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Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Noah: A wordless picture book

by Mark Ludy 60 pages / 2014 Mark Ludy's wordless account of Noah's life will fascinate young and old. There's so much to see on every page, and the wordless nature of it invites parent and child to discuss all that's going on. The danger with such an account is that for some it might come to replace the original biblical version. As children pore over this picture book's pages repeatedly, they could easily forget that even as it is reasonable to believe Noah might have made use of the strength of a dinosaur or two, the Bible doesn't actually say he did. But what such a book can also do is help us re-evaluate some other non-biblical assumptions we might have inadvertently adopted. Noah's wife is shown here as a lighter colored black, while Noah himself is looking more Grecian, Roman, or perhaps Sicilian. What both most certainly are not – and what they most probably were not – is a British or Scandanavian sort of white. That might bring questions for the many a child and adult who, having grown up with picture Bibles that have a white Adam and Eve, and a white Jesus too, have presumed Noah was white as well. But it is more likely that Adam, Eve, and maybe many of the generations that followed had some sort of middle brown skin, as that genetic coding can contain within it the possibility of both darker and lighter skin in the generations that follow. Another corrective: while evolutionary theory portrays Man as being much simpler back in history, the Bible details some big advances being made from one generation to the next (Genesis 4:20-22). They weren't primitive so it is helpful to see Noah shown as living in a fairly advanced level of industry and technology. They aren't in a rocket age, but they also aren't living in caves either. Finally, we also get a good idea of the sheer magnitude of the Ark, correcting the silly bathtub toy picture some might have stuck in their heads. We shouldn't let this book overshadow the biblical account, but when we put Ludy's Noah in its proper place – like that of a commentary that helps us reflect on what Genesis 6-9 is actually saying – then it can be a wonderful aid. I'll offer a couple of critiques: while there's a dinosaur and some mammoths to be seen working on the ark's construction, neither can be found in it. Also, while animals two by two can be seen making their way to the ark, there don't seem to be any groups of 7 (Genesis 7:2). Of course, we don't see every animal arrive, so maybe we just missed those, (and maybe they'll be found in any expanded future edition of the book!). So who is this for? We probably all think of picture books as being for children, but I really think everyone will love it, from ages 3 on up to 103! You can take an extended peek below. https://cdn.plough.com/-/media/files/plough/lookinside/n/noahenlookinside.pdf...

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

God made me unique

Helping children see value in every person by Joni Eareckson Tada and friends 32 pages / 2019 Everyone is unique, but some of us are more unique than others. So how do we teach our children to embrace and include others who might act differently, or who might have different needs than their own? This little picture book could be helpful for parents and teachers by making the unusual less surprising. The book is set in a classroom right before a new student with special needs is going to join them. The class is already made up of students who have disabilities and challenges, and by showing some of the many ways we can be different from one another – a child in leg braces, one in a motorized wheelchair, another who is deaf, and one who wears headphones because she doesn’t like loud noises – our own children can get used to the idea that unique isn’t that unusual after all. But this title’s most important point, made repeatedly, is that we are all made in God’s image. Bright colors and rhyming text make this attractive for reading aloud with a class. I don’t know if it is the sort of book children will read repeatedly on their own, so that might make it more of a church and school purchase, where it can be borrowed, rather than something every parent will want to get....

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction

In Grandma’s Attic         

by Arleta Richardson 144 pages / 1974 When Arleta was a little girl she would visit her grandma, where she’d play up in the attic. There Arleta would find old treasures that she’d bring to her grandma, who would share stories about them, and about when she was young. The first story is about how Mabel (Grandma) and her friend Sarah-Jane got into trouble with hoop skirts. They wanted to wear the wiry hoops to make all their friends jealous of them, but they were not old enough yet. Then Sarah Jane finds out that her cousin, who can wear hoop skirts, has two old ones that she is going to give up.  Sarah-Jane’s mom says that they can wear them for play, but Sarah-Jane thinks it is a good opportunity to make a big entrance at church. And that Mabel can wear one of the hoop skirts too! The one thing that they don’t know is how to sit down with hoops. When they walk down the aisle and sit in the front seat, the hoopskirts spring up, which made their dresses fling up onto their faces! That is super funny! This was embarrassing for the girls but they also learned a lesson, how pride can go before the fall. All of the stories are funny and also teach the reader the lessons that the mischievous girls gained while growing up. This book is great for readers who are comfortable with reading chapter books. And if you like these stories there are three more books in the series....

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Yellow & Pink

by William Steig 1984 / 32 pages Sometimes one encounters a work of art, a poem, piece of music, figurine or painting which is so simple yet so perfect. Simplicity, you see, takes more talent, not less, to bring about. Sometimes these works come from unlikely sources too. Yet the masterpiece can be appreciated for what it is, rather than for who the artist is. Most people would not consider children’s literature to represent works of art, but of course, there are exceptions, and one such exception is a story called Yellow & Pink by William Steig. This story is so simple, the illustrations so charming, the whole so pregnant with meaning, that it merits the attention not only of children but also of their discriminating elders. The story involves two recently assembled wooden puppets laid out in the yard to allow their paint to dry. Suddenly aware of themselves and of their surroundings, they begin to speculate on where they came from. Pink declares that somebody must have made them. Yellow rejects this idea although he notes that they are “so intricate, so perfect.” He proposes time and chance as the preferred explanation: “With enough time – a thousand, a million, maybe two and a half million years – lots of unusual things could happen. Why not us?” Pink, however, declares that idea to be “preposterous.” Thus the puppets engage in dialogue. Yellow proposes hypotheses involving “natural processes” while Pink expresses skepticism in the form of further probing questions. The discerning reader will notice that Yellow’s hypotheses deal only with shape (form). They never deal with function or even the intricacies of form such as joints. Yellow continues his appeal to time and chance with speculations which become more and more improbable. Finally, he bogs down and appeals to mystery. This puppet is content, in the end, to say we may never know the answer, but he refuses to consider Pink’s suggested alternative. In the end, a man (whose drawing bears a striking resemblance to the book’s author and illustrator) comes along, checks the puppets’ paint and carries them away. Neither puppet recognizes that this is their maker. This simple story, illustrated with elegant line drawings colored pink and yellow, is an obvious analogy to evolutionary speculations. The appeals to time and chance to explain highly improbable events (such as hailstones of the right size falling repeatedly only in the eye sockets) have an all too familiar ring. This is like using time and chance to explain how a particular orchid flower ever came to resemble a particular female bee in appearance, texture, and smell. The author of this little story was a most interesting man. An artist by training, he had provided cartoon-like illustrations for The New Yorker magazine for almost forty years, when at the age of sixty he undertook to write and illustrate children’s books. Thus in 1968, Mr. Steig began a new, highly successful career, that would span a further twenty years. He favored stories that encouraged children to think. One device was to sprinkle big words into the text and another was to espouse unusual ideas. For example, in Shrek, he encourages his readers to value strength of character rather than conventionally attractive personal appearance. Thus it is in Yellow and Pink that he turns his attention to Darwinian speculations. Perhaps he wanted to encourage critical thinking. Whatever the author’s reasons may have been for writing this book, it conveys an important idea by means of an elegant and non-confrontational device – a children’s story. Buy the book because it is a discussion starter, or as a collector’s item, or just because it is fun to read....

