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CD Review, Parenting

CD REVIEWS: Bach and Beethoven for kids (and adults)

C.S. Lewis once made mention of a man who did not like children. Now some of our dislikes are simply a matter of taste – whether your favorite ice cream is chocolate or vanilla says nothing about your character – but this man recognized that his disregard for little ones was wrong. There is a beauty in little children, a wonder about what God has done in making these tiny new people that everyone really should appreciate. If a man doesn't, it is because of something missing in the man. Lewis was making the point that there is such a thing as good and bad taste – all is not mere opinion. When it comes to classical music I'm like this man. I've never appreciated it, but I recognize this as a deficiency in myself. I should like it. After all, this is music that has stood that test of time. We play Beethoven and Bach's music centuries after it was first written; does anyone think the same will be done for Lady Gaga, Beyonce, or Justin Timberlake? Even those of us who don't like Bach know that in a real tangible way he is better than Beyonce. Since having kids I've hoped that my daughters' musical tastes will be better developed than their dad's. So I was very happy to come across these two CDs: Beethoven Lives Upstairs and Bach Comes to Call. Each is a dramatized account of the composer's life, sprinkled throughout with a liberal dose of their music. In Bach Comes to Call (47 min) Bach appears in modern times, under unexplained circumstances, to a girl who is having a hard time getting her piano homework done. The composer encourages young Elizabeth by telling her the story of his own childhood and musical triumphs. In Beethoven Lives Upstairs (46 min) we are introduced to a little boy who has the misfortune to live below Beethoven's apartment. Beethoven, it turns out, is demanding, short-tempered, and makes the strangest sounds as he paces in his room. The boy airs his complaints to an understanding uncle who teaches the young boy to empathize with this great composer, who hears wonderful music in his head, but who can no longer hear it with his ears. How very frustrating that must be! A couple cautions to note. First, there is a moment in Beethoven Lives Upstairs that might lead to a little tittering. The boy complains that Beethoven was laughed at by little children who, while peering through his window, saw he was composing while wearing no clothes at all! Not a big thing, but it might have been nice to leave that detail out. Second, my wife and I have listened to other CDs and DVDs in this "Classical Kids" series and have yet to find any others we would want to recommend, so don't assume they will all be good. These two, however, are excellent, and a great way to foster a love of classical music in kids, and maybe even their dads.

Daily devotional

Friday November 30 – Conclusion: Blessed to be a blessing

Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! – Psalm 67:3

Scripture reading: Psalm 67

We end where we began, with the story of the Bible as summed up by Jesus:

"Then he said to them, 'These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.' Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, 'Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.'"(v. 45-47).

The whole Bible is about the mission of God to save the nations: the promise given to Abraham, the calling given to Israel, the identity fulfilled in Jesus and then given to us. And so the song of Psalm 67 is our song:

"May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations" (Ps 67:1–2).

We pray for God’s blessing, not for our own sake, but so that His ways will be known on earth. Let us believe the good news that Jesus is the light of the world. Let us believe Him that we are now the light of the world. And then let us live faithfully as His witnesses in all of life.

Suggestions for prayer

That God would make us faithful missional people for His glory and for the sake of the nations.

This daily devotional is available in a print edition you can buy at Nearer to God Devotional. Nick Smith is pastor of the United Reformed Church of Nampa, Idaho.

Assorted

On the Trinity: Augustine, the American Revolution, and my Jehovah's Witness friend

I have a friend in a nursing home whom I visit regularly. Her name is Dinah and she is a widow. We met her through providence. A few years ago, her husband came to the house carrying both a friendly smile and Watchtower leaflets. He was a tall, thin and very elderly man. As we were just in the process of slaughtering our chickens, I did not have much time to speak with him. He was Dutch too, as it turned out, and told me that he was dying of cancer and therefore trying to witness to as many people as he could before he died. A heartbreaking confession! We visited his home, my husband and I, later that month before he and his wife moved into an old-age home where he subsequently died - died, as far as we know, still denying the Trinity. We have continued calling on his wife - on Dinah - and I have great conversations with her. That is to say, we get along fine on almost every subject except on that of the Trinity. The Trinity is a difficult concept. Yet, the Trinity and the Gospel are one and the same. God saves us by sending his Son and His Spirit. As Galatians 4:4-6 explains:

"But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'"

To know God savingly is to know Him as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit. The Hymn to the Trinity There is a hymn known as "The Hymn to the Trinity." The earliest publication of this hymn was bound into the 6th edition of George Whitefield's 1757 Collection of Hymns for Public Worship. It is not known who wrote the words to this hymn but the melody was penned by Felice de Giardini. Because Giardini was Italian, this hymn is often referred to as “The Italian Hymn.”

Come, thou Almighty King, Help us thy name to sing, Help us to praise! Father all glorious, O'er all victorious! Come and reign over us, Ancient of days!

Jesus our Lord, arise, Scatter our enemies, And make them fall! Let thine Almighty aid, Our sure defence be made, Our souls on thee be stay'd; Lord hear our call!

Come, thou Incarnate Word, Gird on thy mighty sword - Our pray'r attend! Come! and thy people bless, And give thy word success, Spirit of holiness On us descend!

Come holy Comforter, Thy sacred witness bear, In this glad hour! Thou who Almighty art, Descend in ev'ry heart, And ne'er from us depart. Spirit of pow'r.

To the great one in three Eternal praises be Hence - evermore! His sov'reign Majesty May we in glory see, And to eternity Love and adore!

My friend Dinah could never sing this song. As a matter of fact, because she is such a devout Jehovah's Witness, my belief in the Trinity makes me something of a polytheist in her eyes. I continually pray that God will open her eyes to the truth, beauty, and necessity of believing in the concept of our Triune God because only He can do that through the Holy Spirit. Italian, British, and American The mentioned "Italian Hymn" first appeared anonymously in London, England around 1757. It was about this time that the singing of the anthem "God Save Our Gracious King" was also coming into fashion. The "Italian Hymn" could be sung to the tune of "God Save Our Gracious King." Perhaps that is why the author of the words of the "Italian Hymn" did not want to be known. The stanzas, you see, seemed to be somewhat of a defiant substitute for the words in the anthem which praised King George III of England. Things were brewing in the war department between the thirteen colonies and Britain and were leading up to the American Revolutionary War, (the war fought between Great Britain and the original 13 British colonies in North America from 1775 until 1783). The words to "God Save the King" were:

God save great George our king, God save our noble king, God save the king! Send him victorious Happy and glorious Long to reign over us God save the king!

