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Parenting, Popular but problematic

Patricia Polacco gets woke

In my idyllic and very Christian small town I keep forgetting that even here there’s a spiritual war going on. This past weekend I got a reminder in amongst the books we borrowed from the public library when two titles were pushing the same agenda. The first was by well-loved children's author Patricia Polacco about a family with two moms. God's view of marriage – as being between a man and woman – was represented in the story by a snarling, glaring neighbor. The second was a chapter book about a girl competing in a TV game show who had two dads. While we parents should know what our kids are reading, if you have a child who reads a lot this becomes harder and harder to keep up with as they get older. But, as the Adversary knows, you are what you eat. And if he can sneak in a diet of "homosexuality is normal," he can win our kids over before parents even know a battle is happening. So, what's the answer? Should we monitor our children’s book intake closer? That's part of it. Should we rely on Christian school libraries more (if you have access to one)? That seems a good idea. Would it be wise to invest in a high-quality personal home library – only fantastic (and not simply safe) books? That’s a great idea. But, as our kids get older, it's going to come down to talking through this propaganda to equip them to see through it. It will mean explaining to them that we oppose homosexuality because God does, and that even in prohibiting homosexuality God shows his goodness. As Cal Thomas put it:

“God designed norms for behavior that are in our best interests. When we act outside those norms – such as for premarital sex, adultery, or homosexual sex – we cause physical, emotional, and spiritual damage to ourselves and to our wider culture. The unpleasant consequences of divorce and sexually transmitted diseases are not the result of intolerant bigots seeking to denigrate others. They are the results of violating God’s standard, which were made for our benefit.”

We have to share with our children that our Maker knows what is best for us, and homosexuality isn't it. Like many an idol (money, sex, family, career, drugs) it might even bring happiness for a time, but, like every other idol, it doesn't bring lasting joy, it won't save us, and it will distance us from the God who can.

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEWS: Two on depression and joy

SPURGEON'S SORROWS: Realistic hope for those who suffer from depression by Zack Eswine 144 pages / 2014 Drawing on over eighty sermons by C. H. Spurgeon (largely from the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit), the author paints a vivid picture of the recurring bouts of depression, melancholy, and helplessness that harassed Spurgeon. But Spurgeon’s difficulties also enabled him to minister from the pulpit and in correspondence with many suffering from depression and from the callous comfort of “friends.” The book is organized under three themes:

1) Trying to understand depression 2) Learning how to help 3) Aids for daily coping

The author places a strong emphasis on the fact that depression often has “circumstantial, biological and spiritual contributors and challenges” and “that the spiritual side of things could originate its own kind of depression.“ He draws on sources contemporary to both Spurgeon and our day on depression, A section named: “Jesus Suffered Depression Too” may raise eyebrows! Spurgeon on Heb. 4:15 and Heb. 2:18:

“readily applies this sympathy of Jesus to include not only our physical weakness but also our ‘mental depression.’… Realistic hope is a Jesus-saturated thing.... [He] is an ally, a hero, a companion-redeemer, advocating for the mentally harassed.”

****

THE HAPPY CHRISTIAN: Ten ways to be a joyful believer in a gloomy world by David Murray 256 pages / 2015 In this book David Murray sets out to:

“identify the major causes of negativity and unhappiness in our lives and outline ten biblical and practical ways to tilt the balance of our attitude, outlook, words, and actions that will lift our spirits, compel attention for the Christian faith, and make the Church an energizing force in a life-sapping culture.”

The “key is individual Christians and the Christian church repositioning the positive symbol of the Christian faith, the cross of Jesus Christ, at the center of their faith again.” Murray combines biblical breadth and depth with current research and statistics on happiness and mental health.  He presents this in an older more Puritan-style of writing, full of alliteration and multiple angles of description and application. Throughout the book there is much meat and sweetness to savor and meditate upon. The chapter on “Happy Differences” deals with the topic of “diversity” or “Why can’t everyone be more like me?” He carefully distinguishes between issues of ethnic/cultural diversities and seeing all moralities/immoralities as the same. One quibble: I do find it odd that virtually all the Scripture citations are in the end-notes and not in the text.

Drama, Movie Reviews

Tortured for Christ

Historical drama 77 minutes / 2018 RATING: 8/10 Tortured for Christ is a must-see film about Richard Wurmbrand’s courageous and faithful stand against the Soviets when they took over Romania. Shortly after the Soviet Union moved in, the new rulers invited all of Romania’s most prominent religious leaders to attend a “conference of the cults.” At this conference – broadcast over the radio – these leaders were supposed to, one after another, talk about how respectful to religion the new rulers would be. Except it is a lie. And all the religious leaders know it. But the people don’t. And none of the religious leaders have the courage to tell them. In the auditorium audience sits Pastor Richard Wurmbrand and his wife. As they listen Wurmbrand turns to his wife: “If I speak now, you will have no husband" His wife’s reply? "I don't need a coward for a husband." Woah! So up he goes to the podium, he has his say before the mike is taken away, and he makes himself a stench in the nostrils of the authorities. Wurmbrand is eventually arrested, and then imprisoned and tortured for 14 years for his absolute refusal to deny his love for his Lord. For a time the torture happened every day, as Wurmbrand would be beaten for doing his nightly devotions. In one scene the guard asks him what he could possibly be praying to God for: he was in prison, his wife was too, and his children were basically orphans. So why, the guard wanted to know, was Wurmbrand still praying? "I am praying for you," Wurmbrand tells him. He wanted the guard who beat him every night to know the love of his Lord. While the torture scenes are muted, this is not family viewing. But it is a film I wish that everyone 16 and up would go and see. The trust that Wurmbrand has in his God, and the way that the Lord equipped him is so very beautiful and encouraging to see. It can be rented online at this link and you can watch the trailer below. Americans can also find it on Amazon Prime here.

Adult non-fiction, Assorted

Reflections on "12 ways your phone is changing you"