Adult fiction, Book Reviews, Children’s fiction

Hidden: Stories of War and Peace

by Christine Farenhorst 303 pages / 2020 “I was a Stranger” is reason enough to pick up Christine Farenhorst’s newest short story collection. The hero of this WWII story isn’t a resistance fighter or a soldier, and the bravery involved isn’t big or bold – this is a young woman saving a baby, no matter the shame she has to bear. So, quiet heroics, but heroics still – what Christine has crafted here is a story to inspire all of us called to everyday on-going faithfulness. There are eight other tales with the events all happening in and around the two World Wars. I initially read this with my girls in mind, but this is a book for adults too. But if you are reading it to your kids, since this is more drama than action, I do think it is better suited for girls – the sort that enjoy historical fiction like Little House on the Prairie. That these are good reads for both adults and older kids means this would make for a great read-aloud book for a summer road trip. So, kick back in the passenger seat, shut off any competing screens, and share with your spouse and kids what life was like during and just after the Great Wars. You can find it at Amazon.com and Amazon.ca, as well as other online retailers....

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction

Prince Martin wins his sword

by Brandon Hale 52 pages / 2018 At bedtime, my dad reads a lot of books to us – me and my two sisters. One night he read a rhyming book called Prince Martin Wins His Sword, and we all liked it. Prince Martin is a boy who wants to prove to his father the king that he is brave, loyal, and true. So he decides to explore the unknown forest, and while he was there he found four evil hogs who were bullying a baby deer. And there was a dog there too, protecting the fawn. And the dog was a knight, named Sir Ray! Prince Martin was scared, but then he dove right in, fighting side by side with Sir Ray. The rhymes in the book are like this: Should he help or go home, the boy had to decide. And just how much help, could a mere kid provide? It has lots of good pictures, but even without the pictures, the book is super good (I didn’t see the pictures the first time because I was in bed). Also, my little six-year-old sister doesn’t really like tension, and while this one was scary it wasn’t too scary. I think this would be great for kids ages five through ten. ...

Book Reviews, Graphic novels, Teen non-fiction

The life of Frederick Douglass

A graphic narrative of a slave's journey from bondage to freedom by David F. Walker Illustrated by Damon Smyth 2018 / 173 pages Frederick Douglass lived his first 20 years as a slave, then spent the next 25 speaking against the evils of slavery. After the American Civil War and the emancipation of American slaves, he spent his last 30 years fighting the bigotry that still lingered. And in his final decade, defying all social expectations of the time, he married a white woman, Helen Pitts. While a graphic novel biography can't do this complicated figure full justice – the man himself wrote three separate autobiographies in the attempt – the size of this one, and the evident research backing it make for a very good introduction to its subject. As we follow his life, from plantation to town, to escape to the North, we get to meet along with him key figure in the American battle to end slavery. He knew Harriet Tubman, the lady who repeatedly ventured to the South to bring slaves to freedom in the North. John Brown hid at his house after the white abolitionist's unsuccessful attempt to start the Civil War some six years before it eventually began. Douglass was both an opponent and then an ally to Lincoln, due to largely Lincoln's vacillating opposition to slavery. Later he became a friend and then an enemy of women's rights advocate Susan B. Anthony, the change of relationship due this time to a compromise by Douglass when he decided to support black's voting rights even when they no longer came as a package deal with women's voting rights. This is quite the story, and it is well told. CAUTIONS Its important readers understand that some of what's depicted is deduction, and not clearly established fact. But a read of the introduction will help readers tell what's what. A word of warning is due for at least a couple uses of the "n-word" in the book, though with the topic matter, that is as you might expect. There is also some partial nudity. None of it sexual, and it could even be described as modestly done: one scene is a black woman being whipped, naked from the waist up, but her front is either away from view, or hid in the shadows. There are also three completely naked slaves shown, but all are hunched over, in a seated, almost fetal position with arms wrapped around their knees so no genitals are shown, though the top of one's buttocks is. The overarching concern would be the brutality. There is no gratuitous violence - but there is violence. Finally, while we get to hear Douglass debate with himself about how slavery should be fought, and whether violence was warranted or not, and whether it was right to compromise on the women's vote, we aren't offered any other perspective. So readers will have to apply their own biblical lens to this for themselves. Altogether that would make this a book for older teens maybe 14 and up. CONCLUSION The target audience for this book, teens, aren't always fans of history books, perhaps because they've been exposed to too many of the wrong sort, texts that make it all about dates and names. What a joy it is, then, to discover a page-turning biography like this. The Frederick Douglass we meet here, while not exhaustively explored, is fleshed out, and consequently memorable. We've now met him, and won't forget him....

Book Reviews, Graphic novels, Teen fiction

Animal Farm: The Graphic Novel

by George Orwell (& Odyr) 2019 / 172 pages For those that don’t know the original, Orwell wrote his allegory in World War II to highlight the dangers of creeping totalitarianism. Instead of a country, his setting is that of a farm, and instead of an oppressive government, things are run by Mr. Jones, who treats Manor Farm’s “citizens” – the pigs, horses, sheep, chickens, and more – like they were animals! One night, Old Major, a pig respected by all, tells the others of his vision of a better world in which Man is overthrown and all the animals are free to benefit from their own labor. Two legs are the enemy, and all on four legs, or with wings, are treated as equal. The animals embrace his vision, and when the old pig dies peacefully in his sleep, three younger pigs take it upon themselves to develop and expand on Old Major’s vision. They craft “Animalism” and appoint themselves as leaders of the movement. When the animals rebel against Farmer Jones, they successively drive him off and take over the farm. The story that follows has clear parallels to that of the 1917 Russian Revolution, that began with noble-sounding aims – freedom from oppression, equality of all – but which quickly evolved into simply another form of totalitarianism. The animals find that, though they are free of the farmer, they aren’t free of having to follow orders. The pigs have them working harder than before, and they are fed no better. Their swine leaders are soon living in the farmer’s house and eating well. But they deserve it, right? After all, they need to be properly provided for, so they can provide direction! It soon becomes evident that while “all animals are equal…some animals are more equal than others.” CAUTIONS Because this is a graphic novel, there are a few pages of violent content depicted. But Odyr’s is a think-line, smudged-pastel style, leaving the gory details mostly a blur. So while these pictures might be a bit much for a child, they are nothing that would disturb a teen. The only other caution I’ll offer concerns the lesson being learned. Orwell was no Christian, so even as he makes a case against the godless tyranny of totalitarian rulers the world over, he isn’t able to offer a better alternative…so it is fortunate he doesn’t even propose one. However, that means Christian readers will have to do that work for themselves. We can agree with Orwell about the problem: that man has a bent for tyranny and that larger the government the more they can insert themselves into our lives (1 Samuel 8:10-22). But we also know there is a proper, though limited, role for government, specifically to punish evil (Romans 13:1-7). CONCLUSION This is a brilliant adaptation of Orwell’s classic work, with a mix of colorful and also stark images that will grab any reader’s attention. Odyr has made Animal Farm accessible to age groups and casual readers that might otherwise never read it. While I highly recommend this as a gift for teens, it would be a waste to hand it off to your son or daughter and then leave it at that. Unless an adult helps them understand that message behind the story, they aren’t likely to see the real-world application, and will completely miss Orwell’s warning about the dangers of big governments of all sorts. ...