The English anthem was often used as a rallying cry for the British troops. It aroused patriotism. There is a story associated with this. One Sunday during the war, as the British troops were occupying New York City, and very much appeared to have the upper hand, a group of soldiers went to a local church in Long Island. Known to the people as "lobsters" or "bloody backs" because of their red coats, these soldiers were not welcome. For the church members it would have felt akin to having Nazis sitting next to you in a pew during the Second World War in a city like Amsterdam. People were uncomfortable, glancing at the enemy who boldly smiled and flaunted their red coats as they sat in the benches. They obviously felt they had the upper hand. No one smiled back. Children leaned against their mothers, peering around at the soldiers. The tenseness was palpable. A British officer stood up at some point during that service, and demanded that all of the folks present sing "God Save the King" as a mark of loyalty to Britain. People looked down at the wooden floor, their mouths glued shut. One of the soldiers walked over to the organist and ordered him to play the melody so that the singing could begin. The organist, after hesitatingly running his fingers over the keyboard, started softly. The notes of the "Italian Hymn" stole across the aisles. But it was not "God save great George as king" that then burst forth out of the mouths of the colonists. No, it was "Come, Thou Almighty King," and the voices swelled up to the rafters of the church and it was with great fervor that the Triune God was praised. It's nice to reflect on a story like that – to perhaps ask ourselves if we would rather erupt into singing a patriotic hymn about the Trinity than to buckle under unlawful pressure. Still, the Trinity is a mystery. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law." (Deut. 29:29). Augustine on the Trinity Augustine of Hippo was fascinated by the doctrine of the Trinity. He pondered the mystery of the Trinity over and over in his head and wanted very much to be able to explain it logically. He even wrote a book on it. The book, entitled De Trinitate (which you can download here) represents an exercise in understanding what it means to say that God is at the same time Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. Augustine had a desire to explain to critics of the Nicene Creed that the divinity and co-equality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were Biblical. We often, like Augustine, want very much to explain God's tri-unity fully to people such as Dinah. We want to convince Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims of the truth and need for this doctrine. This, of course, we cannot do on our own, even though we should faithfully speak of the hope that is in us. There is a story, a legend, that one day Augustine was walking along the shore of the sea, and that as he was walking he was reflecting on God and His tri-unity. As he was plodding along in the sand, he was suddenly confronted with a little child. The child, a little girl, had a cup in her hand and was running back and forth between a hole she had made in the sand and the sea. She sprinted to the water, filled her cup and then dashed back to the hole and poured the water into it. Augustine was mystified and spoke to her: "Little child, what are you doing?" Smiling up at him, she replied, "I am trying to empty the sea into this hole." "How do you think," Augustine responded, "that you can empty the immense amount of water that is in the sea into that tiny hole which you have dug with that little cup?" She smiled at him again and answered back, "And how do you suppose you can comprehend the immensity of God with your small head?" And then the child was gone. Conclusion It is wonderful to ponder on the character of God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism's definition of God is merely an enumeration of His attributes:

"God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth."

Indeed, the benediction from 2 Cor. 13:14, "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all," is a benediction that should fill us with wonder and thankfulness.

Magazine, Past Issue

Sept/Oct 2019 issue

WHAT’S INSIDE: The vital, foundational, educational calling of parents / A wealthy millennial's moral confusion / What is "Sovereign Grace Singles"? / Creative coffee table books / Luther's other life-changing doctrine / William Tyndale betrayed /  Public doubt: Josh Harris abandons God and Hillsong's Marty Sampson struggles / and much more...

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Children’s fiction, Teen fiction

How to get our boys to read

In a 2010 Wall Street Journal article, Thomas Spence argues that the way some “experts” were trying to encourage boys to read was all wrong. Their strategy involved pitching boys books like Goosebumps, Sir Fartsalot, Captain Underpants and The Day My Butt Went Psycho. If we want boys to read, so this line of thinking goes, then let’s give them the potty humor they adore. That’ll make them readers, right? It might get some reading, but what it won’t do is give them any of the benefits that come from reading good books. Thomas Spence insists that instead of “meeting where they are at” we need to aim higher, and he quotes C.S. Lewis: “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.” If we point our sons to what’s disgusting and encourage their interest, how can we expect them to learn and appreciate what is good? How can our boys become men if, instead of training them up in the way they should go (Prov. 22:6), we reinforce their childishness? Instead of the gross, we need to fill our shelves with what’s great. We need to give our boys examples to aspire to, in books like Encyclopedia Brown, Saint George and the Dragon, The Green Ember, The Hobbit, Journey Through the Night, and Wambu: The Chieftain's Son. Of course, it’s one thing to stock our shelves, and another to get our boys to pull books off of them. How do we get them reading? Two tips: start early, and get rid of the distractions. Read to your son from the day he's born. Sure, a newborn won’t understand what’s being read, but he will love the time sitting on mom or dad’s lap. As he gets older, he’ll enjoy board books’ for their soft chewy corners and bright colors. Then simple stories can help him learn colors and numbers and all sorts of other words. A child who never remembers a time when he hasn’t been read to won’t have to be taught to appreciate stories – by the time he hits Grade One it’ll be in his DNA. But like any habit, this one can be broken. In his article Thomas Spence cites the findings of a Dr. Robert Weis, who linked video games in the home with lower academic performance. I’m sure a similar connection could be made between TV viewing and reading ability. The fact is, no matter how good the book, it can't compete with video games and TV shows for a boy’s attention – given a choice he’s going to watch a screen rather than read. If we want to raise readers then we need to limit their access to electronic media – we need to guard them against these distractions, indulging in them only in moderation. This is going to be tough. One of the reasons we parents like TV shows and video games is they can act as effective babysitters. A boy glued to the TV, or busy trying to make it to Level 3, isn’t going to be pulling his little sister’s hair. And if he’s busy then Mom’s probably got at least 20 minutes to hop into the shower, or get breakfast ready, or put away the laundry. A lot can get done when this babysitter is helping out. Now consider that not only does the TV have to be turned off, but mom or dad needs to read to the kidlets for 15, 20, 30 minutes a day, right from babyhood onward. For a busy set of parents this might seem like just another chore to add to all the others. But here’s a bit of encouragement: it isn’t going to be forever, and it does work. A child can read on their own at 6 or 7, and while it’s wonderful to keep reading with them after that, it’s not the same sort of necessity. At that point you can switch up from being the book reader to being the book supplier, pointing them to the very best ones (and I have suggestions on some really good ones here and here). Regular reading might mean you don’t have time to tidy the house, or your lawn isn’t mowed nearly as often as it should be. But are you going to look back and regret the length of your lawn? And will your son reap a real benefit from reading with you each day through Grade One and beyond? Reading daily, for just a half dozen years or so, and you’ll have helped him develop an appreciation of good books that can benefit your son for his lifetime....