The phone has had a huge impact on our way of life. This was true already, back in the 1920s, when the coming of the telephone to rural New Zealand made a huge difference to isolated farmers’ wives, allowing them to communicate daily with friends. “Party lines” – which involved several homes sharing the same line – meant calls were not necessarily private…but if you needed to chat, then you could. By the time I was a child the family telephone was a fixture on the wall, either in the hallway or in the kitchen. That meant it was in a public place where anyone could answer it and know who was calling you – or at least hear your end of the conversation. Cutting the cord When I was in my early adulthood cordless phones arrived. You could now take the phone into the privacy of your bedroom, and carry on a conversation unheard by anyone else. This began to worry parents, who knew the phone was somewhere in the house – but where? And what was being said on it? Then came cell phones, when suddenly, calls could be made and received way outside the house, and when instant communication was, for the first time, privately accessible to all. You could speak to anyone – seemingly anywhere. I remember my astonishment at a call from Paul while he was on the top of a mountain in South Canterbury helping on an autumn muster. It was revolutionary to think of the possibilities of limitless accessibility. Now, since 2007, and Steve Jobs’ introduction of the first iPhones, smartphones are everywhere. More than simply telephones, they are portable, computer-like devices that enable us to be online, all the time, and wherever we go. We can browse, we can post, we can keep up with the news – in short, do most things possible previously only at home. What’s not to like? Cautions to consider Well, lots, actually. As DesiringGod.org’s Tony Reinke has argued, our phones are changing us more than we know. I’ve just finished reading his book 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You and found it just as full of insights as all the reviews had promised. Everyone who owns a smartphone would likely benefit from a long, slow consideration of Reinke’s conclusions. He has thought hard about the implications of many of our common phone habits. In general, Reinke finds that phones are causing us to disengage from the kinds of person-to-person interaction that love requires of us. We are becoming more detached, more isolated in our own little worlds, less caring, more frivolous. Despite the fact that technology is a gift from God – the product of our inventiveness as creatures made in God’s image – our use of this particular piece of technology is making us less like Christ. It’s time that we took a good look at ourselves and reclaimed the use of our phones for good purposes. 1. Always available distraction One of the most obvious problems with smartphones is their capacity to distract us. Beeps, buzzes, and tunes of all sorts destroy our concentration when we ought to be attending to work – or to someone in our proximity who deserves our attention. I’m sure you’ve noticed the way vast numbers of people walk down the street with their heads down, thumbs tapping at their phones. (You’ve probably almost collided with more than a few). Not so long ago I was in a café and noticed a sign on the counter: “Sorry, the wireless is down today. You’ll just have to talk to each other.” Shock, horror! The girl serving the coffee thought it was exciting – and I don’t blame her. Our phones are also distancing us from our flesh and blood – the people right in front of us, our families, our friends, and the people who need our help. Every time we flop on the couch for 15 minutes of mindless scrolling and skim-reading, we could be ignoring an opportunity to edify, encourage, correct, love – and even learn from – a human being for whom God has given us responsibility. Those 15 minutes will never be given back, either. While some still think that our smartphones can end loneliness by connecting us to others, Reinke believes (and I agree) that face-to-face interaction cannot be replaced by screen-to-screen communication. We were created to respond to facial expression, tone of voice, and physical touch. Neither texts nor Facebook messaging can match what can be expressed face-to-face. Of course we can communicate with many more people at far greater speed than is possible if we’re limited to where our bodies can be at any given time. But perhaps God has intended us for fewer, more meaningful friendships than Facebook could ever cater for. 2. Ever present peer pressure I have never been a consumer or user of social media, mainly because I feared the distraction and time-wasting, but Reinke suggest there are other reasons these media are harming us. He explains that we are becoming something like peacocks, preening and arranging our personas for the admiration of an online audience. Learning how others carefully shape their profiles to appear interesting, successful, witty, and up-to-date, we inevitably desire to be seen the same way. So Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat etc become platforms from which we can project the same attributes. I had not realized the full extent of this, but Reinke notes that many a person wakes in the morning to check how many comments or “likes” their posts from the night before have generated. It’s obvious that young people sensitive to peer pressure can fall for this, but many a lonely adult person who lacks security in Christ can be equally susceptible. It’s time to get off social media, on our bikes and start visiting lonely people face-to-face! 3. Distance diminishes consideration Another effect of the distance our smartphones can put between us and others is the impunity with which we criticize and demean others, via our screens. Apparently people feel less sense of remorse for what they say to others online than for what they might say in person. Clicking “send” has nowhere near the consequences (they think) that saying something in personal conversation does. We’ve all seen the horribly offensive things people say, apparently without compunction, on Twitter or in the comments section beneath news articles. It seems that if the recipient of your spite is not visible through your screen, then guilt about how we make them feel is lessened. I can’t quite understand that, since each of us is capable of imagining how it would feel to be on the receiving end of vindictive words on a screen. But certainly, increased use of screens for communication seems to be hardening us. We are getting accustomed to this unkind and demeaning discourse-at-a-distance, and it appears to be imitated by others. For instance, last month I read about our Minister of Foreign Affairs referring to our Leader of the Opposition as “simple Simon.” Does that kind of epithet sound vaguely familiar – on Twitter, perhaps? 4. Privacy brings temptation Much has been written about the danger of what Reinke calls “secret online vices” like pornography. The scary thing is that this kind of vile material is available, on phones, any time and any place. Many people think they are able to view it without anyone else knowing; and therefore without consequence. Christians need to remember that God sees everything we do: nothing is hidden from him. God has made our eyes and our ears, but he expects them to be used with discretion. How can we use them to pollute ourselves? Reinke would not be the first to suggest that in the end, if your eye is causing you a problem, pluck it out. Smartphones are indeed disposable, and certainly able to have their contents blocked and curbed. The consequences of addicting yourself to such vices are too awful to contemplate. 5. Algorithms feed us just one side (Prov. 18:17) There is one final way that our smartphones are changing us, and it concerns me more than the others because it affects our ability to distinguish truth from error. We are so overloaded with online input (resulting in what Solomon called a “weariness of the flesh”) that we are inclined to retreat to bubbles of like-minded communications, dismissing all the rest as biased, wrong, or simply doubtful or unverifiable “noise.” The result is that the world is becoming an increasingly partisan place consisting of groups of people who, day by day, shout at each other, distrust each other, even hate each other – intractably. Being constantly online and fed a continuous diet of news we agree with is light years away from an older world. Once upon a time (maybe 20 years ago) people read a range of news sources, mindful of the biases of each, in order to arrive at some semblance of the truth. In those days discerning readers knew that if one news source got things wrong, the others would pounce and correct it. The truth prevails in the end, as historians generally know. Nowadays there is little true dialogue, and a cynicism about anything other than the source I read. All else is “fake news,” we hear. This is really scary, since unless we are willing to expose even our most deeply-held views to scrutiny, we will lose the power of discernment. And that is what tyranny thrives on. Conclusion So I’d suggest, along with Tony Reinke, that it’s high time to take a close look at our uses of our smartphones. Are they changing us? Yes, and in ways that we might not realize.

This is an edited version of an article first printed in the May 2018 issue of Faith in Focus www.rcnz.org.nz where it was published under the title “We and our phones.” It is reprinted with permission. Sally Davey is a member of the Reformed Church of Dovedale, Christchurch, New Zealand. You can download a 40-page preview of Tony Reinke's "12 ways your phone is changing you" here.

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Daily devotional

February 27 – Sin and shin (1): Perfection

“Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules.” – Psalm 119:164 Scripture reading: Psalm 119:161-168 One of the very well-known and well-used words of the Bible is found in this section. It is the number “seven” (shavveh). It’s a number that means completion, fullness or totality. It’s also a word that indicates rest, for the word for rest (sabbath) is also derived from the number seven in Hebrew. The psalmist’s devotion to God, his love for the law and his zeal to obey his covenant God, is cloaked in the superlative. His service to God is not just good, it’s not only better, but it’s the best he can give. Seven times a day he praises God for His law. Seven times is not to be taken literally, so that we set aside certain times of the day which we rigidly and religiously follow (and then, not even seven, but five, or three, or less!) Rather, it indicates that the psalmist’s life is filled with and bound up in praise to his heavenly Father. Since his day is filled with serving God and praising Him, the psalmist experiences true rest. By the power of the Holy Spirit working faith in him, he rests from his evil works and begins in this life the eternal Sabbath. This is the complete life for the believer. This is the restful life: to fill life with praise to God and to be busy obey His law and willingly serving in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Suggestions for prayer Ask God to help you live a full life of service and praise to Him, thereby experiencing true and complete rest.

This daily devotional is available in a print edition you can buy at Nearer to God Devotional. Rev. James Slaa is pastor of the Smithers Canadian Reformed Church in British Columbia, Canada.