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

Hunger Winter

by Rob Currie 2020 / 236 pages Author Rob Currie drops his readers right into the action in the opening scene, with an anxious neighbor furiously banging on the front door to tell 13-year-old Dirk Ingelse that the Nazis have his older sister. And they'll be coming for him next! It's November 11, 1944, and while the Allies have started liberating the Netherlands, the Ingelse farmstead near Oosterbeek, is still under German control. What makes it even more difficult for Dirk is that he has no one to turn to. His mother had suddenly passed away not too long before, and his father is in hiding, working for the Resistance.  That's left just him and his older sister Els to take care of their six-year-old sister Anna. Now Els has been arrested, and Dirk has to run. But where to? That's when he remembers his Tante Cora less than a half day's walking away. The book is, in a sense, one big chase with Dirk doing his best to keep his sister safe, finding brief moments of calm, and then having to run again. Dirk shows himself to be a clever boy, and daring even despite his fears, as he finds hidings spots, and escape opportunities, and even figures out how best to fight the Nazis who are after them. As we follow along with Dirk and Anna, we also get occasional peaks into how Els is doing, facing her Gestapo interrogators. In another way, this is all about Dirk trying to live up to the example his father set for him. He has a good dad who invested in him by spending time with him, so even though Dirk doesn't have his dad around right when he most needs him, the teen is constantly hearing his dad's advice come back to him whenever he needs to make another decision. CAUTION There are no cautions to list, but maybe I'll note one disappointment: for a book by a Christian author, and put out by a Christian publisher, I would have expected God to be more than a minor character. Even as the importance of prayer is mentioned with some regularity, God Himself is not. Maybe the author is trying to portray a journey in Dirk's relationship with God, going from nominally Christian at the beginning – he doesn't pray, except at his little sister's insistence – to something at least a little deeper at the end. But God's near-absence is odd, especially considering this is a book about people in life and death circumstances. CONCLUSION That said, this is an intriguing, entertaining, and fast-paced story, with the whole book taking place over just three weeks. And while there are some tense moments, it all gets tied up nice and neatly, making this a great book for ages 10 to maybe 14. The Netherlands setting will appeal to the many RP readers who have a Dutch background, and the time period – the "Hunger Winter" of 1944-45, when Allies hadn't yet liberated all the Dutch, and the Germans weren't bothering to feed them – is one that teens may not have read too much about before. So there's a lot of reasons this is a very interesting read....

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction, Teen fiction

Brave Ollie Possum

by Ethan Nicolle 373 pages / 2019 If you were ever a scaredy-cat, or if you might have one in your family, this could be a fun story to read together... though you might have to do so during the daytime, with all the lights on. It's about nine-year-old Ollie Mackerelli, who is so afraid of things that go bump in the night that he's taken up permanent residence in his parents' bed. This is about how he learned to be brave. But his transformation doesn't happen quickly. Things start off with cowardly Ollie running to his parents' bedroom yet again to crawl under the sheets with them. That's a safe place to be, but it does come with a cost: three people in a double bed leave his dad with bags under his eyes and a scowl on his face. He wants to know when Ollie is going to grow up and stop being afraid of imaginary monsters. Then, mysteriously. Mizz Fuzzlebuzzle, a very strange, very large lady shows up at the Mackerellis' door. She offers to take their son to a "special go-away fun place where children like Ollie can be taken and all his fears will be gobbled up." Who is this lady? Her card says she specializes in "professional anti-scary therapy and comfortology." Desperate, the sleep-deprived parents hand off their son to the expert, hoping she'll be able to help. But here's the twist: Mizz Fuzzlebuzzle isn't actually an expert in anti-scary therapy. She's actually an ogre. And all those bumps in the night? It's her pet monster making them. Ollie was right all along! But being right won't get him out of the clutches of this ogre. And to make matters worse, she wants to eat him. It turns out scared children are an ogre delicacy. But despite being scared, Ollie gathers enough courage to spray the ogre with one of her own magic potions. Sadly, ogres aren't susceptible to magic potions. People are, though, so when the ogre spits the potion right back at him, Ollie is transformed into a creature that passes out in the face of danger: Ollie becomes a possum. The rest of this rollicking tale is about Ollie, with the help of some animal friends, learning what true courage is: that it's not about being unafraid, but about facing our fears and going on anyway. The author of Brave Ollie Possum is one of the folks behind the Christian satire site Babylonbee.com so the book is every bit as funny as you might expect. Another highlight is the artwork. This is a full-size novel, but it could almost be called a picture book, with fantastic, fun illustrations every three pages or so. CAUTION The only caution I'll note is that this book about being brave is, at times, scary. I think it might be the book I am most looking forward to reading to my children, but there is no way I could read this as their bed-time story, or even in the middle of the day. I'm going to have to wait a bit, probably until they are all at least nine. CONCLUSION But for kids over ten and over, particularly boys, this will be so much fun. And for certain 9-year-old kids who are scared of what goes bump in the night, this could be a good day-time read with mom and dad to help a little one learn what being brave is all about. ...

Adult fiction, Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The Winter King

by Christine Cohen 351 pages / 2019 15-year-old Cora lives in a time of horses, and swords, and meat pies. It's also a time of poverty, and bitter winters, and threadbare clothing, and not enough food to make it through to Spring. To make things even worse, ever since Cora’s father was killed, the village has treated her and her family as if they are cursed, and as if that curse is contagious. But no matter, Cora is resourceful, and she’ll do just about anything to ensure her family lives through the winter. But how does a young girl stand up, by her lonesome, to the village god, the tyrannical Winter King, who is taking their food? I didn’t know quite what to think of this book in the early stages. While the village other villagers were religious, Cora was not. And she was the hero. So how was this a Christian book, then, if the god in the story seemed to be the bad guy? Well, as one reviewer noted, this is a very Protestant book in that Cora rejects a false religion in favor of the true one. She rejects the false representation of the Winter King that the village’s religious authorities maintain. But then she uncovers a book that tells a very different story about this King, presenting instead, a God who loves. CAUTIONS Cora is bitter and sometimes manipulative, and so driven to keep her family fed that she does stuff that she should not. There's good reason for her desperation – death is reaching for her whole family – but that it is understandable makes it tricky ground for the younger reader to tread. This is not a heroine in a white hat, and for the pre-teen, or even younger teen reader, used to simpler morality tales, they might not have the discernment skills yet to be able to cheer on a hero whose actions are not always praiseworthy. I feel like I'm making Cora sound darker than she is. There is surely darkness in her – but there is also a darkness around her that she is fighting, futilely at first. And then hope comes. CONCLUSION From the cover to even the way the pages are laid out, this is a gorgeous book, with a deep and satisfying story. I'd recommend it for 15 and up, but I know adults will find this has real depth to it that they'll enjoy exploring. ...

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The City of Ember

12-year-old Doon wants to save his city but he’s got quite the problem because he has no idea how to do it. The even bigger problem? Unbeknownst to him, his city is under a mountain. More than 200 years ago, when humanity was facing some type of impending doom, a decision was made to hide away a remnant deep underground for 200 years in a specially prepared city, the City of Ember. But when 200 years have passed no one alive remembers there is another world out there – the only light that Doon and the other Emberites know is provided by light bulbs powered by their mighty generator. But there’s another problem: that generator is starting to break down. The biggest problem of all? No one will admit what’s happening. To the rescue comes Doon’s friend Lina, who uncovers some long-lost and only partially intact instructions from the city’s original Builders. The two friends need to pierce the instructions back together if they are going to save their families before all of Ember’s lights go dark. Caution The only caution concerns religion. The Builders – those who first created the city – are revered in a vaguely spiritual way by a small number of citizens, but they are only mentioned in passing. More noticeable is how God isn't ever mentioned, even as the Emberites worry about their world coming to an end. Conclusion A post-apocalyptic tale is not your typical pre-teen/teen fare, but this is more an intriguing-mystery than it is a tense-drama. I think anyone over 10 would enjoy it, and that includes their parents. I know I sure enjoyed it! There are two very good sequels (though the original is still the best) called, The People of Sparks, and, The Diamond of Darkhold. There is also a fourth book, a prequel set more than 200 years before Doon and Lina are born, and while I haven't yet read it, from most accounts, it is not very good....

