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Humor, Theology

Humor and the life of faith

"And I knew there could be laughter On the secret face of God"  – G. K. Chesterton

*****

Nothing is quite so ironic as to talk seriously about humor. Yet it would be perverse to treat the subject of Christian humor with irreverence or anything approaching vulgarity. And by Christian humor I do not mean those harmless puns and riddles that are often classified as Bible jokes. Who is the shortest person in the Bible? Who is the only person in the Bible who doesn’t have any parents?1 If Christian humor ended there, then we might feel slightly cheated. There must be more. And indeed, humor is more than an occasional joke; it is indicative of a broader attitude to life. We see this most clearly in the word “comedy.” In literature, the term means simply a story with a happy ending – it doesn’t even have to be funny. You might say that the story of salvation is a divine comedy, for it promises a life happily ever after. Of course, to unbelievers this faith in the afterlife is itself a joke. To some extent, then, the question is who will have the last laugh. So let’s take a closer look at this comedy of salvation. Does the biblical narrative include any humor, and what role should laughter play in our life of faith? Humor in the Bible When I was still growing up – a process that may not have ended – my father sometimes liked to refer to “humor in the Bible.” But looking back I had no recollection of what he actually meant by that. Was he referring to some of those funny names in the Bible, like the ones the prophets gave to their kids? Was he thinking of Joshua, the son of Nun? I wasn’t sure, and so I figured that writing this article would be like discovering a forgotten corner of my childhood. Childhood is, of course, an appropriate metaphor for thinking about humor. Those who have studied humor in the Bible suggest, for instance, that the sober attitude of grown-ups obscures the comic aspects of Christ’s rhetoric. Elton Trueblood, in The Humor of Christ, tells how his son burst out laughing at Bible reading over the idea that someone might be so concerned about seeing a speck in someone else’s eye that he failed to notice the beam in his own eye.2 The child has not yet become accustomed to all that is at first glance merely preposterous or grotesque. Trueblood – whose views we’ll focus on here – believes that Jesus is not only a Man of Sorrows, but also a Man of Joys. Jesus’s humor comes from the incongruity of his sayings (particularly in his many paradoxes) and from his sense of irony. Surely, says Trueblood, there is an aspect of comedy in the blind leading the blind, in the notion of “saving by losing,” in the thought that a camel should go through the eye of a needle, in giving Peter the nickname “Rocky.” It is frequently the contrast between the literal and the figurative moment that provides a space for laughter, or at least for a smile. When Christ asks “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed?” our trained inclination is to answer “No, because then no one can see the lamp.” A child might respond, “That would be funny, because then the bed might catch on fire.” The examples can be multiplied – at least according to Trueblood. They show Christ not merely as an ascetic and acerbic preacher – as we sometimes imagine John the Baptist – but as a man who drank wine in genial conviviality and spoke in surprising and shocking language. Whatever reservations we may have about this slightly irreverent view of the Savior, the resulting picture actually fits surprisingly well with the general Reformed worldview, which sees Christ as restoring and renewing life and culture. We all know of Luther’s hearty humor and his penchant for beer. What is humor? There are of course problems as well. If humor encompasses everything from outright jokes to fine shades of irony, then where do we draw the line? In addition, humor is fiendishly difficult to trace in written documents, for so much depends on tone and context. Take, for instance, Trueblood’s explanation of the following words of Jesus from Luke 12:58:

As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison.

Trueblood is surely right that Jesus treats miscarriages of justice with a touch of sarcasm, but he pushes the argument too far when he tries to find the passage humorous: “What Christ seems to be advocating is a clever deal or a bribe. . . . Translated into our language, ‘It may prove to be cheaper to pay the officer than to pay the court, so why not try?’ . . . If this be humor, it is humor with an acid touch.”3 It seems more likely, though, that the adversary is not an officer of the law at all, but is rather a fellow citizen; what Jesus advocates is what we would call an “out of court settlement” – a common practice in ancient societies – and represents prudence, not humor. In the Old Testament There are two other sources of humor that require some attention. The first is, of course, the Old Testament. There are a number of places where God is said to laugh (Ps. 2:4, 37:13, 59:8; Prov. 1:26). This is the laughter of poetic justice: God laughs at the wicked. Surprisingly, the Psalms also suggest that the proper response to God’s laughing judgment should be joy: “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth” (Ps. 98:8-9; cf. Ps. 96). Judgment is no laughing matter, we instinctively feel. However, as the Philistines found out when they placed the ark of God in the temple of Dagon, God will have the last laugh: “When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord!” (1 Sam. 5:3). The man most famed for wisdom in the Old Testament also had a wry sense of humor, something that is often missed. Consider the following ironic passages from Ecclesiastes, that book that we take such pains to explain away:

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:1-2).

All things are wearisome more than one can say (1:8).

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body (12:12).

Who writes a book to explain that everything is meaningless? The Teacher sounds tired before he even begins. In fact, in an amusing turn of phrase, he explains that he is too weary to explain weariness. Perhaps the appropriate response when faced with such irony is laughter. There is a bad sort of biblical humor But there is also a negative type of humor. There are hints of it in the nervous laughter of Sarah. This is the laughter of those who sit in the seat of scoffers. The man who suffered most from such mockery was Jesus. All those involved in crucifying him try to turn him into a joke. And the joke is always the same: how can a crucified man be king? The soldiers dress him up in a scarlet robe and a crown of thorns before they torture him. Pilate practices his own version of the laughter of judgment by placing a placard above his head that reads: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37). The joke then gets passed on to the chief priests and the teachers of the law, who focus on the final paradox of Christ’s ministry: “‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him’” (27:42). The laughter of the cross is the laughter of Sarah magnified; it is the laughter of skepticism, and it is at heart a nervous defense against the laughter of faith and judgment. As Paul realized, the Christian faith is foolishness to the world, because doubt manifests itself through mockery and laughter. Laughter and tears, comedy and tragedy – the two poles are actually not as far removed from each other as we sometimes think. Since laughter lives on the border with terror and tragedy, it is not surprising that we also find it at the cross. True joy What does this all mean for our life of faith? An elder of mine once pointed out that one of the great gifts of the Christian religion is the joy it provides. And this joy is not simply confined to a kind of internal spiritual peace, although it is that too. The writer G. K. Chesterton suggests that, compared to the Christian, the secular man is generally happier as he approaches earth, but sadder and sadder as he approaches the heavens.4 True – but the happiness of the Christian also extends downwards – to the earth renewed in Christ. There remains one obstacle, however. Franz Kafka once said – in a comment about Christianity – that “a forced gaiety is much sadder than an openly acknowledged sorrow."5 I think this is exactly the problem we face as Christians today. How can we demonstrate the happiness that comes with the good news in a spontaneous way? Laughter is something that you shouldn’t force. So, how can you purposefully live a life of laughter and joy? I think it has to start with something further down in your heart; it has to start with faith and hope. If you start here, then laughter will inevitably come bubbling up. And this is not a nervous laughter, like the laughter of Sarah or the mocking of scoffers – this is a wholesome and healthy laughter. This is the joy of Christ. Endnotes 1 In case you haven’t heard these groaners: Bildad the Shuhite (i.e. shoe-height) & Joshua, son of Nun (i.e. none). 2 Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ (New York: HarperCollins, 1964). 3 Ibid., 66. 4 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, in Basic Chesterton (Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1984), 127. 5 Quoted by John F. Maguire, “Chesterton and Kafka,” The Chesterton Review 3.1 (1976-77): 161.

This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue. Conrad van Dyk is the author and narrator of the children's story podcast "Sophie and Sebastian."

News

Are young people the loneliest generation?

In our ever more connected age, somehow loneliness seems to be growing. Earlier this year the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, appointed a “minister of loneliness” to address the situation. And this past month a study on loneliness among Americans found loneliness a particular problem among youth – those aged 18 to 22 felt far more isolated than those aged 72 and over. On the study’s 80-point scale, anything at a 43 and up was considered lonely. Generation Z, 18 to 22 year olds, scored an overall average score of 48.3. This compared to a 38.6 for the “Greatest Generation” of 72 and over. So why would young people feel lonelier than their grandparents and great grandparents? Might it be due to social media, with young people perhaps making more Facebook “friends” than real friends? That could be a part of it. Heavy users of social media did score higher/were a bit lonelier than those who never used social media. But the difference was only 2 points, and not enough to explain the nearly 10-point gap between youth and their grandparents. Another possibility? The study found those who lacked regular “meaningful in-person social interactions” were far lonelier. So social media is part of the explanation, but perhaps some of it is also the constant stream of trivialities occupying youth (and many of their parents too): video game marathons, clip after YouTube clip, constant texting, endless sport commitments, Netflix-binging, and keeping up with the latest love interest of this musician or that actor/royal/celebrity famous for being famous. Constant, quick, shallow engagement doesn’t leave a lot of time for the slower, deeper, more meaningful exchanges. Loneliness happens in the Church too, and often times for the same reasons. We may have the opportunity for social interaction – there are a lot of people in our churches – but that doesn’t automatically mean those interactions are going to be of the meaningful sort. Christians also put on masks – for public viewing it’s tempting to play the part of the always-perfect parent, ever-supportive spouse, or trouble-free son or daughter. We’re good at shooting the breeze, talking sports and the weather. It’s easy to have a ten-minute conversation after church that’s about nothing at all. God has a prescription of sorts for a more meaningful conversation. He wants older men and women mentoring their younger counterparts (Titus 2). And He wants parents and grandparents to talk about how God has worked in their lives. David puts it this way:

“One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts” (Ps. 145:4).