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Human Rights, Parenting, Politics

How mom and dad can fight Big Brother

Governments in BC, Alberta and elsewhere have shown they want to use government schools to teach children that their gender is something they can choose. But gender isn’t a choice, and to teach impressionable children otherwise is to mislead them. Still, despite many parental objections, governments continue to move forward with these plans. It's important we understand, then, that this isn’t the first time a government has tried to override parental rights in education. Politicians and bureaucrats in various jurisdictions seem to be regularly devising new ways to thwart the freedom of parents to direct the education of their children. These government have the backing of intellectuals who produce academic materials arguing that parental rights in education need to be severely curtailed or even abolished. These intellectuals aim to persuade lawyers and judges that parental rights are unnecessary and no longer need to be recognized in law. Thankfully, not all intellectuals think that way. In recent years, a law professor named Stephen Gilles at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut has written a number of scholarly articles defending parental rights in education over against statist arguments. “Statist” here refers to the belief in the supremacy of the government – the State – over individual and family freedom. Arguments and counter arguments One of Professor Gilles’ most famous scholarly articles is entitled “Hey, Christians, Leave Your Kids Alone!” which was published in the Spring 1999 issue of Constitutional Commentary, an American law journal. In it he took on the Statist arguments of another law professor, James Dwyer, that Dwyer proposed in his Religious Schools v. Children's Rights. ATTACK #1: Parents harm their children What Dwyer argued was that religious education is harmful and damaging to children and therefore the government needs to protect children from the harm their parents will impose on them through a religious education. In short, Dwyer sees parental rights as an obstacle that must be eliminated to ensure the wellbeing of children. This differs only in degree, but not in kind, with what provincial governments have sought to do via their school systems. In BC the school curriculum was rewritten to promote homosexuality and parents were limited as to whether they could opt their children out of these classes. In Alberta and Manitoba the government wants to use the schools to promote transgenderism, over against our objections. And in Quebec the government wants schools to teach the equal validity of many religions, which is the very opposite of what we as parents want to teach our children. Our secular governments thinks they knows best. ANSWER: No, Parents know their children best But if our governments think like Dwyer, we have a friend in Professor Gilles. He completely rejects Dwyer’s statist perspective and demonstrates that following Dwyer’s proposals would, in fact, be positively harmful to children. Why? Because parents have a much better grasp of what their children need than government officials, so transferring decision-making power to those government officials would undermine the children’s well-being. ATTACK #2: Government knows best Dwyer’s statist thinking gives us a glimpse of where our government may be heading in the future. Dwyer provides a theoretical foundation for the use of government coercion against conservative Christians, an idea that is popular among some left-wing intellectuals. As Gilles explains,

…many law professors see religious traditionalists – especially Christian Fundamentalists – as extremists whose beliefs and practices are irrational, without value, and positively dangerous to themselves and others. The dispositions these opinions induce are not limited to preventing religious traditionalists from gaining government power; they also include using government power to counter and undermine religious traditionalism as a movement.

ANSWER: Parents know best In contrast Gilles wants to promote what he calls “parentalism,” which maximizes parental rights. This view has not just the Bible but history behind it. In the past, in the Anglo-American countries (of which Canada is one), it has always been assumed that parents act in the best interests of their children. Gilles calls this the “parentalist presumption” which he summarizes as follows:

the state may not override a parental decision unless it overcomes the presumption and demonstrates that the parents' choice is in fact harmful to the child.

ATTACK #3: Some parents are lousy Naturally, then, the next question is to determine what constitutes “harm” such that the parentalist presumption can be overcome. Gilles answers this way:

If parents starve or brutalize their child, or prevent the child from acquiring foundational skills such as reading, writing, and calculating, there is consensus that they are doing harm, and state intervention is entirely appropriate.

From time to time there are instances where the government may legitimately need to take action to protect children. While God calls on parents to care for their children, He also gives the State the power to administer justice, so when parents neglect their children the State does have the jurisdiction to step in. Most people would agree that children who are being starved, or tortured, or deliberately prevented from acquiring literacy and numeracy skills by their parents would need help. However, outside of these extremely rare occurrences families should be left alone by the government. ANSWER: The government always makes a lousy parent Now, parents are imperfect. We all fail to one degree or another. That leaves an opening for opponents of parental rights to point to these instances of parental failure and use them to justify increased government control over children. But Gilles points out that this line of reasoning is faulty:

The relevant question is not whether robust parental rights are perfect when measured by the yardstick of children's best interests, but whether they are superior to alternative regimes that give the state more control over children's upbringing. To this question, the longstanding answer of our legal tradition has been that state authority over childrearing is more to be feared than comparable authority in the hands of parents.

Parents make mistakes…but they are far better than a “government as parent” alternative. Of course, that’s the very point that Dwyer, and others of his ilk, will dispute. He argues that the government is much better suited to determine what is best for children. Therefore the government, rather than parents, should have ultimate control over education. So what answer does Gilles give?

The flaw in this approach is its blithe assumption that state agencies, and above all courts, will expertly and disinterestedly pursue the best interests of children. A moment's reflection will show that courts are neither as well-placed as parents to discern the child's best interests nor as interested in ensuring that the child's welfare is in fact advanced. Unlike parents, judges will never have the time or the day-to-day contact necessary to acquire an intimate understanding of the procession of children who would come before them. Nor will they have to live with the many-faceted ramifications of their childrearing decisions.

God has crafted a wonderful way to raise children that the government simply won’t be able to improve on. Parents have much more at stake in the well-being of their children than any employee of the government. Parents know their children much better and will have to endure the consequences of any bad decisions they make. In other words, the incentive for parents to watch out for the best interests of their children is infinitely higher than any social worker, teacher, or judge. That’s why it is absurd to suggest that these public employees are better at determining the best interests of the children. Nevertheless, theorists like Dwyer write as though teachers and judges are best suited to determine what’s good for children. Really? Gilles will have none of it:

I find it naive to describe the run of state employees in such idealistic terms, let alone to believe that they will more often be better judges of a child's best interests than that child's parents. State agency personnel may spend years thinking about what is best for children – but parents spend decades doing what they think is best for their own children, and living with the consequences. Parents are far more likely to get it right, even if they have fewer course-credits in child development or education theory.

Because children are young and immature, they need to be under the authority of adults. People like Dwyer who claim to be promoting children’s rights are not suggesting that the children be allowed to determine their own best interests. They just want the determination of best interest to be done by government employees rather than parents. Gilles notes that this is an issue of who has authority in the lives of children: Thus, the question is not whether our childrearing regime will entail other-determining governance of children by adults; it is which adults will enjoy the freedom to engage in this other-determining behavior. That’s how we need to present the issue: which adult will do the job best. When the government treads on parental toes we need to ask, “Are you trying to say that you think a government employee working 9-5 is a better parent for my child than me?” ATTACK #4: We should have a broad understanding of harm Historically, Anglo-American nations have recognized parental rights, with the only limits on these rights involving the rare instances where parents harm the children. So if the State can only act when a child is being harmed, we can predict what statists will do – they’ll want to greatly expand what we view as harm. So, for example, Dwyer hates conservative Christianity and what it stands for. Thus he argues that teaching children certain Christian doctrines is harmful. What are these harmful doctrines? Dwyer believes that teaching children that sex is only for married couples harms those children because it restricts their freedom. He also believes teaching girls that women have different roles than men is harmful. So he wants the government to prevent parents from teaching conservative Christian tenets to their children…to protect the children from “harm.” ANSWER: Labeling anything the government disagrees with as harmful is arbitrary As Christians we need to highlight the sheer arbitrariness of Dwyer’s definition of harm. We need to highlight that he is simply defining as harmful that with which he disagrees. In fact, Dwyer’s proposal has clear totalitarian implications, as Gilles points out:

If the government can forbid parents and teachers to communicate any message it decides (based on value-laden and highly debatable criteria) is “harmful to children,” then the government can control the transmission of ideas to future generations.

Conclusion Prof. Gilles has shown us what to watch out for, and how to present well-reasoned argumentation for defending parental rights in education. Since parents have such powerful incentives to promote their children’s best interests, it is clear that they should have virtually unhindered authority over their children. Government employees and institutions never have as much at stake in the well-being of children as the children’s parents. A tiny number of parents occasionally abusing their authority do not undermine this fact. To think that government employees will make better decisions about children than parents is naïve at best. And to use an anti-Christian ideological concept of harm to determine what children should be taught, clearly leads to a totalitarian government. Parentalism, as Prof. Gilles calls it, is much more reasonable and consistent with freedom than the statist perspective of the left-wing intellectuals.