Adult fiction, Children’s fiction, Teen fiction

After Lewis and Tolkien

A conversation about Christian Fantasy with Bell Mountain author Lee Duigon It’s hard to believe but C.S. Lewis has been gone from this earth long enough for his works to have entered into the public domain – in Canada that happens 50 years after the author’s death. His good friend J.R.R. Tolkien outlived him by a decade, but has been gone now for four. How is it, then, that their fantasy fiction remains as popular as it ever has been? The answer, in part, is because the secular fantasy fiction doesn’t understand the way the world really is. That’s the secret to great fantasy writing – it has to be anchored in reality for it to have an impact. Yes, there can be wizards and elves and all sorts of unreal creatures, but at its core a fantasy novel has to say something truly true. So, while Tolkien was far more subtle than Lewis about the inclusion of his Judeo-Christian worldview, it was this worldview that allowed him to see and share truths about the pull of temptation, the strength of humility, and the nature of love. Lewis’s series is intriguing for children, but it is his Christian understanding of man’s failings and God’s grace that give the books enough depth for adults to read again and again. However, if it was these two men’s Christian worldview that elevated their fiction, then why, in the decades since their deaths, haven’t we seen other Christian writers joining them at the top of the fantasy genre? Why, in fact, is most of the fantasy you’ll find in a Christian bookstore simply dreadful? These are good questions, and Lee Duigon is the right man to ask. He’s not only blogged about how to improve the state of Christian fantasy (see www.LeeDuigon.com), he set out to do something about it himself. Since 2010 he’s published eleven books in his Bell Mountain fantasy series about a boy and a girl and an assassin and a wise clever squirrel-like creature who all set out on a quest. A review will be coming, so it will suffice here to say, these are a better brand of Christian fantasy fiction then we’ve seen in a long time. Mr. Duigon graciously agreed to an interview and what follows is an edited version. Magic, wizards, elves, and dragons are core elements of most fantasy. But your Bell Mountain series doesn’t have any of them. Why not? For one thing, wizards, elves, and dragons have all become clichés. Fantasy is supposed to ignite your imagination, but clichés have the opposite effect. Wizards, elves, and dragons have been so overdone it’s like, “Oh, well, ho-hum, there’s some elves.” They’re so common in the literature, they might as well be checkout clerks at your local supermarket. In my books I have replaced these with figures which I hope readers will find refreshingly unusual. Instead of elves, I have little, hairy, manlike creatures – like Wytt – who fulfill the literary function of being “other than human,” but are intelligent and able to interact with humans. Instead of dragons, I have creatures patterned after little-known prehistoric animals. And instead of wizards, I offer some dangerous and nasty human beings who play at being wizards and create the illusion of having magical powers. As for magic, well, the reason I don’t use it is because it seems a lazy writing device. Things in a story that get done by “magic” might also be accomplished by hard work, ingenuity, faith, hope, or love, and wouldn’t that be far more interesting? We are God’s creation, living in the world He created and subject to His laws of nature, whether we like it or not. Genuine “magic” – as opposed to technology or trickery that only looks like magic – would circumvent or overturn those laws, thus making the magician himself a kind of god. So on the one hand, the writer who resorts to magic is lazy, using it as a shortcut to getting things done. On the other, he is imagining something which is not allowed. God has not permitted us to do real magic. It would disorder His Creation – and surely we already make enough mischief without any magic whatsoever. So would you still classify your books as fantasy, and if so, how would you define fantasy as a genre? I say my stories are fantasy because they describe an imaginary world, different from ours but still subject to God’s laws. The whole point of fantasy is to fire up the reader’s imagination: to gain access to regions of the heart and mind not easily reached by other kinds of fiction. An excellent example of this is the classic fantasy movie, The Princess Bride. There’s nothing in that story that violates God’s laws of nature. But it’s certainly full of unusual people, places, and things. To that formula I have added the presupposition that God reigns in my imaginary world just as He reigns in our own. And following the trail blazed by C.S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia, I have the characters in my fantasy world interacting with God’s will and coming to know Him better – although their interaction with God is more like it is in our own world than in Narnia. God speaks to them through scripture, prophecy, and promptings of the spirit – with the occasional use of a spiritual messenger. For this my inspiration and model is not fiction, but the Bible. Why do so many readers crave fantasy? For the same reason we crave science fiction, romance, westerns or what have you. For escape, of course. Now the whole idea of escape is to go to a better place, from a worse. People don’t tunnel into prison camps. So the fantasy reader has always the desire to seek a better world, an imaginary world, and escape into it, if only for as long as it takes to read the book. How are we able to imagine a world that seems better to us than the one we live in? If you imagine yourself in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, for instance, you have monsters and dragons to deal with, not to mention a terrible Dark Lord. But you don’t have politicians’ lies to listen to, enormous taxes sucked out of your paycheck, race hustlers, militant sodomy, squawking idiot liberal churchmen, or natural beauty spots torn down to make way for “smart growth.” You don’t have any of that. So you escape to Middle-Earth for a few hours and are all the better for it. How is it, asks Puddleglum in C.S. Lewis‘ The Silver Chair, that a few children playing a game can imagine a play-world that licks the supposed “real” world hollow? Because the God who made us built into us an unfailing desire for something better. Our worldly leaders promise us a better world, but can’t deliver. Our Science with one hand gives us air conditioning and YouTube, but with the other gives us nerve gas and Darwinism. Our worldly philosophers give us what can only be described as dreck. God gives us salvation and a promise to regenerate His whole creation, but many of us don’t seem very interested in that. Tolkien said that Christianity is the one myth that is true. We should be hearing that from our theologians and our pastors, but in all too many cases, we don’t. Never mind. We’ve got the Bible, and it tells us the truth. That’s where the thirsting fantasy writer found the water of life – because that’s where it is. What reasons are there for Christians, and particularly parents, to be wary of secular fiction? What are its most common faults? Its biggest fault is that most of it seems to be written with the presupposition that there is no God. It also omits any mention of description of the religious dimension of human life. If a space alien were to try to learn about life on earth by sampling our fiction, he’d never know there was any such thing as a religious impulse. And that’s not a realistic description of human life, unless you want to count what goes on in faculty lounges. On your blog (LeeDuigon.com) you point to C.S. Lewis as an example of Christian fantasy done right. What does he get right? In his Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis makes it clear that the source and creation of all life is Jesus Christ, symbolized by the Great Lion, Aslan. And Aslan tells the children who come into Narnia from our world that they were there because He has called them; and that they will know Him in their own world, too – only “by another name.” It takes a very dense reader not to know that this other name is Jesus. This is what Lewis gets right. In all seven Narnia books, the theme is getting to know Christ. For the most part, this is accomplished through obedience and love. This is a very big thing to get right. Though you praise Lewis, you’ve also written that you respect parents who have a problem with the way Lewis uses magic in some sections of his books. Could you explain? As a former atheist groping his way to a better knowledge of Christ, Lewis did makes some mistakes along the way. I cringe when one of his characters says, “It’s all in Plato.” Anyone who comes to Christ through Plato has performed a very neat trick. The real magic in Narnia, the “Deep Magic,” belongs to Aslan/Jesus. In that sense it isn’t magic at all, but rather the underlying law of all reality. But then there’s the White Witch, whose magic imposes winter on all Narnia for many decades. She is not human, and her “magic” can do nothing but destroy. She cannot create. There’s also “minor magic” done by some of the characters in Narnia, and magic attempted by lawless human beings like Uncle Andrew – “magic” that never turns out as desired. I can’t say why Lewis allowed this. His friend, Tolkien, warned him not to. Tolkien saw it as a flaw, and I agree. The only Biblical basis for it is Pharaoh’s magicians’ ability to imitate the first few miracles that God performed against Egypt through Moses and Aaron. The witch of Endor did succeed in raising the ghost of Samuel, but I always feel she was surprised it actually worked. But all the rest of the “magic” in the Bible is revealed as fraud; and that’s how I handle it in my own books. By allowing a certain amount of magic in Narnia, Lewis deviated from the Biblical model. In deference to his evident love and reverence for Christ, I overlook it as a human failing. But those readers who are uneasy with it – and I’ve heard from quite a few of them – have nothing to apologize for. I wanted to ask you about the role of magic in Christian and secular fantasy. I’ve just been reading a series by Christian author Andrew Peterson, his Wingfeather Saga, and he uses a conversation between mother and son to lay out his own thoughts on magic. After the son has a vision, his mother tells him: If you asked a kitten, "how does a bumblebee fly?" the answer would probably be "Magic!"  