Monday, August 15, 2022

The Flames of Rome

by Paul L. Maier
Kregel Publications
1981 / 445 pages

If you like history, church history, or historical fiction, you’ll likely love this well written tale of Rome in the time of Nero. The Flames of Rome recounts Nero’s rise to power, his reign as emperor of Rome, and his ultimate brutal death.

Strictly speaking, this book is not history. While it’s certainly true to the historical period, and works with real, historical characters, it fills in a lot of details. For example, at one point the apostle Paul visits Rome and we learn about his interaction with other characters in the book. Did Paul visit Rome? Yes, he did. Did Paul sit down and talk with the other characters in the book? Since the other characters, like Paul, really did exist, it’s possible. Will we ever know for sure? It’s doubtful.

Though the book works with historical characters and detail, it’s still fictional. It’s useful to give you the full flavor of the glory, and the immorality, that was Rome. Nero, as one of Rome’s more depraved emperors, is depicted in all his disgusting glory. His fascination with his friend’s wife, and his ultimate success in taking her for himself is real enough. Her desire for Nero, her seduction of him is a useful plot device that could’ve happened but probably didn’t.

What made the book fascinating for me was the way the rise of Christianity was woven through the storyline. Early on, the character Pomponia encounters Christianity and is sorely tempted to get involved with this strange yet exciting sect. This, naturally, causes friction between her and her very Roman husband. The trouble does not stop there. Pomponia’s daughter, Plautia, becomes a Christian as well. Her new husband, Sabinus, happily indulges her beliefs in this offbeat Jewish sect, but becomes more influenced by them than he might have imagined. Sabinus, in his eventual role as governor of Rome, must struggle with his desire to free Rome from the insanity of Nero, while trying not to betray the Christian beliefs he is increasingly calling his own.

The only caution I have about this book is that if you are squeamish, this tale may not be for you. While Maier writes with delicacy, it’s still clear that Nero is bisexual, and that Christians die in horrible, terrifying ways. Maier strikes an admirable balance between letting his readers know of the depravity of Rome without using needless and titillating detail. Yet the gross reality is there since a tale like this cannot ignore it.

It’s a good tale and it makes for an easy read. It’s historical fiction that’s good enough that it could’ve happened. Read this book.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Snow Treasure

by Marie McSwigan
1942 / 196 pages

In 1940, shortly after the Germans invaded Norway, a Norwegian freighter arrived in the US city of Baltimore carrying $9 million worth of gold bullion. This cargo has been smuggled out of the country to keep it from the Nazis, and as a news account from the time noted, children on sleds had been used to slip it past the invaders.

Snow Treasure, published two years later, expands on those scant details to give young readers a story that should be understood as much more fiction than fact: 12-year-old Peter Lundstrom, and all the other children are made-up characters, as are all the events and details.

But what's true about this tale, and the reason it is worth reading is the bravery of not just the children, but the parents too in putting their children at risk to keep this wealth out of the hands of men who would use it only for evil. It's this celebration of courage and conviction that's likely kept this continuously in print since it was first published 80 years ago! (It was awarded the Young Reader's Choice Award back in 1945 when winning it meant something.)

There are no cautions to offer. While there is peril, no one dies or even gets shot at. 

Snow Treasure will be best enjoyed by children in Grades 2 and 3, and might be a quick fun read for those even a little older. Over the decades it has been published with all sorts of covers, both terrible and terrific, so be sure to get a good one.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

The New Has Come

by Christine Farenhorst
2022 / 262 pages

Linnet is a five-year-old Dutch girl who, we discover, knows absolutely nothing about God. Her ignorance is so profound that when the Nazis invade, and an occupying soldier tells little Linnet about the wonderful family that "God has given" him, she wonders, Who is this God he is talking about? and Is God German For our own children, who may take always knowing God for granted, it will be eye-opening to follow what it's like, and how wonderful it is, for someone to be introduced to God for the first time. 

Linnet has the same wonderings any kid might have, but her wartime experiences also have her asking deeper questions, including a child's version of "God are you really there?" 

Christine Farenhorst's The New Has Come is that rarity that will appeal to all ages: the World War II setting and charming protagonist will grab your children; moms and dads will appreciate Linnet's questions and the opportunities they present to talk about God with our kids, and grandparents will get more than a little misty-eyed at just how beautifully this tale is told. I could not recommend it more highly!

As you some blog readers might know, Christine writes regularly for the magazine I helm, Reformed Perspective, and if you want to get a taste of her writing you read some of her many articles on the RP website here

You can also get a preview of the book's first chapter at the listing here

Monday, August 1, 2022

Chris Chrisman Goes to College

and faces the challenges of relativism, individualism, and pluralism

by James W. Sire
1993 / 155 pages

The clearest way to describe this book is as an apologetic novel - not one that apologizes for Christian faith, but one that puts forward arguments for not only Christianity, but for the engagement of Christians with society - as Chris Chrisman, a Christian, and Bob Wong, an atheist, have their world(view)s turned upside-down by the relativism of their university education.

Whether the name Wong is a sly shot at the wrongness of atheism is debatable, but the story is full of punny names. Chrisman and Wong share their search for intellectual clarity with their mutual friend, Bill Seipel, who is indeed a faithful disciple of Christ.

However, the novel is more than a set of Socratic dialogues (like the works of the Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, which are reviewed or previewed on this blog). A few additions make the story a potentially more compelling read. First, the story is told mostly through the eyes of Chris, including his concern for his roommate Bob, as well as his increasing interest in Susie Sylvan - but the book also glancingly brings in several other characters whose reaction to religious and social issues parallel both the current complexities of those issues and the different kinds of seed spread in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:1-23. Second, the author James W. Sire alternates Chris's fictional story with chapters on the historical development of the worldviews facing the students at Hansom State University - individualism, pluralism, privatization, and varied types of relativism. In the process, Sire makes clear that Christians, no matter how sincere, often do not see the power of the kingdom of God to bring about not only individual salvation, but also the entrance of salt and light into our broken society.

The only problem is that Sire's concerns and suggested solutions tilt heavily in the direction of the quest for social justice, including his list of organizations that seek to bring Christian perspective to social issues - and of course, the list is out of date. As well, Sire describes the problem of individualism as extending even to significant denominational differences. For that reason, I suggest that the book is a good one to become acquainted with some of the challenges of campus life and instruction, but needs to be taken with a grain of salt regarding exactly how churches and Christians need to engage more fully with each other and our broken world.