A version of this article was first published in the March 2016 issue under the title "Government knows best? Stephen Gills shows us how to defend parental rights"


Popular but problematic


Parenting, Popular but problematic

Patricia Polacco gets woke

In my idyllic and very Christian small town I keep forgetting that even here there’s a spiritual war going on. This past weekend I got a reminder in amongst the books we borrowed from the public library when two titles were pushing the same agenda. The first was by well-loved children's author Patricia Polacco about a family with two moms. God's view of marriage – as being between a man and woman – was represented in the story by a snarling, glaring neighbor. The second was a chapter book about a girl competing in a TV game show who had two dads. While we parents should know what our kids are reading, if you have a child who reads a lot this becomes harder and harder to keep up with as they get older. But, as the Adversary knows, you are what you eat. And if he can sneak in a diet of "homosexuality is normal," he can win our kids over before parents even know a battle is happening. So, what's the answer? Should we monitor our children’s book intake closer? That's part of it. Should we rely on Christian school libraries more (if you have access to one)? That seems a good idea. Would it be wise to invest in a high-quality personal home library – only fantastic (and not simply safe) books? That’s a great idea. But, as our kids get older, it's going to come down to talking through this propaganda to equip them to see through it. It will mean explaining to them that we oppose homosexuality because God does, and that even in prohibiting homosexuality God shows his goodness. As Cal Thomas put it:

“God designed norms for behavior that are in our best interests. When we act outside those norms – such as for premarital sex, adultery, or homosexual sex – we cause physical, emotional, and spiritual damage to ourselves and to our wider culture. The unpleasant consequences of divorce and sexually transmitted diseases are not the result of intolerant bigots seeking to denigrate others. They are the results of violating God’s standard, which were made for our benefit.”

We have to share with our children that our Maker knows what is best for us, and homosexuality isn't it. Like many an idol (money, sex, family, career, drugs) it might even bring happiness for a time, but, like every other idol, it doesn't bring lasting joy, it won't save us, and it will distance us from the God who can.

Popular but problematic

Fifty Shades of Grey - the phenomenon

I have to begin this piece with a couple of confessions. The first is that I have not yet read Fifty Shades of Grey, the bestseller that “everybody” is talking about. The second is that I have no intention whatsoever of doing so. The downright tawdriness of it all just doesn’t appeal. Now, as everyone knows, it is bad form to review a book that one has not read so rather than fail miserably in the attempt, my aim is simply to look at the Fifty Shades phenomenon through a Christian worldview lens. If you are wondering why we even have to consider this sort of thing, the answer is simply this: the walls of the church and of families are probably more porous than they have ever been, and rather than light pouring out from them into the surrounding culture, the traffic is largely the other way. Stuff is getting in, much of which is not good. Pretending it doesn’t exist is not an answer. Even Christians are reading books like this, which is obviously not good, but even if they weren’t touching it, the influence of such stuff would still manage to find its way into Christian families and churches as once cultural taboos become cultural norms. The only way to stop its pernicious effects is to know what it is we are dealing with and to be fully persuaded that we have the antidote. What is it? Just in case you have managed to remain blissfully unaware of its existence, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey is the biggest selling book in the world right now, having sold somewhere in the region of 40 million copies. It is also reputed to be the fastest selling paperback of all time, knocking J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series off the top spot. The plot centers on the “relationship” between a naïve 22-year-old woman, Ana Steele, and Christian Grey, a successful 27-year-old businessman whom she meets when interviewing him for a college paper. She is attracted to him and hopes for a romance, but it soon becomes clear that he is not the “flowers and chocolates sort” and the only kind of relationship he is interested in is a purely sexual one involving BDSM (bondage, dominance, sado-masochism). I won’t bore you with any more of the tacky details, suffice it to say that the rest of the book is littered with scenes that would find a comfortable home in any “hardcore” pornographic magazine. Why feminists love/hate it The most interesting thing about the Fifty Shades phenomenon is that the overwhelming majority of its readers are women. Why interesting? Well here we are half-a-century after the apparent emancipation of women, and millions of women are eagerly lapping up a pornographic book about a girl who submits to an overbearing, domineering deviant and lets him do pretty much whatever he wants to her. How empowering! How emancipating! Feminism can be mighty confusing to those of us outside the loop. Do feminists approve of pornography or do they condemn it? Is it a liberating and empowering force in the hands of women, or is it a demeaning and oppressive tool in the hands of men? Well that all depends on which feminists you happen to be speaking with. During the late 70s and early 80s a schism opened up amongst what were known as the Second-Wave Feminists, and in the ensuing Feminist Sex Wars two groups emerged, both using the term “feminists” to describe themselves, yet managing to come up with diametrically opposite views on issues such as pornography. A quick search of the web reveals precisely this divide over Fifty Shades of Grey. For instance, over on Feministing.com are the “Fifty Shades is liberation” sisters who speak in gushing terms about how refreshing it is for women to be able to read such apparently enlightened literature without feeling ashamed. One commentator says,

“To me, the popularity of Fifty Shades is evidence that, at the very least, women like reading about many kinds of sex – and people should probably try doing all of them, because they all seem really great.”

Meanwhile over on Hercirclezine.com, the “Fifty Shades is oppression” sisters stand aghast wondering how on earth their fellow feminists could possibly endorse such a book. As one commentator says,

“These books tell women that they want not only to be objectified … but also that they want to be dominated – in the bedroom and outside of it. It’s pornography in its purest form, and pornography thrives because men demand it.”

I must admit that if I have to stand with one group, I come down fairly and squarely on the “Fifty Shades is oppression” side. Of course pornography turns women into objects – that is the entire point of it. It is specifically and intentionally anti-relational. Fifty Shades of Grey is no different, and if the “Fifty Shades is liberation” sisters really believe that books such as these will not do their bit to further chip away at what is left of honor and kindness between the sexes then they need to do three things: Get with the real world; Study the statistics on the increase in sexual and violent crimes over the last 50 years and set them next to some figures charting the explosion in pornography; Go figure. What biblical submission isn't But much as I am with the “Fifty Shades is oppression” sisters in their criticisms of the book, this is as far as any alliance can go. They are right in-spite of their worldview not because of it. This is seen in the following comment posted on Hercirclezine.com, reacting to the news that the Anglican diocese of Sydney is about to include a pledge by the bride to “love and submit” to her husband:

What I find especially disturbing is this new trend happening in Sydney in which women have adopted a trend from Fifty Shades of Grey. Their wedding vows includes [sic] a submission contract. This is degrading and is a giant leap backwards. All of these women who revel in being submissive are pathetic sheep stuck in a different time era (or possibly need psychological help).

