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Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews, Music, Teen non-fiction

Does God listen to Rap?

by Curtis Allen 2013 / 99 pages "Why wouldn't He?" That's the answer the author gives to his title question. Whether you agree or don't might depend on what you think of Rap's sinful origins. In chapters two and three, in the space of just 25 pages, author Curtis Allan gives an authoritative, detailed account of these beginnings. He explains it started back in the late '60s, and that even though some earlier innovators tried to use Rap to promote a social consciousness, it was the pimp/drug dealer-glorifying "Gangsta Rap" that ended up dominating the genre. The genetic fallacy Allen then investigates whether its sinful origins are reason enough to dismiss Rap. If they are, what then, he asks, are we to do with music itself, which seems to find its origins in the sinful line of Cain (Gen. 4:21). A good point, but I think a stronger argument should have been made with more examples, since this is a key point. It is a fallacy – the "genetic fallacy" – to condemn something simply for where it comes from. We don't do that with classical music composed by immoral composers, or foreign foods from pagan cultures, or anything else, so why would we do it with Rap? One very large issue that is left unexplored is whether the driving beat of Rap impacts its appropriateness for conveying Christian content. That is a significant omission, since this is the question for some Reformed Christians. Allen describes the lyrics as the content, and the music as the context. And to him it seems it is only the content that matters. The context - the music - seems to be almost a neutral aspect. Is music neutral? But this overlooks the way different sorts of music can impact us in distinct ways. For example, the thumping beat of Rap conjures up very different emotions than the rising swell of the string section in an orchestral piece. The beat might spawn feelings of aggression. This is the sort of music we would warm up to for a basketball game, or might want on our iPod when we go running - it drives us. Some orchestral music can tug at the tear ducts, bringing moisture to the eye of even the most stalwart of men. So music is far from a neutral, unimportant aspect of Rap – it brings the power to the words. I would suggest that there is a reason that Rock and Rap, with their thumping beat, are closely linked with sex, drugs and perversions of many sorts: the beat does get us aggressive, it does get us riled up, and if that energy isn't put to good use, it will be put to bad. God calls us to self-control That doesn't mean Rock and Rap are inherently bad – aggression is not an inherently bad emotion.  But Rock and Rap are known for encouraging people to "lose yourself in the music" while God says we must instead be controlled. So we need to be aware of the emotions Rock and Rap can stir up, and ensure that they are properly channeled and directed. We need to ensure these emotions are constrained and controlled. There is a reason that the Billboard Top 100 is filled with sexually perverse songs – this is the aggression unrestrained. However, this aggression need not be unrestrained. A songs lyrics can do a lot to properly direct and control the emotions the music stirs up. But if we are going to control these emotions, we have to understand that the music – the context – is far from neutral or insignificant. It is the music that brings the power to the words. So this is a topic that should have been explored. However, the book is just 99 pages, so, clearly, it couldn't cover everything and what it does cover is well worth reading. In fact, it is worth buying for the historical background alone. This review first appeared on ReallyGoodReads.com....

Adult fiction, Book Reviews

The Last Disciple

by Sigmund Brouwer and Hank Hanegraaff 2004 / 428 pages It’s the year 65 AD, and Gallus Sergius Vitas is one of the last principled men in Rome. He’s also a confidant of Emperor Nero which means his daily life is conducted on a knife’s edge: indulging the emperor’s perverse demands might keep Vitas safe but would compromise the man that he is; yet to openly oppose the emperor would lead to his immediate introduction to the Coliseum’s lions. Our story beings with Vitas attempting this balancing act once again. Nero has dressed as a beast, his outfit comprised of lion and bear skins, complete with collar and a chain held by a servant. His night’s entertainment is to terrorize a group of prisoners while playing the part of a beast. Enjoying their fear, the emperor quickly works himself into a killing frenzy. Vitas sees this all from the shadows and can’t let it happen, knowing, though, that to oppose the emperor is to die. So Vistas yells at the chain-holding servant instead: “If the emperor knows you are involved in illegal torture, he will have you destroyed!” It is, as Brouwer writes: “an all-or-nothing bluff, pretending that he did not know Nero was inside the costume. Trusting that Nero would be too ashamed to admit it. Now. Or later.” Vitas’ bluff works, but not just because of his daring. An earthquake sends Nero scurrying away, convinced that the shaking ground is a sign of divine judgment. It’s a great opening, highlighting the depth’s of the emperor’s perversity, the heights of Vitas’ courage, and the certain presence of God even in these pagans’ lives. In less talented hands, the earthquake’s unlikely timing could have come off as cheesy, since in real life God more often uses “ordinary means” (like doctors’ talents or wise friends’ advice) than miracles to accomplish His ends. But miracles do occur, and Brouwer makes it believable. It’s a good thing too, as this is but the first miracle in a story that’s all about how God used miraculous means – the prophetic words in the book of Revelation – to warn his Church to flee the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. What Brouwer and his writing partner, theologian Hank Hanegraaff, have done here is write an alternative to Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ popular Left Behind series. Where Left Behind places the beast of Revelation 13 in our near future, Brouwer and Hanegraaff place him in the first century, in the near future of those who first received John’s letter. And they identify the beast as Nero and the bloody empire he led. This “partial preterist” (partial past) interpretation of Revelation holds that the book was written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the city’s fall is a partial fulfillment of much of the prophecy in Revelation. This, then, is fiction meant to teach as well and entertain, and it does both brilliantly. Brouwer has crafted a story that takes us all around the Mediterranean, with Jews, Romans, and even troubled Christians wrestling with the question of “Who is Jesus?” There’s also political plotting, assassination attempts, sieges, gladiators, and just a touch of romance. The slowest bits are when theologian Hanegraaff has characters take a page or two to teach Vitas and others what a particular passage in Revelation means. If you’re reading it only for the story, these sections might drag, but they are well spaced out. And if you’re interested in learning about the partial preterist interpretation of Revelation, these will be your favorite passages. Cautions One caution: Nero’s depravity, though described with restraint, still means this is not a book for younger teens. If The Last Disciple series has you eager to read more of Sigmund Brouwer’s work, be aware that he is a proponent of theistic evolution, and also an Arminian. That doesn’t come up in this series (or his best book, Innocent Heroes, a treat for kids, teens, and parents alike) but it does come up in some others. Finally, readers should be aware that partial preterism probably isn’t the majority view in Canadian Reformed churches (though I’m not sure what the majority view might be, as Revelation seems to be only rarely discussed). Some do hold it though, and it's also held by Reformed pastors outside our circles such as RC Sproul, Douglas Wilson, and Jay Adams. Conclusion The Last Disciple is a great book, kicking off a great series. The cast of characters is large, so if you’re like me, make sure you get the whole trilogy – The Last Disciple, The Last Sacrifice and The Last Temple – right away, because if you wait too long between books, you may start forgetting who is who. I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction – Sigmund Brouwer has got skills. And if you’d love to have partial preterism explained, well, this is the most entertaining way you could ever learn about it!...

Adult fiction, Book Reviews

Evening Star

by Sigmund Brouwer 2000 / 317 pages Set on the 1870s American frontier, this might at first glance seem to be a Western. But there a good deal of mystery novel here too – from the moment Sam Keaton steps into the town of Laramie he’s confronted with one riddle after another. It all starts with an Indian that Keaton saves from a vicious beating. This good deed puts Keaton behind bars. Before he can engineer his escape, the town's Marshal, a mysterious sort himself, sends Keaton off to find out about some gold that may, or may not exist. While mysteries abound in this very fast-paced book, what sets it apart is the growth Keaton goes through. Early on, he's trapped in his tiny jail cell facing a very large, very angry man who has been sent to kill him. Staring down the wrong end of a shotgun barrel changes Keaton. Soon after, when a pretty, and very willing young woman throws herself at him, Keaton turns her down, but finds himself, "... wondering why I had not pursued the company she had been offering.... Because of that shotgun I could not deny the nagging feeling that I was missing something, that life had to be bigger than finding ways to satisfy the varied demands of my body. I could not escape the feeling that deep down, I'd always known life had to be bigger, but along the way I had always chosen whatever distractions it took to keep me from wondering about God. Except now, try as I might, I couldn't ignore what some certainty told me was beyond. If I turned my back on whatever instinct now pulled me to seek answers, if I chose distractions like this Suzanne, I would have to fool myself real good not to find those distractions sour and hollow." Keaton isn't done with his spiritual wrestling by the end of the book, but he has made a good start of it. But while there is a lot to love about this book, it is worth noting that there is some adult material here – there is some grit. One example: Keaton recalls a time when he was seduced by a "wild" woman. It never gets lascivious but Brouwer does describe sexual temptation in a pretty frank way. So this is a book I would recommend for adults and older teens only. While every author works hard polishing their writing, most stop once the book goes to the printer. That's not the case with Sigmund Brouwer who has revised several of his published works, creating, in one instance, three separate versions of the same story over the course of 20 years (Magnus 1995 ⇒ Wings of Dawn 1999 ⇒ Merlin's Immortals series 2012-2014). That can make for some confusion, and the possibility of mistakenly buying the same story twice. So for clarification, Evening Star had an earlier iteration, first appearing as Morning Star back in 1994. There are three other books in the series, including at least one other, Silver Moon, that was first published under another title: Moon basket. The earlier version was called the Ghost Rider series, while the revised and more recent is Sam Keaton: Legends of Laramie and in order the titles are: Evening Star Silver Moon Sun Dance Thunder Voice I've only read the first, but it has me looking forward to checking out the next three!...

Articles, Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

David Wiesner: weird and wonderful

Super creative? Ultra creative? Mega creative? Every good picture book author is imaginative, but somehow David Wiesner (1956- ) manages to be all the more so. His living clouds, flying frogs, and artistic lizards always provide a surprise – a reader starting one of Wiesner's stories will never be able to predict how it is going to end. That's a joy for parents to experience right along with their kids: a children's story that isn't predictable! And since several of Wiesner's works are wordless, they can also be great books for reluctant readers to tackle alongside mom or dad. Wordless doesn't mean it's an easy "read" but together parent and child can put their detective skills to work to figure out all that's going on! What follows are my family's recommendations – our favorites – and then a few that we've read but which for this reason or that, I'm not going to recommend like the rest. Finally, there are three that really aren't worth bothering with. RECOMMENDED Free Fall 1988 / 32 pages A little boy falls asleep and we get to come along in his dream. As dreams often are, this is wordless throughout, one page streaming into the next as the boy goes from meeting a dragon to growing giant-sized, to flying home on a leaf. It makes sense only in the ways that dreams do. But the smart-eyed reader will be able to spot on the last page, when the boy wakes up, all the objects in the room that inspired the different parts of his dream. This is one to “read” slowly and enjoy every picture. Hurricane 1990 / 32 pages Two brothers are worried about a coming hurricane. But when the lights go out, and the family is still together, the boys realize it's not so bad after all. It even gets quite good the next day, when they discover a huge fallen tree in their neighbor’s yard. In the days that follow the huge trunk becomes their spaceship, and the branches a jungle, and the both of them together a pirate-hunting sailboat. Tuesday 1991 / 32 pages The only words we see tell us the time, and that it is a Tuesday. For reasons that are left entirely mysterious, at around 8 pm, a swarm of frogs suddenly starts flying (or is it their lily-pads that are doing the levitating?). They flock into town, chase some birds for fun, watch a little telly, and then, just as they are heading back, dawn breaks, and the sun's rays seem to sap their flying powers. That leaves the whole lot of them hopping back to their pond. This is silly nonsense and kids are sure to love it. Sector 7 1999 / 48 pages A boy on a field trip to the Empire State Building meets a rambunctious cloud (he discovers that clouds are people!) who takes him back to “Sector 7” high up in the sky where the clouds get their orders about what shape of cloud they should be. But the clouds seem a bit bored with these shapes and appear to ask the boy to draw them up some alternatives. And what fun to see clouds mimicking the sea creatures he draws! Eventually, the rambunctious cloud returns the boy to the Empire State Building, but his visit to Sector 7 might have some lasting impact, as the clouds quite like being fish-shaped. This is another of Wiesner’s wordless books and another one that parent and child will have pouring over to see all that the pictures have to say. The Three Pigs 2001 / 40 pages When our middle daughter discovered this one she just had to share it with her younger sister right there and then. This is a creative spin on the old tale as the Big Bad Wolf blows the pigs right out of the story and into some others (including Wiesner's own The Loathsome Dragon). As they travel from storybook to storybook the pigs decide there is no place like home, but also decide to bring along a guest from another story – a dragon! – to give this pesky wolf quite the surprise. Art & Max 2010 / 40 pages This might be my favorite picture book. It involves just two characters, which makes this one easy to read out loud to the kids, and there’s so much energy on each page that performing it becomes so easy to do. Art knows how to paint, and Max desperately wants to learn. (Both are lizards, but aside from the fun way they look, that doesn't really matter.) But who should Max paint? When Aurthur suggests himself, Max literally starts to throw paint on Art. And that’s when it gets wacky! As Max tries to clean the paint off Art, he starts to clean all the color off him. Art is see-through; he’s just lines! Then, when that line starts to unravel, Art becomes just a scribble. Fortunately, his friend Max is on it, and proves, as he turns that scribble into a work of Art, that he has some mad skills too. I Got It! 2018 / 32 pages Once again David Wiesner lets the pictures do (almost) all the talking, When a long flyball is hit into the outfield, a boy declares, “I’ve got it!” which are the only words in the story. But does he really have it? One dropped ball is followed by another, and it’s almost like there are obstacles (getting bigger and bigger) just reaching out to trip him up. His repeated drops have his teammates moving in closer to catch it for him, since he can’t. But then, in one last stretching leap, our boy in red jumps past the obstacles and beats his teammates to the ball for a wonderful game-winning catch. This is a very fun story, but I could see some kids needing a little help to understand what’s going on. But hey, reading together is fantastic! TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT The Loathsome Dragon 1987 / 32 pages An evil queen/stepmother casts a spell which turns a princess into a loathsome dragon. Along comes a brave prince who has to kiss the dragon three times to break the spell. The only twist in this tale is that the brave prince is her brother, and not a husband-to-be, but that’s not enough to make this seem fresh. I should add that while I was unimpressed, my girls liked this a lot more than I did. June 29, 1999 1992 / 32 pages A young girl, Holly, sends vegetable seedlings into the ionosphere for her science project just to see what might happen. Soon after giant vegetables – house-sized and bigger! – start floating down from the sky. But wait! Some of these vegetables are not the sorts that she sent up. So where did those come from? At book’s end we discover the giant vegetables came from a giant alien chef accidentally losing his ingredients while flying above Earth. Very fun to see the giant vegetables all over the landscape but I think it would have been better without the aliens tacked on at the end. Flotsam 2006 / 40 pages When a boy discovers an old-style underwater camera washed up on the beach, he brings the film in to be developed. There he discovers pictures, seemingly taken by underwater creatures themselves, and the world that they live in when we aren’t looking is certainly something to behold: little mermaids and mermen, robotic fish, giant turtles carrying shell cities on their backs, and even what looks like aliens taking rides on the guppies. Done without any text at all, each picture is another discovery. The very last snapshot is of a girl holding up a picture. And in that picture is a boy holding a picture of a girl holding a picture of a boy. A look through a magnifying picture shows this goes deeper still, and further back in time. The boy’s microscope reveals more still layers to the photo. This is inventive and fun, with the only cautions being that the young target audience may have to be informed that though the photos look quite realistic, the aliens and mermen are fantasy, not fact. DON'T BOTHER Mr. Wuffles Tiny tiny aliens have landed, but unfortunately for them, their ship attracts the attention of Mr. Wuffles, who thinks it’s one of his cat toys. To repair their ship the little aliens recruit help from ants and bugs – their treasure trove of lost marbles, pencils, loose change, and paperclips turn out to be just what the aliens need to fix things up. There's some vague religious-type imagery written by the bugs on the house walls that, along with the aliens, makes this one I'd rather just skip. Fish Girl Wiesner’s only graphic novel is the story of a mermaid girl kept captive in an aquarium by the owner who she believes is the god Neptune. It’s odd all the way around, and that she is swimming around topless for most of its 192 pages (though always with strategically placed hair, or fishes) makes this another good one to skip.  Robobaby Robots get their babies in a box, with some assembly required. This story has its quirky charm, but when Mom and Dad, Uncle Manny, and even the Robobaby tech service can’t assemble Junior properly, but the child amongst them knows just what to do, this become just one more adults-are-dumb-and-kids-know-everything story that we can really do without (Prov. 20:29, 22:15). CAUTIONS David Wiesner is an incredibly imaginative picture book author, which makes him very fun to read, but it's that same active imagination that seems to lead him into a bit of over-the-top weirdness now and again. I couldn't figure out what Wiesner's worldview/philosophy is, and it'd be a bit much to conclude he must not be Christian just because he features aliens on occasion, though aliens (at least the intelligent sort) would seem to be incompatible with Christianity (but demons masquerading as aliens would not be). However, there's nothing in his books that would give us reason to conclude he must be Christian. In lieu of evidence one way or the other, that's good reason for parents to approach his future output with some caution. CONCLUSION If you have a creative kid, Wiesner's best could be just the spark they need to think bigger and bolder. And if you have a not-particularly-creative kid, Wiesner might be an inspiration for them too, showing them how there are all sorts of possibilities to explore and fresh ways of looking at things. Finally, if you have a reluctant reader, Wiesner's wordless books – Freefall, Tuesday, Sector 7, and I Got it! – might be an encouragement for them to page through, especially if mom or dad comes alongside....