Of course, there’s a bad way this can be done. When we’re older, we sometimes find ourselves amazed when a young fellow or lass is willing to listen to what we have to say…so we try to squeeze every last bit of wisdom in that we can. And we don’t let them get a word in edge-wise. But relationships aren’t built via one-way communication – to be a help to the next generation we have to care enough about them to ask them about their interests, struggles and joys. Young people, you have a role in this too. God wants you seeking wisdom from your elders (Prov. 3:1). If they aren’t coming to you, it might be because they can’t imagine the younger generation really wanting to get to know them and learn from them. So, approach them after church. Introduce yourself. Ask yourself over for coffee sometime. Ask questions. Grab hold of that wisdom with both hands. There is more to relationships than simply sharing our joys, sharing the good God has done us. As David models in Psalm 3, 6, 25, and others, it also involves letting others know about our struggles. Finding a group of people you can trust and count on and “be real” with can be a hard. But is worth pursuing. God has given us the communion of saints for a reason – He knows what we need, and He has given us each other.

Remembrance Day

War through the eyes of a child: Alice Kuik shares her memories of World War II

“The horror and sacrifices of those who endured a war must be recorded and remembered. If we fail to do so, we will soon take peace for granted and exaggerate small inconveniences.” –  Jan Hendrik Luiten