is full of wonders and some call it magic. This is a gift from the Maker - it isn't something that Leeli created or meant to do, nor did you mean to see these images. You didn't seek to bend the ways of the world to your will. You stumbled on this thing the way a kitten happens upon a flower where a bumblebee has lit. What do you think of Peterson’s take on magic here? And what principles do you think Christian authors should follow in using magic? I like what Peterson writes here. It’s an elegant way of saying that just because we perceive a thing as “magical” doesn’t mean it really is. We are a long way from understanding everything about how God’s creation works. The kitten sees the bumblebee’s flight as “magic.” And if you brought a flashlight into the world of King Arthur, his people would think it was a magical item. In my books I don’t use magic at all. My fantasy world contains a few pieces of technology left over from an ancient period of history. Readers will understand that these are not magical items, but the characters in the stories won’t. The few individuals who get a chance to use these items think they’re making magic. If a Christian writer simply must use “magic,” he would do well to remember that all power comes from God. It would be a challenge to square that with a story in which a teenage girl uses a magic spell to lasso her dreamboy (ugh – there’s so much of that in YA fiction). As a matter of realism, I would always allow the appearance, or the illusion, of magic. We still have plenty of that in our own world today. I would allow fantastic creatures, as long as they don’t violate the laws of nature – as would, for example, a flying hippopotamus. But to a person living in another world – a world, say, where unicorns exist – a kangaroo or a chameleon or an octopus might seem an utterly fantastic creature which he might refuse to believe in. If a fantasy can’t stir up a sense of wonder, it isn’t much of a fantasy. As Ray Harryhausen used to say, no one goes to the movies to see a sinkful of dirty dishes. But “magic” has been so overused in fantasy, it’s really more of a challenge to the writer’s imagination to get things done without magic. Why is so much Christian fantasy fiction so bad? It seems to be a rule of the market that when demand for a certain kind of story is high, but the supply is low, publishers fill the gap by publishing bad books. Fantasy, especially among young readers, is very popular. And there’s a demand for stories that don’t insult the Christian reader’s sensibilities. Simply, there isn’t enough high-quality fantasy being written to meet the demand. That’s because it isn’t so easy to write as a lot of people think it is. Some Christian writers seem to think that the rules of literature shouldn’t apply to them because they’re writing about the Kingdom of God. So they feel perfectly free to traffic in corny dialogue, one-dimensional characters, ridiculous coincidences, and clumsy language. But all you wind up with, that way, is a bad book. But while a lot of Christian fantasy is bad, a lot of secular fantasy is bad, too. I’ve read fantasies so awful, they could dry up ponds. I’ve read Christian fantasies in which the writer excelled at handling his theme, only to have his book go belly-up because he can’t write dialogue. Few authors have a gift for fantasy, but that doesn’t stop everyone and his brother from thinking they can write it. What are some of the most common mistakes made in Christian fantasy writing? Here’s a couple: 1) Write it as if it were a perfectly ordinary fantasy story, like everybody else’s, only plug in a few scenes of characters praying or going to church. Like Christian rap and Christian rock and Christians vs. Zombies video games, Christian fantasy is too often a not-very-good imitation of a secular pop culture product with some outward trappings added. I read a “Christian thriller” recently in which the good guys, every now and then, as if it had just popped into their heads for a moment, would pray or casually make some trifling Bible reference like, “Yeah, we gotta hang tough, like David.” Period. My rule of thumb is, if the story can get on without the “religion” you’ve put in it, then that’s not a critical element and you haven’t written a Christian fantasy. And that’s usually because the writer has mistaken the outward appearance of Christianity for the real thing. It’s easy to throw in a few sentences that show your characters praying or going to church. The mistake in “Christian fiction” is to settle for that. 2) Have God give the good guys better magic than the bad guys have. Remember what happened to Moses when he snapped at the children of Israel, “Must we fetch you water out of this rock?” God did all the miracles, but here was Moses taking credit for one of them. I just read a book featuring a great big magical duel, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. “May the mightiest magician win!” is hardly a sentiment found anywhere in the Bible. What we do find in the Bible is God using weak and inconsequential things to confound the great and powerful. So Balaam is rebuked by his donkey, David slays Goliath, and the whole world is conquered not by armies, but by a baby in a manger. Any attempt to write Christian fantasy must be anchored in the truths of the Bible, be they applied to this world or to an imaginary world, and must focus on the spirit of Christianity rather than any outward show of it – unless, of course, you’re writing about the vanity of outward show. In a Christian fantasy, the story must grow out of the writer’s quest to know God better and to share Him with the readers – and all without being heavy-handed, obvious, or preachy. Over that last several years there has been a dystopian trend in the Young Adult bestsellers with books like The Hunger Games and Divergent and Maze Runner. Many of these same books have teens killing teens. Why are Young Adult books so grim these days? YA books are dark and unwholesome because they’re written by adults with troubled souls and a superficial understanding of life. Maze Runner, for instance, is idle, pointless cruelty, obviously not written by a teenager. It’s a common fallacy among the pseudo-intelligent that whatever is ugly, painful, destructive or mean must be “realistic.” On the other hand, Divergent is written by a professing Christian who seems to be warning us not to let our world deteriorate into the grim and nasty world of her stories. Every day, we’re all bombarded by bad news, always stuff we can’t do anything about. Enough of this will make anybody downhearted – which is just another good reason for writers and readers alike to steep themselves in the Bible. Why should Christians read fantasy…and write it? How can fantasy be “truer” than some other genres of fiction? Fantasy is like poetry. A good fantasy gets under your skin. It says more than it appears to say. If you’re writing Christian fantasy, what you’re doing is going into the parable business. You’re writing extended parables. And although Christ’s short parables were fiction, He used them to tell truths. This is what our long parables should do. Christians should write fantasy because there’s such a high demand for it, especially among the younger readers. If Christians don’t write it, non-Christians and anti-Christians will. Do we really want to concede such a big chunk of our popular culture to the godless? Christians should remember how energetically, a few years ago, the ungodly pushed – to teens and pre-teens – Philip Pullman’s aggressive atheist fantasy, The Golden Compass. We ought to be competing with junk like that and trying to crowd it off the shelves. I won’t say Christians “should” read fantasy. It’s a matter of personal taste. But if the fantasy writer’s art is up to the challenge, and the reader is open to it, a visit to an imaginary world can sometimes shock the reader out of his habit of taking reality for granted: and by showing him strange new things, we may move him to see the old familiar things from a new perspective. In my books I force my characters to live in contact with God and His will. He’s shaking their world, and won’t allow them to take Him for granted anymore. Let the reader wonder, “Wow! What must that be like?” If I’ve gotten the reader to think along such lines, I think I’ve done a good job. This article was first published online on May 4, 2017....