Culture Clashes

How the Bible made the world a better place

Though most wouldn't want to admit it, the Bible has made the world a better place even for those that don’t believe it. How can that be? Well, it was the worldview taught in the Bible that led to the development of modern science and all its benefits. It was the same worldview that led to the dramatic expansion of educational institutions, as well as the greater political freedom and economic prosperity we enjoy. Most people today enjoy higher standards of living and better medical care simply because the Bible influenced Western culture in a particular direction. Vishal Mangalwadi, a Christian intellectual from India, explains all this in his 2011 book, The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization. Mangalwadi was born and raised within a culture dominated by Hinduism, and this experience gave him special insight into the effects of Christianity on the world and particular nations. So what are some ways a biblical worldview makes the world better? Monks at work As a basic principle, the Bible promotes a strong work ethic. The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 that “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” While there are probably hard-working people in every culture, Mangalwadi explains that Christianity places a unique emphasis on work: “The God who liberated the Jews worked for six days and commanded human beings to do the same. That is the opposite of Hindu tradition, which conceives of God as a meditator or Yogeshwar (‘god of yoga’).” The biblical emphasis on work inspired Christian monks to use their time well. Saint Benedict, who is known as the father of Western monasticism, supported a strong work ethic and wrote that “Idleness is an enemy of the soul.” Christian monks in Europe were important to the early development of technology, some of which we still use today. They were, Mangalwadi writes, “the first to begin the widespread use of the watermill for grinding and for developing power machinery.” Clocks and eyeglasses Another important example is the invention of clocks. As one scholar, David Landes, has argued, “clocks were invented because monks needed them.” They had set times for prayer and for particular jobs that had to be done. After sunset, the sundial was of no use. The need for proper time management drove the quest for something reliable, and clocks were the solution. As Mangalwadi explains, the impetus for creating clocks resulted from a specifically Christian worldview: “The Bible-shaped culture made time management an aspect of establishing human dominion over the physical universe because the Bible saw time as a part of physical reality. By contrast, in Indian culture, time was perceived either as an eternal but terrible god (Kal) or as a part of the cosmic illusion (maya).” Besides clocks, Christian monks also had a role in the invention of eyeglasses. They spent lots of time reading and studying, but that became more difficult as they got older and their eyes became weaker. Eyeglasses dramatically improved the ability of older monks to read and work on manuscripts. Of course, other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism also have monks, but it was the Christian ones at the forefront of technology. As Mangalwadi puts it, “Christian monks were different because the Bible gave them a different worldview.” Lots to learn People who believe that the Bible is the Word of God will be greatly motivated to read it. Thus, especially after the Reformation, there was a strong impetus to increase literacy in Europe. In other words, Christianity was the main driver for the expansion of literacy and education. According to Mangalwadi, the Bible directly inspired the creation of the first 123 colleges and universities in the United States. But it wasn’t just Christian countries that benefited from this educational impulse. As missionaries took the gospel to countries throughout the world, they also promoted literacy and education so that people could read the Bible and improve their lives overall. As Mangalwadi writes: “They birthed, financed, and nurtured hundreds of universities, thousands of colleges, and tens of thousands of schools. They educated millions and transformed nations. This gigantic, global mission was inspired and sustained by one book—the Bible.” Looking for scientific laws The scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was launched by men who had been strongly influenced by the Bible. The biblical worldview provided the philosophical basis for their quest. In contrast, other worldviews see life and reality in ways that often discourage scientific pursuits. There were, of course, many intelligent and capable Hindus and Buddhists. However, they did not have the philosophical motivation to pursue scientific knowledge. As Mangalwadi explains: “A culture may have capable individuals, but they don’t look for ‘laws of nature’ if they believe that nature is enchanted and ruled by millions of little deities like a rain god, a river goddess, or a rat deva.” In short, people live according to what they believe, and if they believe an erroneous worldview, they will be limited in what they set out to achieve. In contrast to the Hindus and Buddhists, the “pioneers of science believed that the material realm was real, not magical, enchanted, or governed by spirits and demons. They assumed it was understandable because God created it as rational, ordered, and regulated by natural laws.” Early in the history of India, a certain degree of medical technology developed. In fact, there were people in India who were medical geniuses. However, medical technology could only go so far in India because of certain cultural limitations. For one thing, special knowledge was considered to be something to keep secret, not something to share with others. Besides that, the Hindu and Buddhist concept of “karma” helped prevent the spread of medical care. Suffering was considered to be punishment for deeds committed in a previous life. Suffering, in this sense, was a form of justice. It was widely believed that alleviating someone’s suffering now would only increase it later, so it was better to leave them to suffer now. As Mangalwadi summarizes, “my ancestors did not lack intelligence, but our genius was expressed in a philosophy that taught us to worship nature instead of establishing dominion over it.” Honesty Mangalwadi tells an especially interesting story that illustrates the power of the Bible. Once when he was visiting the Netherlands, a Dutch friend took him to get some fresh milk. They drove to a dairy farm familiar to the friend. They walked into a building with a large tank containing milk. The friend opened a tap and filled a jug he had brought with milk. Then he put some money into a nearby bowl containing cash, and they left. Mangalwadi was shocked by this transaction, telling his friend, “if you were an Indian, you would take the milk and the money!” However, the Dutch dairy farmer knew that he could trust his neighbours to be honest about paying for the milk they took. Thus they could come and go at will, taking what they needed and leaving an appropriate payment. It was all based on trust because the people were trustworthy. Later, Mangalwadi recounted this experience to a conference in Indonesia. An Egyptian conference participant told him that an Egyptian would not only take the milk and the money, but also the cows! In many countries of the world, a dairy farmer who wanted to sell his milk directly to customers would need to hire a cashier because he wouldn’t be able to trust his customers. As a result, he would have to charge a higher price for the milk to pay for the cashier. But if the customers could not be trusted, neither could the dairy farmer himself. So the customers would want the government to hire inspectors to ensure that the farmers were not adding water to the milk. Therefore, taxes would need to be collected to pay the inspectors, increasing costs even further. The bottom line is that an economy in a culture that produces generally honest citizens can operate more efficiently and at lower cost than one in a culture of dishonesty. If producers and consumers can trust each other, the cost of doing business is much lower. Such a situation, of course, contributes to overall economic prosperity. With this in mind, Mangalwadi asks what made the ordinary people of the Netherlands so different from people in India and Egypt? “The answer is simple. The Bible taught the people of Holland that even though no human being may be watching us in that dairy farm, God, our ultimate judge, is watching to see if we obey his commands to neither covet nor steal.” Corruption A German organization called Transparency International creates an annual ranking of countries to compare their levels of corruption. The ranking is called the Global Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), with the least corrupt countries listed at the top, and the most corrupt at the bottom. Countries heavily influenced by Protestantism dominate the top ten. In the 2021 CPI, the only non-Protestant countries in the top ten are Singapore at number 4 (where there are more Buddhists than Christians), and Luxembourg at number 9 (which is predominantly Roman Catholic). As Mangalwadi explains: “The CPI confirms what I saw in Holland—that the Bible is the only force known to history that has freed entire nations from corruption while simultaneously giving them political freedom. The most secular nations—that is, the ex-communist, atheistic nations, which teach that when no man or machine is watching you, then no one is watching you—are among the most corrupt nations, not too different from Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim nations.” The CPI provides empirical evidence that the countries most influenced by the Bible in the past are the least corrupt. Friedrich Nietzsche Nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was a critic and opponent of Christianity. He saw that Christianity helped the weak and downtrodden to survive and thrive, and didn’t like it. In his view, the survival of wretched and downtrodden people weakens society. It would be better for them to perish so that only the fittest would survive, creating a society of strong, able-bodied people. As far as Nietzsche was concerned, Christianity had undermined the strength of the West. Interestingly, Nietzsche’s critique can actually be seen as a back-handed compliment to Christianity. As Mangalwadi points out, Nietzsche was essentially correct about the effect of the Bible on history: “It drove the movement for the abolition of slavery and promoted care for the weak, such as widows, orphans, the handicapped, and leprosy patients. From liberating and rehabilitating temple prostitutes to reforming prisons and bringing sanity and morality to wars, the biblical tradition has been the most powerful civilizing force.” Conclusion The Bible has done much to make the world a better place. Even people who reject it benefit from its effects. The Bible introduced a worldview that initiated technological development, the spread of education, and economic prosperity. Christian missionaries have done much to improve the lives of people in many countries of the world. And these are just some of the material benefits that resulted from the Bible. Even more importantly, it shows the only way of salvation through faith in Christ. There is nothing like the Bible....