Adult fiction, Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The Seraph’s Path

by Neil Dykstra 2019 / 475 pages Maybe I should have gotten someone else to review this, what with me sharing the same last name as the author. But this is a fantasy title, so I had to take a peek. And once I got started I wasn’t going to hand it off. Besides, the two of us aren’t actually related. I know Neil, but only well enough to recall he is the superior volleyball player, and nowhere near well enough to have had an inkling he could serve up something like this. It’s remarkable! The Seraph’s Path has quite the cast of characters, but it is mostly the story of Dyrk, a young horse trainer who wants to make something of himself, in part, because his parents don’t seem to think about him much at all. Our story begins with Dyrk determined to enter a competition his father won’t even let him watch. Somehow he finagles his way in, and reaches the final round, a free-for-all among 16 mounted soldiers-in-training, with the last man standing guaranteed entry into the King’s own College. I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that for every good thing that happens to Dyrk something bad soon follows…and vice versa. The wonder of fantasy fiction is that anything can happen. Young children can open a wardrobe and get transported to a world of talking beasts. Or little fellows with hairy feet can be trusted with a mission that the most powerful could never accomplish. Or a horse trainer can suddenly find himself delivering the mail mounted on a flying tarn. The problem with fantasy fiction is just the same: anything can happen. That means if the author doesn’t have a tight hold on the reins the story can run amuck, and quickly lose all connection with the real world. If you haven’t read much fantasy, you might think a world of dragons, gryphons, and flaming swords couldn’t possibly ring true. But the author has pulled it off. In The Seraph’s Path, Dyrk doesn’t understand the opposite sex, and he’s prone to dig himself deeper via ongoing procrastination, and then he can’t figure out how best to ask for forgiveness. There’s something very real about this made-up world. I was also impressed with how patient the author is and I’ll give one example. In this world, the god Arren is served by seven Seraphs. Dyrk sends his prayers via those angelic servants because he thinks Arren is too holy to approach directly. If that strikes you as Roman Catholic-esque, I’d agree. But isn’t Dyrk our hero? So how can he, via his repeated prayers, be teaching us something so very wrong? Well, a few hundred pages in Dyrk has his first encounter with people who talk to Arren directly. And he doesn’t know what to think about that.  By the end of this book, the issue is still unresolved, but our hero has been given something to think about. Caution I can only think of one caution worth noting. At one point a key character faces sexual temptation, and while the passage is not lurid – there’s nothing here that would make grandma blush – it is sad and realistic enough that pre-teen readers might find it distressing. Conclusion Dykstra has engaged in some downright Tolkien-esque world-building, with not only exotic creatures and nations to discover, but layer upon layer of legend and history shaping the events. If you never made it through The Hobbit, or you haven’t read a fantasy book with a glossary in the back to help you keep track of the characters, then this might be too intense a read for you. But if you want a whole new world to explore, and a story that’ll not only entertain but really get you thinking, you’re going to love The Seraph’s Path. I finished this nearly 500-page tome in 3 days, and the only downside to it was the cliff-hanger ending. So I was very happy to discover that the 700-page sequel, The Seraph’s Calling has just been released. I look forward to finding out what happens next! You can buy both books at Amazon.com and Amazon.ca....

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

The Gospel Comes With a House Key: an instructive, inspiring, downright intimidating look at Christian hospitality 

by Rosaria Butterfield 2018 / 240 pages ***** This is a scary book. I have heard of several people putting it down after only reading a chapter or two of it, feeling overwhelmed by Rosaria Butterfield’s seemingly heroic examples of daily hospitality to her numerous neighbors and friends. As Carl Trueman states in his recommendation, “She sets the bar very high - and there is plenty of room here for disagreement on some of the proposals and details.” But fear not! As Trueman goes on to say, “The basic case, that church is to be a community marked by hospitality, is powerfully presented and persuasively argued.” Think of it this way. One of your friends just memorized the entire book of Ephesians. You think that’s admirable, but it sounds like more than you can handle. Yet, there are some verses in Psalm 4 that you want to memorize because they comfort you, so this reminds you to do it already. Or maybe your cousin enthusiastically tells you he is part of a “Read the Bible in 90 Days” group that really helped him see the connections between Scripture portions and helped him improve his Bible-reading habit. But when you hear he was reading one hour each day, that sounds like more than you can do. Yet, his example encourages you to increase the amount you are currently reading. Rosaria Butterfield’s The Gospel Comes With a House Key is about using hospitality to spread the gospel. It is about loving your neighbor as yourself and thus spreading God’s love, peace, and salvation to the dying world that is next to you. It is about viewing where you live as the location where God placed you and figuring out how you can, as the saying goes, “bloom where you are planted.” Whose house is it? Hospitality is similar to the Greek word philoxenia, which means “love of the stranger.” The hospitality Rosaria is encouraging is not about inviting your relatives and fellow church members over for coffee or soup and buns on a Sunday, or taking them a casserole at a difficult time. What Butterfield is talking about is what she calls “radically ordinary hospitality.” Those who live out radically ordinary hospitality (ROH) see their homes not as theirs at all but as God’s gift to use for the furtherance of his kingdom. They open doors; they seek out the underprivileged. They know that the gospel comes with a house key. They take biblical theology seriously, as well as Christian creeds and confessions and traditions…. Engaging in ROH means we provide the time necessary to build strong relationships with people who think differently than we do as well as build strong relationships from within the family of God. Cost in time and money But how can we manage this, when we are already so very busy, and finances may be tight? Rosaria gives the answer: Practicing ROH necessitates building margin time into the day, time where regular routines can be disrupted but not destroyed. This margin stays open for the Lord to fill – to take an older neighbor to the doctor, to babysit on the fly, to make room for a family displaced by a flood or a worldwide refugee crisis. Living out radically ordinary hospitality leaves us with plenty to share because we intentionally live below our means. In other words, we may need to learn to leave some space and not to schedule every moment of every day, filling it up with things that we desire to do. Those who become parents find that life cannot follow a strict schedule, because children have a way of barfing, bruising themselves, or battling with siblings that is always unscheduled. In the same way that we scaled back our desired goals then, we ought to do it to allow for hospitality. If we truly believe that we should “be there” for others, then we may need to be open to the unusual and unexpected. On the other hand, it is possible as well to set aside a period of time each week in which you reach out to your neighbors. Rosaria and her husband started this by putting a picnic table on their front lawn on Thursday evenings and providing food for whoever wandered by and wanted to join them. This eventually grew into a well-attended and beloved activity for a lot of their neighbors, but it started with one dinner time. If you don’t have a house or a picnic table, why not try to visit a neighbor or invite a coworker to have lunch or dinner with you? As for cost, all of our money comes from the Lord – might He not want you to allocate some of it for the hospitality that He asks you to do? Rosaria writes: Daily hospitality can be expensive and even inconvenient. It compels us to care more for our church family and neighbors than our personal status in this world. Our monthly grocery bill alone reminds us that what humbles us cannot hurt us, but what puffs up our pride unwaveringly will. But what if we run into people who have different viewpoints than ours? What kind of example will that be for our children? Here is where we really need to believe that hospitality is something that God calls us to do. The truly hospitable aren’t embarrassed to keep friendships with people who are different. They don’t buy the world’s bunk about this. They know that there is a difference between acceptance and approval, and they courageously accept and respect people who think differently from them. They don’t worry that others will misinterpret their friendship. Jesus dined with sinners, but he didn’t sin with sinners. Jesus lived in the world, but he didn’t live like the world. This is the Jesus paradox. And it defines those who are willing to suffer with others for the sake of gospel sharing and gospel living, those who care more for integrity than appearances…. the sin that will undo me is my own, not my neighbor’s, no matter how big my neighbor’s sin may appear. What will I say to them? If you feel like you don't know what to say to a stranger, just remember that people always like to talk about themselves. Get to know them. Ask about their interests and try to find a common ground in gardening, cars, sports, cooking, knitting, reading, or whatever. If they have a difficulty they are enduring, offer to pray for them before you end your visit – just a simple prayer. Be friendly. This isn’t the type of evangelism where you have to lead them down the Romans Road and get them to sign on the dotted line at the end of your time together. Jesus is the one who saves. The Holy Spirit will draw some people to God, and we are just planting or watering the seeds. We may or may not get to do the harvesting. But the reason we want to be hospitable is because people need to be rescued from their sin, just as Jesus rescued us from our sin. We are living examples of what God has done, and what He can do for others. Hospitality, then, is a chance to put God’s work in us on display. Radical hospitality shines through those who are no longer enslaved by the sin that once beckoned and bound them, wrapping its allegiance around their throat, even though old sins still know their name and address. Used by God Rosaria gives a list of how she hopes and prays that her book may inspire us to: Use our home, apartment, dorm room, front yard, gym, or garden to make strangers into neighbors and neighbors into friends and friends into the family of God Build the church by living like the family of God Stop being afraid of strangers, even when some strangers are dangerous Grow to be more like Christ in practicing daily, ordinary, radical hospitality Be richly blessed by the Lord as He adds to His kingdom Be an example of what it truly means to be a Christian to the watching world Have purpose, instead of casting about for our own identity, or wondering what to do with our time Conclusion Let’s not be sidelined by fear that people will hurt us or that we won’t know what to do or say. Using our home regularly to show hospitality brings glory to God, serves others, and is a way of living out the Gospel. It may seem sacrificial, but then aren’t we called to die to ourselves and live for God? So don’t be afraid to read the book. Be inspired, and pray over what God would use you to do. ...