Somehow this lady and many others like her, seem to believe that the kind of submissiveness being vowed in the Sydney marriage service – lifted from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians – is the same as the kind of submissiveness being portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey. For such folks, there are only two possible types of submissiveness in male/female relations: Islamist-style, where the woman is nothing but a drudge, emptied of any thoughts of her own and made to walk behind her husband dressed in something resembling a bat costume, or sexual-chattel submissiveness, where the woman is a mere slave to the demands of some overbearing deviant. And so when Paul writes that women must submit to their husbands, he must be urging either Islamist-style submission, or sexual deviance submission. Or both. Right? Well, not quite. This is what Winnie-the-Pooh might have called A Very Big Misunderstanding. Let me put it like this: Fifty Shades of Grey did not come out of a Christian culture. Nor could it have come out of a Christian culture. The culture it came out of is a secular humanist one which puts sex and the right to an orgasm on a par with the liberties granted in the Bill of Rights. So to the feminists who confuse the Apostle Paul with E.L. James: much as you might loathe Fifty Shades of Grey, you didn’t get it from my worldview, you got it from yours – a worldview that specifically rejects Christianity and all it has to say on male/female relations. What it is For the record, the type of submissiveness envisaged by Paul does not resemble the relationship of shoe to doormat, nor the relationship of pimp to prostitute (see Hebrews 13:4), but rather a wife submitting herself to a husband who “loves his wife as Christ loves the church and gave himself for it” (Ephesians 5:22,25). Of course it will be objected that many women aren’t married to such selfless men and so how can they be expected to submit. True enough, but Paul is writing to Christians within the context of the New Covenant, and so if any husband behaves in such a way as to make it just about impossible for her to submit to his headship, then as a last resort she has every right to go to the elders of the church, and they have every obligation to deal with it. At the same time, such an objection is a red-herring. For the feminist rejection of Paul’s teaching is not that a woman might have to submit to a lousy skunk, but that she has to submit to anyone – even to a self-sacrificing, loving husband. What they simply don’t get is this: the Christian woman’s submission is not a sign of inferiority. It does not mean that she is in any way beneath her husband in dignity or honor, or that her opinions and desires are of any less worth than his. On the contrary, she is his equal in every respect – the glory of her husband as Paul makes clear elsewhere – but with one exception: in the hierarchy established by God it is the husband that is the “family CEO.” He is the one who bears responsibility for its direction and he is the one who will have to give an account for what went on in it. Fifty Shades of Grey will no doubt continue to draw in its millions, and in so doing will give the hordes of women reading it a false sense that what they are reading is female emancipation. It is not. Neither is female emancipation to be found in first rejecting a Fifty Shades type of submission and then rejecting an Ephesians kind of submission because you can’t tell the difference. The truly emancipated woman is one who first trusts in Jesus Christ and then seeks a man who strives to resemble Him. Submitting to that kind of man will be her glory and her delight.

This article first appeared in an edited form for Samaritan Ministries International.

Popular but problematic

The Shack

The Shack, the sensational book by William P. Young, was the #1 paperback trade fiction on the New York Times Best Sellers list for more than a year and a half. Over 18 million copies have been sold. It has been praised by none other than Regent College theologian Eugene Peterson and recording artist Michael W. Smith. The Shack is a gripping story. Mack's little daughter, Missy, is kidnapped and murdered while Mack is on a camping trip with his three children. The place where she was killed, a shack in the mountains, is discovered, though Missy's body and the killer are not found. Some time later, Mack receives a letter from God, "Papa", inviting him back to "the shack." Mack goes to the shack and meets the Trinity there. God the Father is an Afro-American woman; Jesus is a mildly clumsy blue jeans-wearing man; the Holy Spirit is an ethereal woman called Sarayu. In unique sessions with each of the Trinity, Mack struggles with anger against his abusive father and his hatred against Missy's killer. After he forgives his father, God the Father appears to him – and for the rest of the story – as a man. After Mack forgives the murderer, God leads Mack to Missy's body and the four of them bury her. Mack, then, returns home to his wife Nan and his other two children. It is a very imaginative story, but contains some serious theological difficulties. Running up against the second commandment Young runs into trouble with the second commandment which says that we are not to make an image of God in any way and that God cannot and may not be visibly portrayed in any way. When Young "paints a picture" of God with words, he bumps up against the second commandment. Arguably, one could portray Jesus, since he is a true man, but one may not portray the Father nor the Holy Spirit. "You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman.…" (Deu 4:15,16). Wrong on the Trinity Young's view of the Trinity is not right. God the Father, at one point in the book, says that he is truly human in Jesus, and he has scars on his wrists to prove it. The wrong teaching that Youn g subscribes to at this point is likely patripassionism, the teaching that the Father also suffered. Young confuses the persons of the Father and the Son. The ancient Athanasian Creed warns against this. Wrong on the atonement Young also espouses a wrong view of the extent of the atonement. Whereas scripture teaches that Christ died for the forgiveness of the sins of his people, Young says that God has forgiven all sin in Christ and that it is up to the human individual to choose relationship with the Father. His view of the atonement is Arminian (see Chapter II, Canons of Dort); his view of man's unregenerate will is Pelagian (see Chapter III/IV, Canons of Dort). Although it's a nice story to read, I cannot recommend The Shack because of its many doctrinal errors. This review was originally published in December, 2008 Year End issue of Clarion magazine, and is reprinted here with permission. Some of the numbers have been updated to 2016. Rev. George van Popta is the Minister Emeritus for the Jubilee Canadian Reformed Church.


Bassam Michael Madany



Graphic novels


Graphic novels, News

This isn’t your parents' Katy Keene…or Archie Andrews

This February, Katy Keene will be the latest Archie comics character to get a modern updating. While the original Katy was a one-dimensional highly successful fashion model, in the new version she's an aspiring, but as of yet, entirely unsuccessful, fashion designer living in New York. What parents need to know is that this isn't the only updating that's been done. Katy Keene is being spun off of Riverdale, which re-imagined Archie and his gang as murderous, drug-running occultists. In what wasn't even the show's weirdest twist, they put Archie Andrews in a sexual relationship with his teacher Miss Grundy. While details about the new Katy Keene show are still scarce, from the trailer we do know one of her roommates will be a gay broadway dancer who, because he isn't tough enough for the male roles, auditions for a female role. And, as Deadline's Nellie Andreeva reports it, he's also "looking to take his drag career to the next level." (A new comic book Katy is also set to debut, but in that version she’ll live in Riverdale). This is just one of the notable changes Archie's gang has undergone in recent years. It began in the comics back in 2010 with the introduction of Archie's new gay friend Kevin Keller, who was then paired off via a same-sex “marriage” to an Iraq War veteran. Other changes have included: Jughead Jones declaring himself asexual Veronica Lodge starring in a spin-off comic as Vampironica, a blood-sucking killer another spin-off series, Afterlife with Archie, featuring a zombie Jughead trying to kill and devour his friends and family (with some success) yet another spin-off series, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, featuring more occultism and a character by the name of Madam Satan What's tricky about all these changes is that in the comic digests this "new Archie" is often paired with "old Archie" stories. So sometimes the outside of the comic looks just like it always has, but inside a handful of the stories will have this "modern" twist. Parents who grew up reading the old Archie comics might be shocked at this new direction, but before we ask “Why were the former days better than these?” (Eccl 7:10) let’s remember rightly the Archie of old. I came across a few of my old Archie digests and, looking at them with adult eyes, I was struck by something: Archie was never a paragon of virtue. At best “America’s favorite teenager” could be described as an indecisive boy who led girls on (poor Betty!). But would it be a stretch to describe a guy who secretly dates two girls at the same time (sometimes on the same night!) as a player? A frequent storyline involved Betty and Veronica vying for Archie’s leering attention by wearing as little as the Comic Code Authority would allow. This was every timid teenage boy’s dream – two bikini-clad gorgeous girls after a goofball guy. As the comic’s creator, John Goldwater explained, he reversed “the common wisdom. Instead of ‘boy chasing girl,’ I would have girl chasing boy.” While sexual tension and romance were a constant theme, nuptials weren't mentioned – not for more than 60 years. In Archie’s world dating was simply a social activity, completely unrelated to finding a spouse. Archie and his pals had a lot of laughs and adventures too. But the subtext to the series was always dating, dating, and more dating and it always got that wrong, wrong, wrong. Now the new TV shows and comics are getting it wronger still.