Teen fiction

BOOK REVIEW: If we survive

by Andrew Klavan 352 pages / 2013 "We came to Costa Verdes to build a wall. I just wish I could tell you that all of us made it out alive." Will Peterson is a 16-year-old visiting a small Central American village with his church's mission team, there to help rebuild the local cinder-block school. They've finished the work and are waiting in the cantina for the bus to take them back home when the room is suddenly filled with rebel soldiers and the pot-bellied, smiling waiter, who had been joking with them only moments before, is now on the floor, shot dead by the rebel leader. What happens next is a not-so unusual chase-type adventure. The rebels have taken over the government and are executing anyone for any reason, and they don't want to let any American witnesses get out of the country alive. So now these church kids, along with an unexpected helper, are on the run, barely staying ahead of these murderous bandits. What makes this something special is the characters in it. The most intriguing might be Jim Nolan, a 16-year-old intellectual who has read the biography and op-ed articles of the country's rebel leader...and who believes everything he's read. Even when the rebels start killing people, Jim is sure they're fighting for justice. Even when the guns are turned their direction, he's just as sure that it's all a horrible mistake, and if he can only talk to someone, things can be straightened out. Jim steadfastly holds onto his rebel sympathies despite all the bloodshed around him. Author Andrew Klavan makes clear why Jim remains so loyal: because a lot of what he's being reading, about how the government was oppressing the country's poorest, is entirely true. Klavan isn't taking a cheap shot at the naivety of liberals here – this is a more nuanced look that admits the problems the Left points out might well be problems, even as the solutions they suggest are no solutions at all. Or, in the context of this story, just because the government is bad doesn't make the rebels good. Will is also a well-developed character. He came on the trip as a way of escaping his home life: mom and dad are always arguing and, he thinks, on the path to divorce. But now, unbelievably, things have gotten a whole lot worse, and as Will and the others bounce from one crisis to another, he has to battle a very understandable sense of panic. He does so by remembering two things: a Hemingway quote that cowardice is "a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination." advice from his youth pastor, who once told the group, "Don't worry about anything – pray about everything." CAUTIONS While praying is always good advice, the way Will's prayers are depicted in the story makes it seems like it is more the act of praying, and not the God he is speaking to, that really helps Will. Another caution worth noting is that while the church mission group is Protestant (and seemingly some sort of conservative Evangelical) there are positive, if brief, portrayals of other religions. This includes Roman Catholicism, in which a priest has a key role in saving them, and the villagers' ancient spirituality, when the missions group is invited to sit in on a pagan festival of lights. However, Will keeps to the facts, describing what they see, but not digging into what it all means. A discerning reader would have reason to presume Klavan believes Roman Catholicism isn't importantly different from Protestantism, but that isn't a message the author is trying to hammer home here. CONCLUSION This is a gripping read that any teenage boy would really enjoy, and dad might not mind either. And if dad does join in, this could be a leap off point for some really good conversations about: the American role as policeman of the world one-sided news coverage, both from the Left and Right, and how that compares to what God tells us about the importance of hearing both sides in Prov. 18:17 courage and what it really involves what prayer to God is actually why we find nice people following other gods, or worshipping God in wrong ways So, overall, I'd recommend this for teen guys with a little discernment, and a willingness to talk things through with their parents....

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." ...