A CHILD OF WAR My birth must have been a moment of mixed emotions for my parents. To be sure, I have every reason to believe that they were delighted with the arrival of their first-born child. However, my birth took place just three months after the German army had invaded the Netherlands. I was not born in a country where we could speak freely or go outside without worry. No, I was born in a country that was tightly controlled by an enemy. Fears and secrets were a normal part of my life. I was born a child of war. Yet, the horror of war was not unbearable for me. I endured it with acceptance and resilience. This remarkable ability to take things in stride had two reasons. First of all, I did not know what it meant to live in peace. I was not able to compare my current situation to better days. War was all I knew. But the second reason was more significant. At all times I felt supported by people who cared for me. My mother absorbed my fears when she took me in her arms. The members of our extended family provided emotional support and practical help. And, last but not least, I was comforted by the prayers that were spoken at meals, at church, and at times of great concern about loved ones. It is to honour my parents and family members that I feel compelled to share my story. I understand now that their practical helpfulness and their natural loyalty were expressions of their love for God. By their actions they unwittingly taught me that the Lord can always be trusted, and that He always hears our prayers. Even when the enemy is constantly harassing us. THE WAR COMES HOME My memories of the war would not have been so vivid if my parents would not have provided a hiding place for a Jewish couple. But they did, and soon the Germans suspected it. Without delay they placed our house under surveillance. I was completely unaware of the hiding place. But the stress of being watched by the Germans without knowing the reason for their suspicion had a deep impact on me. Mind you, my parents did not seek the danger. Their defiance of the Germans happened as a natural outflow of their faith in the Lord and their love for the neighbour. Our family belonged to the Reformed church in Enschede. Their minister was a man whose faith showed itself in his works. He had taken it upon himself to obstruct the plan of the Nazis to eradicate the Jews. Not only did he preach this conviction from the pulpit, but he also practiced it. With relentless determination he collected the names of the Jews who were short-listed for transportation to the death-camps. He then carefully selected members in his congregation who would be suitable to hide these Jews. It is telling of my parents that they were among those whom he selected for this onerous task. Of course, I was too young to know what was going on. But even if I had been old enough, my parents would not have discussed this matter until I was asleep in my bed. I can imagine that my father was immediately convinced that this was a task that the Lord placed on his path. My mother probably thought so too, but my father’s conviction allowed her to voice the objections. Where do we hide them? We cannot risk putting Alice’s life in danger! And we have no idea how long this war will last! What if the Germans find out? Then we will all die! What if the Jews get sick? And how do we keep it a secret? But soon all the concerns faded to background. My parents were already making plans. A hiding place could be constructed upstairs. The cupboard in the spare bedroom could be enlarged toward the back. Soon the construction started, with the help of my father’s brothers. The back of the original cupboard was replaced with a door that could be locked from the side of the room under construction. Attention was paid to details. The newly created space was decorated with brown-yellow wallpaper. I remember that wallpaper distinctly because after the war my sister and I used to play with our dolls in that room. But of course I do not remember anything of the construction. Neither was I aware of the fact that my parents had opened their home to Alfred and Reina Hen, whom they soon affectionately referred to as “our Jews.” And so it happened that my parents, Jan Hendrik Luiten and Geertruida Klos, became personally involved in the Second World War. NOISES AND WHISPERS I have no early childhood memories of a carefree summer evening, or of a cheerful family gathering. No. My first memories consist of unpleasant noises. I could clearly hear them in my bedroom when my uncles and aunt visited my parents. It sounded as if they were all talking at the same time, at the top of their voices. Through the closed door of my room I could feel the tension. Something was wrong. My uncles were very agitated. They were discussing the war. They always talked about the war. I got the impression that the situation was getting worse. The voices of my aunts sounded very worried. Once in a while I could clearly hear them sigh. All the voices together sounded restless. It was oppressive. I wished my mother would come to my room. The daytime had bad noises too. There was one sound in particular that scared me. It was quite different from the secretive talking of my family. This sound came from outside. It started as a rhythmic rumble in the distance. As it came closer I could sense its vibration in the air. Then the group of marching German soldiers appeared in full view. Proudly they paraded through our street, loudly stamping their boots to the beat of a song. The sound of the song was aggressive. I vividly remember the words “Ach wehr fahren, ach wehr fahren gegenüber England,” “We will make war, for sure, we will make war with England.” It made me feel terrible. I felt the fear in my stomach. But the most alarming noise may well have been the roar of the fighter planes. I could already hear their faint drone when they were still far away. Slowly the faint drone turned into a deafening rumble, right above our heads. Then it faded away again, like a ripple. It left me wide awake and worried. At the time I did not even understand that these planes were bombers on their way to a target. To my surprise I noticed that the sound of the family gatherings at our house was changing. The uncles and aunts still visited us. We needed each other. But they started to whisper, afraid to be heard. To me their muffled voices were much more unsettling than their loud noises had been. It was clear that my family needed to be very cautious. They were on guard, constantly. No-one else was allowed to hear what they were talking about. Someone could be listening in! A German soldier, or a traitor. It was very unsettling. I tried to be brave. But it was not easy. [caption id="attachment_7419" align="alignright" width="229"] Alice's father, Jan Luiten[/caption] WITHOUT MY FATHER Little did I know that my family had good reasons to be on guard. Not only did we hide two Jews, but my father had made the decision to join the Resistance. Both were serious infractions of the German rule of law. Both were punishable by death. After my father joined the Resistance he did not come home anymore. Often we did not even know where he was. This was very difficult for us. We felt lost and lonely without him. Thankfully our extended family continued to look after us. My grandfather supplied us with bread from his bakery. Another relative, who owned a branch of the well-known grocery chain “Spar,” always made sure that we had a sufficient supply of groceries in the house. My mother’s younger brother and his wife, who were childless, visited us often. Together our relatives were a source of light in these dark days. Not surprisingly, the Germans noticed that my father stopped coming home. His absence seemed convincing proof to them that we were hiding Jews. As a result our family was placed on an even higher level of suspicion. At any time of the day a group of Germans would come to our house, banging on the door with great force and shouting, "Wo Sind die Juden?" "Where are the Jews?" But, however thoroughly they searched our house, they did not find Jews. In no uncertain terms they questioned my mother about my father. Boldly she would enter into an argument with them, explaining that they had no reason to be suspicious. With brave determination she dodged their questions about my father, calmly stating that she expected him home in the next day or so. My mother would always take extra time for bringing me to bed on days that the Germans had searched our house. "Where is Papa?," I would ask her. She could not say. But she prayed with me, and sang songs. Her soothing voice helped me to feel safe again. It was during these dark days that my sister Hinke was born. One morning it was not my mother who called me out of bed, but Tante Aaltje, my aunt. I was very surprised. I was even more surprised when I noticed that my mother did not come to the breakfast table. She was staying in bed. That was not like her at all. But, thankfully, Tante Aaltje took charge of the things my mom usually did. She was also the one who told me that I had received a sister. I did not know what to think. Where did the sister come from? Where would she sleep? Tante Aaltje suggested that I should see the baby. But I was not sure. Everything felt unreal and scary. Soon I realized that things had changed. My mom and I were not together anymore. We were joined by a little person who needed care around the clock. It was sad that we could not tell my father about our baby sister, because we did not know where he was. Would things ever become normal again? I kept asking about my father. And I always received the same answer. We did not know where he was, or when he would come back. We were not even sure if he was still alive. Over time this uncertainty became our new normal. We accepted the pain of not-knowing and forced ourselves to carry on. For my mother this new normal included looking after the Jews upstairs. Then we received the devastating news that my father had been caught by the Germans. He had been transported to a concentration camp in Germany. I did not fully know what that meant. But I did understand that his situation had become dreadful. And that he might die. I felt lost. I wanted to cry. Everybody seemed numb. The silence did not feel right. But at that moment there were no words. Only sighs. And silent prayers. THE WORST OF TIMES The news that my father had been caught changed the way I looked at things. I gave up hoping that he might come home soon. I started to imagine how we would live without him. I was sure that my mom would manage well. The evidence was clear. She kept looking after her regular commitments. She took care of my sister. She kept our house tidy and clean. And she prepared the meals with the groceries that our family provided. At the time I did not understand how lonely she must have been. One day I noticed that my mother took a tray with food upstairs. I was confused. Maybe she brought it to her bedroom for a late-night snack. But I could not figure out exactly where she took it.  I sensed that it was not any of my business to ask about it. But boldly I asked her anyway. “Mom, where are you going with the food?” Without blinking an eye my Mom answered, “I am looking after a sick dog.” That was exciting! It had never occurred to me that the secret would be a surprise for me! My imagination soared. Soon my mom would take a healthy dog downstairs, and I would have a playmate. I would take the dog for walks. I could look after feeding him. And maybe he could sleep in bed with me. At the first opportunity I shared the exciting news with my friend next door. The friend hastened to tell her mother. At that point the situation took an unexpected turn. My friend’s mother rushed over to our house. She talked to my mom in a hushed, but agitated voice. Only after the war I was told what transpired in the conversation. The neighbour lady explained to my mom that soon the whole neighbourhood would know that she was bringing food upstairs for a sick dog. But they would very likely understand that we did not have a sick dog upstairs. And not all the neighbours could be trusted. My mother should be careful not to draw any attention to our house. We were already under suspicion! But I think that the Germans had made up their mind already at that point. Their suspicion that there were Jews in our house was all but proven. They were dead-set on finding them. One day we heard the loud singing and stamping of marching soldiers in our street. It stopped at our house. We were holding our breath. But soon all doubt was removed. After a loud knock a large number of German soldiers barged inside. Suddenly the house was filled with dark-grey uniforms and Wehrmacht army caps. My mother placed her arms securely around me. The soldiers searched for a long time, especially upstairs. But again, their search was unsuccessful. Venting their anger they grabbed my mom by the throat and kicked her into the hallway closet. Then a soldier looked at me, picked me up and threw me into the cupboard too. Another soldier started to kick me viciously. I felt the blows of his heavy boots on the lower part of my back. It was hurting badly. Their kicks damaged my spine. For life. The incident in the closet changed me. It destroyed my hope that things would get back to normal. I lost my childlike optimism. The Germans would undoubtedly come back to our house. My father was gone. Dead maybe. My back hurt. I was concerned for my little sister. I was confused by the secrets. But I felt safe with my mom. And I loved it when the relatives came. Thankfully my family had an inner resilience. They had a faith that passed understanding. I felt that. NO MORE WAR A while later I noticed that the conversations of the relatives were changing again, slowly but surely. But this time it felt like a good change. Their voices became less hushed and more cheerful. Excited even. Other things changed as well. The German soldiers were not marching through the streets of Enschede anymore. Their bragging songs had stopped. Then the exuberance broke loose. The war was over! It took a while for me to understand what it meant to live without fear for the enemy. The marching Germans had disappeared. There were no strange secrets anymore. But there were surprises. One day my mother called me to the kitchen. Two people were sitting at the table. A man and a woman. I had never seen them before. My mother told me that these people were Jews. They had lived upstairs in a secret room. My eyes must have been wide with surprise and my mouth probably fell open. The Germans were right then. We had been hiding Jews. Our Jewish guests turned out to be good company. It was very nice to have them in our house. Not much later the relatives began to discuss the Dutch Resistance workers in the German concentration camps. Supposedly many of them had started to walk home from the camps. That was very good news! Filled with new hope I asked my mother when my father would be coming home. To my disappointment she told me that we could not be sure that he was coming back. He could have died. In the camp. Or on the way home. That worried me. But I remained hopeful. My hope started to soar when my mother told me a few days later that trains had been arranged to bring the liberated prisoners home. A train was scheduled to arrive at the Enschede railway station once a day. Names of passengers could not be provided. Although there was no certainty that my father would be on one of the trains, this was very good news. On the day that the first train was to arrive we got up early. It would take us about an hour to walk from our home on the outskirts of Enschede to the railway station in the centre of town. And we surely did not want to be late. We left the house in high spirits. My sister sat up in the stroller which my mother pushed with joyful determination. And I walked, hopped and skipped the whole way. As we came closer to the railway station we met several other excited people. This would be a day of happy reunion. It could be. We knew that not everyone would come back. But we wanted to be hopeful. We arrived at the train station plenty on time. The wait was long. But finally we could see the train in the far distance. It came closer and closer till it screeched to a halt. The doors opened. Strange-looking men came out. Their eyes were hollow and their bodies had points sticking out at the shoulders, the hips, and the knees. All the women looked closely to see if they recognized these strange men. Soon shouts of joy filled the air. But my mom was not showing any excitement. However hard she looked, she was not able to pick out my dad. Slowly it started to dawn on us. He was not on the train. The way home seemed very long. My mother was crying. But the next day we went again, in good cheer. We were convinced that this would be day that my father would have made it on the train. If he was alive. But again he was not there. On the way home I looked at my mother. She was crying. And so it went, for what seemed an endless number of days. Every morning again we left hopeful; and every afternoon we came home sad. Then the trains stopped coming. My mother was informed that the transportation of liberated prisoners to Enschede was completed. I decided not to believe any rumours anymore. The devastation of false hope was more hurtful than the nagging pain of hopelessness. I tried to stop thinking about my father. Life continued. I helped my mom and I spent time with my friends. One day I was playing in our backyard with some of the neighbour girls. Suddenly we heard happy shouts and laughter coming from our house. My mother appeared in the door opening and started calling my name. I ran over to her, curious to hear what was going on. “Alice! Sweet girl! Dad has come home!” What? Really? I could hardly believe it. Overjoyed I rushed inside. I ran into the kitchen. There was a man sitting at the table. I stopped in my tracks. Was that my father? He talked to me. “Hi Alice,” he said. “I am so glad to see you again. Mom was right. You have grown into a beautiful girl.” Gently he reached down to hug me, but I drew back. This man could not be my father. He did not look one bit like the wedding picture that we had treasured so dearly during his absence. And he stank terribly. I was scared. I looked up at my mom, and ran away. My mom did not call me back. At the end of the day she asked me if I would kiss my father goodnight. But I couldn’t. The next morning “our Jews” joined our family for coffee. We had a nice time with each other. It was clear that Mr. Hen and the man who said he was my father knew each other well. My supposed father used Mr. Hen’s nickname, “Frans,” rather than his formal name “Alfred.” It made me think. I was still not sure that this strange man was my father, but I was starting to consider the possibility. Mr. Hen must have been watching me. Turning towards me, he said, “Alice, do you trust me?” I had to think about that for a minute. Then I nodded. “Very well,” he continued, “Would you believe me if I said that this strange man is your father?” After a pause, I nodded again. Mr. Hen had one last question. “Would you give your father a little kiss to show him how happy you are that he came back?” I decided to stand up. Slowly I walked over to my Dad. He smiled at me. Then I did it. I gave him a little kiss. It was scary. And it was good. I was only five years old when I reconnected with my father. But the connection lasted till death parted us. And his memories are alive in my heart. From this moment on “our Jews” became our honourary relatives: Uncle Frans and Aunt Reina. It took time before my Dad was ready to share his story with us. He never told us the whole truth. He was not able to. He left out the most painful, most disturbing parts. He did not want to relive them, and he wanted to spare us the extent of his misery. And no one prodded him. He did, however, share the story of his liberation from the concentration camp. The Resistance workers in the concentration camp were never officially informed that the Germans had surrendered. But when the rumours of the German capitulation were eventually confirmed, the prisoners started to escape in small groups. My father and two other captives decided to undertake the journey home together. It was not an easy trip. Much of their physical strength had been lost due to the hard labour, mistreatment and malnutrition during their camp years. But they were helped along the way by German farmers. They discovered that many Germans had hated the war. These people were grateful for the opportunity to provide hospitality to the survivors of the camps. After several weeks my father and his two friends arrived at the border-crossing between Germany and the Netherlands, not far from Enschede. It was a very emotional moment. Soon they would embrace their loved ones again. They did not know what had happened to them in their absence. Maybe not all of them would have survived the war. But they trusted that the Lord, who had stood by them in their dark hours, would also have cared for their loved ones. In that confidence the three men traveled their final miles back to their families. THE WAR REMEMBERED The war may have been over, but its horror continued in my soul. Throughout my childhood I relived the fear that I felt when the roaring fighter planes dropped their bombs on our town. For many years I had nightmares about the sight and sound of these low-flying bombers. In these dreams I vividly heard the rumbling roar of bombs that fell on homes and stores, reducing them to ruins. I would wake up in a sweat and run to my mother’s bedroom. She comforted me with tight hugs and soothing words. I did not know at the time that these bombings were accidental droppings by American planes that missed their targets in Germany. After the war our family stayed in close contact with Uncle Frans and Aunt Reina. They found a place to live not far from our home. This provided us with the opportunity to visit each other regularly. Together the families reminisced about the hiding years. I was impressed to hear that Uncle Frans had kept himself busy with reading as well as writing. Together with other Jews who survived the war they decided to rebuild the synagogue in Enschede. When the restoration was completed they invited my parents for a tour. To their joy my parents accepted the invitation. Soon I was old enough to help Aunt Reina with small housekeeping chores. There was always something to do, the more so after the birth of their son. On Saturdays I had a special task. They did not do any work on that day of the week as it was set aside as the Sabbath. They could not even switch on a light. However, they did not object if I performed this task for them. Aunt Reina then treated me to a piece of delicious cake which she had baked the day before. Eventually the three of them emigrated to Toronto, where Uncle Frans started a successful tailor business. But their immigration did not prevent us from staying in touch with each other. My Dad needed to regain his strength. But in due time he, my mother and our dear relatives were all convinced that he was ready to return to work. Without delay he contacted the textile factory where he worked before he was taken prisoner. It was a great joy for him to hear that his previous position was available! I am sure that it made his transition from captive Resistance worker in a concentration camp to fulltime employee much easier. The fact that I passed his place of work every day on my way to and from school made it even more wonderful. What a big difference for me, from fearing that you might never see your father again, to walking by his workplace twice a day. I was very happy. A number of years later my brother Andre was born. We were very excited, and exceedingly thankful for our abundant blessings: health, family, friends, food, employment, and now a baby brother who was born in a time of peace. Several years later our family of five emigrated to Carman, a small town in Manitoba. Our correspondence with Uncle Frans and Aunt Reina gained a new dimension. We could understand their situation much better having experienced an emigration ourselves. My mother sealed the mutual friendship when she traveled by plane to Toronto. She was a brave, loyal woman. And my father was proud of her.

