Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Gentle and Lowly


The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers

by Dane Ortlund
2020 / 224 pages

Note the subtitle. If Dane Ortlund has a mission for this book, it must be, at least partly, to show us that Christ loves His people, not only in spite of their sin, but even especially in their sin - not because He tolerates sin, but because sinners are sufferers. And how do we know that He loves sufferers?

Because He tells us. He tells us that His heart is "gentle and lowly" - that He yearns to extend His love to us. Dane Ortlund reveals how the Puritans loved to "wring out" the understanding of Christ's love for us, and in surveying their work, he also soaks us in the knowledge of how much God loves His people to come to Him for help and forgiveness. Ortlund excerpts the work of John Bunyan (the author of The Pilgrim's Progress reviewed here in this blog) and others in looking at verses from both Old and New Testaments that show how God yearns for His suffering (and even sinning) people:

  • John Bunyan looks carefully at every significant word in the verse "Whoever comes to me I will never cast out" (John 6:37).
  • Jonathan Edwards, the famous preacher of the fiery sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," still called grace God's natural work, and judgment His "strange work," on the basis, largely, of Hosea 11:8-9.
  • Ortlund also reveals how our "Lawish Hearts" often obscure the depth of God's "Lavish Heart" when we doubt (consciously or in our desperate attempts to earn His favor) whether He can or will forgive us. John Newton (the author of the hymn "Amazing Grace") indicts us for our "legal spirit" when he, like Bunyan, ponders God's grace revealed in John 6:37.
These are only three highlights of the book's 23 chapters looking at the "gentle and lowly" heart of Jesus Christ, and the corresponding love for suffering sinners from God the Father and God Holy Spirit.

If you want to understand the gentle and lowly heart of our Saviour better (including being guided in your devotions by the Scripture index), you can find Ortlund's book here, and here in Canada.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Echo Island

by Jared C. Wilson
251 pages / 2020

After celebrating their high school graduation with one last group camping trip, four friends return home to find the streets empty. The same is true of the sidewalks, the stores, and all of their homes – everyone is gone, and there's no sign of where they went, or what made them go. Bradley, Jason, Archer, and Tim have the whole town to themselves and they can go wherever they want and take whatever they want. But what they want is to solve the mystery in front of them. Of course, this isn't something they can just Google...even if their phones did work. So how are they going to find answers? And maybe the more important question is, are they really alone? 

I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I started Echo Island. The publisher has this in "Survival stories" and  "Action & Adventure" categories, and that sure doesn't capture it.  "Mystery" or "Christian allegory" are getting closer, but this one is hard to nail down. Is "Twilight Zone" a fiction genre? Maybe it isn't that the book defies description, but more that any proper description would have to include spoilers.

So I'm going to leave the description there and move on to who would like Echo Island. Author Jared Wilson said he was writing for teens who liked C.S. Lewis's Narnia series or his Space Trilogy. That's helpful, but I'll add that a 12-year-old who's only just figured out Aslan is a Christ-figure is going to find this frustratingly mysterious, whereas a 16-year old who has been chowing down on The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and The Hideous Strength will find it intriguingly so. 

So get it for your older avid-reading teen, and then be sure to borrow it yourself.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Foresight

How the chemistry of life reveals planning and purpose
by Marcos Eberlin
2019 / 147 pages 

Back in 1996 "Irreducible complexity" was Michael Behe's contribution to the origins debate: he argued that some biological structures couldn't possibly have evolved because there is no way they could have come about by evolution's stepwise-process – the complexity of micro-machines like a bacteria's flagellum motor was irreducible.

Now Marcos Eberlin is making a similar point, but bringing a new piece of rhetorical ammunition to the fight with Foresight in which he argues the deeper we delve into the biological world the more we discover "artful solutions to major engineering challenges." These solutions, he explains, look to "require something that matter alone lacks.... – foresight."

With this term "foresight," Eberlin is arguing some biological abilities couldn't have come about as a response, but had to be the result of anticipation. So, for example, cells, right from the beginning, had to anticipate the problems that would come with using oxygen:

The oxygen (O2) molecule is essential to life, but only a life form that can efficiently wrap and transport the devil O2 exactly to a place where it can be used as an energy source would benefit from its angel side. Otherwise, O2 becomes life’s greatest enemy. 