Adult fiction, Book Reviews

Greg Dawson and the psychology class

by Jay Adams 2008 / 149 pages This is a novel, but it'd be more accurate to call it a textbook masquerading as a novel – the goal here is education, not entertainment. Jay Adams' fictional protagonist Greg Dawson is a preacher who lives near a Christian college. Some of the students want to know the difference between the psychological counseling theories they are being taught and the biblical counseling Greg Dawson uses. Via a series of informal conversations with Pastor Dawson, the students learn that the psychology they’re being taught at their Christian college is built on secular counseling theories. They are asked to consider just how many different secular counseling theories there are. These theories claim to be built on insights into what Man is really like, and yet the different theories disagree with one another, and sometimes wildly. So how are we to evaluate them? Dawson points students to the Bible, asking them to examine how many of the theories line up with a biblical understanding of our inner nature. So long as these secular theories understand Man outside of our relationship with God how can they understand what Mankind is really like? Dawson asks them to also consider that most of these theories don't acknowledge our sinful nature, or understand our purpose here on earth. As the back of the book details, some of the other issues explored include: the difference between apologizing and forgiveness the place of evangelism and faith in Biblical counseling Is all truth God's truth? some specific issues such as depression, mental illness, and marriage Adams is only one of many experts to consult when it comes to biblical counseling. Others include Ed Welch, Heath Lambert, Wayne Mack, Paul David Tripp and David Powilson. But this book is an ideal introduction to the subject – the novel format makes for an easy, yet highly educational, read. And if you like this one, you'll be interested to know Jay Adams has written two other "Greg Dawson" novels: The Case of the Hopeless Marriage and Together for Good: Counseling and the Providence of God....

Adult biographies

The question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life

by Armand M. Nicholi Jr. 2002 / 244 pages While C.S. Lewis was 40 years younger than Sigmund Freud, he was well acquainted with his ideas. Freud hated and feared God, and as a young man Lewis found Freud’s atheism attractive. But after his conversion, Lewis used his considerable skills to answer and rebut Freud’s arguments against God. What author Dr. Armand Nicholi has done is present a type of conversation between the two, with Freud usually presenting first, and Lewis them coming after to respond and correct. So what do these two “talk” about? As the subtitle shares, C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. The two also discuss whether morality exists and why there is suffering. And they take a close look at death. It is a fascinating book, part conversation, but also part biography, giving us a good understanding of both men by sharing the similarities and differences in their histories. The only caution I would note is that when it comes to the problem of pain both Lewis’s and the author’s Arminian leanings come out. For an interesting Reformed perspective, see Joe Rigney’s “Confronting the Problem(s) of Evil.” But overall this is a very readable, very interesting account of two of the twentieth century’s pivotal figures and their ideas, which continue to impact us today. A 40-page preview can be viewed here. ...

Adult biographies

Gospel Patrons: people whose generosity changed the world

by John Rinehart 2013 / 170 pages Are you a giant? Church history is full of such people. William Tyndale translated the Bible into English. George Whitefield was used by God to spark the Great Awakening, while John Newton was the ex-slave trader who wrote Amazing Grace and helped William Wilberforce end the British slave trade. These were Christian giants; their stories well known. But, as author John Rinehart notes, not all of us are called to these leadership positions. Many are called to supporting roles. In Gospel Patrons Rinehart tells the stories of three people who enabled Tyndale, Whitefield, and John Newton to do their work. Humphrey Monmouth was the man who financed Tyndale’s translation work (and spent a year in the Tower of London as reward). Lady Huntingdon used her position and influence to have the richest in England come to hear George Whitefield preach the Gospel and she funded his work reaching the rest of England and America. John Thornton placed John Newton in an influential church and encouraged him to publish a book of his hymns, one of which was Amazing Grace. Their stories are not well known, but their roles were vital too. Most of us are not giants like Tyndale, Whitefield, and Newton, and we might think that we don’t have the funds to act like Monmouth, Lady Huntingdon or Thornton either. But while few of us have the funds they did, most of us are in a position where we can spare money or time to support worthy causes. In sharing these three biographies, what author John Rinehart wants us to realize is the importance of this supporting role. God has a part for each of us to play. And if we understand how important the “lesser” roles are, perhaps we will more willingly take them on, sacrificially donating our money and our time. If I were to offer one critique, it would be on the topic that Gospel Patrons doesn't tackle: making sure that who you give to is going to use your money to good ends. Christians need to be generous and discerning. That said, this is a short book with a tight focus – to encourage and inspire Christians to be generous – so maybe discernment in giving is a topic for a different book. Meanwhile, Gospel Patrons is a very readable, very challenging, and much-needed book. I highly recommend it for all ages. TO EXPLORE FURTHER: If you want to get a flavor of this "gospel patron" idea, author John Rinehart has also written a series of articles and created some short videos, all of them freely available on his website GospelPatrons.org. Here are two examples that might be of particular interest: The Gospel Patron behind RC Sproul ...