****

[caption id="attachment_7420" align="alignright" width="250"] The house today: Alfred and Reina Hen hid in the attic[/caption] Several decades later it was me who made a historic trip, together with my husband Bert. We had decided to pay a visit to the country of our birth. One place we were sure to visit was Enschede. I was eager to show him the place where I was born. It was not difficult for me to find the old family home. “Bert, here it is,” I said. As I was saying these words, the present merged with the past. This was the place where I was born. In this house the Jews were hidden. Here it was where I had suffered the fear of separation from my father. Here it was that I endured the house-searches by the Germans. Here it was that I was kicked into the hallway cupboard by German soldiers. As I was sharing these stories with my husband, the front door opened. A woman stepped outside. “Are you looking for someone?” she asked. “No, this is the place where I was born,” I answered spontaneously. Immediately the woman opened the door wide and invited us in. But I was hesitant. Would it be appropriate to accept her invitation? Would I not impose on her privacy? But Bert put a bit of pressure on me. He would not want me to have regrets later, and he was curious to see the house. I felt a bit tense as we walked through the front door. Tentatively I looked around. The house was not as big as I remembered. But I recognized the hallway, the door to the living room, the kitchen. We went upstairs. The lady explained that her husband was working on some renovations. With anticipation I turned my head to the place where I expected the entrance to the hiding place. But all I saw was a wall with holes and loose boards on the floor. The husband was taking the hiding place out, board by board. Then, with a shock, I noticed that the brown-yellow wallpaper was still covering the walls. “This is the hiding place,” I uttered. “Our Jews lived here.” “Really?” the lady called out. “Please tell me more about your parents, and about the people that lived here in hiding.”

****

Throughout my life I have often reflected on the war in the Netherlands. At the time I saw it through the eyes of a child. I feared the marching Germans. I was worried about my father. But I found comfort and safety in the arms of my mother. Now I have reached the age of the strong. Over the years I have learned to see the magnitude of the Second World War. Entire nations lived in fear. Many Jewish families were killed. Healthy young men died a horrible death, on both sides of the war. And wars continue to be waged. Yet, I have also learned to trust the Lord. We do not have to fear. He is our shield and our tower, our comfort in life and in death.

This first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2018 issue.

Culture Clashes

The subterranean origins of certain Equality and Justice doctrines

A Page From Hell's Playbook

****

If I were the devil – which some of you may believe after reading on – if my sworn mission was to devour the Christian faith from the inside out, then here is what I would not do. I would not slither into a Sunday service, breathing blasphemy and dragon fire, bragging about my triumphs at Auschwitz, commanding the congregation, “Deny that God is God!” I would not be an idiot. If I was the devil… I would dress up to look like justice, compassion, or equity, or some other ideal Christians would be quick to “Amen!” I would sink my teeth and suck the true, biblical content from those words – not that many of the Enemy’s people know the true, biblical content of those words to begin with – and then inject it with the venom of new meaning, a meaning that is antithetical to the Enemy’s definition of such silly words. Then I could get nearly every faithful Tom, Dick, and Sally to deny the Godhood of God while they think they are merely being more just and compassionate. I could get them to deny the Gospel itself while they think they are merely caring for the oppressed. Even better, I will include in that injection certain policies that are almost certain to further hurt the oppressed, the same policies I’ve used over and over to crush image-bearers. It’s the perfect evil trifecta I try to achieve in all my ploys. Rob worship from the Enemy, dupe the Enemy’s church, and inflict even more oppression on as much of that despicable race who bears the Enemy’s obnoxious image as possible. The oldest trick in the book Consider "equity," one of my favorite words. The ideologues use it often, but I’ve smuggled it into the average person’s mind under the common objection, “That’s not fair!” It’s literally the oldest trick in my book. When the first of the Enemy’s image-bearers stood at the tree, I convinced them that God and God alone knowing good and evil wasn’t fair. Why shouldn’t there be equity between Creator and creature? I like to think that I did my job so well that when they took the first bite they believed they were doing justice, righting some cosmic inequity by trying to equalize the powerful Have from the powerless Have Nots. It was the same trick I pulled with great success in Germany several millennia later. “Why should all the Jews be doing so well? Of course it’s because of their sinister plot to keep you Germans down. Wipe out their race and equity and justice will return to your beloved Deutschland.” And they fell for it, the damned fools, to the destruction of millions of Jewish souls. I robbed God of worship as they worshipped their Fuhrer, I duped much of the German church, and I inflicted even more carnage and misery on the Enemy’s image-bearers. And all under the guise of equity and justice. Those three powerful words: It’s–not–fair. I had the Soviet’s repeat it like liturgy about the Kulaks in Ukraine, “Why should they be such lucrative farmers while we scrounge.” I had the French revolutionaries singing hymns about equality, sowing the word egalite into their protest banners, while their guillotines fell and their Age of Equality became my Reign of Terror. And what was Marxism but a rallying cry for equality between the rich and poor, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat? I managed to turn the 20th century cry for economic inequality into state worship and obliterate over 100 million of the Enemy’s image-bearers in less than a hundred years. A million-plus per year, one of my finest centuries. History repeats And here we are in the 21st century, and, I can hardly believe it, they seem to be falling for the same old trick all over again. Wrap the Anthrax in something shiny, conceal the poison in an apple, dress the monster up like an angel, use words like “justice” and “equity” and “compassion” to describe tyranny, and the Enemy’s image-bearers will almost always take the fruit, open the anthrax, embrace the monster, and help me usher in tyranny every time. Fools. They deserve the ruin I relish bringing them. Yes, there have been a few – Douglass and Tubman in America, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, and Havel in Eastern Europe, the Scholl siblings and Bonheoffer’s resistance in Germany, to name a few from that loathsome cadre – who have exposed my plot. But few listen to them. And the Enemy’s image-bearers have such lousy memories and so few good historians, that I can roll out the same devious plot within a generation and no one is the wiser. I’ve got the majority on my side and the majority would kiss a snake, club a grandma, or crush a baby if I told them it was for "justice."