Adult non-fiction, Graphic novels, Teen non-fiction

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

by John Hendrix 176 pages / 2018  The world “pastor” is not often paired with words like “plot” or “kill.” But when the Nazis took over Germany, and used nationalism and intimidation to silence its churches, and then set out to conquer the world, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to do something. And he felt himself pulled to do what would once have been unthinkable to him: Bonhoeffer joined a conspiracy to kill his country’s leader, Adolf Hitler. At 176 pages, and text-dense, author John Hendrix has a lot of space to explore Bonhoeffer and his time.  He starts with his birth and family life, before showing how World War I impacted the Bonhoeffers – one of Dietrich’s older brothers was killed – and how the runaway inflation that came shortly afterwards destroyed everyone’s savings. In 1921 a German could exchange 75 marks for 1 US dollar, but by the end of 1923 to get that same US dollar he would have to bring a wheelbarrow, or maybe a dumptruck, to carry the 4 billion marks that’d now be needed. Money, jobs, and hope were scarce, and this set the scene for the rise of Hitler. Germans wanted a way out, and Hitler presented himself as a savior. Meanwhile, Bonhoeffer was learning, via travels in Europe and America, that a love for one’s country doesn’t mean you have to support everything your government does. So when the Nazis, only a few months after they came into power, fired Jews from any government positions, Bonhoeffer was one of the few church leaders to speak out. He published a public paper called “The Church and the Jewish Question” in which he laid out an explicitly Christian justification for resisting the government. He described three ways the Church can and should respond to an evil government. Question the State and its methods: a True church must reject government encroachment on its beliefs Aid the victims of State actions: the Church has an unconditional obligation to the victims... Strike back: it is not enough to just bandage the victims under the wheels, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself! As you can tell, this “comic book” gets into some big and heady topics. What’s more, “how to deal with a hostile State?” is a topic of growing relevance these days. That makes this an important book, but also one that should be discussed between parent and child. There is some serious theology here, and while the general thrust is right on – we owe our allegiance first and foremost to God, even if that means resisting the State – what exactly it looks to live that out, back then and today, is a topic too weighty for a teen to work out on their own. This is a graphic novel worthy of both a teen and adult audience. The thought and research that’s has gone into it is evident throughout. Even the coloration of the book is fascinating, with Bonhoeffer consistently shown either in teal or with a teal background, the Nazis always highlighted with the use of red, and when death makes an appearance there is a predominance of black. I’d recommend The Faithful Spy for any teen who has begun to think on big issues, and anyone anyone interested working through what it means to live to God’s glory in tumultuous times.

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books, Graphic novels

Bolivar

by Sean Rubin 224 pages / 2017 New York is the busiest city in the world, and people there are simply too busy to notice much of anything going on around them. Except Sybil. Sybil is a little girl who does notice things. And she recently noticed that her next-door neighbor is, in fact, a dinosaur. Sybil keeps getting peeks at the mysterious, very large fellow next door. But try as she might, she can’t get the evidence she needs to prove his existence to anyone else. Her parents, her teacher, and her classmates all scoff. A dinosaur in New York? How ridiculous!  Now in a secular book that tackles dinosaurs, you might expect some sort of reference to evolution. But nope, there’s none of that. This utterly charming graphic novel is, in one sense, simply a chase story, with Sybil tracking her prey through New York boroughs, the museum, the subway system, never quite getting near enough for the perfect photograph. But the enormous size of this book – 1 foot by 1 foot, with 224 pages – also gives author and illustrator Sean Rubin an opportunity to show off a city he clearly loves….even as he gently mocks residents for their self-absorption. With a girl and a dinosaur as the main characters, this is a fantastic book for boys and girls from Grade 1 on up (I loved it!). This might also be the perfect book for a reluctant reader. The big bright pictures will draw them in, and the size of the book will give them a sense of accomplishment when they finish it, while the limited amount of text per page means this is a book they can finish. Bolivar is a gorgeous goofy adventure and I can’t recommend it highly enough!


insects


Animated, Movie Reviews

Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants

Animated / Family 2014 / 89 minutes Rating: 7/10 In this utterly unique film, a lost ladybug teams up with a colony of black ants to fight off a horde of red ants who want their sugar stash. A couple of things set this film apart. First, it seamlessly meshes animation and gorgeous nature footage, with the overall look more like a Planet Earth episode than a kid's cartoon. Another unique element is the lack of dialogue – other than  20 seconds of scene-setting narration, no one speaks. Or, rather, when they speak, it is only in Antish and Ladybuguese (I had the English subtitles on, but shucks, no translation was provided). Our kids had to decipher the storyline from strictly physical cues which had them paying very close attention. It also meant that their Dad had to occasionally "narrate" the action to help them figure out what was going on. Cautions This is G-rated film, free of any language, sexuality, or violence concerns (there is a big battle scene but no injuries are shown, and the rest of the "violence" is of the slapstick variety). But while the action was muted compared to many an animated film, Miniscule's brilliant use of sound and music really amplifies the tension. If you have younger viewers – maybe 9 and under - you can help them through these sections by either turning down the sound (minimizing the music's impact) or, by doing what we did. While we were still early in the film, we ended up showing our girls the last ten minutes of the film so they could know that it all turned out alright. They still sometimes forgot so we'd have to remind them, but each reminder helped a lot. Their response reminded my wife of how when we as adults have our own tense moments, we're also comforted by knowing a happy ending awaits – that's one reason why God has "given away the ending." It might also help youngsters to know that the only actual bad guys in the film are the red ants and, briefly, a large fish. Any other seemingly villainous sorts turn out to be friends. Finally, the music also adds impact to the Ladybug's wistful recollections of his lost family. Early in the film, as a young bug, he gets separated from his parents and siblings, and in two brief recollections afterward our 6-year-old was in tears feeling bad for him. Conclusion This is film kids will appreciate for the story and mom and dad can enjoy for its beauty and the brilliant way it tells a story without words. I've spent a lot of space warning about how some particularly sensitive or very young children will find the tension troubling, but overall this is quite the gentle movie. Our family really enjoyed it, even with the tense moments.

Americans who subscribe to Amazon Prime can watch it for free.

Science - General

Don’t push Dad into the pond (and don’t tell Mom about the bugs!)

