

CAUTIONS

The one caution I would offer deals not with this book, but with the author. He writes from a generally Judeo-Christian, libertarian perspective. Often times those two perspectives can match up quite nicely since both Christians and libertarians recognize that the government shouldn’t try to be God. Thus we both believe in some form of smaller, limited government, and sets us both apart from the many who call on the government to solve whatever problems they face. 

But in some of Boyack’s other books, his libertarian perspective comes in conflict with his Judeo-Christian perspective. In The Tuttle Twins Learn About the Law (one of 10 Tuttle Twin picture books he’s written for younger readers) he teaches readers that governments gain their authority from people, and not God. Based on that assumption the author argues that governments should only be able to do what people are able to do, so just as it would be wrong for a person to forcibly take money, therefore the same must be true of government. But this simply isn’t true. God has empowered governments to do some things which individuals must not do, and taxation is one of them (Luke 20:25, 1 Peter 2:13-14). 

The libertarian perspective in Hyperinflation Devastation is more restrained, and thus in keeping with a Christian worldview that understands God as distributing powers and responsibilities not simply to the state, but to parents, and the church, and individuals too. 

CONCLUSION

I would recommend this for any kids from 10 to 15. The adventure is a solid one, and the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure component will grab their attention.

Yes, this is an economics lesson, but it is a generally subtle presentation that never gets in the way of the story. That allows most kids, whether they are politically-inclined or not, to enjoy this. But because the economics angle is so very different from what they are reading in other books, it may well spark an interest in learning more about money, inflation, politics, and more. 

It may interest parents to know there are two other titles in this “Choose Your Consequence” series so far, but as I haven’t read them, I can’t yet recommend them, though the series can only be purchased for now, as a 3-book set here

There is one mistake in the book, on page 388, where we are directed to Page 335 but should be directed to Page 111. I recommend some of the Tuttle Twin pictures books here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Two Books about Inspired Writing from Leland Ryken

Words of Delight:
A Literary Introduction to the Bible

by Leland Ryken
540 pages / 1992 (second edition)

The Soul in Paraphrase:
A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems

by Leland Ryken
262 pages / 2018

Everything that I have read by Leland Ryken shows his submission to the "words of delight" in the Old and New Testament, and these two books are no exception.

Words of Delight is itself a delightful book, in which Ryken shows that the Bible is not only "breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16), but also "sweeter than honey" (Psalm 19:10a). What makes Ryken's analysis of Scripture so valuable is that he shows that Scripture is not only the finest literature ever written, but that its literary quality does not undermine its authority. Instead, Scripture's beauty only reinforces our conviction that behind it is its ultimate Author, God Himself. One of the ways that Ryken does this is to demonstrate that

  • Scripture's use of tragedy is very different from the pagan tragedies of the ancient world,
  • the heroes of Scripture are true to human nature, as opposed to the heroes of ancient epics, and
  • Scripture's satire works with different standards than other ancient literature.
As well, Ryken demonstrates that even the prose histories and epistles of the Old and New Testaments are as literary as the more obviously poetic passages of Scripture. I found many new insights that are as helpful in my own private reading of the Bible as they will be in teaching it. Ryken's book was fascinating reading, and will bear repeated reference in the future.

The Soul in Paraphrase is more clearly a reference work, and could make a great textbook for a Christian teacher's English course, but would also make a unique way to structure devotions for several months, since it deals with 150 devotional poems. Ryken shows the Scriptural inspiration and/or Christian connections for these poems, including those written more generally about nature and human relationships without specific mention of spiritual issues, or even from poets not generally identified as Christian poets. Ryken makes the case that it is also the Christian reader's approach to poetry that determines whether it can be read devotionally, and demonstrates that in his analysis of various poems. In his appreciation for the poems, Ryken invites us to compare their themes to Scriptural wisdom, often citing specific Scriptural passages.

In these two works, Ryken demonstrates the literary excellence of God's inspired Word, and shows how His Word is the inspiration for much classic poetry. If you want to read about inspired writing, you can find Words of Delight here, and here in Canada. If you want to read some writing inspired by inspired writing, you can  find The Soul in Paraphrase here and here in Canada.