Rupture the membrane of a living cell, exposing it to the air, and you will see the great damage O2 and a myriad of other chemical invaders can do to a perforated cell. Death would be swift and sure. From an engineering standpoint, then, it was essential that a way is found to protect the cell, life’s most basic unit. The solution was clever: The cell was surrounded by a strong chemical shield, from the very beginning. 

It is often said that a solution always brings with it two additional problems, and a cellular membrane shield is no exception. A simple shield could indeed protect the cell interior from deadly invaders, but such a barrier would also prevent cell nutrients from reaching the inside of the cell, and it would trap cellular waste within. Small neutral molecules could pass through the membrane, but not larger and normally electrically charged biomolecules. A simple shield would be a recipe for swift, sure death. For early cells to survive and reproduce, something more sophisticated was needed. Selective channels through these early cell membranes had to be in place right from the start. Cells today come with just such doorways...

.....a gradual step-by-step evolutionary process over many generations seems to have no chance of building such wonders since there apparently can’t be many generations of a cell, or even one generation until these channels are up and running. No channels, no cellular life. So then, the key question is: How could the first cells acquire proper membranes and co-evolve the protein channels needed to overcome the permeability problem? Even some committed evolutionists have confessed the great difficulty here. As Sheref Mansy and his colleagues put it in the journal Nature, “The strong barrier function of membranes has made it difficult to understand the origin of cellular life.”

So Eberlin concludes: "There would be no hope for a cell to become viable if it had to tinker around with mutations over thousands of generations in search of a functional membrane. It's anticipate or die."

This is but his first example – Eberlin is arguing that wherever we look at life, "the evidence of foresight is abundant." That's true in the fine tuning of the universe, where gravity had to be just so, Earth had to be just the right distance from the Sun, and had to have enough water, and water needed to have certain specific properties. Oh, and the planet needed to have just the right amount of lightning too. 

That foresight is also evident in the structure of our DNA - which has to be stable – and RNA - which has to be malleable. 

He goes on and on, diving into these examples, and showing how brilliantly problems have been anticipated and solved. But by who? Well, Eberlin doesn't really get into that until the final chapter, and it is in the book's very last line that he gives credit where it is due:  "Great are the works of the Lord."

I loved this whole book, but will confess to only understanding about two thirds of it clearly. But even when it got more technical, the gist I did catch was still utterly fascinating. I'd recommend it for anyone with an interest and at least some high school science.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Echoes of Ararat: a collection of over 300 Flood legends from North and South America

by Nick Liguori 
2021 / 300 pages 

Why are there Flood myths all over the world? Christians can explain it by pointing back to Noah: these myths are so widespread because they find their origin in a real event, common to all mankind – every last tribe and nation can trace their origin back to the small family that lived through this cataclysmic worldwide deluge. 

But how can skeptics explain it? If it was just one or two stories, maybe they could attribute it to coincidence. But confronted with these 300-some accounts – and that's just from North and South America – the case for coincidence just isn't plausible. 

What Nick Liguori has done here is collect the oldest known written accounts of these indigenous tales, dating back a hundred to two hundred years or even more. While they were originally a part of native oral tradition, these accounts were written down after they were told to European explorers, missionaries, and settlers. So, for example, this is from the Caddo tribe, told to a group of explorers who were mapping the Arkansas/Texas Red River in 1806: 

They say that long since, a civil war broke out among them, which so displeased Enicco, the Supreme Being, that he caused a great flood, which destroyed all but one family; consisting of four persons, the father, mother, and children. This family was saved by flying to a knoll at the upper end of the prairie, which was the only spot uncovered by the water. In this knoll was a cave where the male and female of all the kinds of animals were preserved. After the flood has continued one moon, they set a bird, called the O-Wah, at liberty, which returned in a short time with a straw. The family then set out on a raft in search of the place from whence this straw was brought, and pursuing a west course for two leagues they came to land.

Some of the elements from the Genesis account include: God is displeased with the world, a great flood, one family saved, a bird sent out and coming back with something, two of each kind of animals saved, and a boat of sorts. 

Other stories have only a glimmering of the original remaining. Moravian missionaries arrived on Greenland in 1733 and the following is an account David Cranzz (1723-1777) included in his History of Greenland: 

Almost all heathen nations know something of Noah's Flood, and the first missionaries found also some pretty plain traditions among the Greenlanders; namely that the world once overset, and all mankind, except one, were drowned; but some were turned into fiery spirits. The only man that escaped alive, afterward smote the ground with his stick, and out sprung a woman, and these two re-peopled the world. As a proof that the deluge once overflowed the whole earth, they say that many shells, and relics of fishes have been found far within the land where man could never have lived, yea that bones of whales have been found upon a high mountain. 