Dr. Thaddeus Williams serves as Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Biola University. This article is an excerpt from his upcoming book “21 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice” and is reprinted with permission from the publisher. It is a homage of sorts to C.S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters" and if you liked to learn more about Lewis's book you should click here. If, on the other hand, you would like to hear more of Dr. Williams thoughts on social justice, check out the 30-minute interview below on the topic of "How should Christians think about social justice?" on the Think Biblically: Conversations on faith and culture podcast.


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Adult fiction, Book Reviews, Teen fiction

Devilish correspondence: Lord Foulgrin’s and Screwtape’s letters

THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS200 pages / 1942by C. S. Lewis &LORD FOULGRIN'S LETTERS208 pages / 2001by Randy Alcorn Some 75 years ago, as C. S. Lewis reports it, he intercepted correspondence between two devils, the one a senior demon and the other his student being taught how best to tempt and attack Man. While Lewis refused to share how he’d come by these letters, the published correspondence was eye-opening, giving insight into how the Devil can twist not only our weaknesses, but even our strengths, to his devilish ends. So, for example, we get to listen in as the experienced tempter Screwtape teaches his charge, Wormwood to sidetrack prayer, either by making it perfunctory – perhaps done regularly, but with little to no thought – or by making it feelings, rather than God, focused. Either diversion will do. While Lewis wrote (or discovered) The Screwtape Letters during World War II, it remains as insightful and as helpful as ever. But it was also a book worthy of imitation, and nearly 60 years later Randy Alcorn did just that, with his Lord Foulgrin’s Letters. However, while Lewis stuck strictly to devilish correspondence, Alcorn alternates between letters and story chapters – it is half mail, and half narrative. The narrative sections make Alcorn’s book a little more accessible for a teen audience, while, on the other hand, Lewis’ is the more insightful, which also makes it the most satisfying of the two for adults. But both are excellent. One caution: both books have an Arminian flavor, and, as my brother Jeff points out, “whether this Arminian tendency is simply the devil’s mistaken understanding is not clear, but Lewis at least seemed to be Arminian in his other writing.” That means, while both books can serve as a warning of the devil’s many means of attack, there’s at least a few that Lewis and Alcorn overlook. I understand that some might find the devilish focus of both books disturbing. It might seem wrong since Christians don’t normally want their children reading books about demons. What makes Alcorn’s and Lewis’ books different from the devilish taint that exists in so much of today’s entertainment (Hellboy, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, DC Legends of Tomorrow, etc.) is that Lewis and Alcorn expose, but don’t celebrate, the darkness. They are equipping readers to be aware of the Devil, not asking them to join him. That’s quite the difference indeed. Below is a 8 minute adaptation/preview of Lewis's "The Screwtape letters." ...