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books, Lists

5 powerful pictures book

Julia Gonzaga by Simonetta Carr 64 pages / 2018 This is another book in Simonetta Carr’s “Christian Biographies for Young Readers” series and it is once again a very well researched book with lovely pictures. Julia Gonzaga was born in 1513 into a wealthy nobleman’s family. She was married at age 13 and was widowed 2 years later. She never remarried but became a strong voice for the Reformation in Italy, and supported it financially. In the land of the Pope, the Reformation didn’t take place as it did throughout Europe. In 1542 the pope reopened the Sacred Office of the Inquisition, a court that put Christians on trial who opposed the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Many believers were tortured and martyred. Italian Bibles were outlawed until 1769 when the Roman Catholic Church published a translation of the Latin Bible. I learned that education flourished in the Protestant countries making it possible for the common people to read the Bible. In 1861 only 25% of the people of Italy and Spain, predominately Roman Catholic, could read and write over against 69% in Europe and 80% in USA. Julia Gonzaga is not at all well-known making this book an asset to the many books written about the Reformation in Europe. For children ages 7-12. – Joanna Vanderpol God’s Outlaw: The real story of William Tyndale and the English Bible by The Voice of the Martyrs with A. Paquette 40 pages / 2007 We all have many Bibles in our homes, something we take for granted. But there was a time when no one had that wonderful gift, a Bible which they could read and use to instruct their children. William Tyndale (1494) was a very learned scholar and the reading of the Bible in the original languages was a life-changing experience for him which he wanted to share with all people “even a ploughman.” Against the wishes of the Church and King Henry VIII, he began this task. But soon he had to flee to Germany and from there his pamphlets found their way into the hands of the common people in England. The Church responded by imprisoning and killing many of them. In 1535 Tyndale was betrayed, refused to bow the knee before the church leaders and was burnt at the stake  Just before he died he prayed “Lord Jesus! Open the King of England’s eyes!” And two years later King Henry VIII decreed that the Bible should be available to all people. This book ends with some thoughts and questions for reflection. The pictures are bright and descriptive edging towards the graphic novel style. This is a good book for Primary school teachers to read to their class. This one is not widely available but can be found at Christianbooks.com. – Joanna Vanderpol Something from nothing by Phoebe Gilman 32 pages / 1993 This children’s book, winner of the Ruth Schwartz Award, has become my favorite book to read out loud to my grandchildren. It is adapted from a Jewish folktale and in wonderful, rhythmic language tells the story of Grandpa who lovingly sews a blanket for his newborn grandson to “keep him warm and to chase away bad dreams.” As the boy grows up, the blanket wears out and is altered into a jacket, which is altered into a vest, etc. The pictures are so delightful and add to the story. For instance, we see that mom is pregnant and then a few pages later a little sister appears in the story. A second wordless story takes place along the bottom of each page. Father and mother mouse set up house and as the little mice appear, use the scraps of material from the blanket that falls between the floorboards and make them into clothes for their family and also into blankets and curtains for the wee mouse house. This is a type of story where you want to take your little dear one onto your lap and just warmly snuggle and read, explore the pictures and find lovely little treasures. – Joanna Vanderpol God made Boys and Girls by Marty Machowski 32 pages / 2019 My not even six-year-old already knows that some people think girls can marry girls. And she knows God says that isn’t so. We haven’t had to talk – yet – about folks who think that girls can become boys, but when that time comes, this book will be a help. The story begins with a fast little girl, Maya, outrunning the boys…so one of them teases her that this means she’s going to become a boy. And that gets her worried. Fortunately, this little girl has a great instructor, Mr. Ramirez, who teaches the class that gender is a “good gift from God.” He shares how, if you are a boy, then you are a boy right down to your DNA. And the same is true for girls too. Mr. Ramirez then brings things back to the very first boy and girl, Adam and Eve, and how their Fall into Sin happened because they wanted to do things their own way instead of God’s good way. Today some want to do try their own way – not God’s way – when it comes to their gender too. One of the many things I appreciated about this book was how clear kids were taught what’s right, and then encouraged to act kindly to those who are confused. Finishing up the book are a couple of pages intended for parents, which, in small print, pack a lot of information on how to talk through gender with our kids. One caution: there is one depiction of Jesus, as a baby and with no real detail given, on a page noting that God the Son became a tiny speck inside a girl, Mary, and became a man. I don’t think this a violation of the Second Commandment, but maybe someone else might. The only other caution is in regards to what isn’t tackled in this story: gender roles. God made us different, and He also gave the genders some different roles and also gave us some different general tendencies. So yes, as the book notes, some boys do like dancing, and some girls like car repair…but that’s not the general trend. And because the general trend is never noted in the book, this absence could, if left undiscussed, leave young readers with the impression that no such trends exist. Then they would fall for a different one of the world’s gender-related lies: that other than sexual biology, men and women aren’t different at all. This is not a picture book you are going to read over and over with your children because it is more of a conversation starter than a story. But it is a wonderful help for parents in discussing an issue that none of us ever confronted when we were kids. It is a different world today, and we want to be the first to broach these topics with our kids. Reading and discussing a book with your little one is a fantastic way to do it. - Jon Dykstra Sophie and the Heidelberg Cat by Andrew Wilson & Helene Perez Garcia 32 pages / 2019 The story, written in engaging rhythm, opens with Sophie crying because her sister broke her dollhouse and Sophie, in anger, pushed her over and then yelled at her parents. As she thinks about what just happened and meditates on how bad she is, she looks out the window and sees the Heidelberg’s cat from next door.  Surprisingly, the cat asks her why she is crying and Sophie tells her sad story. He invites her onto the rooftop and as they walk along, they chat. At first I thought, oh no, this is not a Reformed story, as Sophie tells her story and how she tries to be so good but fails. But then the cat sets her straight by explaining that no one can be good because we are all sinful. There is only one person who is good and that is Jesus. Only He can free us from our sins. The cat then uses Lord’s Day 1 from the Heidelberg Catechism and comforts Sophie with the words that “I am not my own” but belong to Jesus.  This is a lovely book for ages 4 and up who can understand the concept of God’s love and grace in Christ Jesus. – Joanna Vanderpol...

Children’s fiction

BOOK REVIEW: Love That Dog: a novel

by Sharon Creech 2001/ 86 pages A review of a read-aloud book, to be read aloud. ***** As I started reading the very first page of this book, I thought it was dumb. I’ve never been a fan of poetry, particularly if it was the type of poetry that didn’t even rhyme. And that’s what was in this book. But I kept reading and found out, on that very first page, that the author agreed with me! The book is by Jack, a boy in elementary school, who doesn’t like poems either. Each day he writes a journal entry, for his teacher Miss Stretchberry, and there on the very first page, in his first entry, he tells her his thoughts on the poem they have just read in school. He writes: If that is a poem about the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens then any words can be a poem. You’ve just got to make short lines. It was a book of poetry, by a boy poet, who didn’t like poetry! So I kept reading, and I started learning. Jack’s teacher showed his class poems. Some did rhyme, some were by famous writers, and some weren’t very good at all. But I started learning, along with Jack, that poetry doesn’t always have to rhyme, or even have a set rhythm. Sometimes it can just be a different sort of way to express your thoughts, to lay them out, so people understand them better.  Poetry can be easier then teachers sometimes make it. And it can be powerful. And it can make you cry. I started reading this book, about a boy learning about poetry, and making poems, and expressing beautiful thoughts about his beautiful dog, and by the time I got to the end of it I realized it wasn’t dumb at all. Love that book....