In story after story, we see echoes, not just of the Flood account, but also of the events of the Tower of Babel. This is a fascinating book! 

So, again, how do the skeptics explain it? The best secular explanation is that these myths and legends are of a recent origin, only coming to be after natives first heard the story of the Flood from missionaries spreading the Bible. But that supposes that native oral tradition could change that fast, and that easily. And why would they adapt their traditions to incorporate part of the Bible account while ignoring the rest of it? Doubters will doubt, but they really have to work at it to dismiss all the stories collected here. 

While the bulk of the book is stories, one of the appendices contrasts and compares these American myths with both the biblical Flood account and the one depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This epic is probably the second most famous flood account of all, and skeptics will say that the Bible's version was inspired by it. But as Liguori shows, that idea is preposterous (you can also learn why that's so here). 

If you enjoy Echoes of Ararat, you'll also appreciate Charles Martin's Flood Legends: Global Clues of a Common Event which is a much shorter (just 150 pages) overview of Flood legends, this time from around the whole world. Echoes of Ararat is far more weighty, but consequently is a book you're more likely to just dip into. Meanwhile, Flood Legends is something you'll read all the way through. Both would be fantastic resources for your church or school libraries, and also good gifts for Christian school history teachers.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

On Asking God Why

 And Other Reflections on Trusting God in a Twisted World


by Elizabeth Elliot

176 pages / 2006 (originally published in 1989)

Elizabeth Elliot knew why we want to ask God why, from experience, but what makes this collection of essays so valuable is that she also knew why we should ask God why. Elliot is also the author of Through Gates of Splendour (reviewed in this blog last month), a book which reveals how, already in early adulthood, she began to ask God why He brought her into situations that deeply tested her faith in Him.

Christian authors are often described as inspiring, but a better word for Elliot's work would be bracing, like the splash of cold water on your face that wakes you up in the morning. She never promises false hope or easy solutions. Instead, knowing from her own hard life how much our suffering can shake us, or even shake our faith in God, she points us to Christ and the way of suffering He trod to save us. Confronting numerous issues, such as divorce, abortion, women's place in the home, and courtship, Elliot calls us to be willing to suffer ourselves as part of our path to spiritual maturity.

Jordan Peterson tells us that if we want to solve the problems of the world, we should start by making our bed. Similarly, Elliot tells us that we need to grow up, but unlike Peterson, she knows that growing up means trusting more in our Father in heaven than ourselves.

Some minor cautions (along with my assessment of why they are not as serious as they might seem):

  • Some of the references in the book are dated (and therefore, historically interesting).
  • One of the essays attacking abortion refers to a fetus "becoming a person," but it is clear later in the essay that she sees the unborn child as worthy of protection.
  • She refers to animals having "souls" (but vertebrate animals do share nephesh (the Hebrew word for life in the Bible that does not apply to "the creeping things) with human beings, and creation will also be redeeemed, along with humans).
  • There is one quotation from Karl Barth, who is called a "great theologian" (but the quotation itself is probably the truest thing he ever said).
Other than that, Elliot admirably brings the type of Christian common sense that C.S. Lewis was known for into contact with her own daily life - even taking us back, years later, with the benefit of insight and Christian maturity, to the scenes of some of the most difficult parts of her life.

If you want to see how to ask God why for all the right reasons, you can get Elliot's book here, and here in Canada.


Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Bug Zapper: The Ant Arrives!



by Tom Eaton
2018 / 108 pages

Bug Zapper is a superhero that fights a bevy of bug-themed villains like Mean Mosquito, Butterfly Bob, and the Black Ant. His powers are the ability to jump really far – I think he’s jumping and not flying – and, like his namesake, a nasty jolt of electricity that stops bug villains in their tracks.

This is more of a gentle spoof of the superhero genre than a genuine batman or spiderman-type comic. Yes, villains do get zapped, but no one gets really hurt. Artist and author Tom Eaton makes good use of bright colors and simple lines – the drawings strike me as a little Peanut-esque – to create a comic book that’ll draw kids in. It’s hard to walk by this without picking it up for a peek. 