Articles, Book Reviews

The RP 52 in 22 challenge

If you're a reader, there's a good chance you have a stack of books somewhere that you've really been meaning to get to. But, what with the busyness of life, that stack might well be growing as it is so hard to set aside the time. Wow then, can we get to the reading that we really want to do anyway? The answer, for a trio of competitive lads, was to get a challenge going. So a lawyer, a minister, and an editor all agreed that they would read 52 books by the end of 2022. This "52 in 22" challenge is a race of sorts, and to up the motivation, the three will keep a public running total of their progress, posting short reviews of each book here on this web page (with selections appearing in each issue of the print magazine). Finally, to add a mildly punitive element to it, each agreed, at year's end, to donate $20 for every book they didn't complete to a charity of their choice. Our hope is that the challenge might spur others on to read more great books, including, perhaps, some of the suggestions listed below. Follow it on MeWe, Facebook, Instagram, and Gab under the hashtag #RP52in22 The tally The lawyer – André Schutten: 16 The minister – Jim Witteveen: 16 The editor – Jon Dykstra: 20 Reviews MAY 19 Mary Eberstadt is a former research fellow for Stanford University's Hoover Institution, and currently serves as senior research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute, a conservative Roman Catholic think tank based in Washington, D.C. In her first book, Home-Alone America: the Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes (2004, 218 pages), Eberstadt sought to answer a series of what she called "obvious, if necessarily blunt" questions: Why are millions of children being prescribed drugs to change their behaviour? Why are depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders becoming more and more common among young people? Why has childhood obesity become an epidemic in America? And what is behind the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases among American teenagers? Issue by issue, Eberstadt explores these questions thoroughly, and the answer she provides is well-reasoned, based in common sense, despite being roundly rejected and criticized by social scientists and public intellectuals who she refers to as "separationists." Eberstadt's thesis is that there is a definite connection between decreased parental presence in children's lives and the severity of the problems that children face, problems that begin in childhood and often lead to negative repercussions throughout their lives. I very much appreciated the way in which Eberstadt honestly addresses challenges to her thesis. She examines studies done in the social sciences, deals with the argument that "correlation does not equal causation" (which says that just because absentee fathers, working mothers, daycare, and divorce are often realities in the lives of troubled children, that doesn't mean that these things actually cause the problems children face), and emphasizes that long-term studies ask the wrong questions, and therefore come to erroneous conclusions. For example, while studies of adults who spent a good part of their childhood years in daycare may show that the majority have become successful, contributing members of society, these "results" say nothing about the suffering caused by institutional care and separation from parents and other family members while that separation is actually being experienced by the child. Eberstadt presents a solid and compelling case for the vital role that parents have in the lives of their children, and for the necessity of self-sacrifice on the part of parents. While this book is now nearly twenty years old, it speaks loudly and clearly in a culture that has continued to follow the same destructive path, and is very much worth reading. – Jim Witteveen MAY 18 Having worked in the mental health field for several years prior to entering the ministry as well as having personal experience with members of my extended family who were diagnosed with mental illnesses, the subject of mental illness and psychiatry has long interested me. This interest (and a desire to explore the trends of the past century which have shaped our modern culture) recently led me to explore several of the works of American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz. Throughout his life and work in the field of psychiatry, Thomas Szasz was one of the discipline's most controversial (and outspoken) critics. His best-known work, The Myth of Mental Illness, was published in 1961, and from its publication until his death in 2012, Szasz continued to do battle with the psychiatric establishment, with limited success. While Szasz may be accused of overstating his case, and thus alienating his opponents, many of the arguments that he made throughout his career have proven to be prescient, as the scope of mental illness has grown to such an extent that nearly all of us can be described as "mentally ill" in some way. In Schizophrenia: The Sacred Symbol of Psychiatry (first published in 1976 and updated in 1988, 237 pages), Szasz returns to many of the same themes that he addressed in his earlier works: the abuses of involuntary institutionalization of people diagnosed with mental illnesses, the use of psychiatry as a means of social control, the dangers of the "therapeutic state," and the religious nature of psychiatry itself. Szasz's work is challenging and thought-provoking, and his argumentation is supremely logical. However, as a professed atheist, his most serious shortcoming is his failure to acknowledge the role that people's spiritual lives play in dealing with the mental health challenges that they face. That being said, I can only echo one of Szasz's reviewers, who put it very well when he described Szasz as "a valuable critic and agent provocateur," someone who "has much to say which requires answering." – Jim Witteveen MAY 17 On Character (1995, 234 pages) is a collection of essays written by James Q. Wilson between 1967 and 1993. The common thread that ties these essays together is the theme of character, and the important role that personal character plays in numerous public policy issues, from crime to education to business and beyond. Wilson's focus on the importance of personal character led to him being classified as a conservative, although he only reluctantly accepted that label. As he writes in his introduction, "Now I confess to being conservative, at least by the standards of contemporary academia." The essays themselves reveal that while Wilson had some "conservative" tendencies, it was only the leftward shift in the political landscape that left him in that position. Where Wilson hits the target (and where he faced his most serious opposition), is in his refusal to go along with the dominant narrative (which has only become stronger in the twenty-seven years since this book was published) that blames high rates of drug abuse, criminality, and family breakdown on social inequality, unemployment, and political oppression, without taking into account personal character and personal responsibility. Wilson's essays make for interesting and often insightful reading, particularly his influential work on "The Problem of Broken Windows," an article originally published in 1982 that led to positive policy changes in cities like New York under the leadership of Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In the end, however, I can only give this book a qualified recommendation - while Wilson appeared to understand the nature of the problem, the solutions he offers are often less than satisfactory. – Jim Witteveen MAY 16 John Piper packs a lot in this slim volume: Preparing for Marriage: Help for Christian Couples (2018, 86 pages). In 6 chapters and 2 appendices, he covers headship and submission, hospitality, sex, making the most of our engagement, weddings that don't break the bank, and how our spouse should be second, though only to God. While the target audience is couples intending to marry, the first appendix includes 50+ questions that'd be of great use to a young man or woman still evaluating whether or not their beau is marriage material. Questions include: What is the meaning of headship and submission in the Bible and in our marriage? What makes you angry? What are your views of daycare for our children? Will there be one checkbook or two? Should we have a television? Would we consider adoption? How will we distinguish between punishment and discipline? Those questions would make for great discussions for the recently married too. Overall, this would be a great one for engaged couples to read together and discuss. And you can find it for free at DesiringGod.org/books. – Jon Dykstra MAY 12 Concerns with In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) include the fact that the children created in these laboratory settings are routinely killed, some because they have (or seem to have) defects, and others because the parents simply no longer want them. Many are frozen, which comes with its own harms, but also leaves them in an indeterminate state, facing eventual death. But what if a couple was willing to adopt and rescue one of these babies? This involves the implantation of the fetus in the adoptive mother’s womb, giving the child a chance to be brought to term. But Christians aware of the death-dealing nature of the IVF industry might wonder if they should have anything to do with it. Justina Van Manen and Jonathon Van Maren have written Life Under Glass: the ethics of embryo adoption (2022, 80 pages) to ease these concerns, making it clear that it is completely different to get involved in a rescue than it is to make such a rescue necessary. These children already are, and while they should never have been frozen, it is most certainly an act of God-glorifying grace to adopt these tiny orphans. – Jon Dykstra MAY 11 Reverend Kornelis Sietsma pastored a Reformed church in Amsterdam before and during World War II. In 1942, he was arrested for preaching against the lust for power, and for supporting Jews with the collection, and praying for the Dutch royal family. He died a year later, aged 46, in the Dachau concentration camp. Before the war, he wrote a treatise on the idea of office. It has recently been republished in English as The Golden Key for Life and Leaders: The Idea of Office (2019, 123 pages). It is a short, readable, and understandable book that helps Christians think through office, calling, authority and responsibility. It will likely correct some misperceptions about the office-bearers in church, but also expand the readers' understanding of the idea and role of office as a calling from God that every believer has. Because we share in Christ's anointing as prophet, priest, and king (see Lord's Day 12), every believer holds the office of believer with the corresponding duties and authority to carry out that task. But there are also other special offices: in the home (office of parent), church (minister of Word, minister of mercy, minister of the rule of Christ), civil sphere (civil magistrates), and other spheres (teachers, employers, etc.). Submission is owed to every office instituted by God, unless the office-bearer acts outside of his office and authority or compels action or non-action that makes it impossible for other office-bearers to carry out their office and calling. I found this book helpful to think through the tensions within the church during the Covid era and highly recommend it for all deacons, elders, and pastors, as well as others who want to better this concept. – André Schutten MAY 10 You may never have heard of Ignaz Semmelweis, but his story is an important one for two reasons. First of all, it is largely due to Semmelweis's medical discoveries that the rates of death in childbirth (of both mothers and their newborn children) decreased substantially in 19th-century Europe. Secondly, the story of his life, work, and death is a cautionary tale in an age in which we are constantly being warned against accepting the findings of scientists who challenge the "scientific consensus." Semmelweis was a Hungarian obstetrician whose best-known work was done in Vienna, Austria in the first half of the 19th century. At that time, a disease called puerperal fever, or "childbed fever" led to the deaths of up to 10% of new mothers who gave birth in institutional settings. The medical establishment had developed many theories about the causes of such a high mortality rate, but it was Ignaz Semmelweis who finally solved this mystery. After several years of study, he concluded that puerperal fever was being spread by the doctors themselves, as they went from dissecting cadavers in the morgue to assisting in childbirth, often without any concern for their personal cleanliness. Semmelweis argued that doctors should make every effort to ensure that both they and the environment in which the deliveries took place, should be disinfected to stop the spread of a disease that had proven to be so destructive for so many years. It may seem like common sense to us today, but at the time Semmelweis's conclusions were a novelty that ran counter to long-standing and widely-accepted theories. Thus Semmelweis's contemporaries were very difficult to convince, and his theory was rejected out of hand by the majority of his colleagues. The "scientific consensus" was wrong, and Semmelweis ended his life in a mental hospital, never having experienced the widespread acceptance of his findings. In Genius Belabored: Childbed Fever and the Tragic Life of Ignaz Semmelweis (2016, 249 pages), Theodore Obenchain tells the story of the life, work, and death of Ignaz Semmelweis. His well-researched and engaging account is at the same time fascinating and frustrating, reminding us how important a knowledge of history is to our understanding and interpretation of current events. – Jim Witteveen MAY 7 I love the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism ("What is the chief end of Man? ...to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever") but didn't know anything about the assembly that crafted it, the Larger Catechism, and the Westminster Confession of Faith. I have a Dutch Reformed heritage, whereas these were birthed by the English Reformation. That's why I was happy to discover that United Reformed pastor William Boekestein had teamed up with Heritage Reformed professor Joel R. Beeke to give us Contending for the Faith: the story of the Westminster Assembly (2022, 40 pages). It's for kids, but a great presentation for adults who want to know a little, but aren't interesting in diving all that deep. This Assembly is worth at least a dip, to get an understanding of all God wrought in the lives of kings and queens, and pastors and persecutors that resulted in these documents. The book is really well done, with wonderful pictures and clear text, but it isn't the sort that kids are going to pick up on their own. This would be best as a homeschool or institutional Christian school resource. Boekestein has also done three books, all very good, on the confessions which make up the Three Forms of Unity: The Quest for Comfort: the story of the Heidelberg Cathechism (2011, 40 pages), The Glory of Grace: the story of the Canons of Dort (2012, 40 pages), and Faithfulness under Fire: the story of Guido de Bres (2010, 40 pages), who authored the Belgic Confession. All are recommended! – Jon Dykstra MAY 2 There are a number of psalms that have been the subject of controversy in the Christian church for many years. These are the "imprecatory psalms" in which the psalmist expresses a strong desire that God's vengeance be unleashed against those who persist in doing evil. The question arises again and again: can we as Christians make words like those found in Psalm 137:9 our own in our prayers and in our worship? Can we say, "Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock," or is this sentiment unworthy of a New Covenant believer? In his book Crying For Justice: What the Psalms Teach Us About Mercy and Vengeance in an Age of Terrorism (2005, 199 pages), John N. Day argues that the imprecatory psalms must continue to be used by Christians today, and he explains why people like C.S. Lewis (who believed that the imprecatory psalms are "sub-Christian" expressions of a sinful desire for revenge) are wrong in rejecting them. Day deals with apparent contradictions between the Old and New Testament, examines several of what he calls "unsatisfactory solutions" to the problem, provides detailed analysis of three of the harshest imprecatory psalms (Psalms 58, 109, and 137), and concludes with a sample sermon on Psalm 83. Day's conclusion is that these controversial psalms, which can seem to be so problematic in our 21st Century Western cultural context, must continue to form an integral part of Christian worship. I highly recommend this book, especially for anyone who has struggled with the idea that these psalms should be prayed and sung by Christians today. – Jim Witteveen APRIL 29 Children of the Reformation that we are, we understand our will is in bondage to sin. But that presents a conundrum of sorts, because if we can't help but sin, then how can we be held responsible by God for our sin? C.S. Lewis once noted that the act of turning to God wasn't something he chose to do, but that he was instead, the most reluctant of converts. So, again, if only God can enable us to choose for Him, how can we be held responsible for acting against Him? Calvinists answer this by humbly holding onto two seemingly conflicting ideas: we are responsible for our sin, and yet God is sovereign over all. How can both be true? Well, as Dr. Bredenhof has put it, human beings are always "free to do what is according to their nature," though as an unregenerate creature, that will always involve sin. In his book Free Will (2012, 82 pages), atheist, and materialist Sam Harris attempts to offer a different sort of resolution. His is a godless answer, of course, and so the dilemma for him is a godless one as well: he wonders how mere chemicals in motion that we are (according to his evolutionary worldview) could have any responsibility for our actions. We are, he argues, merely the sum of our inputs, no more responsible for our output than a computer would be. He wants us to acknowledge our lack of free will so that we'll be kinder to murderers who, meat robots that they are, shouldn't be held responsible for their "bad programming." But if they shouldn't be held responsible for their actions, then why is Harris holding us responsible for our actions towards them? Whether we torture or tickle them, no condemnation would be possible, since no one bears responsibility for any actions...ever. Harris ably demonstrates that his materialist worldview doesn't allow for responsibility, so when he argues we have a responsibility to treat criminals better, he proves a different point: that materialism falls short. – Jon Dykstra APRIL 20 Over the past several years we have been hearing more and more about Klaus Schwab and his World Economic Forum (WEF). For those of us who are very concerned about his brand of globalism and the influence that the WEF is exerting throughout the world, what we've been hearing has not been reassuring. But in order to truly understand where people like Klaus Schwab really stand, it is always preferable to go to the source itself rather than relying on second-hand information and the interpretations of third parties. In 2019, Schwab and his co-author Thierry Malleret published Covid-19: The Great Reset. The Great Narrative: For a Better Future (2022, 253 pages) builds on the foundation of that previous work, and is the fruit of a series of interviews with "fifty of the world's foremost global thinkers and opinion makers." The Great Narrative, as its title suggests, presents the WEF's understanding of the state of the world, the problems that must be addressed, and the goals which the nations of the world should be working to achieve. "Narratives," Schwab (or Malleret) writes, "shape our perceptions, which in turn form our realities and end up influencing our choices and actions. They are how we find meaning in life." In a brief review it isn't possible to delve into the many aspects of the narrative that Schwab and his compatriots are promoting. But the very definition of "narrative" that they provide already says a great deal about what they are attempting to accomplish in this work. Our perceptions are shaped by narratives, the stories we use to explain our worldview. And, Schwab says, it is our perceptions which form our realities. In other words, it's all a matter of interpretation. Reality, given this definition, cannot be something absolute, unchanging, and definable. It is something that we create, not an objective state of affairs to which we must adapt ourselves. We are shapers of reality, and it is the narrative that we hold to that shapes how we live. Despite Schwab's mistaken notion about the nature of reality, he is correct in understanding the importance of the "grand narratives" that form our worldviews, and the way in which our actions find their source in our worldviews. He understands that narrative is vitally important, and thus he attempts to create a narrative that will lead people to accept his prescriptions for the government of international society and the lives of individuals. Throughout this book, whether speaking about pandemics or climate change or geopolitical issues or the place of technology in society, Schwab often makes assertions that are not backed up by evidence, but are clearly meant to shape people's thinking according to the "accepted wisdom" of this prevailing narrative. The book demands careful reading because the serious errors that Schwab commits are sometimes subtle, but have serious repercussions, especially because they have been echoed by so many on the world stage. The WEF may not have legislative power, but its "great narrative" has become the prevailing narrative, and expressions of dissent are being marginalized and even silenced in many corners. The Great Narrative attacks the true narrative, the Word of God, the only place that the true meaning of life and true wisdom can be found. In so doing, it constructs a worldview that could only lead to disastrous results if put into practice. For this reason, while there's no way I could recommend this book as a fount of legitimate wisdom, I believe that we need to familiarize ourselves with works of this type because of the influence that they have in shaping the attitudes and actions of many influential figures on the world stage. – Jim Witteveen APRIL 19 On July 29, 1994, Paul J. Hill, at one time an OPC pastor, shot an abortionist, his wife, and their bodyguard. The abortionist and the bodyguard both died. Hill had been arguing for years that such action was biblical, and had been excommunicated for making his arguments publicly. In Lone Gunners for Jesus: Letters to Paul J. Hill (1994, 47 pages), written after the shooting, Gary North responded to Hill, explaining how his actions weren't biblical or effective because: Hill was never called to be judge and jury and God doesn't endorse vigilante justice, Hill's acts only moved the public in a pro-choice direction costing more unborn lives, and while we are called to a public witness against the slaughter of the unborn, non-violent resistance - being beaten rather than being the beater - is the better witness. This slim volume is an important book to calm Christian whose love for the unborn is in danger of being misdirected, but it is also a good read for those who, whether in ignorance or a lack of compassion, don't stand up for the unborn at all. Download the e-book for free. – Jon Dykstra APRIL 18 The brilliant economist Thomas Sowell's Wealth, Poverty, and Politics: An International Perspective (2015, 320 pages - a newer and expanded version is available too), is an excellent, well researched, readable book that makes understandable the politics surrounding issues of social justice, poverty and wealth disparity. Sowell (pronounced "soul"), grew up in Harlem, New York in a very poor, black neighborhood and thus is not writing as an elitist out of touch with the reality on the streets. Yet he pushes back against the dominant narratives about race, oppression, social justice, the welfare state, and more in this book, relying on careful research of the empirical data to show that income inequality is determined by the production of wealth, and not the distribution of wealth. Furthermore, he shows just how complex the factors are that bear on wealth production, including geography, demographics, and culture. His use of historic and global examples make the book a fascinating read and he demonstrates just how much the civil government in the modern west is actually exacerbating the problems for disadvantaged groups. I recommend the book for college/university age and up, to anyone interested in politics, social justice themes, and/or economics. – André Schutten APRIL 13 C.S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933/2020, 255 pages) is an enjoyable allegory that loosely traces Lewis’ own path to conversion (though he insists in an afterword that it is not autobiographical). It tells the story of John, who is seeking an island he saw and is intensely longing to reach. In trying to reach the island, John has many adventures and runs into people like Mr. Enlightenment (their conversation made me chuckle), Mr. Mammon, Mother Kirk, and others. Most of the allegorical elements are easy enough to pick up on, with the result that Lewis packs an incredible philosophical and