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

What’s your worldview?

by James N. Anderson 112 pages 2014 If you’ve got fond memories of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books you’ll really enjoy this adult update. This time it’s a journey to discover our own worldview and, like the kids’ books, we keep coming to forks in the road. So, early on, we either agree there is objective truth and then go to page 22 or we say there isn’t and then go to page 91. A Christian reader flipping to page 22 will be asked to consider, “Is it possible to know the Truth?” The author James Anderson lays out the case for both options, after which we again have to choose which way we want to go. After a dozen or so steps, readers will eventually arrive at the worldview that matches their professed beliefs. Anderson is a Christian and his biases are acknowledged up front. So, even as he has challenging questions for anyone who lands on one of the other 20 worldviews, he also raises the problem of evil for Christians. He wants everyone to follow God, but he refuses to pretend as if Christians have it all figured out. That means this is a book you could give or share with people you know who aren't Christian. How's this for a conversation starter: "Hey Fred, do you know what your worldview is? Come on over, I've got this great little book that'll help us figure it out." Overall, I'd say the strength of the book is this really fun format and also it’s conciseness  – there is just so much packed in such a little space. I'd recommend it for teens as a graduation gift, and for college students and adults too. Maybe the best use of it is as a coffee table book, because it can be digested in chunks by choosing one "adventure" at a time. To get a peek at the first 20 or so pages, you can find it here on the author's website. And if you want to hear Dr. Anderson give an overview on worldviews, check out the 20-minute presentation below that he gave at the 2016 Ligonier Ministries National Conference. ...

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

Still Thinking: more delightful doodles, and deep thoughts

by Jason Bouwman and friends 187 pages / 2019 This creative, challenging, accessible, readable, godly book is quite hard to describe. Oh, sure, it’s easy to layer on the adjectives – it’s all that and more – but to describe what exactly it is? That’s hard because there’s nothing else like it. Is it a devotional? It could sure be used as a great one. Each of the two-page spreads includes not only a powerful quote, thought-provoking word art, and insightful commentary, but a number of suggested Scripture texts. So this would be a fantastic way to regularly dig into God’s Word. With its many doodles, maybe we could describe it as a comic book of sorts. It's also a coffee table book extraordinaire since it can be started anywhere. Each two-page spread stands on its own, so if you only have a couple minutes to read, this doesn’t require more. But I’ll bet you don’t just read one!. And as a discussion starter, it's sure-fire. Read this around other people, and soon enough you’ll be reading sections out loud or passing it around for your spouse/friend/teen to check out one of the bits of word art. It is certainly a book to be shared. My wife and I bought 10 of Jason Bouwman’s first book (the unfortunately sold out Just Thinking) and we’ve already ordered 10 of this, the sequel. It’s the rare book that can be given to your 70-something-year-old aunt for her birthday, and your 17-year-old nephew for his profession of faith, and that you can then be sure both will love, and actually read. How often do you find a one-size-fits-all present suitable for pastors, neighbors, parents, and your second cousin twice removed? On top of that, it’s good for them. This is an accessible book, but it’s sure to challenge every reader at some point, reminding us of where we’re falling short, or just failing to even seek God’s glory at all. Quite the combination: enjoyable yes, but also edifying! This is not available in stores, and the only way you can order it is through the author’s website. The first one sold out, so it’d also be best to order sooner than later (and if you order now, well, you could have all your Christmas shopping done before December even rolls around!). I can’t imagine anyone not loving Still Thinking. So pick up a copy (or ten) at JustThinkingBook.com.    ...

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

Timothy, Titus & You: a Study Guide for Church Leaders

by George C. Scipione 55 pages / 2018 (originally 1975) Crown and Covenant Publications Many Bible study books are full of questions. Questions can be good. Questions are the backbone of serious Bible study. But questions, once answered, often get forgotten. Having sat through a few Young Peoples’ bible study meetings in at least two different Canadian provinces I have seen this firsthand. The book is opened. The first question is asked. It is answered. The second question is asked. It is answered. And so on. I have even seen good discussion cut short because ‘we need to get through the questions.’ This Bible study book is also full of questions. However, its target audience is not Young Peoples’ Societies, but Church leaders. Specifically, the author envisions this study guide to be used by elders and potential elders both in their leadership role in the church and as they prepare for such a role. Designed to be used over a nine-month period, the guide has four major goals for the reader in each lesson: To gain knowledge of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus – Questions get readers thinking about each assigned Biblical passage, and about its application to their lives. To examine himself– Learning about God moves us to learning about ourselves and learning about the role of church leader. To grow in self-discipline– Prompts and assignments encourage readers to transform their lives. To consider how to lead others– Self-discipline is the beginning, but leadership involves learning how to disciple others. Positives Given that this study guide is intended for those in or aspiring to leadership in the church, the questions are well focused and most likely to be taken seriously. Drawing their inspiration from the passage of Timothy or Titus, the questions seek to apply the lessons learned to the leadership and life of the reader. Some are deep, probing questions that get at motivations and attitudes. Some are questions that get at behaviors and actions. All the questions are clearly connected to the Biblical passage at hand. Taken seriously, and done thoroughly, this guide could be a good way for an elder or someone who aspires to be an elder to grow both in personal holiness and their role in the church. Negatives Having read through this guide, I don’t really know much more about Timothy and Titus than I did before. This is because the guide is heavy on personal and leadership application, but short on actual Biblical exposition. Even in the “Knowledge of the Word Study Questions” section in each chapter, the questions are exclusively “you” focused. The author leaps over original context, intended meaning of the author, and application to the first audience, and lands squarely on what the text means for me now. This is why I am a little hesitant about contemporary study guides. Too many of them are heavy on questions that are of more interest to the reader (or user) of the guide, and light on questions that get at the meaning and original application of the text itself. Issues of context, definitions, and even themes are absent in this study guide, issues which could have strengthened the application questions and made them more meaningful. Conclusion This, then, was a good leadership book, but not a great bible study book. The author truly wishes to encourage and assist his readers in their role as leaders in the church. The questions and exercises are serious, probing, and show faithfulness to Scripture and its authority. However, the fact that there is little exposition, and the questions focus too heavily on application to the reader is unfortunate. While useful as a means for elders and those aspiring to this office to grow and prepare, it is not quite a “study guide” in the traditional sense of reading and learning about the Biblical text itself. So use this study guide with a group of leadership-minded men to focus and assist discussion. But have a commentary on Timothy and Titus on hand as well to study the text itself....

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Amazing Dr. Ransom's Bestiary of Adorable Fallacies

A Field Guide for Clear Thinkers by Douglas Wilson & N.D. Wilson illustrated by Forrest Dickison 320 pages / 2015 These are the adventures of a globetrotting fallacy hunter, the amazing Dr. Ransom. And by following him along on his hunts, we, too, will learn how to track down (and on occasion, kill) fallacies in our own interactions with them and the people who love them. That's exactly the problem with fallacies - they're so loveable. Dr. Ransom" (who claims to have been born in 1837 and have stayed healthy through the use of spider milk lotion) tells us how easily people allow fallacies into their lives and minds. He deals with 50 fallacies in all, breaking them down into the following four categories: 1) fallacies of distraction, 2) of ambiguity, and 3) of form; and 4) millenial fallacies. Each of the fifty chapters then: defines the fallacy and its dangers (showing it as a cuddly but vicious animal); shows the fallacy, in Forrest Dickison's illustrations, in repose and on the attack; explains how we, like Ransom, can defeat it; gives the fallacy its other (sometimes better known) names; and provides both discussion questions and exercises in recognizing examples of both fallacious and logical arguments. The book also includes answers for all the questions in the back, as well as a schedule for teaching, reviewing and testing students' knowledge of logical fallacies, which helps make it ideal as a textbook for an English or philosophy course. But what makes the book fun is that both Ransom's adventures in confronting fallacies and the examples given are presented with satirical wit. I have never enjoyed reading about and puzzling out fallcies more. Which brings me to the two cautions: On occasion the Wilsons, arguably, step over the line of discretion and good taste in the description of Dr. Ransom's confrontation with fallacious fools (always a peril in satire). The recognition exercises's answers in the back have no explanation. It helps if you share the Wilsons' Christian worldview and principled conservativism (as I generally do), but even then, I did not always agree with their answers. If I were to use this in my classroom, I would have to discuss every answer with the class as a whole (not in itself a bad thing). Despite these considerations, I, as a teacher, would love to use this as a textbook for my courses. If you agree that this book could help you defeat the fallacies that stalk us along all our mental trails, you can find it here in the US, and here in Canada.                  ...