Teen fiction

The Giver (the graphic novel adaptation)

by Lois Lowry adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell 2019 / 176 pages It's a hundred or so years in the future. War has been eliminated by muting mankind's emotions and by eliminating the conflict that comes when we have to make choices. Not only are everyone's jobs chosen for them, so is their spouse, and even the kids they will raise. 12-year-old Jonas has been given a unique role, being trained by The Giver to know and understand the past, so he can use that knowledge to advise the community in times of crisis. But as he becomes the best-informed citizen in his community he discovers things that horrify him – choices are also being made for the citizens as to who will live and who will die. My brother Jeff has done a great review of the book this is based on, so I'm going to focus on what makes this graphic novel different from the book. GRAPHIC NOVEL VERSION Most graphic novel adaptations are much shorter than the source material they are based on, in part because all the descriptive passages in the book can become pictures instead, and also because the plot is usually simplified. But this one is every bit as long as the original, with every scene in the book included. Jonas's discovery of color is a big theme in the novel. In the muted world in which they all live, citizens have lost the ability to see color, but as Jonas learns more about the past, he gains insight into the present and starts gaining the ability to see reds, and greens, and yellows. So first, adapter P. Craig Russell shares Jonas' muted world by depicting everything not simply in black and white – that would be a bit boring – but also with subtle splashes of blue. And as Jonas learns how to see more, we begin to see increasing flashes of vibrant color, to show his growing awareness of just how exciting and intriguing a place of discovery the world can be. It's fun to see in pictures this transition from dull to brilliant. In these sections, the comic might even be better than the book. But pictures also present challenges. It can be hard to visually depict what's going on in someone's head. To make up for that Russell carries over a lot of the text from the book. But he can't use all of it, which is why in the original the characters are all a little deeper, a little more realized. CAUTIONS And sometimes showing is more problematic than telling. In one scene in the book Jonas helps bathe the elderly. In the comic Russell has to use just the right angles to ensure all we see are the knees down or the shoulders and up. Nudity of a sort comes up in one other scene, which is the book's most troubling, even without the visual element. Jonas discovers that unwanted babies are killed via lethal injection, and even in muted pictures it's quite horrible. Russell is restrained, but the idea of murdering infants is so unpleasant that any pictures, even muted ones, just add to the horror. That said, the scene is not at all graphic. I'll also note that the baby is shown fully naked, with scant detail, but enough to tell that it is a boy. CONCLUSION This is every bit as good as the novel, though both have their different strengths. I'd recommend this to teachers as a slightly easier way for reluctant readers to access this book. But like the novel, and the film too, this comic needs to be discussed. Its teen audience needs to wrestle with the warnings given in this story – the danger of governmental control, the false compassion of euthanasia, the potential and peril of emotions – but they'll most likely need help. So this is a great conversation starter, but a guide will be needed. ...

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 biographies, Book Reviews, Children’s non-fiction, Remembrance Day, Teen fiction

5 books to help us never forget

Next week will mark Remembrance Day, and to help us remember these men and women – many in uniform, and also many who were not – here are 5 books about their courage and conviction. There is something here for every age. By reading these – especially together with our children, or maybe in a book club with friends – we can be inspired and prepared. These stories remind us of why some wars need to be fought, and through these stories we can better appreciate those who fought for us so long ago. They provide us examples worth imitating for the battles, big and small, physical, and in our cases more often spiritual, that still need to be fought today. The reviews that follow have been arranged by the age of the intended audience - youngest to oldest - though all of these would be enjoyed by adults too. The Poppy Lady by Barbara Elizabeth Walsh 40 pages / 2012 How did poppies become the symbol for Remembrance Day? This beautifully illustrated (I love the water colors in this book - it's a treat just to look at it!) and well-researched children’s picture book tells the story of Moina Michael, who was 45 when World War I broke out. She was a teacher at the University of Georgia’s Normal School and realized that every home in America would be affected. “Her girls” would see fathers, brothers and sweethearts sent to the war front. As the war progressed, she did what she could to help. Her motto from a young age was “Whatsoever your hands find to do, do it with all your might." When she read John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” she knew what she had to do for all her beloved soldiers. She went on a search for poppies and found one large red poppy and 24 small ones in a department store. She put the large one in a vase in the YMCA canteen and gave 23 away. From that small, significant gesture, the Poppies have become a symbol of remembrance and bring much needed funds to help the veterans. The book has an epilogue that is helpful for teachers or parents who wants to tell children more about the history of the poppy. This book would be an asset to any elementary school library.  – reviewed by Joanna Vanderpol Innocent Heroes: Stories of animals in the First World War by Sigmund Brouwer 186 pages / 2017 Animals had a bigger role in WWI than most of us realize. Author Sigmund Brouwer has taken heroic stories of these animals and, in the interests of making a continuous, compelling storyline, fictionalized the details, placing all the animals in just one Canadian platoon, the Storming Normans. While each chapter is built around the story of a particular creature –a cat, a bird, two dogs, a horse, a mule, and a lion – the book's main characters are three fictional Canadian infantry soldiers. In the trio of Jake, Charlie, and Thomas, the author gives us soldiers who couldn't have more different backgrounds, with Jake a farm boy, Charlie the city-dwelling millionaire, and Thomas a Cree Indian. With this “odd couple” friendship Brouwer injects his story with humor even in the midst of the horrors of war. It also allows him the opportunity to educate readers as to how Natives were treated on the front lines and back home in Canada during this period. My highest praise for a book is that it is so good I have to read it to my family – we’re loving it! Brouwer has weaved these animal stories together into a compelling book that tackles some tough topics at an age-appropriate level for pre-teens and teens. – reviewed by Jon Dykstra War in the Wasteland by Douglas Bond 273 pages / 2016 "Second Lieutenant C.S. Lewis in the trenches of WWI" – if that doesn't grab you, I don’t know what will. War in the Wasteland is a novel about teenage Lewis's time on the front lines of the First World War. At this point in his life, at just 19, Lewis is an atheist, and his hellish surroundings seem to confirm for him that there is no God. Now when men are hunkered down in their trenches waiting through another enemy artillery barrage, there is good reason, and plenty of time, to talk about life's most important matters. Bond gives Lewis a fellow junior officer – Second Lieutenant Johnson – who won't let Lewis's atheistic thinking go unchallenged. Their back and forth sparring is brilliant; Bond has pulled the points and counterpoints right out of Mere Christianity and other books Lewis wrote when he became the world’s best-known Christian apologist. Bond has crafted something remarkable here, capturing in grim detail what it must have been like to live, eat, and sleep barely more than a stone’s throw from enemy troops hidden away in their own trenches. I think older teens and adults who have an interest in history, World War I, apologetics, or C.S. Lewis are sure to enjoy War in the Wasteland. – reviewed by Jon Dykstra Prison Letters by Corrie Ten Boom 90 pages / 1975 This is a collection of the correspondence between Corrie Ten Boom and her family while she and her sister Betsie were being held in prison by the Nazis during World War II. If you haven’t already her remarkable wartime biography The Hiding Place, then you must read that first. It recounts how her family hid Jews, not because they were brave or courageous, but simply because they were obedient to what they knew God was calling them to do. We see how God sustained them. It is a book of doubts being answered, and God being found sufficient even in the most trying of circumstances. If you loved The Hiding Place (and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t) then this collection of letters will act as a moving appendix to that remarkable book. It is the same story, but told a very different way, one letter at a time. However, because no correspondence was allowed in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, where Corrie and Betsie were sent last, the book ends abruptly. So, this will be a wonderful supplement to The Hiding Place, but it is not one to read simply on its own. – reviewed by Jon Dykstra On to Victory: The Canadian Liberation of the Netherlands, March 23 - May 5, 1945 by Mark Zuehlke 2010 / 552 pages This book is a detailed account of the Canadian Army’s advance into the Netherlands and northwestern Germany during the last phase of World War Two. It is written in a popular (rather than academic) style and frequently relies upon first-hand reports provided by the soldiers themselves for a vivid narrative of combat and other experiences of frontline troops. For this part of the war, the Canadians were superior to the Germans in almost every way, but the terrain heavily favored the German defenders. The ground was frequently too soft for military vehicles so they were confined to roads, making them easy targets. As well, there were a large number of rivers and canals that had to be crossed to reach objectives. The Germans would blow up bridges as they retreated, and time after time the Canadians would have to cross by boat in the face of enemy fire. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the frequent accounts of heroic actions by individual Canadian soldiers. When the chips were down and the situation looked grim, some responded with acts of bravery that could be straight out of a Hollywood-style movie. For example, when Major Harry Hamley found his unit pinned down and threatened by a German attack he grabbed a large machine gun. Charging into the face of enemy fire, Hamley burned through a magazine as he ran, shooting eight Germans dead, wounding several others, and scattering the rest. There were many such real-life heroes. We learn here that the Canadians were not reluctant combatants. When Dutch authorities requested that Canadian forces undertake a particularly dangerous mission, the Canadian commander consulted his troops about their willingness to attempt it: “There wasn’t the slightest hesitation or any objection raised, they were prepared to lay it on the line for the Dutch people.” Author Mark Zuehlke goes into much detail about individual army units and their experiences as they move from one objective to another, fighting much of the time. Many of the events described occur simultaneously in different parts of the Netherlands and northwestern Germany. At times it can be difficult to keep track of how each event relates to the others. This is not the fault of the book so much as a reflection of the large battlefront continually in action. Thankfully, there is a series of maps at the front of the book, making it possible for the reader to keep track of events as the Canadian Army advances over a broad geographical front taking in numerous cities, towns and villages. There are also two sections with photographs. In short, this book lucidly describes a period of history that will make any true-blooded Canadian feel proud, and anyone of Dutch roots so very grateful. – reviewed by Michael Wagner...