An aquarium-based science experiment for the whole family

*****

Summer is here and there are any number of projects in which the whole family can participate. Of course, some are more fun that others – painting the fence, for example, will not rank high on anyone’s list. This is especially so if the junior members of the establishment spill the paint, or elect to decorate the family car with it. However, almost everyone enjoys splashing about in water, so why not consider an expedition to a pond in your area to start off your own family aquarium? Be warned: some individuals may get a little wet while chasing aquatic insects with a bucket or net. And dad may have to venture the farthest out to catch some particularly elusive creature. But children, just remember that if you want the project to be a happy experience, don’t push your Daddy into the pond! If anyone gets pneumonia, the project will definitely not be judged a success! Step 1 – set up the aquarium The first thing to do is acquire an aquarium. It doesn’t need to be too big, and you can probably find something used on Kijiji or Craigslist for $50. The aquarium should be placed in a window where it will receive moderate light, or it should be equipped with a fluorescent light. Place about an inch of gravel in the bottom – soil works too, but it is messier. Next some structure should be provided in the form of a few larger stones, a rock, sea shells, or pieces of waterlogged wood. Don’t overdo the structure. Only a small proportion of the volume and at most a quarter of the bottom area should be occupied by solid objects. These are important because they provide hiding places for various animals and surfaces on which to grow. Living aquatic plants also provide structure. Several inches of water may then be added. City water contains chlorine, which isn’t good for our aquatic life so if you are using it, be sure to leave it out to sit for several days to allow the chlorine to escape. Once living creatures are in the aquarium, then any new city tap water you add (to make up for whatever evaporates) must be boiled and thoroughly cooled first, in order to remove the chlorine. Step 2 – just add life! The aquarium is now ready for the addition of pond water with its contained organisms. The objective is to set up a self-perpetuating ecosystem (physical environment with its contained living creatures). Ideally all you will need to add once the system is established is water and light. Plants use the light to combine water, dissolved carbon dioxide, and mineral nutrients into food for the rest of the organisms in the aquarium. Moreover, plants in the light release oxygen into the water. This is essential if the aquatic animals are to stay healthy. Gathering your aquatic animals is a particularly fun part. Before setting out for the pond, make sure that mom and dad and all the offspring are equipped with rubber boots and buckets or large jars all with tops. Scoop nets are optional. The best procedure is to fill the bucket with pond water and some submerged pond weeds. You will acquire many pond creatures simply by collecting water and weeds. A few small pieces of decaying vegetation are good to collect too. These will have other organisms growing on them and, besides the dead material will provide for scavengers. However, don’t collect very much of this “nonvigorous” (i.e. decaying) plant material because too much decay will result in all the oxygen being used up. And without oxygen many animals will die and soon the whole aquarium will smell “swampy,” releasing hydrogen sulfide gas and methane into the atmosphere. At this point some mothers might banish the whole system right out of the house! Step 3 – let’s find out what we have Once the aquarium is filled with water and pond weeds, then you and your children can peer into the water to discover what you have collected. Some creatures last only a few days, others last almost indefinitely. Among the animals in your fresh water ecosystem, some will be easy to see, others hard to see because they are small or because they hide. Some will be so small they’ll only be visible with a microscope. While all have fascinating life stories we will discuss only easy-to-see animals. Here are your possible cast of characters.  Gammarus In our family the favorite pond inhabitants are the amphipods or scuds known by the Latin name Gammarus. These delightful creatures do well in an aquarium. They swim through the water in a conspicuous way so that it is easy to show doubters that indeed there are animals present. Gammarus look much like marine shrimp. Their bodies are protected by a hard exterior skeleton or surface made of chitin. That is a hard, not easily decomposed material like our hair and fingernails. The body is divided into numerous sections and each segment bears a pair of legs. There are five different kinds of legs. Some have gills attached. The legs are used for swimming, for grasping food, and for obtaining adequate oxygen. These animals swoop through shallow water in semicircular arcs. They feed on bacteria, algae, and decaying plant and animal material. Mostly they confine their activities to within 20 cm of the bottom sediments. When collected in the summer Gammarus are at most one-and-one-half centimeters long. They continue to grow, however, as long as they live. By March, Gammarus which were collected the previous summer are three cm long (approximately twice as long as their maximum size in nature). Few will survive beyond April. Outside, in the Canadian climate, they would have died with the frosts of the fall. I add small pieces of boiled and cooled lettuce to the aquarium when the food supply for Gammarus seems low. If these “shrimp” are observed swimming round and round the aquarium, it is a safe bet that they are short of food. They seem to have a chemical sense for detecting food. When lettuce is placed into the water, they circle closer and closer. One individual may find the lettuce within seconds, eight or more within three minutes. As far as reproduction is concerned, in nature this proceeds throughout the summer. Both sexes are found in the population. The females carry their eggs and developing young in a brood pouch. The young resemble adults in miniature. One or two young have appeared in our aquarium during the winter months. Water fleas Most likely your aquarium will harbor water fleas as tiny as they are numerous. The white specks which move in jerky fashion through the water, are most probably Daphnia. You might even catch a species bigger than the tiny ones which presently populate our aquarium. The largest species of all can be found in very productive waters like the Delta Marsh of Manitoba. It boasts individuals as large as the fingernail on a lady’s fifth finger. All water fleas are crustaceans, as are Gammarus. They have an exterior skeleton of chitin and numerous jointed legs. Water fleas are an important source of food for aquatic insects, larger crustaceans, and various fish. Each Daphnia has a small head from which extend a pair of branched antennae. By moving these projections like oars, the animal is able to make awkward progress through the water. Five pairs of legs are attached to the body, but they do not show, nor are they used for swimming. Like the rest of the body except for the head, they are enclosed in a convex shell which is hinged along the back and opens along the front. Constantly moving within their confined space, the legs create a current of water which brings in oxygen to bathe the body surface and also a stream of food particles. The numerous hairs on the legs filter out the food particles and push them forward to the mouth. During most of the growing season only females can be found in the Daphnia population. Like dandelions which reproduce without benefit of sex, so water fleas also reproduce by parthenogenesis. Females produce eggs which do not need to be fertilized. These develop directly into more females. A pond can fill up with females in a very short time! The number of eggs per clutch varies from two to forty, depending on the species. The eggs are deposited within the female’s body into a brood chamber or cavity under the protective shell on the animal’s back. The eggs develop there and hatch to look like miniature adults. They remain within the pouch under the shell until the female molts, shedding her external skeleton and shell. Then the young are released. As conditions in the pond become unfavorable through drought, cold weather, or decline in food supply, fewer parthenogenetic eggs are produced. Now some eggs, by a mechanism which is poorly understood, develop into males! Other eggs at this stage require fertilization in order to develop. The brood pouch around eggs which have been fertilized, now thickens into a saddle-shaped structure called an ephippium. These are released to sit through long periods of drought or freezing. Ephippia can be transported from pond to pond in the intestines of aquatic birds or simply by clinging to their wet feet. When favorable conditions return, ephippia hatch exclusively into parthenogenetic females.  Plants Perhaps we should turn our attention to some suitable pond plants as well. The duckweeds are the easiest to identify. Exceedingly widespread, lesser duckweed (Lemna minor) is common in quiet ponds. Often these tiny leaves will form a mat over an entire pond. In these circumstances hardly any plant life grows below the water surface because the duckweed has intercepted almost all the light. In an aquarium this species does not grow well unless it has very bright light available. Dying leaves are quickly eaten by snails and Gammarus. Another species, ivy duckweed (Lemna trisculca), is much more suitable for aquaria. The leaves grow in T-shaped configurations which remain tangled in large clumps below the water surface. It does very well with moderate light and it is an important oxygenating agent in the water. Coontail and milfoil are similar plants often found floating free in tangles beneath the surface in ponds. Coontail (Ceratophyllum) is known for its densely bushy stem tips. The leaves, which occur in whorls, have tiny toothlike projections. This plant does only moderately well in aquaria. Perhaps the best that can be said is that the plants may take all winter to die and be eaten by scavengers. Milfoil (Myriophyllum) has whorled, finely divided leaves which look like fern fronds. These plants are good aerators of pond water and should do well in an aquarium. Waterweed or Elodea is so suitable for aquarium culture that you can buy it in pet stores. More enterprising individuals may simply fish some out of a pond. The stems are bushy with whorls of three oval leaves arranged along the stem. These