Adult fiction, Book Reviews, Teen fiction

3 provocative, powerful, PG-rated, dystopian novels

The best dystopian books warn us of an undesirable future that seems far too likely for our peace of mind. The most famous examples are 1984 and Brave New World and while these are very important books, both have sexual content that make them problematic to discuss in a high school setting. But there are fantastic alternatives that are every bit as challenging and thought-provoking and yet don't bring in the sexual content. The most "explicit" of the three below is Time Will Run Back in which sex is mentioned but only in the context of the government mandate that no one can pair up for longer than a month, lest they form familial bonds that compete with the bonds they should have to the State. Nothing titillating here. What we're left with are provocative PG-rated stories and that'll allow parents and teens to enjoy and discuss them together. ***** WINTERFLIGHT by Joseph Bayly 1981 / 216 pages In this dystopian novel, Joseph Bayly takes us to a not-so-distant future in which abortion for disabled children is mandatory, euthanasia is compulsory soon after 75, and Christians are so confused about Romans 13 they think God wants them to submit to even these demands. When Jonathan and Grace Stanton's six-year-old son Stephen falls off his bike, they don't know what to do. The fall was minor, but their son has hemophilia and he needs treatment. But the law says he shouldn't exist: had his condition been diagnosed prenatally the State would have required that he be aborted. Stephen survived only because he mother never visited a doctor during her pregnancy, and when the time came a friend helped her have a home birth. Now the Stanton's wonder what the State might do, even six years later, if they bring their son in to see a doctor. Do they dare find out? Winterflight was written almost 40 years ago, but it got my heart racing – it all seemed far too probable for my liking. Abortion is already being used to "cure" genetic disabilities like Down Syndrome and while it isn't mandatory, pressure from doctors and culture are such that in some countries 98% of Down Syndrome children are killed before birth. When it comes to killing the elderly, we don't demand their deaths at 75, but we are already exploring the cost savings that can be had from their early departure. In countries where euthanasia has been legal longer, there are regular reports of involuntary killings. In Canada, attempts are already being made to make involvement on some level mandatory for all doctors. But what hits closest to home is Bayly's portrayal of the confused Christian response to these government abuses. When Grace's elderly father is told he must report soon to be euthanized, their misunderstanding of Scripture has them thinking that they need to obey the governing authorities even in this, since those authorities are appointed by God (Romans 13:1). But at the same time, in saving their son, the Stantons show that on some level they do understand we must sometimes defy the State. Is their confusion realistic? We'd never march ourselves off to the local euthanasia clinic just because the government demanded it. But why would we resist? Do we understand on what biblical basis we could reject such demands from the "governing authorities"? During World War II there was confusion on this point among some good Reformed Dutchmen. Among those who joined the Resistance, some felt guilty about it because they were worried that in acting against the Nazis they were resisting God's chosen rulers. The confusion persists today. Even as we know the government shouldn't mandate euthanasia – even as we recognize that there are limits to their power – many Christians will still turn to the government asking it to solve our problems. We understand the government has limits, and yet we'll also ask them to do more and more. We are confused. And that's what makes this book such a fantastic read - the discussion it'll prompt is one we need to have. Cautions There are just a couple cautions to note. First, there is a small bit of language – I think "damn" might be used two or three times. Second, without giving away the ending, when the book was first published some Christians misunderstood the ending as being prescriptive – they thought the actions of the book's confused Christians were what we should do. So it's important to understand that's not so. These are confused Christians, under enormous pressure, acting in a confused way and the author is not endorsing their actions. In fact, the book is primarily about warning us not to do as they do. Conclusion This is a fantastic dystopian novel, as prophetic as they come, and certainly unlike any other Christian fiction you've read. The topic matter is weighty, but because there's nothing graphic this could be appropriate for as young as early teens. However the younger a reader might be, the more they'll need a guide to steer their interaction with the story, and particularly the not-at-all happy ending. It would also make great book club material, with fodder for some fantastic discussions. ***** TIME WILL RUN BACK by Henry Hazlitt 368 pages / 1951 As novels go, this is intriguing. As economics textbooks go it is downright amazing. Like 1984... In Time Will Run Back author Henry Hazlitt envisions a future in which the communists won and have been in power for more than 100 years. As Henry Hazlitt himself acknowledges, his novel bears some similarities to 1984 (published two years earlier) since both take place in a dystopian future in which the government manages every aspect of citizens' lives. But Hazlitt didn't read 1984 until after he had finished the first draft of his own book, so no plagiarism was involved. Instead, as Hazlitt puts it, authors like Orwell, Aldous Huxley (and his Brave New World) and himself were: plagiarizing from the actual nightmare created by Lenin, Hitler and Stalin....All the writers had done was to add a few logical extensions not yet generally foreseen. In Hazlitt's envisioned future the government has not only taken over the capitalist West, but they've wiped away any memory of capitalism, even editing Karl Marx's books so that no one could deduce from them what sort of economic system it was that Marx was writing against. Into this setting Hazlitt places the ultimate outsider. The world dictator's son, Peter Uldanov, has grown up far away from his father, isolated on a Bahama island. When his mother and father split, he agreed to let her take Peter, so long as she agreed not to teach Peter anything about history, politics or economics. So when the world dictator calls his now adult son to Moscow and informs Peter that he is to succeed his father as dictator, father first has to bring son up to speed in these three key areas. Peter's education takes up the first third of the book, though there is some palace-intrigue as well: the second-ranking member of the ruling Politburo is eager to see Peter dead, but doesn't want to be caught doing the deed. ...and Screwtape Letters This first third bears more than a passing resemblance to C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, with Peter's teacher filling the role of the elder Screwtape explaining to his younger devilish charge why they do things the way they do them. For example, at one point Politburo member Adams and Orlov, the editor of the world's state-approved and only remaining newspaper, explain to Peter how what is carried in the paper has nothing to do with the truth, but instead has to do with what is useful for the masses to hear. It turns out "what is useful" can be hard to determine. "It is for the Politburo to decide, for example, whether we shall say that the production record is very bad, in order to exhort and sting everyone to greater output; or whether we shall say that it is very good, in order to show how well the regime is doing and to emphasize the blessing of living under it." "These decisions are sometimes very difficult," Adams put in. "We often find that a zigzag course is best. For example, if goods are shoddy and fall apart, or if too many size nine shoes are made and not enough size eight, or if people cannot get enough to eat, there may be grumbling and complaints – or silent dissatisfaction. We must make sure that this unrest does not turn against the regime itself." "Therefore," said Orlov, "we must lead the complaints. We must ourselves pick scapegoats to denounce and punish." In the middle third of the novel Peter takes on the role of the ultimate benevolent dictator. He wants to help his citizens, so he tries desperately to figure out ways to make socialism work. He has the help of his country's greatest minds, and near absolute power, so he is in the best sort of situation to make it work. But try as he might, they can't make it work. The biggest trouble Peter keeps running into is trying to figure out the value of what they are making. They have no money (since no one buys anything, but is instead given what they need) so they can't use price to calculate how valuable one product might be compared to another. And if they can't calculate value, then they also can't determine if the country is producing more overall this year vs. the last. Sheer tonnage is one proposed measure – that could use that to compare how much grain they grew from one year to the next. But even this falls short, because grain can come in different qualities. How then should they evaluate things if one year more grain is produced but of a lower quality, and in another year there is less but of a higher quality? Which was the better year? After ruling out tonnage as a helpful means of measuring output, one alternative after another is proposed only to have the shortcomings of each then exposed. The alert reader will see where this is leading: what this socialistic  economy lacks are markets in which the value of a product is assessed by consumers as a whole. In the final third of the book Peter gets more desperate and more radical in his efforts to make real improvements and give citizens real freedom, and he ends up discovering some economic principles that really help: open competition, property ownership, and the rigorous prosecution of cheats and swindlers. To help his citizens he is forced to invent capitalism! Conclusion Though the book is most obviously about communism, the warning Hazlitt offers here - that freedom and prosperity cannot co-exist with an economic system that prioritizes equality of distribution – is directly applicable to communism's democratic twin, socialism. This book sat on my shelf unread for many years because I didn't believe a world-renown economist could also be a credible novelist. I was wrong. There is a conversation here and there that gets bogged down by the economic lesson Hazlitt is trying to teach, but overall this is not just readable, but engaging and entertaining, able to stand up to comparisons with 1984 and Brave New World, which themselves are not read for their wonderful prose, but rather for their insightful investigations of human nature in the face of tyranny. So this is a readable, intriguing and important novel with a few slow bits. And as an economics textbook, there is none better – Hazlitt makes a strong and compelling case for the free market. The e-book can be had for free here. ***** THE GIVER by Lois Lowry 1993 / 208 pages The Giver is a book that is not specifically Christian, but has been studied in Christian schools and is stocked in our Christian school library. Why? Lois Lowry's novel is a brilliant dystopia - a vision of the future where things have gone horribly wrong. What makes it so brilliant is that in the brief space of a children's novel, Lowry shows, as dystopian novels always do, how the desire to make a utopia leads to disaster. The original Utopia (which literally means "no-place"), by Thomas More (an English Catholic writing around the time of the Reformation), is a vision of an ideal, perfectly regulated society, where people live their lives with leisure and work balanced, and the wealth is fairly shared among all. All these features are appealing, but given human nature, any attempt to build society through regulation will result in the stomping out of individuality and the oppressive power of whatever authority we trust to organize everything. Basically, there is a kind of idolatry of human systems and power. Of course, we know that idols always disappoint, and idols always demand horrible sacrifices. That's what's going on in The Giver. Lowry builds up a picture of an ideal, well-organized society where everyone has his or her specific role set by 12 years old. All the angst of adolescence in our society has been taken care of through this selection of each person's career by the community, as well as by the suppression of the disruptive disturbance of teenage hormones. The result is a village in which there is no significant crime; in which each person is given a specific role and, in return, has all his or her needs are met from cradle to grave by the community; and in which both the physical storms and emotional storms have been subdued by technology. This "sameness," as the narrator calls it, has been maintained for generations. Even the memory of the relative chaos of our own society has been wiped out, but the elders of the village have ensured that the past is not entirely lost, so that in the event of crisis, the elders can learn from it. This is where the main character, Jonas, comes in. At twelve years old, he is given the unique role of the Receiver of the community. What does he receive? The memories of the village before the "sameness" - from the Giver. Jonas's unique knowledge enables him to see what a terrible place our own world is - with war and other suffering - but also what emotional ties like family and romantic love were lost with the oncoming of the "sameness." His own crisis comes when he sees what sacrifices his seemingly utopian village demands to keep its stability. Why would Christians want to read this? The Giver shows us both the beauty and the cost of human emotion and desire, but also the foolishness of playing God in trying to wipe both out by human power. What we need is not liberation from our own humanness, but liberation from the sin which has corrupted our humanness - by the death of Christ - and the redirection of our emotions and desire - by the work of the Spirit. Lowry may not explicitly put us before God's throne, but she does a fine job of knocking down one of the idols that serve as a stumbling block blocking our view of His glory. ...

Adult fiction, Book Reviews

The Man in the Dark

by Douglas Wilson 258 pages / 2019 Some books only merit a quick read, others should be slowly savored, and a select few are so good you just have to read them out loud to your wife. This is that third sort! Savannah Westmoreland, a self-assured school teacher, finds herself in the middle of a love triangle. Except that it wouldn't be accurate to call what the town's biggest businessman feels for her love. Desire...hunger...lust. But not love. And while the church's newly arrived pastor is interested, and seems a worthy sort, he can't get past the walls Savannah has set up. But events – and friends – conspire against Savannah, putting her repeatedly in the pastor's company. And even as he uses these moments to make a good case for his marriable merits, Savannah is still actively discouraging him. Why? Something from her past still has a hold on her. The pastor is trying to get around this obstacle, but the businessman is trying to discover exactly what her secret is so he can use it to control her. This is Douglas Wilson's third novel, but first romance. It is the second of his books that I've read out loud to my wife, the other being Flags out Front. That's really the highest praise I can give a book. But lest you think Wilson is only a two-hit wonder, I'll share that his other novel, Evangellyfish, won Christianity Today's 2012 best fiction award. This man knows how to tell a story. As you might suspect of a book written by a Reformed pastor, there is a lot of theology, from the dinner table conversations to the metaphor underlying the whole story. But conversations about God are a great way to learn about God, and even though the book has a pastor right in the mix, this is not a sermon disguised as a story. This is, instead, great fiction telling something true. And if you think the ending a tad contrived, I might agree with you. But I'd also invite you to consider what the author is saying about this God of wonders that we serve. And speaking of truth-telling, I should own up that as much as I enjoyed reading this out loud to my wife, she didn't get to hear the whole story. That's because when she fell asleep I just had to keep reading. ...

Adult fiction, Book Reviews

Why is dystopian fiction worth reading?