There are two books so far – Bug Zapper and Bug Zapper: The Ant Arrives! – and both my Grade Three daughter and I thought the second was the better of the two with just a bit more action and humor. But the first has the Bug Zapper’s origin story, which every Bug Zapper fan will want to know. 

And the first also has an interesting plotline about bias in reporting. Robert, an elementary student who would love to be the Bug Zapper’s sidekick, also writes about him for the school newspaper. Amber, the daughter of one of Bug Zapper’s archnemeses, also goes to the school and accuses Robert of being biased for writing such a nice piece about a hero while saying nothing nice about villains. Then the teacher gives Robert an assignment to write his next article about a supervillain! But does being unbiased means saying nice things about both sides? That’s what Amber thinks. But Robert knows that good journalism is more about being fair, trying to share the truth as accurately as he can. That’s some pretty weighty material for a comic that’s otherwise just lighthearted fun! And Tom Eaton pulls it off well. 

I would think this best for Grades One to Three, but the video version will let you gauge how it matches up with your children. You can find another video and color sheets at bugzappercomics.com.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Through Gates of Splendour

by Elizabeth Elliot
274 pages / 1981

This is the original true account of a missionary endeavour that went terribly wrong, and yet was used by God for great good. The story is continued in such books as The End of the Spear, by Steve Saint - one of the sons of the missionaries who risked their lives to bring the gospel to the hostile Auca tribe of Ecuador.

What makes this biography so striking is that the author, Elizabeth Elliot, one of the missionaries' wives, does not know at the time of writing how the story will "end." Indeed, we still do not know, and that is one of the insights shared by Elliot, and relied upon by the mssionaries themselves - that we are neither the authors, nor the final readers, of our own lives' stories.

Elizabeth Elliot's later writing also makes clear how we must trust that the Lord's purposes in both our successes and our failures are greater than we can imagine. 

If you would like to read Elliot's account of the beginning of a God-guided advanture, you can get it here and here in Canada.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

"Live not by lies" in 7 quotes

by Rod Dreher
256 pages / 2020

In Live not by lies, Rod Dreher shares the warning he’s hearing from former emigrants from the Soviet Union and other Iron Curtain countries. They lived through totalitarianism and fled from it, and they told Dreher they are seeing signs of a “soft” totalitarianism now showing up in the West. This soft sort is less about the State imposing its will, though, conversion therapy bans, and requiring a hospice to provide euthanasia, shows that is happening too. But the soft totalitarianism is more about a culture that will cancel Parler, block Focus on the Family, and keep conservative speakers off university campuses. This soft sort also evidences itself when people, out in public, start feeling the need to whisper their opinions, afraid others will hear that they still think boys can’t be girls, abortion is murder, homosexuality a sin, and Donald Trump was actually the lesser of two evils.

Dreher wants Christians to hear these former Soviets’ warnings so we can be prepared for what they think is coming. What does being prepared mean? Dreher’s particular focus is to have us ready to face persecution.

To give you a feel for Dreher’s argument, and a flavor of his writing, here are seven quotes from Live not by lies.

Silence can be a stand

“‘Our way must be: Never knowingly support lies!’ You may not have the strength to stand up in public and say what you really believe, but you can at least refuse to affirm what you do not believe….If we must live under the dictatorship of lies, [Solzhenitsyn] said, then our response must be: ‘Let their rule hold not through me!’”

Government that cares for you cradle to grave

“The term totalitarianism was first used by supporters of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who defined totalitarianism concisely: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Free to say all that Google and Twitter will allow

"Today’s totalitarianism demands allegiance to a set of progressive beliefs, many of which are incompatible with logic – and certainly with Christianity. Compliance is forced less by the state than by elites who form public opinion, and by private corporations that, thanks to technology, control our lives far more than we would like to admit."

Don’t bat for the other team

“What did it mean to live by lies? It meant, Solzhenitsyn writes, accepting without protest all the falsehoods and propaganda that the state compelled its citizens to affirm – or at least not to oppose – to get along peaceably under totalitarianism. Everybody says that they have no choice but to conform, says Solzhenitsyn, and to accept powerlessness. But that is the lie that gives all the other lies their malign force. The ordinary man may not be able to overturn the kingdom of lies, but he can at least say that he is not going to be its loyal subject.”