theological course into a thoroughly entertaining adventure. Even so, I probably missed some allegorical references. Perhaps I’ll read the annotated version soon? Highly recommended! – André Schutten APRIL 12 I read A.W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God, (1948/2020, 98 pages) in a single sitting on a Saturday afternoon. What an afternoon! It is short, sweet, and an incredibly powerful call to put aside comfortable Christianity and put God first, to pursue God with every part of you, to know God as He desires to be known. It challenged me and made me squirm at times. Yet, as each chapter ends with a prayer, it called me to lay it all before the throne. While Tozer does not come from a Reformed tradition, there was nothing in this book that caused me any concerns. On the contrary, I felt the book was an excellent wake-up call to the 21st-century, North American church. This book would be great to read aloud as a small group and pray over. – André Schutten APRIL 11 Conn Iggulden is my favorite historical fiction writer. I’ve read three four-book series by him already and am starting a fourth one. The first book of the series is called The Gates of Athens, (2021, 464 pages) and tells of the battle of Marathon (where 10,000 vastly outnumbered Athenian hoplites push off the invasion of Darius’ Persian army) and of the battle of Thermopylae (the famous 300 Spartans who hold the pass against the 300,000 Persians for three days, and the less famous but equally crucial naval battle occurring at the same time). Iggulden also paints a picture of the political dance between Themistocles, Xanthippus, and other statesmen of Athens. This book was a page-turner and difficult to put down. An added benefit is that I refreshed my ancient history lessons. A fun fact not mentioned in the book: it’s very likely that the Persian king Xerxes who led the invasion of Greece and saw the 300 Spartans was the same King who later married the Jewish Queen Esther. If so, on reading this book you will get a better appreciation of just how perilous it was for Queen Esther to approach this king with her requests. – André Schutten APRIL 8 John Taylor Gatto won multiple top teaching awards during his stint as a public teacher. But in Dumbing us Down (1992, 120 pages) he makes his case for blowing the whole system up. The book's small size is what makes him worth hearing, but this was not quite what I was expecting. Gatto features prominently in Indoctrination, a fantastic documentary on public school education, by Reformed filmmaker Colin Gunn. I thought Gatto might be Christian too, and while he identifies as Catholic, this is primarily a secular and libertarian case against institutionalized schooling (the author even seems to have some knowledge of, and dislike for, Calvinism). Public schools are a problem, he argues, for doing just what they were designed to do: create a compliant and dependent citizenry. His solution? More parental direction in their children's education, blowing up the government monopoly on education, and having students do less school overall, to create more room for them to explore their own interests. I appreciated much of what he said, but found this only a good, not a great read. – Jon Dykstra APRIL 4 Though very short (some might call it a mere pamphlet) Of AntiChrist and His Ruin (1692, 2015, 68 pages) by John Bunyan (author of the enduringly popular The Pilgrim's Progress) was a challenging read that took time to understand and digest. Bunyan describes the anti-Christ as being those forces that arise throughout history against Christ and his church and are sometimes found cloaked as Christian or as good government. The language is still in the style of 1692 which was an impediment to my reading speed. More than that, Bunyan's concept of who (or what) is the antiChrist was also challenging to me; I hadn't heard his perspective before. Something that stands out in this piece is the sheer number of scriptural references Bunyan uses throughout to make his argument. A free version of the book is available here in PDF format. – André Schutten APRIL 2 Richard Mouw's Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, 2nd edition, (2010, 187 pages) is a timely book for a church frayed after a controversial few years, and facing an increasingly hostile culture. As the title suggests, Mouw urges his Christian audience to do all we can to remain civil in all discourse, without giving up our convictions. Mouw pushes me further than I'm comfortable going, and he's probably right in doing so. That said, I do note that I strongly disagree with one anecdote in his book where he describes an abortion for a 15-year-old rape victim as "the least evil alternative" (p.52) contrary to the clear teaching in Scripture that a child should not be put to death for the sins of her father (Deut. 24:16). While Mouw's point here is to emphasize having sympathy for such a horrific and tragic situation (which I absolutely agree with), our sympathy should not be blind to what abortion actually does to its first victim. With that exception, I found the book to be a pleasant read and gave me much to think about in how I dialogue about issues I am passionate about. – André Schutten APRIL 1 Christians regularly forget that Jesus is Lord of every square inch of creation, but in her slim volume, A brief theology of periods (yes, really) (2021, 128 pages) Rachel Jones clearly gets it. She is speaking to women but shares information about periods and menstruation that will be helpful for men, and especially husbands. She touches on hormonal contraceptives and the trend to call women "people who menstruate" but the majority of the book is specifically on God's thoughts on periods, including what it says in Leviticus about a women's "uncleanliness," and how we are to take this passage today. Jones asks lots of good questions, even if she isn't able to answer all of them (Did Eve have periods in the Garden of Eden?), and is an orthodox guide on this seldom discussed area of women's life. – Jon Dykstra MARCH 29 During the presidency of Donald Trump, there was a lot of talk about the dangers of the “Deep State.” We all remember the chants of “Drain the swamp!” and promises of a grand house-cleaning that would soon take place in the U.S. government - a house-cleaning that never seemed to become a reality. Wikipedia refers to the idea that a “Deep State” exists as a “discredited conspiracy theory,” but Michael J. Glennon’s National Security and Double Government (2015, 234 pages) provides plenty of evidence for its existence, and the danger it poses to the American republic. Published in 2015 by Oxford University Press (note: before Trump, and by a reputable academic publisher), his book seeks to answer a question which is indicative of a much broader trend: Why was it that Barack Obama’s foreign policy not only did not differ from that of George W. Bush, his presidential predecessor, but actually doubled down on a number of the policies implemented under Bush’s leadership, including a sixfold increase in the number of covert drone strikes in Pakistan? Beginning with this specific question, Glennon seeks to explain why American national security policy remains constant even when one President was replaced by another, who as a candidate repeatedly, forcefully, and eloquently promised fundamental changes in that policy. His answer follows the approach of 19th Century British essayist Walter Bagehot, who described the British political system in the Victorian era as a “double government.” In the US, this double government is made up of two distinct groups, referred to by Glennon as the Madisonians (public political figures who fill positions in Congress, the Senate, and the Presidency) and the Trumanites (those who work behind the scenes in governmental organizations largely established during the presidency of Harry S Truman). It is the Trumanites who make the vast majority of the decisions when it comes to foreign policy, Glennon argues, and the Madisonians who must follow. Therefore, in the arena of foreign policy, it actually makes very little difference which political party or individual wields the apparent power; it is the hidden half of the double government which is pulling the strings. Glennon’s analysis is clear, well-written, and heavily supported by documentary evidence (the page count is inflated by over 100 pages of notes). His explanation of a phenomenon that many do not understand or cannot explain is eye-opening, as well as cause for deep concern. For anyone interested in learning why the “swamp” remains undrained until this very day, this book is required reading. – Jim Witteveen MARCH 22 I’m sure I’m not the first reviewer to describe Glenn McCarty’s The Misadventured Summer of Tumbleweed Thompson (2019, 327 pages) as Mark Twain-esque. This is a tale of two very different boys, living out frontier life in 1876, and equally matched as both friends and rivals. Tumbleweed Thompson is a shyster and the son of a shyster, blowing into Rattlesnake Junction as father and son peddle miracle medicine from the back of their wagon. Eugene Appleton, a good son of the town’s pastor, is in the audience, watching as the peddlers are shown up and run out. But when Tumbleweed reappears on his ownsome, he pulls Eugene into a whole summer’s worth of getting chased by smugglers, trailing train robbers, and trying to outdo each other for the attentions of the mayor’s daughter, Charlotte Scoggins, a misadventurous lass herself. It’s evident the author is Christian, though that might not be apparent to the 10–14-year-old audience this is intended for because, even as Eugene means well, he doesn’t always act well (and Tumbleweed often enough doesn’t even mean well). That mostly gets sorted out at the end, when both boys do the very best thing, acting in defense of a widow and a man falsely accused. Loads of fun! - Jon Dykstra MARCH 16 Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was the Richard Dawkins of his time – one of the most prominent academic atheists of the twentieth century. Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou's Logicomix: an Epic Search for Truth (2009, 350 pages) is a graphic novel that serves as a biography of the man, as well as an account of his, and others', ultimately futile quest to use mathematics to arrive at certainty. As a child, Russell was raised by his grandparents. He was made to read the Bible, but his grandfather died early on, and his grandmother didn't seem to show him love. Then, when a tutor explained the logic and power of math, he came to reject the religion of his grandmother, seeing in math a way to live life without the need for any faith. In math, he thought, he could have certainty. But math itself is built on axioms - assumptions, that, while logical and even obvious, are unproven. So it became Russell's life's quest to prove these axioms - he wanted to give math a firm foundation. But as an old man he discovered that the quest for certainty that he had given his life to – that he had rejected God for – was unattainable. It was in 1931 that a young mathematician, Kurt Gödel proved, to the satisfaction of other mathematicians, that not everything can be proven. Logicomix is an entirely secular presentation, marred by at least one instance of God's name being taken in vain, and written at a level that would limit it to adults. But you don't need to understand all the math being discussed (I certainly didn't) to appreciate the moral of Russell's life's story: like many a rebel, he claimed his rejection of God was grounded in something valid, but we can see that even as Russell rejected God for requiring faith, he wasn't willing to reject math for the same "fault." – Jon Dykstra MARCH 15 Both my 10-year-old daughter and I enjoyed Jason Lethcoe’s No Place Like Holmes (2011, 210 pages), a steampunk detective story set in the London of the late 1800s. Our hero is Gilbert, an American boy of an unusually observant nature. Gilbert, we are told, will one day become “the world’s most secret detective.” But for now, he has been sent to live with his detective uncle, Rupert Snodgrass, just one story down from “the world’s most famous detective” Sherlock Holmes. Gilbert’s uncle is quite jealous of Holmes’ notoriety, as he too is a detective, though much less successful, and eschewing intuition in favor of detecting machines, which he himself invents. What sort of machines? All sorts: a robot butler, a metal detector, and a question-answerer that is hooked up to telegraphs lines from around the world – it’s basically a steam-powered computer with Internet. It’s wonderfully silly. The story is also wonderfully Christian: Gilbert’s love for his Lord is woven in throughout. So, for example, his uncle is not a church-goer, and quite obnoxious at the start, leaving Gilbert feeling lonely. But he knows he can ask his heavenly Father for courage. While this is a standalone story, it does have a cliffhanger lead-in for the sequel, The Future Door (2011, 210 pages), which I wouldn’t recommend. It’s a time travel adventure that ends on a sour note when an older Gilbert from the future kills the bad guy, and not in self-defense. Older Gilbert says that he used his time travel machine to explore every other option and all of them ended worse. But this is where the author failed to understand that even granting his character a form of omniscience doesn’t justify disobeying God’s clear command “Thou shall not kill.” If the author didn’t understand that, it’s very likely to go over the head of children readers too, which is a reason to give the sequel a miss. – Jon Dykstra MARCH 14 I read Wilson Rawls' novel Where the Red Fern Grows (1961/2016, 289 pages) to my eight-year-old son over the course of three weeks, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. It tells the story of a very poor boy who is determined to get a pair of coon-hunting hounds, how he achieves his goal, and the adventures he has with his dogs. While I did employ some careful censorship of the gorier details of coon hunting (for the sake of my son's maturity level), I nevertheless highly recommend the book, especially for dads to read to their eight to twelve-year-old boys. It is helpful for teaching the ethic of hard work and persistence, and the lesson that life isn’t always about happy endings, and yet being thankful for the wonderful things we have for the seasons God gives them to us. I found the references to God, Scripture, and prayer always respectful even if the theology is slightly off. Warning: If you're the emotional type, you might start crying through the second-last chapter. I had to pause a couple times to wipe away tears and swallow a persistent lump in my throat. That too, is a teaching moment. – André Schutten MARCH 9 I picked this novel up mostly because it shared a title with a non-fiction book André Schutten read earlier this year. It helped, also, that I’d read another by the author and loved it. Rule of Law (2017, 473 pages) is a legal thriller, and this time the action also includes a SEAL team storming an Arabic jail to free an imprisoned American journalist. When that mission takes a tragic turn, the fallout ends up in front of the Supreme Court. Author Randy Singer uses his fictional story to examine the real-world way in which the US government, and particularly the executive branch, has been acting as judge, jury, and executioner in placing foreign nationals on a “kill list,” and then taking them out, and those near them, via drone strikes. Singer doesn’t seem to be arguing against all drone strikes. But the title he has chosen certainly references the idea that we all need and benefit from accountability, so we all – including even the president – need to be under the law. Our leaders must not act like they are above it, as dictators do. This is well written, with a great balance of action, some romance, unexpected courtroom twists, and some realistic, subtly woven in, wrestlings with God. Singer is rapidly becoming a favorite author. – Jon Dykstra MARCH 3 When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World (1956, 249 pages) is the story of Dorothy Martin and her small group of followers, and how their lives were impacted when her apocalyptic prophecy failed to come true. Martin believed that she had received messages from aliens revealing that a devastating natural disaster would destroy much of the world on December 21st, 1954. Through the process of automatic writing, in which the writer serves as a conduit for messengers from “beyond,” Martin had been informed that she and her group of true believers would be rescued from the cataclysm by spaceships which would deliver them to safety on another planet. Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, the authors of When Prophecy Fails, had been studying the historical results of failed prophecy when they read a newspaper story about Martin and her followers. Recognizing this as an opportunity to test their theories personally in a real-life situation, they inserted themselves into the group of “Seekers,” and chronicled events immediately leading up to December 21st as well as the disappointing aftermath of the failed prophecy. This is a very sad story from beginning to end, and the authors’ account often reads like a tragic novel and not as a sociological study. Martin herself believed fervently that she had been chosen to serve as a messenger of truth, and her followers were looking for hope and purpose in their lives. They were willing to grab hold of anything, no matter how ludicrous and self-contradictory, because they desperately wanted to believe. And when the forecast disaster failed to happen, the true believers didn’t abandon their trust in Martin and her message; instead, they searched for explanations that fit into their already-developed worldview, explained the failure away, and continued along the same path. In a world in which forecasts of impending doom, both scientific and religious, are commonplace, When Prophecy Fails helps us to understand why failed prophecies often lead to beliefs being held more strongly rather than abandoned completely. – Jim Witteveen One of the most accomplished judges in English history, Lord Tom Bingham, wrote this short but helpful book The Rule of Law (2010/2011, 213 pages). Lord Bingham explains that the book "is not addressed to lawyers… It is addressed to those who have heard references to the rule of law, who are inclined to think that it sounds like a good thing rather than a bad thing, who wonder if it may not be rather important, but who are not quite sure what it is all about and would like to make up their minds." The book opens with some interesting legal history, outlines eight aspects of the rule of law (the chapter on human rights is particularly good), before closing with some modern application to the war on terror. Some post-COVID readers may be happy to apply the warnings of this book to violations of the rule of law over the last two years but may also be appropriately challenged to rethink their position on certain government actions during the “war on terror.” An accessible read, I highly recommend this book for all lawyers, politicians, government workers, and any citizen who has used the term "rule of law" recently but is not 100% sure they know what the term really means. – André Schutten MARCH 2 Richard Pollak's The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim (1997, 456 pages) is the story of a man with an invented past and fictional credentials, who wrote fabricated stories about the amazing successes of the Chicago school for mentally ill children that he took over in 1944. Along the way, he published several popular books on parenting and other subjects, worked as a university professor and magazine columnist, and influenced a generation of parents in his role as “public intellectual.” This book is a well-written and fascinating account of one man’s life, and makes for captivating reading on that basis alone. But on a deeper level, the story of “Dr. B.” reveals a great deal about how one person can fool even the “best and brightest” when he tells them what they want to hear. Bruno Bettelheim was not the only intellectual fraud who was active in 20th Century academia, so the example of his life and work, and the way in which he managed to become an important figure in the academic world, functions as a cautionary tale. Even among the “experts” of the world, things are not always as they seem. – Jim Witteveen FEBRUARY 22 I’ve recently been reading a few children’s versions of Pilgrim’s Progress. I’m not normally one for abridgments, but John Bunyan’s classic is also almost 350 years old, so the original wasn’t going to work with my daughters. I checked out the three most popular children’s editions and was pleasantly surprised with them all. The most loyal to the original was Dangerous Journey (1985, 127 pages). Editor Oliver Hunkin has carefully abridged, rather than rewritten Bunyan’s story, and done so in a way that makes it easily understandable for the teen audience it is aimed at. He’s edited out the obscure terms, and paired it with pictures that do a lot of explaining, but which are scarier and darker than my preteen listeners would have been up for. Hunkin also includes a much-abridged 16-page version of Bunyan’s sequel, about the pilgrim’s wife Christiana going on her own journey. For younger children, the most authentic version is Tyler Van Halteren’s Little Pilgrim’s Big Journey (2020, 223 pages). It has somewhat cartoonish pictures they’ll enjoy, and the principal character, Christian, is now a boy, rather than a man. I appreciated that Van Halteren’s rewrite still contains most of Bunyan’s theological challenges and lessons, though on a kid’s level. He’s also written a second book, Part II, that covers Christiana’s journey, though now instead of being the pilgrim’s wife, she is his little sister. The one I read to my children is Helen L. Taylor’s adaptation, Little Pilgrim’s Progress (1946, 336 pages). This text was the most readable of the three (Halteren’s version is very close) and also includes Christiania’s journey, though she is now Christian’s friend. A little of the theological heft was lost, but I think that’s okay, so long as kids understand that they should really check out the original when they’re older. There are many versions of Taylor’s adaptation, some with lavish pictures and others with only simple line drawings. – Jon Dykstra FEBRUARY 21 If the news has you feeling antsy, then you might be interested in a book that calmed and encouraged me. To celebrate 50 years of Canadian Reformed involvement in the mission work in Brazil, editor Harold Ludwig and the Aldergrove Brazil Mission Society, have given us God Gave the Growth (2021, 144 pages). Dozens of contributors, including past and present missionaries and all sorts of workers, take turns sharing how God greatly blessed their work. There are challenges – a different language and culture creates barriers that have to be overcome – but maybe the greatest challenge is one we pray we could experience in Canada too: such a hunger for the Reformed truth that there are more opportunities to preach and teach than can be met. As one missionary shares: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:37-38). I really loved that there were so many contributors, as they gave very different glimpses at what God has been up to. This, then, is a book that’ll give you a boost – our God reigns and He is busy! Purchase the sturdy oversized hardcover for $30 CAN plus shipping at MissionBoardBrazil.org. – Jon Dykstra FEBRUARY 18 Christians are right to be skeptical of an environmental movement that sees Man as a problem for the planet, rather than the steward of it. But, as Gordon Wilson explains in his A Different Shade of Green (2019, 189 pages), Christians can’t simply be contrarians – we won’t arrive at the biblical position simply by being reactionary and anti-Green. Instead, our foundation has to be God’s Word, starting with the dominion mandate in Genesis 1:28, and then God’s own evaluation of His creation as is expressed a few verses later: “and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). We are to value His Creation and the creatures in it because He values it, and we are to take charge of its care because He has made us responsible for it. What Dr. Wilson has gifted us with here is a challenging and engaging Biblical Environmentalism 101 – he hasn't worked it all out for us, but he is pointing us in the right direction. For more of Wilson's creation care thoughts, be sure to check out his nature documentary series, The Riot and The Dance. – Jon Dykstra FEBRUARY 17 There are lots of layers in Randy Singer’s courtroom drama Directed Verdict (2002, 486 pages). When the Saudi religious police uncover a secret church, Charles, the American pastor, is tortured and killed, and his wife Sarah is beaten and deported on trumped-up drug charges. From there the action takes place both in an American court where lawyer Brad Carson helps Sarah bring suit against her torturer, and in Saudi Arabia, where the small church struggles to continue, their members fearful and shaken. The large law firm defending the torturer is willing to cheat, so what might their murderous client be willing to do? Sarah Reed’s team is growing to admire her courage but none of them share her Christian scruples, so what might they be willing to do behind her back to help her get justice? This was a quick read, and sure has me interested in what else Singer has written. – Jon Dykstra FEBRUARY 16 Written as a critique of Leo Tolstoy's pacifist ideology, Ivan Alexandrovich Ilyin's On Resistance to Evil by Force (1925, 216 pages) provides a passionate and often insightful defense of the legitimacy of physical opposition to evil. Ilyin writes from a distinctly Russian Orthodox perspective which informs his conclusions (and leads to some of its shortcomings). From this perspective, he critiques not only the pacifism of Tolstoy and the ethics of the Roman Catholic Jesuits, but also what he calls "the most naive and elementary attempts to give the sword an absolute justification" of Martin Luther. While Luther wrote that the legitimate use of "the sword" in service to secular governments is a work done on behalf of God Himself, and that it, therefore, is absolutely righteous, Ilyin argues that the use of force in countering evil is actually an unrighteous act, but an act that must be performed by righteous men. We need, he writes, both the warrior and the monk - the warrior to do the necessary work of combating evil, and the monk to do the work of absolving the warrior of that evil. This is where Ilyin's argument goes off the rails, and does not align with Scriptural teaching. However, along the way, Ilyin argues powerfully and logically against Christian pacifism and quietism as ideologies which run counter to Biblical teaching. He makes a cogent case for the necessity of standing up against evil in this world, to the point of physical resistance, on the basis of love for God, for our neighbor, and for righteousness itself. This book was written in Russian in 1925, and is neither an easy read nor a book which I would endorse without reservation. That being said, Ilyin's overarching message is very relevant for our current situation, and provides much food for thought as we consider how and why Christians should actively combat evil in this world. – Jim Witteveen FEBRUARY 15 According to its afterword, “few books have been so widely debated, quoted, excerpted, and also used for teacher education, graduate and undergraduate courses, and in some high schools” as Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970, 219 pages). There is no denying the influence that Paulo Freire’s educational philosophy has had, not just in his native Brazil, but around the world. And as I read this book, Freire’s best-known work, my only conclusion is that this influence has been resoundingly negative. Replete with citations of such luminaries as Lenin, Mao, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro, Pedagogy of the Oppressed proudly proclaims its Marxist basis, building a system of education on a very flimsy foundation indeed. I have little good to say about this book, although I believe that Freire’s characterization of government educational systems as tools of the elite used to control and form society according to its desires is entirely accurate. His “solutions,” however, are disastrous - as the results have continued to show. While I wouldn’t recommend this book as a handbook of pedagogy, I do recommend it particularly for anyone involved in education who would like to learn more about why public and higher education has become what it is today. – Jim Witteveen FEBRUARY 9 Anne Hendershott is a rare bird - a sociologist who believes that the concept of "deviance" must be reaffirmed in order to avoid a complete societal collapse. The classification of some behaviors as "deviant" was once understood by sociologists as the means by which societies defined what is right and good, maintaining good order and harmony by stigmatizing deviant behavior. Since the 1960s, the sociological study of deviance has become a historical study only, as sociologists question why "deviance" was ever an important concept in the first place. This doesn't mean that there is no longer any such thing as behavior that is considered "deviant." But it does mean that what is now considered deviant behavior is often the exact opposite of what previous generations believed. In The Politics of Deviance (2002, 194 pages), Hendershott examines the subject of deviance by discussing the issues of pedophilia, sexual orientation, sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, mental illness, and rape. Throughout, she demonstrates how the academic and media elite have "shaped discussion and dramatically influenced public perceptions." What is needed, Hendershoot argues, is a return to the traditional categories of deviance. And this, she says, requires a moral awakening, and not merely a change of laws. Her concluding words are worth quoting: "A society that continues to redefine deviance as disease, or refuses to acknowledge and negatively sanction the deviant acts our common sense tells us are destructive, is a society that has lost the capacity to confront evil that has a capacity to dehumanize us all." While this book is now twenty years old and therefore somewhat dated, the trends that Hendershott examined in 2002 have only continued, and indeed worsened. This study remains relevant as our society continues to overturn traditional categories of deviance, and as deviance is redefined as a result of emotional appeals of advocacy groups, public intellectuals, and in the halls of academia. – Jim Witteveen Beloved philosopher Peter Kreeft’s Beyond Heaven and Hell (1982, 115 pages) is a short book patterned after a Socratic dialogue. (Kreeft has written a few of these entertaining and illuminating dialogues, a particular favorite of mine being The Unaborted Socrates). In Beyond Heaven & Hell, Kreeft imagines a conversation between President J.F. Kennedy, writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley, and professor and Christian theologian C.S. Lewis, in some space immediately after their death (all three died on the same day, November 22, 1963). C.S. Lewis takes on the modern humanist in Kennedy and the Eastern pantheist in Huxley while discussing and debating the existence of hell, the place of authority, and Scripture as trustworthy, the reality of Jesus Christ and his divinity, and more. I highly recommend the book. It can be read in a single sitting on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday evening. It might be fun to read it aloud with two others, each taking a voice of the three characters. – André Schutten FEBRUARY 8 Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and Brave New World Revisited (1958) (combined edition, 2005, 340 pages) are modern classics. The former is a dystopian novel, predicting future tyranny not through violence, pain, and terror but through pleasure and technological and medical planning and psychological conditioning. The latter is a nonfiction piece in which Huxley compares modern human relations in 1958 with what he prophesied in 1932. While Huxley was not a Christian (he blended certain Christian ideas with Eastern mysticism and pantheism), some of his criticisms – though certainly not all – are spot on. Huxley's prophesy of control through pleasure – evaluated in the 21st century – is more accurate than his student George Orwell's prophesy of societal control through pain and terror in Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949). The ethical/political issues surrounding IVF and surrogacy, the redefinition of the family to include up to four parents, none of whom need to be biologically related to the child (see Ontario's All Families Are Equal Act, 2016), the ubiquitous nature of pornography, the dramatic shift of divorcing procreation from sex, the state-control of vast swaths of the education system, and society's desire to prefer safety and comfort over freedom and responsibility, all suggest that Huxley was the more prescient philosopher. The book is unsettling to read but I nonetheless recommend it, not only to better understand the many cultural references to it, but also to prick your imagination to better critique the state of our society today. – André Schutten FEBRUARY 7 If you have ever struggled with concentration when needing to focus on a challenging project (writing an article or sermon, reading and understanding an intellectual problem, studying for an exam, preparing arguments for court, etc.) then Cal Newport’s Deep Work (2016, 296 pages) is a must-read. This was the second time I’d read this book in less than two years. It confirms with scientific and anecdotal evidence what I’ve grown to know for myself over the last 10 years: a person needs to have lots of dedicated, focussed time in order to do deep work. Newport defines deep work as: “work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction” and argues it is essential to develop two core abilities: 1. the ability to quickly master hard things/ideas; and 2. the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. Without systems and strategies in place, deep work becomes nearly impossible, making productivity, innovation and output stagnate. This book provides those strategies. I highly recommend Deep Work to any ministers, lawyers, academics, writers, and researchers who want to improve their focus and output with the caveat that this book is not written from a Christian perspective. Implement the strategies, without losing gospel focus in your life. (I hope to read What's Best Next later this year, which is also a book about productivity, but from a Christian perspective.) – André Schutten FEBRUARY 2 There are miracles all around us, but the rising sun, our pumping hearts, and babies’ wriggling toes do their things with such regularity as to seem ordinary. Not so the miracles in God’s Smuggler (1967, 288 pages). Here “Brother Andrew” (1928- ) relates one extraordinary answer to prayer after another, whether it be a needed cake delivered at the last moment by an off-duty postman, or the instant healing of Andrew’s crippled ankle. Then, in his work smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain, this Dutchman came to rely on the extraordinary becoming regular. Border crossings into Communist countries were always tense, but each time Brother Andrew would ask God to “make seeing eyes blind” and God would do so. The same border guards who had just taken apart the car in front of them would simply wave them through or, if they did inspect their cargo, the guards would completely miss the Bibles crammed in everywhere. It was through these regular miracles that God used Andrew and his coworkers to deliver His Word to millions in the persecuted Church. I told my children we shouldn’t understand the many miracles Andrew experienced as evidence that he was always acting wisely and praying as he should (he acknowledges God honored some of his requests despite how he prayed). We can take it as evidence of God’s great love for his persecuted Church! – Jon Dykstra FEBRUARY 1 Lawyer and theologian John Warwick Montgomery's Human Rights & Human Dignity (1986, 319 pages) is a great introduction to the Christian foundation of modern human rights. While I would differ with Montgomery on some theological points (he's Lutheran and, at times, criticizes Calvinist thought), his book sets out a devastating critique of modern justifications for universal human rights, exposing how flimsy a foundation they have, and then proposing a transcendental foundation for universal human rights, rooting them in the doctrines of creation and redemption. I recommend the book to anyone interested in a relatively accessible, university-level Christian introduction to the topic of human rights, with the caveat that the book is a bit dated. – André Schutten One of the best-known psychological experiments in history was that of Stanley Milgram, professor of psychology at Yale University. In a series of experiments, Milgram tested hundreds of unwitting subjects for their willingness to administer electric shocks to a "victim" who answered a series of quiz questions incorrectly. Participants were told that they were participating in a study of the efficacy of punishment for learning, but the real goal of the experiment was to study how obedient people would be to authority, even when told to do things that went against their conscience. Milgram discovered that obedience to authority is deeply ingrained, and that the majority of participants would obey even when they believed they were seriously hurting someone. Obedience to Authority (1974, 253 pages) is the fruit of Milgram's research. Much of it is taken up by an explanation of the various forms that the experiments took, but it is the individual case studies that are particularly interesting and insightful. One participant was a member of a Dutch Reformed Church, and had lived through the Nazi occupation of Holland; at one point in the experiment he refused to continue when he believed that the "subject" was being hurt. Another was an Old Testament professor who also refused to obey the authority figure. When asked what he thought the most effective way of strengthening resistance to inhumane authority, he responded: "If one had as one's ultimate authority God, then it trivializes human authority." Milgram writes from an evolutionist perspective, and I would have loved to have seen more of a focus on the role that people's faith and religious presuppositions play in their obedience to authority. That being said, I recommend this book to anyone interested in deepening their understanding about obedience to authority from a psychological and sociological perspective. – Jim Witteveen JANUARY 27 Though it'd be best absorbed in the month-and-a-half that the title prescribes, I read Todd Nettleton's When Faith is Forbidden: 40 Days on the frontlines with persecuted Christians (2021, 272 pages) in just two days. It was simply too wonderful to put down. Each of the 40 chapters is a story of a Christian who shared God's good news with those around them, come what may. They shared it because they knew that the relatives trying to silence them, the mob trying to intimidate them, or even the policemen coming to arrest them, all needed what God had already given to them. So this is a story of Christians far braver than we, but more importantly, it is the story of the good God who sustained them. In a few instances He did so by way of big miracles: Muslims with no access to the Bible are reached in their dreams, a man shot twice in the chest survives because the bullets did no major damage, police tossing a house find a lost sewing needle but miss the three large boxes of Bibles in the middle of the room. In others, the miracles were maybe less spectacular, but exactly what was needed: a man who used to beat Christians is so won over he is now willing to suffer those beatings rather than stay quiet about his Lord, a woman whose husband was murdered is able to forgive the murderers, a drug addict who turns to God is instantly freed from his addiction. This is an incredible book, and much needed here in the West where we are terrified of speaking God's good news because of what it might cost us in status, or promotions, or friendships. These persecuted Christians want us to understand that for God's people, persecution is to be expected (John 15:18-21) but it need not be feared because our God is greater than the world and what we might have to suffer is nothing compared to what we have gained in Him. – Jon Dykstra JANUARY 26 Is the Christian vs. evolutionist/naturalist/materialist debate about explaining why there is something, rather than nothing? No, says John Byl, in his brilliant apologetic work The Divine Challenge: On Matter, Mind, Math & Meaning (2021, 421 pages). The real question is "Who will rule: God or Man?" and in the world's attempts to usurp God, they've crafted many a worldview to try to explain things apart from Him. Dr. Byl shares the world's best godless explanations and shows, often in the proponents' own words, how their attempts are self-contradictory or simply fail to explain what they set out to explain. Naturalism says there is nothing outside of nature, and materialism that there is nothing outside matter, so how can either explain how matter came to be, or the non-material world of math and meaning? Byl also makes evident how very often these godless philosophers understand the emptiness of their best answers, and yet cling to them anyway only because they hate the alternative: bowing their knee to God. This is a book that will stretch most readers, and in some parts (Chapter 14 was a doozy!) I only got the gist of it...but what an encouraging gist it was. While the 2004 paperback edition is still available, Dr. Byl has made the 2021 revision a free ebook you can download on his blog here. – Jon Dykstra JANUARY 24 Historian-turned-lawyer-turned-fiction-writer C.J. Sansom has written an engaging historical fiction novel (my favorite genre) in Dissolution (2003, 390 pages). Set during the initial years of the English Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries there, the story follows a hunchbacked lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, who is sent to investigate a murder in a monastery at the behest of Thomas Cromwell (the vicar general of King Henry VIII). The book is part Agatha Christie mystery, part John Grisham drama, combined with the very careful research of the best historical fiction writers. The value of the book for a Christian reader (beyond just enjoying some good fiction) is to show the messiness of the early Reformation in England. Sansom puts away any romantic ideas Reformed people might have about that era. While a corrupt church hierarchy was displaced, it was done through the brutal and corrupt tactics of a tyrant with some early English Reformers playing along. I recommend the book for mystery lovers and historical fiction fans interested in learning a bit more about the early Reformation era with the caveat that the story contains mature subject matter: murder, torture, and adultery (though thankfully not graphically described). – André Schutten My personal library is rather roughly organized according to topic, and one of the categories that I use to sort my collection is "Know Your Enemy." The books included under this heading are ones that I wouldn't recommend because I agree with their content, but rather because it's important to know first-hand what it is that we're up against. Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (1971, 196 pages) is one such book - a highly influential work that provides an insider's view of tactics that have become ubiquitous in the world of politics, and what motivates those who use them. If you've ever wondered why the political arena is so often characterized by dishonesty and pragmatism instead of by high ideals and straightforward honesty, you need look no further than Rules for Radicals, the playbook for a generation of "community organizers," activists, and politicians. Alinsky's dedication of this book to "the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom - Lucifer" reveals his starting point, and from there, as you can well imagine, it goes nowhere good. So I recommend this book, not because I agree with it or find its arguments compelling, but rather because we need to be aware of the tactics that are being used against us. For more, check out my Dan 11:32 podcast here on Alinsky's book. – Jim Witteveen JANUARY 20 John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 187 pages) is a series of theological debates and discussions wrapped inside an epic journey. Our hero, the Pilgrim, is setting out from “the City of Destruction” to find a home in the Good King’s “Celestial City” and the journey serves as a metaphor for the Christian life. Bunyan has many challenges and encouragements to offer, but the main one is that “the bitter must come before the sweet.” He wants readers to understand that turning to God won’t make our life easy, and might even make it much harder. But God is worth it! So, along the way, the Pilgrim has to contend with many trials including false friends, doubt, a corrupt judge and lying witnesses, depression, all sorts of temptations, and persecution. He is also strengthened along the way by “Shining ones,” faithful friends, and good counselors who show him what the Lord has done for other pilgrims. There’s loads of wisdom packed in here, which is the reason it was the English world’s most influential novel for at least a couple of centuries. Readers should take some care in finding a good version as there are many to avoid. For example, the Amazon Classic version kept the original language but omits “all the conversations and arguments concerning subjects belonging to the field of doctrine.” Most modernizations also cut out meat or sections that offend modern sensibilities. A fantastic exception is that done by C. J. Lovik, which only lightly – but effectively! – modernizes the text, and includes very helpful explanatory endnotes, with wonderful illustrations every ten pages or so. If you want to read it in the original, there is a great free version by three Johns: written by John Bunyan, introduced by John Newton (the former slave ship captain who wrote the song “Amazing Grace”), and including a biography of the author by John Piper. For those that want more, Bunyan wrote a sequel, this time describing the journey of the Pilgrim’s wife, called “Pilgrim’s Progress Part II: Christiana” – Jon Dykstra JANUARY 18 Presbyterian pastor Dane Ortlund's Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (2020, 224 pages) is a beautifully written book on God's heart for his people. A handful of people recommended this book to me and, since I received it as a Christmas gift from the ARPA Canada board, I decided to read it as my morning devotional. If you've ever struggled with the question of whether God might love you despite your sins, read this book. If you've ever thought that God's attitude toward you is one of exasperation, read this book. It literally brought me to tears (in chapter 6, quoting John Bunyan), and encouraged me many times in the past couple weeks. I highly recommend the book for personal devotions or as an evening devotion for a couple, or as a dinner-time devotional for families with older children. It will provoke discussions of wonder, amazement and praise at how great God's love for us really is. – André Schutten JANUARY 14 Written from a Christian perspective, Carol M. Swain and Christopher J. Schorr's Black Eye for America: How Critical Race Theory is Burning Down the House (2021, 152 pages) is readable and brief – just 79 pages, plus glossary, notes, appendix, and index. That makes it an insightful introduction to Critical Race Theory (CRT) going back to its roots in Marxism, specifically the cultural Marxism of Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt school of critical theorists. Each chapter concludes with a list of discussion questions, making it ideal for group study and discussion. Although written specifically for the American context, the book’s suggestions for engaging with and opposing CRT’s influence are easily applicable to readers in other countries as well. – Jim Witteveen JANUARY 13 Frank Abe and Tamiko Nimura's We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American resistance to wartime incarceration (2021, 160 pages) is a graphic novel account of the tens of thousands of Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in the US in World War II based solely on their ethnicity. They lost their jobs, businesses, and even their homes. Despite the obvious discrimination against them, the vast majority went without protest, believing that quiet acceptance was a way of showing their patriotism. However, some did dare to protest, and We Hereby Refuse shares three of their stories. One inescapable lesson: the government is powerful, and with power comes the need to use it with great restraint. What happens when it doesn't act with restraint? We can get victims by the thousands, as happened here. Another? The need for brave individuals to challenge government abuses, in the hopes of reducing the number of victims. – Jon Dykstra JANUARY 8 Harvard professor Michael Sandel's Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2010, 310 pages) is an excellent introduction to the major philosophical theories of justice, covering Aristotle, Mill, Kant, Rawls and others. It's an easy read: Sandel uses very interesting stories and cases to highlight how the theories of justice work and what their failings are. Here’s the caveat: the book is not written from a Christian perspective. By the time you get to the end, you’ll be wishing for one more chapter, to accurately present a distinctly Christian theory of justice, which also critiques the other theories. Sandel himself gets close by his final two chapters (his point about being part of a narrative and community is compelling) but lacks the objective, transcendent standard by which to judge human action as just or unjust. Highly recommended to anyone interested in wrestling with theories of justice and how individuals, institutions, and governments should decide what the right thing to do is in any given situation. P.S. a fun exercise to do while reading the book is ask yourself which theory of justice is being employed by the government as it makes decisions around Covid-19 and what would the other philosophers say about it. – André Schutten JANUARY 7 John McWhorter's Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America (2021, 224 pages) is by an African-American who is himself not a believer. But he makes the case for thinking about the new anti-racism (based in Critical Race Theory) as a religious system, and its supporters ("the Elect") as religious adherents. Highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about the worldviews that form the foundation of Critical Race Theory, with the caveat that the book is not written from a Christian perspective, and does contain a bit of rough language. – Jim Witteveen...