plants start out rooted but can become free floating. Elodea has been popular in biology laboratories for generations. Students can perform experiments on oxygen production on whole submerged plants. Individual leaves, which have only two layers of cells, are good for examination under the microscope. A handy reference booklet, available for generations, is Pond Life (a Golden Guide) which was last updated in 2001. USOs – Unidentified Swimming Objects Having acquired an aquarium, pond water, and pond plants, your family may at this moment be scanning several unidentified swimming objects. Some of these may well prove to be aquatic insects. Among the varied inhabitants of ponds, the insects provide the greatest interest for many people. All insects have an exterior skeleton much like that of crustaceans, but, whereas crustaceans have numerous legs, insects have only six. Many insects make fresh water their home during part or all of their lives. Most, including those which spend all stages of their development in the water, have one or two pairs of wings as adults. The young of some insects have the same general build as their parents. They resemble miniature adults and differ from them only in the partial development or their wings and the lack of sexual organs. Mayflies and dragonflies produce such young called nymphs. These develop in fresh water, but the adults spend their lives in the air. Among the true bugs, of the fresh water representatives, water boatmen are the easiest to find. They live in water throughout their lives. Many other insects have young quite unlike the adults. These young often seem quite wormlike. Such larvae must enter a resting stage, the pupa, before an adult emerges. During the pupal stage, an individual’s tissues are broken down and reassembled into those of an adult. Among such insects, caddisflies spend immature stages in the water and adult stages on land. So do certain flies including crane flies and phantom gnats. Mosquitos act the same way. Aquatic representatives among the beetles, however, spend their complete lives in or on the water. These include whirligig beetles and predaceous diving beetles often called water tigers.  Mayflies Nymphs are typically found clinging to stems or stones in the water. Their abdomens curve upward towards the rear and the tip is equipped with three feathery tails. The abdomen sweeps continuously back and forth, perhaps to create a current in the water. In side view the numerous paired flaps down each side of the body cannot be seen. Viewed from above, however, these structures, called gills, are visible. Although the flaps are called gills, they seem not to be involved in gas exchange. Nymphs feed on small plants, on animals, and on organic debris. They live a few months to three years in the water, depending upon the species. This fall at least one adult successfully emerged into our living room after several weeks sojourn in an aquarium. Adults have four nearly transparent wings which they hold vertically when at rest. Adults are unable to eat, and they die shortly after mating. The females lay their eggs in water.  Dragonflies Nymphs are solid looking, flattened creatures up to 5 cm long. They do not swim much, preferring rather to wait until some suitable prey happens to pass. Then they suddenly extend a huge hinged “mask” or folding lower lip to seize the unsuspecting victim. They feed on insect larvae, worms, small crustaceans, and even small fish. They are very fierce, and I, for one, would not offer a finger to any of them. I maintained two nymphs for several months by feeding them small pieces of hamburger. They would seize the meat only as it was sinking. Often, they would fail to notice the food. In order to keep the aquarium from becoming foul due to meat decay, I usually retrieved the missing pieces (with tongs) and dropped them in a second time near the nymph. Some dragonfly species complete their development from egg to adult in three months, while others take as long as five years. During this time, they molt frequently. At about the fifth molt, wings begin to form. Adult dragonflies have slender silhouettes and they hold their transparent wings horizontally at right angles to the body. With their legs or jaws, adults grasp insect prey such as mosquitos, and they eat them while in flight. They live only a few months, but during that stage adults mate while in flight. The female often drops her eggs from the air into the water.  Water boatmen These adult bugs are one of the easiest insects to spot in ponds, but they do not do well in an aquarium. This is probably because they are strong fliers and can leave any body of water which they do not like. Adults appear silvery in the water since air taken at the surface surrounds them like a silvery envelope. Strong flattened hind legs enable these bugs to swim strongly. They feed on algae and decaying matter sucked out of the bottom mud. Adults lay their eggs on aquatic plants. In our aquarium, boatmen have reacted very negatively to the glassy confines of their new home. They spend their time frantically trying to swim through the glass walls. None lasted more than a day. Caddisflies The larvae of these insects are generally easy to identify. Only the head and front legs can be seen peeping out of tube-like cases made of green leaves, sand, twigs, or bark. Each species fashions a different characteristic house for itself. The adult emerges into the air and looks much like a moth.  Crane flies Last fall our children spotted a revolting, pudgy-looking worm just under the water surface of our aquarium. It was the larva of a crane fly lurking among the aquatic weeds. It always positioned itself so that its rear tip projected up into the air. This creature had no legs at all. Our tentative identification proved correct when after several weeks a crane fly, like a large mosquito with long legs, appeared in our living room. Apparently, we had missed the pupa stage. Adults of some species feed on nectar, others do not eat at all. None bites. Phantom gnats If you peer intensely into your aquarium, you may see one or two phantom larvae. Except for prominent eyes and a threadlike intestine running the length of the body, the rest of this creature is almost transparent. The rear is capped with a tuft of obvious projecting hairs. There are no legs. These larvae, 1-2 cm long, hover horizontally well down in the water. This animal is unusual among insects in its ability to maintain such a stationary position in the water. Antennae attached to the head allow these larvae to prey on mosquito larvae and other small animals. The adults, which develop from a pupal stage, look much like mosquitos, but they do not feed and hence do not bite. Mosquitos Probably no aquarium is complete without several wrigglers (mosquito larvae). These bend double and extend to their full 1 cm length again as they wriggle through the water. They too lack legs. Frequently they return to hang almost vertically from the surface. A tube extending from near the rear tip is extended up into the air to get oxygen. The larvae feed on microscopic organisms or organic debris. Within a few days, after passing through a pupal stage, the adults emerge. The females must obtain a blood meal in order to be able to lay eggs. Males feed on nectar and ripe fruit. If your mother does not like mosquitos emerging into her house, do not call them to her attention. Alternatively, you could place a screen over the aquarium.  Whirligig beetles Often the most conspicuous insects in a pond are swarms of small oval shiny black beetles darting frenetically back and forth on the surface of the water. Their eyes are divided into upper and lower parts. They are believed to be able to see both above and below the water surface at the same time. They eat anything they can find. Their front legs are long and slender, the others are shortened and flattened to serve as paddles. They can dive down into the water very suddenly if alarmed. Everyone chases these beetles, but they are difficult to catch. Anyway, they do not do well in aquaria.  Dytiscus Among the hungriest and meanest of aquatic insects are the larvae and adult stages of the predaceous (from predator) diving beetles. The streamlined larvae, up to 3 cm long, with upturned abdomen and fierce jaws open, stand awaiting the arrival of prey. Konrad Lorenz, in his classic book King Solomon’s Ring, devotes several pages to the nasty personalities of Dytiscus larvae. These larvae will attack other insects, tadpoles, minnows, or anything that smells of animal in any way. They will bite a finger or even attack other larvae of their own kind. Through hollow jaws they inject a digestive juice which dissolves the insides of most of their victims. For people, the bite is simply extremely painful. We had several such larvae in our aquarium, but they died within several days, probably because of lack of suitable food. The shiny oval adult beetles also manage in the air and they may grow to be as large as 3-4 cm long. The beetles enjoy much the same menu as the larvae, but the former are also strong fliers when they so desire. Other easy-to-culture animals Both leaches and snails are easy to identify and easy to keep in an aquarium. A leach has done well all winter in our aquarium. It occasionally appears undulating through the water. It is growing, so it must be doing well eating bacteria. Certainly, it is not obtaining any blood meals. Our giant pond snails also do extremely well. With a thin, narrowly spiraled shell, these animals grow to be about 5 cm long. Often you can see the mouth opening and closing as one oozes forward along the glass. Inside the mouth is a rasping tongue which scrapes algae and bacteria off all surfaces over which it moves. Occasionally, jelly-like masses of snail eggs appear on underwater surfaces. These soon hatch into numerous tiny snails which immediately begin eating their way around the aquarium. Keep it going Now the whole family is organized for a project which can last all year. Remember not to load too many relatively large animals into an aquarium. The larger the total volume of animal life, the more likely it is that you will have to bubble in air and supplement the food supply. One minnow, for example, could eat everything living and require oxygen besides. This is not your objective. Stock with more, but smaller animals! Tadpoles, too, will require oxygen and will eat everything in sight. Make it a practice to observe life in your aquatic ecosystem every day. It makes a wonderful topic for conversation at the supper table. You will have expanded your interests and your pleasure in God’s creation.


insects



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insects