Demanding you call him “her”

“According to Hannah Arendt, the foremost scholar of totalitarianism, a totalitarian society is one in which an ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology. A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality. Truth is whatever the rulers decide it is.”

Judged by our group, not our character

“In classic Marxism, the bourgeoisie are the oppressor and the proletariat are the oppressed. In the [today’s] cult of social justice, the oppressors are generally white, male, heterosexual, and Christian. The oppressed are racial minorities, women, sexual minorities and religious minorities. (Curiously, the poor are relatively low on the hierarchy of oppression. For example, a white Pentecostal man living on disability in a trailer park is an oppressor; a black lesbian Ivy League professor is oppressed.)”

Christians as the enemy, not as allies

“Consider that the civil rights movement of the 1960’s was led by black preachers who articulated the plight of their people in biblical language and stories. Those days are over, and we will not be able to take the measure of the long struggle ahead if we don’t understand the essential nature of the opposition. It regards Christians as the most significant remaining obstacle, bearers of the cruel and outdated beliefs that keep the people from being free and happy.”

Monday, January 25, 2021

Huntingtower

by John Buchan
2021 (originally published 1922) / 125 pages

It was Alfred Hitchcock who brought John Buchan to my notice, and perhaps also to the notice of many others. If you are a fan of Hitchcock's work in the 1930s, you have probably seen The 39 Steps - which was based on Buchan's novel of the same title. I think that he should be more known for the very unusual set of linked stories, The Path of the King, which traced the (fictional) aristocratic lineage of President Lincoln.

But onto this also unusual novel - the story of a middle-aged Scottish man in his early retirement, Dickson McCunn. Dickson, the owner of a chain of grocery stores, finds himself at loose ends when he no longer has a company to run. His wife is taking a rest cure at a spa in the country, but Dickson hates the spa, so he begins his retirement by taking a "walking tour."

In typical Buchan (and Hitchcock) style, Dickson gets involved (initially unwillingly) in a quest to save a Russian princess from criminals who want to take her royal riches  for themselves - and herself for their their overbearing leader.

A few cautions:

  • There is a strange offhand reference to "the Jews" who are behind all these shenanigans, but Buchan does not seem to be describing some shadowy international conspiracy, but just the typical corruption and crime that follows any overthrow of the established order (since the novel is set just after the Bolshevik Revolution). Nonetheless, it is disturbing.
  • Dickson seems to have a rather distant relationship with his wife, but it seems to be partly based on his early retirement doldrums. He does warm up to her, and vice versa, after his adventure.
  • Finally, the novel is full of Scottish dialect and archaic speech, but it does become clearer, and gives an amusing and warm flavour to the interaction between Dickson and his new allies.
If Huntingtower has all these problems, why read this book? C.S. Lewis reminds us that reading old books is valuable, because we can generally see through their errors (because we don't share those errors), but we can learn about values that we've forgotten or dismissed. Keeping that in mind, here's what I liked about the story.
  • Dickson, a newly retired business owner, learns how to step outside his carefully ordered life to play a whole new role as a protector of a princess. It's not easy, either: When he goes back to Glasgow to protect the princess's jewels in a safety deposit box, he is tempted to leave it at that, but then realizes that he is being called upon to help a vulnerable young woman. He rises to the challenge, like a true good Samaritan, even when he gets beaten up a couple times.
  • Finally, Dickson makes friends with the Gorbal Die-Hards, a gang of young ruffians from his hometown who run up against the much rougher and more malicious and ambitious gang out to capture the princess and her gems. Dickson gains a real respect and affection for the Die-Hards and eventually takes them under his wing - a much more long-term commitment than his help for the princess.
In other words, this is a coming-of-age story for a man who is already of age - a good reminder that we're never too old to take on new challenges for the help of our neighbours. If you want to find Scottish post-WWI adventure, as Dickson McCunn unexpectedly did, you can find Huntingtower here, and here in Canada.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Feature author: David Macaulay

David Macaulay (1946-) is a children’s author who loves to investigate how things are made and how they work. He covers everything from architecture (skyscrapers, bridges, etc.) to machines (computers, inclined planes), and even biology (cells, the human body). Macaulay is first an artist and then an author, so even though he writes for all ages, his books are always picture books.