Articles, Book Reviews

20+ Christian fiction suggestions for your 10-15-year-old boys

I was recently asked for some reading suggestions for boys aged 10-15. This is when boys can sometimes stop reading, so I didn't want to pitch them run-of-the-mill material. Nope, I wanted to hit them with the best of the best, so what follows are my top suggestions. Each includes a short description, and, in most cases, clicking on the bold title will take you to a longer review. We'll start with a classic: Lord of the Rings might be a bit much to expect for this age group, but The Hobbit is a shorter, easier entry to Tolkien's Middle Earth, and after that taste, who knows but that they might continue. My favorite fiction author Sigmund Brouwer happens to be a theistic evolutionist and Arminian, which occasionally comes up in some of his fiction. But not in these two fantastic titles: Innocent Heroes: Stories of Animals in the First World War are all true tales, but lightly fictionalized in that they now all take place in just one Canadian battalion. Everyone in our family love, love, loved it! Wings of Dawn is older and might be hard to find but is worth tracking down. It's a medieval setting with what seems like magic all around, but the magic is actually just new (to the time) discoveries like gunpowder and kites. Very clever! Douglas Bond is another favorite, and decidedly Reformed. While I wasn't as captivated by his early books, he keeps getting better. All four of these are really great reads: War in the Wasteland is a fictional account of C.S. Lewis's time in World War I's trenches back when he was still an atheist. The Revolt is about John Wycliffe (a Reformer who died more than 100 years before Martin Luther nailed up his 95 theses) and his times. It's books like this that make learning Church history a joy. The Thunder is a fictionalized biography of John Knox. Bond helps this Reformation giant come alive Hostage Lands is really two stories in one, with the first about a boy who doesn't want to learn Latin, but discovers a tablet in Latin telling a story going back to when Rome still ruled the British Isles. Some favorite series include: Andrew Peterson’s The Wingfeather Saga is a 4-book series that has recently been expanded with a short story collection by the author's friends (and the books are now being turned into an animated TV series). Jonathan Roger’s Wilderking Trilogy is another family favorite, inspired by, but not trying to be, the story of King David. S.D. Smith’s The Green Ember has 9 books in the series so far – 4 big and 5 smaller – and I got my kids interested by starting with one of the smaller ones, The Last Archer. That's out of order, so I had to share a little bit of the backstory to clue them in. All it amounted to was telling them that the rabbits were preparing for war, and there had been a traitor in a prominent rabbit family, the Longtreaders, so the rest of the rabbits were suspicious of the whole family, even though the rest were not traitors. That was enough to get my kids started with this smaller, action-packed volume, which they all loved (and which we've read 3 times now). Stephen Lawhead’s In the Hall of the Dragon King is a trilogy. Also good is his Song of Albion trilogy, though it is a more magical series. The inclusion of magic in fantasy fiction can be fun, because it allows for normal rules (like gravity) to be broken. But it is limits that keep a story grounded and connected to the real world, so if a fantasy author doesn't write with some restraint – if it is just magic, magic, and more magic – things can quickly get nonsensical and just plain weird. In Lawhead's Song of Albion there's more magic than In the Hall of the Dragon King, but still tight constraints on it. Those constraints fell by the wayside in Lawhead's later books, which became increasingly odd. So this is not a recommendation for everything he wrote. Piet Prins' Wambu is a 3-book series about a cannibal boy who turns to God, and then returns to his family (who might eat him!) to share God's good news. This is an older series that might be hard to get. What follows next is just a potpourri of individual titles: Dangerous Journey is a retelling of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress with modernized text suitable for teens, but pictures only suitable for boys (there are some grim ones!). Gary Schmidt's Pilgrim's Progress is a retelling that might also be good for this age, or for the ambitious, there is the lightly modernized (but to great effect!) edition edited by C.J. Lovik. Anne DeVries' Journey Through the Night tells the story of the Dutch Resistance during World War II. This is a great book, but it's older, which means it might take a little prodding from Mom or Dad, maybe reading the first chapters together, to help your son get interested. Ethan Nicolle's Brave Ollie Possum is not nighttime reading, tackling, as it does, the things that go bump in the night. But many a teen boy will love it. Jonathan Renshaw’s enormous Dawn of Wonder is astonishing, but it is also only the first book in an as yet unfinished series, so here's hoping the sequels don't ruin it. Douglas Wilson’s Flags out Front might seem a bit old for this group, set, as it is, on a Christian college campus. But for 14 and 15-year-olds, beginning to anticipate life after high school, this will show them how, to glorify God in battle, Christians don't need to seek out fights, but just have to be willing to fight the ones that God sets before us. Finally, I'll include some graphic novels suggestions that aren't all fiction, and some would say, are not novels. But this age group will appreciate them: Luther: the Graphic Novel is the Reformer's story told with Marvel-level artwork Luther: Echoes of the Hammer was put out by the Lutherans, and if it is a little less entertaining than the previous suggestions, it is the more educational. The same group also created a graphic novel on his wife called Katie Luther. Freiheit! The White Rose Graphic Novel is the true story of a  group of German students who stood up to Hitler and paid the price for it. The Hobbit: the Graphic Novel is a work of art, and if the original novel is a bit much for a boy, this graphic novel version might be a good alternative. I'll conclude with a great series – the Narnia seven – that most everyone has already read so I can point to a lesser-known imitator worth mentioning. Canadian author John White has written a good, if not quite up to Lewis-level, 5-book series called The Archives of Anthropos. It is good, and some kids eager for more Narnian tales will devour this reasonable facsimile, but it isn't the sure-fire bet that some of the other offerings here are....

Book Reviews, Children’s non-fiction, Children’s picture books

Corrie ten Boom: the courageous woman and the secret room

by Laura Caputo-Wickham 2021 / 24 pages For such a short one, this picture book sure fits a lot inside. We meet Corrie ten Boom as a child sitting with her watchmaker father at work, see the whole family's love for the Lord evident in their devotions together, and then transition to World War II and witness the family's eagerness to hide and protect Jews from the Nazis. Finally, we see her capture, time in the concentration camps, and a glimpse of her life afterward. Corrie ten Boom was a brave woman, but others have been brave before her, so what makes her "picture book worthy"? It was the foundation for her courage that set her apart. She feared and loved the Lord, which is why she didn't fear Man, not even Nazi soldiers armed with guns. It was her wisdom – her understanding of how things really are – that allowed her to act when so many others, Christians among them, were too frightened to. As even this short picture book makes clear, she understood that God had her, no matter what. This is a very good picture book, but it can't match her glorious autobiography The Hiding Place, so children should be told that when they get older, they really need to hear this remarkable woman's story again, and this time in her own words. You can see the whole book below, as the author reads and shows her work. ...

Adult fiction, Book Reviews, Teen fiction

Shane

by Jack Schaefer 1949 / 176 pages Sometimes I reread children’s literature because I enjoy being captured again by the quality of writing and the stir of imagination. I read Laura Ingalls Wilder alongside every Louis L’Amour western in my junior high library. Not one librarian said I couldn’t read them because I was a girl, and thankfully, those same librarians pointed me next to Zane Grey. At age 13 and 14, these westerns were deep to me, even if I did recognize the plot patterns. I loved them. Action, mystery, rescue, the setting sun, the lonely West, and often, a misunderstood man. In the same vein, Jack Schaefer’s very first novel creates a story that’s even more impactful. Shane(1949) began as a short story that was serialized in three parts in Argosy magazine in the late 40s. First titled “Rider from Nowhere,” it wasn’t intended for young children, though it’s certainly suitable. Through the eyes of a child narrator and from his opening description, Schaefer crafts a deeper cowboy character than most, perhaps because we witness Shane’s moral choices and his influence upon an entire family. Dressed with a “hint of men and manners,” Shane mysteriously arrives in the Wyoming valley alone on his horse. I know, I know. It begins like a cliche to our adult eyes. And yes, we soon find out that a few homesteaders are holding out against one greedy rancher. It may seem predictable to an experienced reader but that is not the case for young hearts able to view historical realism with wonder. The appeal is simple. Yet here is where the story veers because Schaefer shows us, rather than tells us, who Shane is as he meets and is hired by homesteader Joe Starrett. Shane carries a chill with him yet is careful of his dress. He’s not large yet he’s wiry and powerful. Within the first day of working for Joe, Shane’s presence alone dissuades the local peddler from cheating Joe. Young Bob shares, “You felt without knowing how that each teetering second could bring a burst of indescribable deadliness…a strange wildness.” Even with an aloof nature, Shane begins a friendship with Bob, sharing chores and sharing wisdom like “What a man knows isn’t important. It’s what he is that counts.” But there are moments when the mystery of who Shane is overshadows his behavior. When he shows Bob how to hold and aim a pistol, a fierce moment of memory hits and Shane freezes, his face described as a “gash.” Bob has to say his name several times to break the hold of the past. Many times, Schaefer describes how Bob recognizes there’s more to Shane, yet Bob, and yes the reader, never learn enough. The story unfolds, tensions rise, and the homesteaders must choose to fight the manipulative mob boss of a rancher. More than once, Bob must watch Shane fight to right a wrong. He sees, and we see, “the flowing brute beauty of line and power in action” as Shane overpowers the rancher’s men. By story’s end, we want more. Schaefer has furrowed our curiosity to a point where we love Shane as much as Bob and his family do, yet we all remain caught in the unknown of who he is and who he was. It remains a true mystery and begs us as readers to ponder, to resolve, to discuss not only who Shane was but also who we are. Christine Norvell blogs at ChristineNorvell.com where a version of this review first appeared....

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

by Andrew Peterson 284 pages / 2008 My wife hasn't read this book, but she enjoyed it too. As I made my way through I couldn't help but read whole chapters to her, or, if she wasn't nearby, the next time she came by I'd update her about all the wackiest bits. And there are a lot of wacky bits. The "Dark Sea of Darkness" in the title gives a clue right off as to Peterson's goofy sense of humor. The subtitle is even better: "Adventure. Peril. Lost Jewels. And the fearsome toothy cows of Skree." While I read the first three chapters to my wife I'll restrain myself here, and pass along only the first few lines of the opening which is titled: "A Brief Introduction to the World of Aerwiar." Peterson wants us to know this takes place on an entirely made-up world so he begins with his own creation story: The old stories tell that when the first person work up on the first morning in the world where this tale takes place, he yawned, stretched, and said to the first thing he saw, "Well, here we are." The man's name was Dwayne, and the first thing he saw was a rock. Next to the rock, though, was a woman named Gladys, who he would learn to get along with very well. In the many ages that followed, that first sentence was taught to children and their children's children and their children's parents' cousins and so on until, quite by accident, all speaking creatures referred to the world around them as Aerwiar That gives a good taste of the fun that is to follow. The heroes of this epic tale are three siblings: Janner and his little brother Tink, and their littler sister Leeli. The villains are the Fangs of Dang, under the direction of the "nameless evil...whose name was Gnag the Nameless." Our story begins nine years after the Fangs sailed across the Dark Sea of Darkness and conquered the lands of Skree, and it is in a little cottage, in this conquered land, that the family Igiby resides: the three children, their mother, and their grandfather. The Fangs are cruel, bureaucratic, and they look exactly like "...humans except for the greenish scales that covered their bodies and the lizard-like snout and the two long venomous fangs that jutted downward from their snarling mouths." Oh, and they have tails. And worst of all, they think the Igbiy's have the lost Jewels of Anniera! Janner, Tink, and Leeli don't know anything about any jewels, but they're curious sorts, and they are eager to find out all they can. So Peterson is writing not just a fantasy, but also a mystery, and certainly a comedy. And he's managed to slip in a really good chase film too. Caution A word of warning might be due as far as the comedy is concerned. Some of it could be described as juvenile: no potty humor, but Janner does, at one point, discover a candle made of "snot wax." Peterson peppers the book with footnotes and for the candle he has this entry: 1. Snot wax is too repulsive a thing about which to write a proper footnote. Then there are the vile Fangs of Dang. Their name gives a good indicator of the line that Peterson draws: it leaves no doubt that they are a vile bunch, but Peterson isn't going to use vile language. And yes, the Fangs like to eat brown lettuce, maggot-loaves, and anything that wriggles, but this humor is all of a sort that will appeal to boys, gross out their sisters, and leave parents largely untroubled. Conclusion But what mom and dad are sure to love is the prominent place that parents have in Peterson's story. In most teen fiction parents are either dead or dumb; the teen hero is either an orphan or wishes he was. Here we have a well-respected mother and a grandpa who is doing what he can to fill in for the sibling's long-dead father. So when Janner makes a big mistake and doesn't know what to do he is smart enough – and he loves and respects his grandpa enough – to know he should go to the old man for help. This might be where the author's Christian faith most comes to the fore. Andrew Peterson is better known as a Christian songwriter, and while this is not a specifically Christian fantasy, the virtues lauded in this book are of the sort found in Philippians 4:8. These three siblings know they can look to their grandpa for guidance, for love, and to see what sacrificial leadership looks like. So I'd recommend this as a very fun and positive book for fathers to read with their boys 10 and up, or in some cases maybe even a couple of years younger if they can handle battles and lizard-like villains. This is a fun one that will have both dad and son laughing, and turning pages quickly. I'm learning too, that while there are some notable distinctions between "girl books" and "boy books" if a dad really loves a book, his daughter is quite likely to love hearing him read it. So this could be a very good dad/daughter book too, maggot-loaf aside, with little Leeli giving daughters someone to cheer on too. This was so good I was thankful to discover there were three more titles in this wild and wacky series, plus a short stories collection! The series has been republished now, with new covers and extra pictures inside, so be sure to get the newer version. It's also being turned into a TV series, and a sneak peek is available below. ...