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. ...

Teen fiction

5 fun preteen/teen fiction titles

Today's library is very different from the one we all grew up with, and nowhere is that difference more noticeable than in the teen section. Even in my small, 99 percent Christian, town the teen section is filled with books that would have made my grandma blush - fiction and non-fiction in which teen sex, homosexuality, transgenderism, or atheism play a prominent part. And I've lost count of all the novels featuring vampires, werewolves and witches. Some of this is dangerous, and some of it just dumb. But in either case, there are better novels out there. Here are five suggestions that are not just safe, but super – these are really good reads! The Captive Maiden by Melanie Dickerson 2013 / 304 pages This is Cinderella reimagined, with all the famous bits altered but included: it has the carriage (but it was never a pumpkin), the slipper (but not made of glass), the ball, (but now it's more of a jousting tournament), and the fairy godmother role (though she not a fairy or a godmother). Author Melanie Dickerson gives new life to the story by taking the magic out of it, bringing in an additional villain, and making the key characters sincere Christians. My only reservation would be one I have for all romance literature: they celebrate just the one stage of love – the beginning – to the exclusion of all that comes afterwards. But “afterwards” is very important, so if a teen girl ingests too many books about ball-attending, sword-fighting, head-turning Prince Charmings, they may well overlook that fellow right in front of them – the Bible-believing, hardworking, diaper-changing ordinary Joe. So while the occasional romance novel isn't a problem, these aren’t the sort of books that should be ingested one after another. Dickerson does a good job of keeping us wondering what new twists and turns she is going to add to this familiar tale. It is definitely aimed at teen girls with a little too much angst for anyone over 18. But adults could enjoy this as a nice light read too. The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton 340 pages / 2011 Mount Majestic is a fun romp, with all sorts of inventive ingredients: • Piles of poison-tongued jumping turtles • A castle built on top of a mountain that rises and falls once each day. • A tyrant twelve-year-old pepper-hoarding king • A terrible, life-changing, island-threatening 1,000 year old secret Books with good girl heroes are hard to find. Most often the heroine is decidedly boyish (or at the very least tomboy-ish): armor-wearing, sword-swinging, that sort of thing. But Persimmony Smudge is a different sort. She dreams of battles, yes, but when it comes down to it, it’s her brain and her bravery, and not her battle skills, that save the day. While I suspect the author is Christian there is no mention made of God. The only “supernatural” elements are a prophetic Lyre-That-Never-Lies, and clay pots that give the recipient what they need (and not what they might want). When the question is asked about who it is that puts the gifts in the pots, and puts “words of truth into the strings of a Lyre” the only answer we get is, “I have no idea.” So Mount Majestic is simply a fun read, without any spiritual depth – that dimension is left unexplored. Highly recommended, for girls in Grade 3 through early teens. When Lighting Struck! The Story of Martin Luther by Danika Cooley 231 pages / 2015 This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg and I can't think of a more enjoyable way to learn about the man than grabbing a copy of When Lighting Struck! The target audience is teens, but like any fantastic book, adults are sure to enjoy it too. This is fiction which means means parts of this are made up, including lots of the day-to-day dialogue, but the key events are all true. It didn't take much to make Luther's life exciting: as doubt-filled as he was early on, the Reformer was even more bombastic after he understood that forgiveness is a gift given, not earned. This is a man who: • was condemned by the pope as a heretic • had 200 knights pledge to protect him • didn't want to marry lest he quickly leave his wife a widow • was kidnapped • masqueraded as a knight • helped formulate the German language • cared for Plague victims • ended up marrying a nun And it would be easy to go on and on. Put the story of such a man into the hands of a talented writer and what you're left with is a book anyone will just tear through. War in the Wasteland by Douglas Bond 273 pages / 2016 "Second Lieutenant C.S. Lewis in the trenches of WWI" – if that doesn't grab you, I don't know what will. War in the Wasteland is a novel about teenage Lewis's time on the front lines of the First World War. At this point in his life, at just 19, Lewis is an atheist, and his hellish surroundings seem to confirm for him that there is no God. When men are hunkered down in their trenches waiting through another enemy artillery barrage, there is a motivation to talk about life's most important matters. Lewis’s fellow junior officer is a good debater, and won't let Lewis's atheistic thinking go unchallenged. Their dialogue is imagined – this is a fictionalized account – but the author pulls the points and counterpoints of their back and forth argument straight out of the books Lewis wrote after he turned from atheism and became one of the best known Christian apologists on the planet. War in the Wasteland comes to a solid and satisfying conclusion, which is a neat trick, consider that Lewis's story of conversion is, at this point, very much incomplete. This would be great for older teens and adults who have an interest in history, World War I, apologetics, or C.S. Lewis. Bond has crafted something remarkable here. The Green Ember by S.D. Smith 365 pages / 2015 “Rabbits with swords” – it’s an irresistible combination, and all I had to say to get my two oldest daughters to beg me to start reading. As you might expect of a sword epic, this has a feudal feel, with rabbit lords and ladies, and noble rabbit knights and, of course, villainous wolves. This is children’s fiction, intended for preteens and early teens, so naturally the heroes are children too. The story begins with siblings Pickett and Heather being torn from the only home they’ve known, pursued by wolves, and separated from their parents and baby brother. It’s this last detail that might warrant some caution as to how appropriate this would be for the very young. It isn’t clear if mom, dad and baby Jack are dead…but it seems like that might well be, and that could be a bit much for the very young (I’m planning on skipping over that bit when I get to it with my preschool daughters). They escape to a community that is hidden away from the ravaging wolves, and made up of exiled rabbits that once lived in the Great Wood. Their former and peaceful realm fell to the wolves after it was betrayed from within, so now these rabbits in exile look forward to a time when the Great Wood will be restored. Or as one of the wisest of these rabbits puts it, …we anticipate the Mended Wood, the Great Wood healed…. We sing about it. We paint it. We make crutches and soups and have gardens and weddings and babies. This is a place out of time. A window into the past and the future world. Though God is never mentioned, and the rabbits have no religious observance of any kind, author S.D. Smith’s Christian worldview comes through in passages like this, that parallel the way we can recall a perfect past, and look forward to a perfected future. It’s this depth that makes this more than just a rollicking tale of rabbits in peril. There is prequel, The Black Star of Kingston, and a sequel, Ember Falls, which are both very good, but this is the book to start with. So, my overall take is two very enthusiastic thumbs up for anyone ten and up. Longer version of these reviews can be found at www.ReallyGoodReads.com....