His first, Cathedral: the story of its construction (1973), set the template for much that would follow. It was filled with detailed, full-page illustrations showing the whole construction process, right from the decision to build in 1252, all the way to the church’s completion more than a hundred years later. It isn’t the history of any real, specific cathedral, so, to give added color, Macaulay included a fictitious backstory. While this narrative is interesting, it’s also quite bare-bones – we learn the architect’s name and hear about some of the monetary troubles involved in paying for the cathedral, but not much more than that. Most of the “story” details the construction challenges these ancient builders faced, and the ingenious solutions they came up with to solve them. Many people are mentioned, but the story is more a biography of the building than its creators. A combination of detailed text, and big pictures, gives Cathedral a cross-age appeal. Younger, elementary-aged children can flip through it (maybe with some help from mom or dad), while teens and adults will likely read it front to back.

Cathedral was followed by others of a similar sort, exploring how pyramids, jet planes, inclined planes, and even toilets work. Then, in more recent years, Macaulay has delved into the way our bodies work.

RECOMMENDED

So what Macaulay books would be great to check out of your local library? Or might be good purchases for your home or Christian school library? The following list isn’t exhaustive – Macaulay’s output is impressive, so I haven’t gotten to them all yet – but what follows are my recommendations, grouped by age group.

Kindergarten to Grade 4

While many Macaulay books are oversized, these are more typically sized, just right for the younger reader to hold and flip through. But mom and dad will also enjoy reading these to their kidlets.

Toilet: How it works
32 pages / 2013
A great one to start boys on. Considering the topic matter, it is quite remarkable that this is free of any potty humor.

Jet Plane: How it works 
32 pages / 2012

Eye: How it works
32 pages / 2013
A very fun look at just how amazing the eye is.

Castle: How it works
32 pages / 2012
A much simpler version of his earlier Castle (1977) book, it might create interest in that bigger volume.

Shortcut
64 pages / 1995
This is a creative mesh of several seemingly unrelated storylines, and the fun for kids is to figure out how they are all interconnected. This brightly colored picture book is a departure from any other Macaulay book, being more a mystery than anything architectural.

Black and White
32 pages / 1990
A Caldecott winner, this unique book has 4 stories being told simultaneously on each two-page spread. Or is it all just one story? Very fun, but not for the impatient, as the answer reveals itself slowly.

Grades 3 to adult – bigger books

These architectural books are all big, but not too big to scare away the elementary reader. I’ve grouped them in order of preference, leading with the very best. But if a child loves any one of these, they’ll likely enjoy them all.

Castle
80 pages / 1977/2010
A Caldecott Award winner, it tells the detailed, historically-accurate (though fictitious) story of how an English castle was constructed in the late 1200s. Be sure to get the 2010 version, which has all the full-page pictures in full color. Castles are the coolest, so if you were to get just one Macaulay book, this should be it. It won a Caldecott award.

Cathedral
80 pagers / 1973/2013
The one that started it all. Its oversized pages showcase in words and wonderful, detailed pictures how a medieval people, lacking all our modern construction tools, could build something that would marvel us still today. The black and white original was redone in color in 2013, and the added vibrancy is wonderful.

UnBuilding
80 pages / 1980
A fictional, fantastically illustrated story of how a rich Arab prince buys the Empire State Building to move it to his home country. It is a floor by floor account of how something this big would be “unbuilt.”

City
112 pages / 1974
Describes how the Roman Empire would plan and build their cities.

Pyramid
80 pages / 1975
As you might imagine, there is some mention made about the ancient Egyptians’ pagan beliefs, but nothing that the target audience, Grade 3 and up, shouldn’t be able to see through. But they might not realize that Macaulay is including some guesswork in amongst the facts since there are a few theories about how exactly the pyramids were made.

Grade 6 and up – huge tomes

Building Big
192 pages / 2000
This might be my favorite of all Macaulay’s books, with short treatments of various historic bridges, tunnels, dams, domes, and skyscrapers. More than 30 structures are covered, going as far back as the Pantheon, all the way to today’s skyscrapers. It’s a treat to see just how creative engineers have been in building bigger, higher, and deeper, even as they used less and cheaper materials. I’ll own up to not understanding even half of what Macaulay explains, but that didn’t detract from the enjoyment.

Crossing on Time
128 pages / 2019
This is part autobiography, sharing the author’s trip across the Atlantic Ocean when he was only a young boy and his family immigrated from Great Britain to America. But it is, even more, a story about the development of the steam engine, passenger ships in general, and the SS United States specifically. As always, detailed pictures provide lots for the viewer to explore.

TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT

Mosque
Another big book about how a building gets built, and while there is no real reason to avoid it – it treats Islam with deference, but doesn’t actually promote it, as this is about a building rather than the religion – there is also no pressing reason to get it either. I know it wouldn’t have interested me as a boy, especially when compared to his book on castles.

The Way We Work
In this enormous tome (300+ pages), Macaulay explores how amazingly well-designed we are (though he doesn’t put it quite like that). He details it from the atomic level on up to cells, eyes, and even our reproduction system. It is the brief section on sex that makes this a take-it-or-leave-it book. It is quite restrained and comparatively tame to what else is out there, but this isn’t a topic that kids should tackle without adult supervision, making this a questionable book for a school library. And while parents could conceivably use it to introduce and discuss this topic with their kids, there are better, specifically Christian, books available. So I’d only recommend this for an age group who already knows the basics about sex since for them this could be a fascinating overview of the whole body (and the sex section isn’t remotely titillating). I’ll also note the passing mention made, 2 or 3 times, of ancient ancestors or of evolution. However, the more important worldview implication is the glaring omission of any mention of God, even as His handiwork is explored and praised. The creation is praised rather than the Creator, and kids may miss the significance of that misdirection, so parents will need to make that plain.

The Way Things Work Now
Macaulay uses cute mammoths to explain everything from how basic machines like screws and inclined planes work, to the inner workings of computers and jets. There is the very occasional mention of millions of years, and, on a few pages, some tiny angel-like creatures appear to help illustrate how a machine works. It’s a mystery why he uses them there instead of the mammoths that are everywhere else.

Mammoth Science
Mammoths are used to illustrate and introduce scientific topics as varied as light, molecules, density, bacteria, pressure, hydraulics, and magnetism. But evolution is a minor theme, popping up at least a half dozen times, including a couple of pages devoted specifically to it.

Angelo
This is the story of Angelo, who cleans and restores ancient architecture, and the pigeon he saves. It is a charming and different perspective on these ancient buildings, but Angelo dies at the end and that made my girls cry. So, at least in our house, two thumbs down.

DON'T BOTHER

Baaa
Strange dystopian picture book in which humans have disappeared due to overpopulation, and then sheep follow in their footsteps. A Malthusian/overpopulation allegory. Simply nonsense.

Underground
This is not a bad book, but it isn’t a good one. It details what is found underneath a downtown city street, but the book is dry and dusty because there is no story element.

Great Moments in Architecture
This is an attempt at humor, with various strange works of impossible, fanciful architecture shown, but it ends up being odd and weird, not funny.

TV SERIES

While this review is about Macaulay’s books, I’ll briefly mention a video series based on one of them. The Way Things Work is 26-episodes long and utterly fantastic, and while the $200+ price tag is too expensive for parents to buy, many public libraries carry it. To learn more, see my review here.

CAUTIONS

There aren’t many worldview conflicts to be found. It comes out that Macaulay does think people are really something, which, of course, we do too, though likely for a different reason. We know our worth comes from outside ourselves – it comes from being made in the very Image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) – whereas Macaulay seems to believe that what makes us special comes from what we can do. In the preface to his updated Cathedral (2013), he writes:

“Whatever magical or superhuman notions these buildings may stir, castles and cathedrals are tangible reminders of human potential. Understanding how they came to be is just the first step in recognizing that potential in each of us.”

If you were to ask, “Who or what is the ‘god’ of Macaulay’s books? Who or what is the object of worship?” this would be the answer: human ability and human potential. In the same book, he also offers a seemingly cynical take on medieval Christianity:

“For hundreds of years the people were taught by the church that God was the most important force in their lives. If they prospered, they thanked God for his kindness. If they suffered, they begged for God’s mercy, for surely He was punishing them.”

Of course, as children of the Reformation, we know there was a good deal about the medieval Church to be cynical about, so maybe there is no fault to find here.

A clearer problem lies in the one or two dozen mentions Macaulay makes about evolution and millions of years. But these mentions are spread out over his many books, such that in a book of 300+ pages it might happen twice or thrice, and in his shorter books, not at all.

The most overt worldview conflict I’ve found is in his strange dystopian Baaa (1985), in which humans have overpopulated themselves out of existence, only to have sheep take their place and then repeat their mistake. The overpopulation lesson preached here is in opposition to God’s command to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28).