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction, Teen fiction

The Bark of the Bog Owl

by Jonathan Rogers 2014 / 248 pages Our hero, Aidan Errolson, is a medium-sized twelve-year-old with dreams that are far bigger. When we join his story he's just putting the finishing touches on a letter: My Dearest King – You will be glad to learn that I am still available for any quest, adventure, or dangerous mission for which you might need a champion or knight-errant. I specialize in dragon-slaying but would be happy to fight pirates or invading barbarians if circumstances require. I would even be willing to rescue a fair maiden imprisoned by evil relatives. That would not be my first choice, since I am not of marrying age. Still, in peaceful and prosperous times like these, an adventurer takes whatever work he can find... For Aidan, it's all that peace and prosperity that's the problem. While his father was a great warrior, and his grandparents carved out a settlement on Cornwald's wild eastern frontier, Aiden's only excitement comes from the imagined foes he fights in defense of the flock he's been tasked to tend. However, things quickly take a turn. First, Aidan hears the bark of the Bog Owl, a creature that has never been seen. Then the Bog Owl turns out to be one of the feechiefolk, who are no less the stuff of campfire stories, akin to impish elves, or fierce boogeyman, and like them both, entirely made-up. But this feechie boy is anything but... and he wants to wrestle. Second, Bayard the Truthspeaker makes an unannounced stop at the Errolson farm to see, so he says, the "Wilderking of Corenwald." And Bayard declares that it is none other than little brother Aidan. That's quite the surprise, and quite awkward too, because Corenwald already has a king, and the Errolson family are his most loyal supporters. Now, if you're a bit quicker than me, this last bit might be ringing some bells, reminding you of Samuel's visit to the house of Jesse (1 Sam. 16). This is where my middlest caught on, but I needed several more chapters. I finally figured it out when Aidan fights a giant. With a sling. And five stones. In my defense, this is only very loosely based on David – Aidan has to deal not only with a giant, but cannons too, and there's no feechie folk in the original either. That it is inspired by, but does not pretend to be, the story of David is part of what makes this so intriguing. While there'll be no confusing the two tales, Rogers' account will have you reflecting on what a tough position David was in, the king not yet crowned, loyal to, and yet chosen to replace, the failed king. Requirements I usually list any possible cautions for the book being reviewed, but there are none for Bark so I'll list one requirement instead: this absolutely needs to be read aloud. The feechie folk dialogue, as it is paced and misspelled, will have you speaking with the most delightful accent, without even trying. Jonathan Rogers makes it easy for a dad to sound good. Conclusion I really can't praise this one enough. I started reading it on my own, and had to stop midway and start again with my girls because this was simply too good not to share. The Bark of the Bog Owl has been compared to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, not so much for story similarities, but because both are clearly Christian and utterly fantastic fantasy. Bark of the Bog Owl is a book that, if you do read it to your children, you can be sure that one day your grandkids will hear their own parents reading it to them too. The two sequels – The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking – complete the story. This is really one epic tale split into three parts, so be sure to buy the set. You can preview the first 2 chapters here. And for a second opinion, read Hannah Abrahmason's take at Reformed Reader....

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

Manga Classics: Anne of Green Gables

by L.M. Montgomery adapted by Crystal S. Chan 308 pages / 2020 Anne is an orphan girl living in the Prince Edward Island of the 1870s, sent by mistake to the home of an aged brother and sister who need help with the farm work. The mistake is, they asked for a boy. Instead, they got the imaginative, effusive, emotional, red-head Anne. And once they meet, they can't let her go. While Lucy Maud Montgomery was a Canadian author, and Anne of Green Gables (first published in 1908) a very Canadian story, it's always been incredibly popular in Japan too. So it makes sense that her story would be given a manga treatment. Thankfully, the adaptation is faithfully done, and at 300 pages, given the space it needs to tell the story well - only a very few scenes are given an abridged treatment. If you're unfamiliar with manga, the style does take some getting used to, in the first place because the Japanese read right to left. That means what would be the back of the book to us, is the front of the book to them. Even though this is in English, it's still formated in that "reverse" style. Another feature that will strike readers as unusual is the way manga will sometimes depart from a semi-realistic style of drawing to something much more cartoonish, and then go back to realistic all in the space of a few frames, or even in the same frame. So, for example, while Anne's strict and controlled adoptive "mother" Marilla is depicted with realistic eyes, the emotional Anne has eyes in all sorts of styles. Most often they are doe-sized, but when she is angry or perturbed, they become big black dots, and sometimes she is drawn with no eyes at all. If that strikes you as very strange, just consider how a Western reader will know that a lightbulb over a character's head means they have an idea. That's a bit of cartoon "emoticon shorthand" to let readers know something without spending a lot of words on it. Manga has its own, different cartoon emoticons, and they do need to be learned. But just like the lightbulb, they aren't hard to figure out. Cautions Cautions here are only the same ones that we'd have for the original source material. At one point Anne is being taught how to pray, and her first prayer, while not exactly disrespectful, certainly isn't what it should be. But the point is, she doesn't know how to talk to God, and still has to be taught, so I don't think this should be much of a concern. Then there's also Anne's stubbornness. When a classmate, Gilbert Blythe, calls her "Carrots," Anne breaks her chalk slate over his head. You'd think that would make them even (or put Anne in need of apologizing to him) but Anne resolves to never speak to Gilbert again. And she keeps to that pledge for years! The book shows this to be ridiculous, and I only mention it here because this comic format makes Anne accessible to a younger audience that may need a little parental guidance to recognize just how bad Anne's stubbornness really is. Finally, in an afterword to the story, the adapter Crystal Chan notes that she is a feminist who "loves the elements of feminism in Anne of Green Gables." "Feminist" is sometimes synonymous with supporting "a woman's right to choose" so that might have parents concerned about whether this ideology is hidden within. But there is no need for worry: whatever sort of feminist the adapter might be, she has stuck closely to the original 100-year-old material (unlike the recent Netflix adaptation). Conclusion This is a fantastic, faithful, adaptation of a great book. Teens should skip straight to the original, but for younger readers, or the reluctant sort, this will be a great way to introduce them to this dynamic lass. If you do intend to get a copy, be sure you get the "Manga Classic" version, as there is another comic, that one by C.W. Cooke and Tidalwave Productions, that only tells part of the story, ending abruptly and with no conclusion coming. I've included its cover image to the right here, to make it easier to identify what not to get. Don't accidentally get that one while you're searching for this manga adaptation....

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

Bell Mountain

by Lee Duigon 267 pages / 2010 Jack and Ellayne are two children on a mission from God: they are going to ring the bell that King Ozais built on the top of Bell Mountain. But there are a few things in the way: They’re just kids who don’t know anything about mountain climbing, traveling through the woods, or living off the land. They’re not sure there really is a bell on the top of Bell Mountain – no one alive has ever seen it. An assassin has been sent to stop them. They think the end of the world might happen when they ring it. It’s quite the mission, and quite the opening for this, the first book in author Lee Duigon 13-going-on-14 book series. The setting seems to be a medieval one: travel is conducted by horse and oxen, people live in walled cities and villages, and they fight with swords and spears. But when Jack and Ellayne meet a little squirrel-sized chirping man-creature named Wyyt it becomes clear this is not our world. Here Man once had the power to fly through the skies, but no longer – something happened long ago that left behind destroyed cities and set technology back a thousand years. In this post-apocalyptic world the national "church" (or Temple) has become so corrupt that no one reads the “Old Books” anymore but instead only the Temple’s interpretation of the Old Books is shared (if this makes you think of the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic Church, I’d agree that the author’s Reformed bona fides are showing). As the author puts it, people have forgotten how to listen to God. They don’t even know how to pray – that’s something the priests do for them. Now God is going to use two little children to rectify the situation. This is definitely a children’s story. The heroes are children, the tension level is appropriate for ten and up – lots of peril but nothing nightmare-inducing – and the plot, while nicely layered, is simple enough for children to follow. But there is a depth that will make them enjoyable for adults as well. Lee Duigon is simply good at what he does. I knew from the get-go this was a quest story, but I was always eager to find out what was going to happen next and so were my girls. I've read each of the 13 books in the series to them them, and they've always been eager for the next one to come out. The only way to purchase this series in Canada seems to be via the Chalcedon Foundation website store (chalcedon.edu/store). The Chalcedon Foundation is Reformed, as is our readership, but they are also Christian Reconstructionists, which most in our readership are not. It might be worth noting, then, that anyone who objects to Christian Reconstructionism would not find that a reason to object to anything in these books – it doesn’t come up. I'd recommend these for Grade 3 and up if they're reading them, but if dad is doing the reading, then they'd be good for kindergarten-aged children too....

Book Reviews, Graphic novels, Teen non-fiction

Luther: Echoes of the Hammer

by Susan K. Leigh illustrated by Dave Hill 2011 / 144 pages I think this is the perfect complement to Luther: the graphic novel, which might be the more exciting of these two Luther comics, but which also plays a little looser with the details. Meanwhile Luther: Echoes of the Hammer is a more reliable history lesson, even as it isn’t as dramatic. I tested this graphic novel on two of my nephews with mixed results. The older one, heading to grade 10, was happy to take a look, and thought it would be a great way to learn about Luther. The other, two years younger, seemed to think it was too much biography and not enough comic book for his tastes. As far as comics go, this one is quite an involved, even heavy, read. Interspersed throughout are explanations of key events, like the Diet of Worms, key terms, like “indulgences,” and key figures, like Charles of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor. These one or two-page insertions really add to the narrative and make this a highly educational comic. However, a few of these insertions will also trouble informed Reformed readers. In one list of Luther’s adversaries, Calvin is numbered among them! While it is true Calvin and Luther had their differences, it is surprising to see Calvin listed as an opponent. Especially when, some pages later, we find Erasmus listed as one of Luther’s supporters! While Erasmus was, like Luther, critical of the Roman Church, he never left it, and this led to strong, vitriolic disagreements with Luther. In fact, Luther once called Erasmus, “the very mouth and organ of Satan.”  It is downright silly, then, for the authors to list Erasmus as a friend if they are going to list fellow Reformer John Calvin as an adversary. The only other quibble would be the overestimation the authors have of Philip Melanchthon, describing him as “a great Reformer, second only to Martin Luther.” Second? Really? How can they overlook Calvin like that? Those quibbles aside, this is an impressive book. The writing is crisp, succinct and engaging. The artwork is attractive and while only half the book is color (the other half being black and white) it worked. Many of these pictures are also instructive, worth the proverbial thousand words. For example, in the pages covering Luther’s visit to Worms, illustrator Dave Hill shows us the man’s quiet passion, his many supporters, and his opponents marshaled together. This gives us a good understanding of the setting, and thus a better understanding of the courage it took for Luther to stand up for what he knew to be true. Older teens will enjoy it, and many an adult too. (Also worth a mention is that the same team of authors and illustrators have created a sequel, focused on his wife – Katie Luther is a little shorter, and a little less involved, but also quite enjoyable.) To get a sampling of what's inside click here....

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books, Pro-life - Abortion

Horton hears a Who!

by Dr. Seuss 1954 / 72 pages  This fun children’s book has a surprisingly clear message – it’s seemingly pro-life! In typical Seuss style, the rhythm of the narrative captures its audience. However, what seems to capture readers even more, is Dr. Seuss’ repetition of the phrase “a person’s a person no matter how small.” In this story Horton the elephant finds a small creature, called a Who, on a speck of dust. Horton soon becomes aware of many Whos living on this speck of dust; they in fact have an entire town of Who-ville. Horton bravely defends and protects the vulnerable tiny people from others who mock Horton and try to destroy his speck of dust because they do not believe that there are any Whos living there. Horton’s fierce determination and perseverance are both heartwarming and admirable. begged, “Please don’t harm all my little folks, who Have as much right to live as us bigger folks do!” The Whos finally make themselves heard and Horton’s doubters accept the Whos as persons. They even join Horton in protecting them. While children may enjoy this story on its most basic level, adults can easily pick up on its underlying theme. It’s been discussed that some of Seuss’ work has been overanalyzed – ideas have been concluded that Seuss had not intended. Yet some of Seuss’ work has had real underlying messages. For example, his story Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now? was written with the intention of replacing the above name with Richard M. Nixon (when he then stepped down as president of the USA). Seuss does not seem to readily confirm Horton’s pro-life theme, but its clarity seems to generate fairly conclusive evidence of his pro-life stance. Several pro-life organizations currently use Seuss’ book to advocate the right to life for all persons. Dr. Seuss writes an exciting story with a poignant theme. Room on your bookshelf can be made for this story, no matter your age! Use it to spark some controversial conversation! Because, remember, a person’s a person no matter how small! This review first appeared in the July/August 2005 issue....

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

Canada at War: a graphic history of World War II

by Paul Keery, illustrated by Michael Wyatt 176 pages, 2012 Halfway through Canada at War, I realized it was filling in an odd gap in my education. I had read about the Dutch experience of World War II in great kids’ books like Anne de Vries’ Journey through the Night and Piet Prins’ Scout series, and a love of classic war films like Casablanca and Twelve O’Clock High had given me a good sampling of the American perspective. But I don’t know if I've ever seen the war through Canadian eyes. Canada at War is a “graphic history” – otherwise known as a comic – but it would be a mistake to dismiss this as fluffy kids’ stuff. It is weighty and well-researched and would be best understood as an illustrated history textbook. It includes chapters on: Canada before the war Canada’s early defeats defending Hong Kong from the Japanese and attacking German-held Dieppe, France The creation and impact of Canada’s Air Force The Canadian Navy’s seemingly impossible task of protecting the Atlantic supply chain from U-boat attacks The costly lessons our Army learned in Sicily and Italy The joint invasion of Europe The Canadian role in the liberation of the Netherlands and the final defeat of Germany Author Paul Keery, and illustrator Michael Wyatt do a masterful job of explaining, in just 176 pages, how Canada went from having next to no military to, in the space of just five years, becoming the third most powerful fighting force in the world. And they give readers a good understanding of just how much we owe the 1 million men who served. Cumulatively the pictures are worth many thousands of words. Descriptions can’t quite convey the information available in a picture of a sailor waste deep in water on a leaky Corvette assigned to protect otherwise defenseless supply ships on their way to Britain. There is also a lot packed into a single frame, when we see a bomber pilot relaxing at his home base, happy to have survived another bombing run, but knowing that he has only a 1 in 4 chance of living through to the end of his tour. The style of the visuals is also striking: it’s a mix of quite realistic computer animation and solid simple lines. Illustrator Michael Wyatt shows us action and lots of it, including planes being blown apart and submarines being sunk. However, Wyatt uses great restraint, showing the results of war – the blood, death, and destruction – without dwelling on the gory detail. This bloody detail is most often muted, either by being obscured (oftentimes by making use of silhouette images) or by being skipped right over. For example, in one exchange we see a soldier with blood on his face, but only learn how it happened from the caption. But as should be expected in a “graphic history” of World War II, there are a few “graphic” frames. That said, Canada at War is intended for a young adult readership, and these pictures are unlikely to shock them. I've included a few of these frames immediately below this review so that parents can evaluate the visuals for themselves. This is an impactful book that will give this generation a far better understanding of what their grandparents and great-grandparents endured to give them the Canada they see today. ...

Adult biographies, Book Reviews

Dancing Under the Red Star

by Karl Tobien 368 pages / 2006 This is American Margaret Werner's perspective on the USSR's forced labor camps – the Gulag – that she was sentenced to for a ten-year term. While the subject matter is heavy, this is not a difficult read; it is encouraging to see how Margaret and her mother both trusted that God would see them through. Contents So how did an American woman end up in a Soviet prison camp? Margaret Werner's father Carl worked as a supervisor at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. In the beginning of the 1930s, Ford built a modern manufacturing plant in Gorky in the Soviet Union and recruited 450 specialized employees to move to Gorky to operate it. Carl was one of them, an idealistic person who believed that he could make a difference in the Soviet Union by helping to build affordable cars. Carl, along with his reluctant wife Elizabeth, and their 11-year-old daughter Margaret left the United States in 1932. The family was shocked at the poverty they saw on their arrival in Moscow, but their first years in Gorky were bearable, and the family settled into the American Village there quite well. But in 1938 Carl Werner was arrested for a trumped up treason charges and sent to one of the labor camps. His wife and daughter never learned where. Elisabeth and Margaret struggled greatly through the war years and survive only to have Margaret arrested in 1945, also for treason and espionage.  She was sentenced to ten years of hard labor and sent to the brutal lumber camp, Burepolom. In spite of the inhumane conditions, she still had hope.  Her mother, left behind in Gorky, was a praying woman who believed that despite their wretched life, God had a plan for them. As the years went by in the labor camps, Margaret also started to see God’s hand in her life. A number of times she was saved from certain death in a mysterious way. Her English skills landed her a job in the office, which allowed her to escape the brutality of the labor brigades. She later said, “These new arrangements were like heaven to me, and silently I thanked God for his grace and the secret divine opening of little doors.” Margaret was often moved from camp to camp, eventually be shuffled off to a camp called Inta, in the extreme north of the Soviet Union.  She writes about the cold: …the temperature had dropped at least forty degrees, from the teeth-chattering-but-somehow-bearable cold to now, the unbearable, loss-of-all-sensation cold, covering ourselves with everything we owned or could find, trying to become as small as possible, then huddling together as tightly as we could.  But our train kept moving, going still further north, into more cold. At Inta, Margaret’s job was to sew clothing for the men who work in the mines nearby. Many artists were also in this camp, as well as a few ballerinas, some musicians, a seamstress and others. Many of this group had been famous, and even traveled the world. They formed the Cultural Brigade and put on ballets that were enjoyed by the Camp directors and the inmates – this is what the "dancing" in the title refers to. One of the saddest parts of the story, and one that might make this too much for young readers is what happened when one of the young dancers in the Cultural Brigade became pregnant. The girl chose to abort her baby by drinking a potion concocted by one of the other girls. Margaret and a few other girls were very upset and tried to convince the girl not to do it. But she went ahead anyways, giving birth to a live child of 5 months, which was quickly smothered by the other girl who helped her. This is recounted in a short, somewhat clinical manner but the results were such that the young mother became lifeless as if a part of her had died along with her baby.  Margret explains that, "Even at that time, before I had a developed consciousness of the divine sanctity of that baby's life... I had a strong sense that it wasn’t what God wanted.” When her ten years were up, Margaret was released. She married Gunther Tobien, also a political prisoner and also recently released. Margaret was already 35 years old when their son, Karl, was born. Unfortunately Margaret and Gunter’s marriage was never strong and after they received permission to leave Russia for Gunter’s home in Germany, and later escaped the Iron Curtain before the Wall was built, Gunter left his wife and child. In 1961, nearly thirty years after they left, Margaret and her mother Elizabeth, along with Margaret's son Karl, arrived back in the United States. Conclusion Even though this book is about political insanity, inhumanity in the labor camps, her struggle to survive in civilian life, Margaret and Elizabeth never lose hope and continue to trust that God. Reading this book a reader will become aware that God can work in different ways. Margaret did not have a Bible in the prison camp, but God makes himself known to her. This book is not difficult to read.  The reader agrees with one of Margaret’s observations: could not turn to religion for hope; atheism was the Soviet religion.  Hopelessness was deeply and permanently etched into their faces.…A country without God is a terrible place.  A horribly cold, harsh spirit hovered over the country, like a cloud that would not lift.  It thickened the air and filled your nostrils everywhere you went.  You could feel it crawl into your skin, into your pores.… One becomes thankful that we live in a country where we are allowed to worship in peace and freedom.  We must be thankful that we have a judiciary that will hear our side of the story and treat us fairly.   We need to pray for our country because this freedom that we take for granted can very quickly be taken away....