In dystopian fiction we get a glimpse at some sort of looming, foreboding future: maybe it's humans devolving into separate castes (H.G. Wells' Time Machine), mass infertility threatening the end of mankind (P.D. James's The Children of Men), a domineering government repressing all but the elite (Glenn Beck's Agenda 21), or maybe killer robots overrunning the planet (Terminator). The word dystopia is coined from Ancient Greek and means simply "bad place." What makes this a genre worth considering is because the best dystopian fiction is prophetic in nature, warning us of the dangers of a particular ideology (or practice) by showing us the "bad place" we will end up at if we adopt it. Thus there are as many sorts of dystopian novels as there are ideologies. But not all of the warnings given are…credible. Far from prophetic The Canadian "classic" novel and current Netflix hit The Handmaid's Tale warns of a world in which the government uses the trappings of the Christian religion to sexually enslave women. That is so far from where we are, or could conceivably head, that the book isn’t useful – the author is completely wrong and there are no insights to gain from her. (That hasn't stopped the Left from embracing the novel, pretending that Trump's presidency is its very fulfillment.) That lack of credible threat is a problem with many of the teen fiction dystopian series (The Maze Runner, Divergent, and The Hunger Games) that have appeared over the last decade. They might be entertaining, but they aren't prophetic. If we look hard enough we might be able to find something, like The Hunger Games' warning against folks killing and getting killed for the entertainment of the masses. That does have relevance in a culture in which brutal MMA fights are now watched by millions (including ones in which women pummel women) and the NFL remains must-see TV even though it leaves most participants crippled in one way or another. But does that make The Hunger Games worth reading? No. Most teens aren’t likely to make that connection. More importantly, the series presents a dilemma that's likely to confuse its teen audience – the "hero" seems like she will have to either murder others or be murdered herself. Mature Christian will understand that it is better to suffer evil than to commit it, but will younger readers? Two that are each half right So what books do warn of credible threats? The top two would have to be: 1984 - Author George Orwell warns of the State using authoritarian power to so totally subjugate us that, if they insist, we'll say that 2+2 is 5...and believe it! If the idea of the State reconditioning people to spout obvious lies sounds too extreme to be credible, just consider what's happening to people today who say there are only two genders, there's no switching from one to the other, and you need one of each for marriage. Obvious truths, one and all, but if you say them – and we must – Big Brother will want to have words! Imagine what it might look like in ten years' time. Brave New World - Aldous Huxley warns of the State enslaving us not by force but by pleasure. Pain is taken away via the drug soma leaving the population in a generally happy stupor. Some clear parallels can be made to our meek, sheep-like society. Our cradle-to-grave State care leaves us dependent on the government to run more and more of our lives and that's how we like it. And our smartphones, Netflix accounts, opioids, and Twitter feeds leave many citizens in a soma-like stupor – celebrity-aware but politically-illiterate. These two books cover both sides of how we’re being hit today – the carrot and the stick. As Neil Postman put it: What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that our fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us. The credible threat here isn't from one approach or the other, but from both together. A caution: both books have sexual content. While both books have sexual content, in 1984 it is shorter and boring – there isn’t much pleasure taken in it. (And that’s the point; the government doesn’t want sexual ties creating divided loyalties, so they’ve done what they can to make it boring). A great G-rated 1954 film-version does away with the sexual content, so it could be shared with older teens with little worry, while the book might require more maturity. But Brave New World, with its focus on the enticements of pleasure, has more sexual content, and while it's still not explicit, it might be something that a hormone-riddled teen boy could struggle with. The rating site Common Sense Media (family-friendly, but not specifically Christian) suggests that 1984 is for 16 and up, and Brave New World would be for 14 and up, but I would reverse those and maybe even hold off Brave New World for college-age and up. (Interestingly, the kid's reviews on Common Sense Media also rates Brave New World as more problematic than 1984). Other warnings worth hearing In the other books, and films, that fill out this genre, the most common threat is probably killer robots (2001: A Space Odyssey; Prey; Terminator; The Matrix; etc.). Technological advances mean there’s a legitimate reason for concern here, but it shouldn’t be our principal concern. We differ from the world in that we understand that we should not fear “them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28). Our true battle is: not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12). What Paul means here by “flesh and blood” is Man and all his deadly weapons...including killer robots. But if that's not where the real battle is at, then where should we focus our attention? Our concern is the Devil and all the means he uses – including false ideologies and philosophies – to confuse our understanding of God, or pressure us to reject Him, or try to keep us from learning about Him. With that in mind some credible threats worth considering include: Lord of the Flies - William Golding warns us not to be naive about our sinful nature; Man, left to his own devices is no angel. The Giver - Lois Lowry warns again enforcing sameness in the name of equality (it is aimed at young readers, but adults can enjoy and be challenged by it too). Time Will Run Back Henry Hazlitt warns against Communism specifically, but socialism in general. This would be for older teens, not because of problematic content (this is far "safer" than Brave New World or 1984) but simply because of the depth and breadth of the ideas therein. This is my own favorite dystopian novel because I found it by far the most educational. Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury warns of censorship, though I wonder if the type of censorship he warns about is far less likely than the creeping political correctness we actually face. There is content here too problematic for younger readers to handle. Winterflight - Joseph Bayly takes us to a not-so-distant future in which abortion for disabled children is mandatory, euthanasia is compulsory soon after 75, and Christians are so confused about Romans 13 they think God wants them to submit to even these demands (the Christian confusion in this book is almost too spot on to take). Fatherless, Childless, Godless - James Dobson’s 3-book series warns against abortion’s results - a shrinking population. (One thing that bothers me about this series is how it occasionally takes God's name in vain. That happens in other books listed here too, but they aren't by Christian authors, and I expect more from Dr. Dobson.) This is a genre well worth exploring, though with care and caution. It's a big blank canvas that insightful writers can use to paint pictures of grim futures, all in the hopes that they, and we, will ensure such futures never come to be....