CONCLUSION

If you have a budding engineer in your family, they’ll love David Macaulay. He has books for all ages, and sometimes two books on the same subject, with one for a younger age group and the other for a couple or so years older. Because so many of these books are about engineering marvels, they might be categorized as “boy books” but my girls were interested too. I think they could also be a way to hook a reluctant reader into working through a very big book – they might open the book for the illustrations, but then curiosity will get them to start reading this page and that.

There’s certainly good reason that David Macaulay remains a favorite of so many, even 50 years after his first book!

Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Auschwitz Escape


by Joel C. Rosenberg 
2014 / 461 pages

Joel Rosenberg is a fantastic writer, a New York Times best-seller, but his political thrillers are based in large part on premillennial views that I don't share, and that does take away from some of the fun. But in The Auschwitz Escape he's having a go at historical fiction, so his end-times eschatology doesn't factor in, even as his mad story-telling skills still do.

Jacob Weisz is a seventeen-year-old Jew in Germany in 1938. His parents are passive, hoping that if they just stay the course, eventually it will turn out alright. His uncle is a member of a Jewish resistance group that knows things will only get worse unless people start fighting to make it better. Jacob isn't as naive as his parents, but he does respect them. But when the Nazis come for his family, Jacob escapes and begins to fight alongside his uncle...for a time. As the title indicates, soon enough he gets caught and sent to Auschwitz. There he meets a Protestant pastor, imprisoned for helping Jews, and Jacob can't understand why the man was willing to risk his life when he could have stayed out of it and stayed safe. Jacob has a hard time trusting a man whose Christian motivations are so hard for him to understand.

Rosenberg makes clear that while the two principal characters are fiction, their experiences were not – he researched the actual escapes, as well as the escapees' attempts to let the world know what was going on in these death camps. That research, along with his impressive writing chops, give the book its authentic feel. And speaking of authenticity, Rosenberg has inserted a gospel presentation in the book, but his is more subtle and more natural than what most other Christian writers manage.

I really enjoyed it and am keeping it on my bookshelf because I can imagine reading it again in a few years. I'd recommend it for older teens and up.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Dawn of Wonder: The Wakening


by Jonathan Renshaw
2015 / 708 pages

This might, at first glance, seem to be your typical boy-meets-girl, boy-dares-girl-to-jump-off-of-a-thousand-foot-high-bridge-into-the-icy-cold-stream-below-and-girl-shows-him-up-by-actually-doing-it, story. And, as many a fantasy tale contains, there are swords, courageous heroes, battles to be fought (and sometimes with large, very toothy creatures), and evil not yet here but lurking ominously. Our hero, Aedan, is not yet thirteen but he has a sharp mind, and he'a had a hard life, which makes him wise beyond those few years. So when an officer comes galloping into the village with warnings of slavers on the way, Aedan is the first to suspect the man might not be the ally he seems. But when no one will listen, his foresight isn't enough to save his not-yet-a-girlfriend-but-already-his-best-friend Kalry. In the adventures that follow Aedan is equal parts determined and desperate, willing to do and try whatever it takes to retrieve, or revenge, his lost companion.

The book's size is not so typical – the 700-page first-of-the-series would make for a good doorstop. And not just any story would get my nephew recommending this to all his brothers and sisters, and any friend within earshot too. It is atypical too, in that it accomplished what no other book has managed: it made me look forward to running. I only let myself listen to the fantastic audiobook reading when I was out jogging, and at 30 hours long, it got me out the door roughly 60 times.

It is Christian, but not obviously so. The author is content to let the deeper tale – the moral of this story – come out gradually. I should add, I don't know the author is Christian but like the best bits of Narnia, or Lord of the Rings, this book is simply too good, and too true, not to be rooted in the Word.

The only downside is that Book 2 still seems to be a good ways out. Fortunately, there is a sense of resolution to Book 1 – it's as satisfactory a cliffhanger as a reader could really hope for.

So I'll pass on a most enthused two thumbs up, and express my gratitude to my nephew for being insistent that I should read Dawn of Wonder; I can't recall enjoying a fantasy novel more!

To give you an idea of the research the author invested in his novel, the video below is of him investigating whether it is possible – as one of his characters did – to make a decent bow in a single day using just a knife.