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The Phantom Tollbooth

by Norton Juster 1961 / 255 pages What kind of book is suitable for study in the Fifth Grade, and in First-Year university English too? It's got to be some kind of weird and wacky wonder to pull that off! The Phantom Tollbooth is a classic, old enough to have been around when I was a kid. It's also famous, so I may have seen it displayed prominently in the kids' section at the local library, but back then I would have been put off by the title – I wasn't into ghost books. I've seen it many times since, but only got past the title when I noticed it among the offerings at the Westminster Theological Seminary bookstore. They're not really about fiction (or ghost stories) so I had to give this a closer look. It turned out the title tollbooth was a phantom only in the sense that it mysteriously appears in the boy Milo's bedroom. For those that might not have run across them – there don't seem to be many of them anymore – a tollbooth is a small building, usually large enough to fit just one person, where people pay to make use of a bridge or road. The author says of Milo "Nothing really interested him – least of all the things that should have” but even his curiosity is piqued to want to test this out. He drives up in his electric toy car, deposits some coins, and suddenly finds himself outside his room, driving rapidly down a road. Among the first people he meets is a watchdog that can talk. And, more importantly, he can tick – Tock is part dog and part pocketwatch! The dog demands to know what Milo is up to. "Just killing time," replied Milo apologetically. "You see–" "KILLING TIME!" roared the dog – so furiously that his alarm went off. "It's bad enough wasting time, without killing it." And he shuddered at the thought. Milo soon learns he is in the Kingdom of Wisdom, a land divided after the old King died. His two sons have set up two cities – Dictionopolis and Digitopolis – with one devoted to words, and the other to numbers. The only thing the two sons could agree on was to banish their two sisters, the princesses Rhyme and Reason, and as you might expect, where neither Rhyme nor Reason can be found, craziness abounds. I was almost a quarter of the way in before I started to get a feel for what sort of book this was. There's some Alice in Wonderland here, with Milo meeting odd sorts speaking confusing but clever things, in a country beyond normal maps. There might be a bit of Pilgrim's Progress too, with Milo learning his lessons by first treading down some wrong paths, and then meeting personifications of troubles he has to contend with. It's not a Christian book, but it is trying to teach a moral – Milo is here to learn that he has lots to learn, and that life is only boring to those too lazy to start exploring. Cautions While there aren't any ghosts, parental eyebrows will be raised when the demons make their appearance. But they aren't that sort of demon. They live in the Land of Ignorance, and have names like Gross Exaggeration, and Horrible Hopping Hindsight. Overbearing Know-it-all is: "a dismal demon who was mostly mouth...ready at a moment's notice to offer misinformation on any subject. And while he tumbled heavily, it was never he who was hurt, but rather, the unfortunate person on whom he fell." The only caution needed is to remind children that demons do exist, and the real ones aren't so funny. Conclusion While this is studied in Grade 5, and my youngest in Grade 2 is quite enjoying it, this is not a book I'd recommend for younger readers to tackle on their own. It is 60 years old, and some language – like "tollbooth" – is unusual today, in need of explanation to pre-teens. And there are puns galore, many of which only a kid who enjoys playing with language will spot on their own. But that shouldn't be a problem, because this is a book that mom or dad could enjoy too, as they read it aloud to all their young charges. So, two enthusiastic thumbs up for any and all who are twelve and up....

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews, Science - Creation/Evolution

In the Beginning: Listening to Genesis 1 and 2 

by Cornelis Van Dam 2021 / 371 pages Dr. C. Van Dam begins his latest book by explicitly laying out his presuppositions.  He’s upfront about his non-negotiable assumptions and biases.  As I review his book, it’s appropriate that I share mine too.  I share his presuppositions about Scripture as the trustworthy Word of God, but I also bring a personal bias to the table.  Back in the day, Van Dam was my Old Testament professor at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary.  I had an affectionate nickname for him in view of his ability to put the smack-down on unbelieving or shoddy scholarship:  “Wham-Bam-Van-Dam.”  This was always said with the greatest admiration for Dr. Van Dam.  As a seminary professor, he was nothing if not thorough and careful. Far more than a commentary This new book exhibits that same kind of comprehensive and precise approach to the two opening chapters of Scripture.  Van Dam leaves no stone unturned.  In the Beginning is an exhaustive treatment not only of the meaning of these two chapters, but also the various challenges that have been raised in Old Testament scholarship regarding them.  What you’re looking at here is not just a commentary on Genesis 1-2, but far more. Over the last decade or so John Walton has become well-known for his views on the early chapters of Genesis.  Walton argues that we often misunderstand Genesis 1-2 because we don’t take into account the ancient Near Eastern context of these chapters.  Once we do that, says Walton, then we can see that Genesis 1-2 was never meant to be taken literally as history.  The history can then be filled in with what science teaches us, including what science says about human origins.  In chapter 2 of In the Beginning, Van Dam discusses Walton’s views at length and explains how and where they fail to do justice to the character of Scripture as the Word of God.  In my view this is the most important chapter of the book. A sampling To whet your appetite further, let me share a selection of questions that Dr. Van Dam answers elsewhere in the book: Can new scientific data be regarded as general revelation given by God? What is the relationship of Scripture to science?  Is Scripture a scientific textbook? Can geology give us a history of creation? Was Herman Dooyeweerd faithful to Scripture in his view of origins? How are we to evaluate Meredith Kline’s Framework Hypothesis? Did the ancient Israelites believe that heaven was a solid vault above us? Why is there no mention of evening and morning with the seventh day in Genesis 1? What does Scripture mean when it says that God created through his Son? Can the breath of life in Genesis 2:7 be equated with the Holy Spirit? Was there animal death before the fall into sin? Why did God create everything with an appearance of age?  Was he being deceptive in so doing? Those are just a few of the questions answered.  There are far more.  What I appreciate about Van Dam’s answers is that he bases them on what Scripture says.  He doesn’t want to go beyond Scripture and so he’ll sometimes say, “Scripture doesn’t say more than this – this is as far as we can go.” A point of disagreement If I would venture some respectful disagreement, it would be in the final chapter where the author briefly discusses whether there’s a need for new confessional formulations to address the challenges of evolution.  In 2014-15, I was involved with an effort to add some clarification to article 14 of the Belgic Confession in the Canadian Reformed Church.  That effort was ultimately unsuccessful.  I don’t regret having made the effort, nor do I think it unnecessary to this day. Van Dam argues that Scripture is clear and our “confessions faithfully reflect that testimony.” However, that fails to account for those who have argued that the Three Forms of Unity provide the latitude needed to hold to forms of theistic macro-evolution.  Their arguments have persuaded some.  This wiggle-room ought to be addressed, especially if there is openness to theistic macro-evolution in your churches. Van Dam also posits that: “A difficulty with preparing a new formulation asserting the historicity of Genesis 1 and 2 is the temptation to go beyond what Scripture says, in other words, to provide specifics about that which Scripture gives no additional detail.” The proposal to add clarification to BC 14 was to state what Scripture states:  that Adam was created from dust (Gen. 2:7) and Eve from Adam’s side (Gen. 2:21-22).  As a consequence:  “They were created as the first two humans and the biological ancestors of all other humans.  There were no pre-Adamites, whether human or hominid.”  If one thinks that this infringes upon the freedom of exegesis, then one is willing to grant the latitude for theistic evolutionary accounts of human (and other) origins. Conclusion That criticism notwithstanding, In the Beginning was a delight to read – personally it brought me back to many of the OT lectures I enjoyed from Dr. Van Dam in my seminary years.  While enjoyable, it could be tough-going at times for some.  It’s not highly technical, but in places Van Dam does go academic.  It’s not a book you’d necessarily be giving out as gifts to those doing profession of faith.  It would, however, be a great gift for someone doing post-secondary studies, whether in the sciences or in the humanities.  And it’s definitely a recommended read for those who’ve completed such studies. Take a look at the Table of Contents and Introduction here. Dr. Bredenhof first posted this review to CreationWithoutCompromise.com, a blog “promoting the biblical understanding of origins” and it is reprinted here with his permission....

Apologetics 101, Book Reviews, Teen non-fiction

Surviving Religion 101: Letters to a Christian Student on Keeping the Faith in College

by Michael J. Kruger 2021 / 262 pages. From time to time I search online for “ex-Can RC.” I’m curious as to why people would leave the Canadian Reformed Churches. What makes people walk away from the church and sometimes the faith in which they were raised? What can I learn from that as a pastor? Several individuals mention how they were told not to study philosophical or scientific questions, not to think too deeply about things, nor to read widely for themselves outside of the “approved CanRC authors.” Church leaders allegedly told them to check their brains at the door. Well, we all know what some people do when they’re told not to do something. They started reading and studying for themselves and soon discovered that they’d been brainwashed and hoodwinked by their church leaders. The exit came into view. If we presume these stories are even a little accurate, what might lead pastors or elders to give those kinds of warnings to their flock? Perhaps it’s fear. Maybe they’re afraid that the arguments of unbelievers will persuade their members. Connected with that, possibly it is the worry that we don’t readily have solid counter-arguments so “You just have to believe.” Truth has nothing to be afraid of That kind of approach is counter-productive. We should actually encourage our members to think more deeply, to read more widely, to engage with the big questions posed by unbelieving philosophy and science. Why? Because we ought to have confidence that the truth of God is more powerful than every lie. However, at the same time, we need to equip our people with tools to be able to see how, where, and why this is so. That’s where Michael Kruger’s Surviving Religion 101 will be an invaluable resource. The author is not only a New Testament professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, but also a father to three children. While he’s written this for them, the book is particularly addressed to his oldest daughter Emma as she began studies at the University of North Carolina. It takes the form of 15 letters to her. Reformed answers to big questions Through these letters, Kruger addresses questions that Christian university students are likely to face in and out of the classroom. Some of those questions: My professors are really smart – isn’t it more likely that they’re right and I’m wrong? (chapter 2) I have gay friends who are kind, wonderful, and happy – are we sure that homosexuality is really wrong? (chapter 5) There is so much suffering in the world – how could a good God allow such evil? (chapter 7) My professor keeps pointing out contradictions in the gospels – can I still trust them? (chapter 11) Some parts of the Bible seem morally troubling – how can a book be from God if it advocates oppression or genocide? (chapter 14) Sometimes it feels like my faith is slipping away – how do I handle doubts about what I believe? (chapter 15) In answering all these questions, Kruger takes a Reformed approach. He presents the truth of what God’s Word says and then he also explains how the alternative position is untenable. A peak at what’s inside In chapter 3, Kruger deals with the question of whether it’s legitimate to claim that Christianity is the only right religion. One of the connected counter-claims is that all religions are actually the same. Here’s part of how Kruger answers that: “…there are features about Christianity that make it genuinely distinct from the rest of the world’s religions. And the fundamental difference is this: Christianity is not just another religion about being a good person. Needless to say, this flies in the face of what most people think about religion. Just consider the very popular television show The Good Place, starring Kristen Bell. As strange as it sounds, the show is a comedy about heaven (the good place) and hell (the bad place). On the show, the good place is where good people go, regardless of their religious beliefs. Whether you’re Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim, you go to the good place as long as your good deeds outweigh your bad. “In contrast, Christianity says something stunning. Something counterintuitive. Something unique. It says that bad people go to the good place. Just let that sink in for a moment. Heaven is not for good people but for sinful people forgiven by grace…” As you’ll note, Kruger isn’t writing here for scholars. He’s done his homework and he’s got the endnotes to prove it, but the book is written at a popular level. Conclusion So, even though it’s written for Christian college/university students, Surviving Religion 101 ought to be read far beyond that audience. Many Christian young people, university-bound or not, will find it accessible. In fact, starting this year, I’m going to make this the book our young people traditionally get when they make public profession of faith. And if it’s going to be manageable for them, it should also be for many adults too. Scripture says in 2 Corinthians 10:4, “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.” We can have that confidence in our Christian faith because the truth of it is established on God and therefore it’s objectively true. We have nothing to fear from the arguments of unbelievers. Books like Kruger’s Surviving Religion 101 help us see how Christianity isn’t only spiritually comforting, but also well-grounded and eminently reasonable. So, read widely. Read non-Christian authors. Read philosophy and science. But know that the tough questions they raise have been adequately answered by Christian scholars like Michael Kruger. The author offers a video series on the same topics as the book, which you can access by signing up with your name and email address as this link. You can see the first introductory episode of the series below. ...

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The Revolt: a novel in Wycliffe's England

by Douglas Bond 269 pages /  2016 I was never a fan of Church history in school, but I've come to realize that this was really the textbook's fault. It was a series of dry and weary titles, with lots of dates and facts, but no story to them. So I owe a debt of thanks to Douglas Bond for reviving my interest in what is really a most important topic, and he has done so by telling great stories. Sometimes, as he has in this novel, that story-telling involves weaving in fiction among the facts, so I can just imagine someone saying, "But then you're not really learning Church history, are you? Not if lots of it is made up!" Ah yes, but I know more Church history than I once did, and it was painless! And what's more, Bond's fictionalized biographies – he's tackled Calvin, Knox, C.S. Lewis, and now Wycliffe – left me wanting to know more about these men. So after read a Bond book I've followed it up with reading non-fiction books about, or by, all of them. My old Church history textbook never inspired me to do that! In The Revolt, Bond takes on an early Reformer, John Wycliffe, who lived and died more than 100 years before Martin Luther nailed up his 95 theses. Like Luther, Wycliffe was a man very much on his own – he had followers, but not really colleagues. He was the trailblazer who decided that, contrary to what the Pope and Church has pronounced, the common people needed to hear the Bible in their own tongue. One thing he had going for himself is that he lived in a time when there was two popes at the same time, which made it easier to question the need for submission to the pope. Wycliffe doesn't actually show up until page 62, so this is more a book about the England of his time than about him. The story begins with a young scholar on the battlefields of France, where the English army is surround by a much larger French force. The scholar has been assigned the task of recording the events, so while everyone else has a bow, or a battle axe, or something with some sort of sharp steel end, he is armed only with his quill. It's a great beginning, and from then on we follow along with this scholar who serves as the story's narrator. Through him we meet peasants, other scholars, and finally Wycliffe himself. The Revolt is a novel most any adult would find an easy and enjoyable read. I'm not sure, though, that this would be a good book for a teenager who is only a casual reader. It is a very good story, but it's not the non-stop "thrill ride" that so many Young Adult books try to be these days. To put it another way, this is far from a heavy read, but it's also not a light read either. However, for anyone with any interest in Church history, this is an ideal way to learn more. I sure hope Douglas Bond keeps on coming up with these great fictionalized "biographies"! ...

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