Adult fiction

4 great Christian novels

If the fiction section in your local Christian bookstore is all-Amish all the time, then here are 4 recommendations of a very different sort: a fictional biography, a modern-day myth, a Western of sorts, and a super hero epic....sort of. What links them all is that they are all Christian adult fiction, and they are all really good reads! Redeeming love by Francine Rivers 1997 / 464 pages They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and that was never more true than with Francine River’s novel Redeeming Love. When it first appeared on bookshelves it was marketed with a schmaltzy romance cover. Two Reformed ministers told me it was fantastic, but I couldn't get over the cover. I only got around to reading it a year or two later, after it came out with a much more subdued cover, one that I could walk around in public without all the other boys making fun of me. It was worth the wait. A powerful, poignant, even brilliant novel, it tells the story of Michael Hosea, a settler in the California of 1850. The story is inspired by the biblical book of Hosea, and the true power of the story is in how it forces the reader back to the Bible to reexamine a small prophetic book many have overlooked. You can’t help but study the book of Hosea after reading this novel. If you are well acquainted with Hosea you’ll understand why this novel comes with a “PG-13” rating. The prophet Hosea, after all, marries a prostitute, and Francine Rivers closely parallels those facts in her account. So some disturbing subject matter is dealt with that probably isn’t suitable for young teens. Now, I'm always leery of books that purport to be fictionalized retellings of biblical stories, and with good reason. I remember one novel about the apostle Paul that left readers with the impression that he and James actually disagreed as to the importance of works, which is entirely untrue. Francine Rivers also has a number of fictionalized biographies of biblical characters and because fact is mixed with fiction it is so very hard, after reading one of those stories, to remember just what the Bible really says. So, I don't thinking fictionalized Bible tales are a great idea. But because this is inspired by, rather than purporting to be, the book of Hosea, Redeeming Love is something else entirely. It would be hard to confuse this with the original source material. And yet, it is an insightful parallel of Hosea that might make this somewhat mystifying Bible book a little more understandable for some readers. Steal Away Home: Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson by Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey 290 pages / 2017 This is two biographies in one, about the little know relationship between the "Prince of Preachers" Charles Haddon Spurgeon and a former slave, Thomas Johnson. The men couldn't have grown up in more different circumstances. Spurgeon was in the United Kingdom, and establishing his reputation as "the Prince of Preacher" while Thomas Johnson was still a slave in the America. Johnson first heard Spurgeon's name mentioned when the preacher's sermons and books were being burnt by slavery-defenders in the South. They didn't like the strong and clearly biblical way that Spurgeon had been denouncing slavery.  When emancipation came and Johnson was freed he also became a preacher. And with his heart inclined to the mission field in Africa, he eventually ends up at Spurgeon's bible college where the two meet and become friends. Perhaps one reason they became friends was because Spurgeon struggled throughout this life with depression, and his young friend Johnson knew something of that too, borne out of his despair as a slave. As true Christians brothers, they are a help and a companion to one each other. While these two men are both real, I should note this is a fictionalized account. That means that while the broad details are all true, and much of the dialogue is taken from the men's works, this work should only be enjoyed for the general impression, not the specific details, it provides of their friendship. I'll give one example of how this mix of fact and fiction does, on the one hand, stay very true to reality, but on the other hand, can give a bit of an inaccurate impression. When we read of how Spurgeon proposes to his wife-to-be, he comes off as quite the Prince Charming with all the right words, the perfect thoughtful present, and just the right timing. However, the authors have compacted the evening's events from events that took place over more than the one occasion. The facts are true, but this compaction of the timeline, to keep the story flowing, makes Spurgeon seem to be quite the suave fellow – super suave even. Steal Away Home is a wonderfully readable book, and attractively put together too. You aren't supposed to judge a book by its cover but it's wonderful when a good cover can give a reluctant reader just the encouragement they need to get started. I'd recommend this to anyone with an interest in Church history, or in knowing more about the American South during slavery and after, or anyone who enjoys historical fiction or biographies. Flags out Front by Douglas Wilson 196 pages / 2017 Flags out Front asks, what if a Christian leader took a stand on principle and, no matter what pressure came, just would not back down? What might happen if, instead of wilting under that pressure, he fought back fearlessly? Now, like Luther, Tom Collins didn’t set out to cause a fuss. This "mild mannered president of a dwindling southern" Bible college arrives on campus one day to find a prankster has swapped a couple of the flags at the campus entrance. Now, instead of the American flag flying above all, the Christian flag waves from on high, with the Stars and Stripes just below. Collins doesn't know quite what to think. But, upon reflection, he concludes the change is one he's content to leave be. Then the phone calls start coming. Conservative, patriotic sorts, wonder why the American flag is not in its central place. He hears from the other side too, from those who'd be happy enough to burn the flag, but don't want to see it waving below a Christian flag. Protests to the right, threats from the left, and yet Collins stands his ground. And he's willing to stand alone. But his resolve is inspiring, and alone is the one thing he won't be. Quiet, meek, Dr. Collins becomes the rally point for Christians of all sorts...including some clever college students who know how to make some noise. This is how is should be, and, maybe could be. Who knows what God would do with a fearless few? Actually, we already know: this year we're celebrating the 500th anniversary of the firestorm God started with one monk and his mallet. Flags out Front is a funny, clever, political feel-good novel that most anyone would enjoy, particularly if you want to be inspired as to how Christians can do politics differently. I've foisted this off on a number of friends and family (and read about half of it out loud to my wife) and the response has been enthused all around. Chasing Fireflies by Charles Martin 340 pages / 2007 This is part murder mystery, part adoption story (times two), and part...well, super hero epic. The murder mystery is an old one, and the person trying to solve is Chase Walker, journalist, and formerly a foster kid who bounced around from one house to another until he arrived on the doorstep of “Unc” and that's where he stayed. The murder victims are Unc's father and first wife, and while the police think the case is settled, Chase is not so sure. The adoption-story-times-two involves Chase, adopted by Unc, and a nameless boy who was so badly abused his vocal chords have been damaged, leaving him mute. With Chase all grown up, Unc has space in his heart, and in his home, for another boy in need. The super-hero of the story is Unc himself, a man so good as to be a bit unreal. That's the story's weakness, but also a lot of its charm. Unc is the father figure that us fathers want to be. He most often knows just the right thing to do or say. When Chase, as a boy, gets it into his head that his father is finally coming to get him, Unc does what he can to sooth the boy’s disappointment. Unc walked up next to me and hung his arms across the fence railing. In his hands he held an empty mason jar with holes punched in the lid. He stood there a long time turning the jar. Inside, a single lightning bug fluttered off the sides of the glass. Every five or six seconds, he’d light his lantern. Unc turned the jar in his hand. “Scientists say that these things evolved this way over million of years.” He shook his head. “That’s a bunch of bunk. I don’t think an animal can just all-of-a-sudden decide it wants to make light grow out its butt. What kind of nonsense is that? Animals don’t make light.” He pointed to the stars.” God does that. I don’t know why or how, but I am pretty sure it’s not chance. It’s not some haphazard thing He does in His spare time.” He looked at me, and his expression changed from one of wonder to seriousness, to absolute conviction. “Chase, I don’t believe in chance.” He held up the jar. “This is not chance, neither are the stars.” He tapped me gently in the chest. “And neither are you. So, if your mind is telling you that God slipped up and might have made one giant mistake when it comes to you, you remember the firefly’s butt.” Maybe Unc is a bit too wise, too patient and too good, but I was okay with that. That’s in part because the author is good at his craft and pulls it off. It’s also because there is something genuine about Unc – this is fatherhood as we want to practice it, this is sacrificial love the way it should be done, and this filling up a kid the way he ought to be. There is truth here. Finally, while Unc may not be entirely realistic, the world he inhabits is. There is some grit here. First off, several people are murdered. Also, one of the people Unc helps is an abused girl who later ran away to become an adult porn star. In addition, the physical abuse the mute boy has suffered is detailed and it included someone pinching and ripping his skin with pliers. That is about as descriptive as it gets, but these elements mean this is a book for adults only. Another caution would be about the hero's faith. While God is made mention of throughout the book, Unc doesn't attend church, though that is in part because he isn't welcome there. He also has a seemingly superstitious understanding of baptism, going to extreme lengths to get someone baptized shortly before their death. But those will be minor matters to Christians with discernment. Chasing Fireflies will likely make you cry, so if you don't like sentimental books, don't start it. On the other hand this is so much better than the average tearjerker because Martin's writing is simply remarkable. Jon Dykstra and his siblings blog on books at www.ReallyGoodReads.com....

Adult fiction, Teen fiction

Katharina, Katharina: the story of Katharina Schutz Zell

by Christine Farenhorst 328 pages / 2017 In the past year, inspired by the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing up his 95 theses (or did he?) I've read about a dozen works on Luther. This is a favorite. One reason I love it so, is because it offers something very different from the others – this about is Luther and his time, but he isn't the main character. He isn't even a minor character, never making an in-story appearance. The events take place miles away from Luther's Wittenberg, in the French city of Strasbourg, on the border with Germany. The story centers around a middle daughter of the middle-class Schutz family. Like their neighbors, the Schutz's read and discuss Luther's pamphlets. By taking a step back from the man himself, author Christine Farenhorst (as regular RP readers will know, she is a long-time contributor to the magazine) give her readers the opportunity to encounter Luther's ideas in much the same way as the people of his time did. They didn't debate his ideas at the start, so much as wonder what to think of them. Some of his points they could readily agree with – many saw a need for at least some sort of reformation of the Church. But his thoughts on indulgences... might he be right? We follow the title character from childhood up until her mid-twenties. Though Katharina Schutz is a real person, this is historical fiction – all the big events are true, but the day-to-day details of Katharina's life have been made up. This is why, even as a background character, Luther still dominates the story. Katharina's life is fascinating reading but because much of it is speculative, it serves as the foundation while what we learn about Luther here is his real, actual history. One of the strangest bits of true history in the book is the dancing plague of 1518 that hit Strasbourg. Victims couldn't help but dance. It would have been funny except that this stilted, clumsy dancing never stopped - as many as 400 dancers kept going for days and days, beyond exhaustion, and even to the point of heart attacks and strokes. Target audience This is a teen to young adult book, but like any good children's book, adults interested in their church history will find it fascinating. However, as a third of all children at that time died before they hit age 5, there are some parts to Katharina's story that would be bawl-inducing to anyone under, say, 10. The somewhat slow beginning – it took until chapter 4 to really grab me – also makes it better suited for readers with a little maturity to them. Conclusion There is a real benefit to learning about Luther in this one-step-removed fashion. I was fascinated by what I learned about the people and culture of that time. It gave me a deeper understanding of the pressures that Luther faced, and insights into how God prepared the ground for the Reformation Luther sparked. It is a fascinating story that I look forward to reading with my daughters. This review first appeared on ReallyGoodReads.com. Pick up your copy of Christine Farenhorst’s “Katharina, Katharina” at Sola-Scriptura.ca/store/shop. ...

Adult biographies, Adult fiction

The Betrayal: A novel on John Calvin

by Douglas Bond 383 pages / 2009 If you want to get an understanding of the times Calvin lived in, this novel is better than any biography. Douglas Bond immerses readers in the day-to-day details of living in France in the 1500s by telling Calvin’s story through the eyes of a life-long, entirely fictional, companion named Jean-Louis. Jean-Louis is born in the same village as Calvin, and for a time goes to the same school. But while Calvin’s intellectual gifts set him apart early, Jean-Louis is an average fellow living an ordinary, though rather brutal existence. Like many in the 16th century, he loses his whole family and his livelihood to the Plague. Left without a home or money, he falls back on his one extraordinary ability: Jean-Louis can lie without shame or qualm of conscience. It is this “talent” that gets him close to Calvin again, securing a job serving the Reformer. And it is this trait that allows him to act the role of loyal servant even as he vows to work against God’s servant. This is a fascinating read, but one that takes some effort. Though Bond is known as a teen fiction author, the weighty theological dialogues interspersed throughout The Betrayal make this a novel best suited for adult Calvin enthusiasts. It is available at Christianbooks.com and has also been translated into Dutch as Het verraad....