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction, Teen fiction

Wings of Dawn

Wings of Dawn by Sigmund Brouwer Chariot Victor 1999 / 456 pages Why would anyone go through all the trouble of building an immensely strong castle in the middle of the North York moors in England? Why else but to hide a secret organization of intellectuals who are protecting the wisdom of past ages. The plot of this novel is based on the tension between two secret societies. The first group, the Druids, have their roots in early British history. Brouwer proposes that after the Druids were repressed by the Roman Empire they went underground and plotted to regain power. The second secret society grew from the first. According to Brouwer, Merlin was the best and brightest of the Druids and he was slated to bring the Druids back to power, but Brouwer’s legend has it that he was converted to Christianity by a simple priest. As a result of this conversion he is said to have foiled the Druid’s plan and established his own secret society, the Merlins, to counteract the efforts of the Druids by using and conserving the knowledge of the Ancient Civilizations. But now it is 1312 A.D. and after centuries of struggle, Magnus, the castle Merlin had built to carry on his struggle, has fallen under the control of the Druids. The only hope for the Merlins is a teenage boy who either carries the secrets needed to regain the ascendancy or has been turned to the Druid cause. This young man, Thomas, becomes the centre of the conflict between the Merlins and the Druids. Always unsure of who he can trust Thomas conquers and loses Magnus. He is forced to flee from England to Palestine and is chased even there. He returns to England where the conflict even involves the king’s immediate family. Although this is an excellent novel, Brouwer falls short on a few points. First, although Thomas’ uncertainty about who he can trust works well early in the novel it drags on much to much. The same questions are raised again and again about the same people even when they seem to have proven their loyalties earlier in the novel. Additionally the characters that Brouwer develops lack depth. One finds the rough but noble knight, the fair lady, the wise old man, and the evil scheming villain. Even Thomas himself has that youth destined for glory feel, like some medieval Luke Skywalker. Still, despite these failings this is an exciting piece of historical fiction. In a historical sense the accuracy with which Brouwer recreates the time and setting of the novel is excellent. Naturally, certain events are changed to reflect the existence of the Druids and Merlins but the book feels right, historically. Brouwer also provides chapter-by-chapter historical notes that explain how the novel could fit into history. Even the questions about who Thomas can trust, although they are overused, provide an “I can’t put the book down” level of tension for much of the novel. However, the most gripping part of Wings of Dawn is the way that knowledge proves itself the true power. The secret Merlin and Druid societies take so many unexpected twists and turns in their pursuit of knowledge that all the reader can do is hang on and enjoy the ride. As a Christian novel, Wings of Dawn very successfully manages to be solidly Christian in nature without feeling the need to scatter the pages with incessant sins and weaknesses or seemingly superficial conversions. Thomas begins the novel as a somewhat materialistic agnostic and he, as well as the other characters, has his weaknesses but they aren’t frivolously exploited for sensational reasons. He is soon converted to Christianity but his conversion is simple and believable. Really, when the book deals with overtly Christian themes, they are themes that one can identify with. One sees faith carrying Thomas through extreme trials but he experiences realistic doubts and shows realistic weaknesses. In the final analysis Wings of Dawn is an excellent novel. Its sound historical background gives it an authentic feel. It provides an excellent level of tension and uncertainty and the twists and turns it takes keeps the reader guessing throughout. I would strongly recommend Wings of Dawn to anyone interested in an entertaining Christian novel. This novel was originally published under the title Magnus. –  Richard Veldkamp...