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

Proverbs

by Jay E. Adams 1997 / 231 pages I grew up with a set of Calvin's Commentaries at my disposal for my Young People’s essays and while Calvin's thoughts were reliable and insightful, they weren't all that readable. For the longest time I thought that was just the way commentaries were – formal, and formidable. It was only when I came across Jay Adams’ “Christian Counselor’s Commentary” series that I learned otherwise. Adams is solidly Reformed, his insights reliable, and his commentary so enjoyably readable it could be used for personal devotions. The full text of Proverbs is included, which allows readers to take just the one book with them if they want to do a little study at the local coffee shop or park. This portability is a nice bonus. Adams is best known as the "father of biblical counseling." Forty-five years ago he reminded the church that looking after our spiritually weak and wounded is our job, and not simply to be off-loaded to secular psychologists and psychiatrists. Proverbs is a book of particular value to this work; it is in some ways the "owner's manual" for mankind. Adams ably shows how much wisdom – how much love – God has packed into each one of these proverbs. Help can be found here, and helpers equipped. I highly recommend this to elders, and also to anyone who wants a readable, reliable, Reformed commentary. This is available as a purchase in Logos Bible software, but at this point only used copies can be found in print. ...

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

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

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

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books, Graphic novels

Bolivar

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

Adult non-fiction

BOOK REVIEW: You Who? Why you matter and how to deal with it

by Rachel Jankovic 235 pages / 2019 I began reading my wife’s copy of You Who? only after she shared comments from the online critics who were savaging it. A good encouraging review won’t necessarily sell me a book – I have too many others stacked up already competing for my attention – but when a certain sort of critic just hates a book then my curiosity is piqued and I want to know, “What could have gotten them that riled up?” So I owe Rachel Jankovic’s detractors thanks for getting me started on one of the best books I’ve read this year. The author’s premise is simple: “Who am I?” is a question everyone asks and most of us answer badly. The most common answers involve our jobs: people will say “I’m a farmer” or “I am a small business owner.” But there’s a problem with identifying with our career: we can lose our job, or retire from it. And who are we then? Others will identify themselves with their abilities or interests (“I am an artist,” or “I am a surfer”), or in their marital status (“I am single”), what groups they belong to (“I am Canadian”), or in not belonging to any groups (”I am a free spirit”). And many women look for their identity in the roles of wife and mother. But here, too, problems exist because here, too, things can change: over time our abilities fade and our interests can shift. Over time the country we were once proud of may betray the values we thought it held. And over time even the most loving spouse will repeatedly let us down. Sure, our children can be a frequent source of pride and joy, one week sitting side by side in the church pew, hair combed, shoes polished, lovingly sharing the songbooks, but the next week it’s just as likely you’ll be taking two out at a time, their legs kicking and little lungs giving full vent to their protests in front of the whole congregation. If we find our identity in being the perfect parent, it doesn’t take any time at all for that bubble to burst. So if those are all wrong answers to the "Who am I?" question, then what’s the right one? Jankovic wants to: “encourage and equip believing women to see their identity in Christ as the most essential part of them, and to see all the ways that will work its way out in their lives, manifesting itself as strength, dignity, and clarity of purpose.” Encouraging believers to make Christ our first and foremost shouldn’t be controversial. So why were critics upset? Because they were confused, mistaking Jankovic’s call to God-honoring obedience for some sort of legalistic works righteousness. There’s a sense in which that’s understandable. Legalism (or works righteousness) and antinomianism (or lawlessness) are a set of paired theological errors. The legalist can’t believe God’s grace is really free, so he wants to earn it by obeying God’s law and, like the Pharisees of old, will even add to and expand on God’s laws. Meanwhile, antinomians recognize that the law can’t justify us and conclude that since we can’t measure up to God’s standard then Jesus must have come to abolish all those pesky Commandments. These are huge, dangerous errors, but if you speak out against one, it’s inevitable someone will mistake your point and think you are a proponent of the opposite error. And that’s what’s happened here. In the Reformed circles that this magazine serves we all know we can’t earn our way to heaven, but if we have a tendency to err in one direction or the other then we’re probably more likely to tip in the legalistic direction (just think of all the additional rules we once had for Sunday and how often we heard "dat niet op Zondag"). But in the evangelical world – Jankovic’s target audience – the error is on the other side. In those circles many believe sin is no big deal because, after all, the more we mess up, the more it just shows how gracious God is. Or as the current star of the Bachelorette reality TV show (a self-professing Christian) put it this month, after she had sex with one contestant and went naked bungee jumping with another: “I refuse to feel shame….I am standing firm in believing that maybe God wants to use a mess like me to point to his goodness and grace.” What this neglects is the Apostle Paul’s answer to the question, “Shall we then continue in sin that grace may abound?” to which he gave a definitive, “By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2). Of course, we shouldn’t expect solid theology from reality TV. But this antinomianism – lawlessness – is working itself out in the audience of evangelical wives and moms that Jankovic is speaking to. There we find that the false identities some Christian women are adopting, are giving them reasons to disobey God’s call to faithful, mundane, day-after-day obedience. A mom who finds her identity in her abilities will ignore her children in favor of her career aspirations. Or if she’s made herself the center of her world, then she’ll have every reason to skip the laundry folding and partake in a little “me time” instead. And if her kids become her identity, then neglecting her husband to give the little ones more attention can be spun as downright virtuous. That’s what it can look like, but as much as these identities promise us meaning and fulfillment, they never deliver. Jankovic wants us to understand we were made to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Our identity is in Christ. We were made to worship. That’s our identity: God worshippers. And His people give Him glory by doing the good works that He has prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:10). Does that mean folding laundry is the key to pleasing God? Well, God might be calling you to get at that pile of clothes and, if so, then you should obey. Then that is how you can glorify Him. But the kids' homework might be a more important priority, or maybe, to take on the rest of the day, a nap is needed. If so, then that unfolded pile can also glorify God as you, in loving obedience, get some rest, or help with homework instead. I am not a mom or a wife, but this book was a help to me too. There wasn't all that much in here that I didn't already know but it served as a much-needed reminder that I am not what I do. I’m at that stage of life where joints are giving out, and it’s more obvious now than it has ever been that I am no athlete. Before I read You Who? that was getting me down. But there is joy to be found when, instead of finding my identity in my athletic ability (or lack thereof) I bow my knee and ask my God and King, “How can I honor You?” When I make Him my focus, then it turns out I’m still able to throw a ball far enough to play with the three kids God has given me to raise and nurture. I can't glorify myself anymore in my athletic endeavors, but in playing with the kids He's given me, it turns out I can glorify Him. I can still, in this way, do what I was made to do. And instead of being depressed at being able to do less, I can be content knowing God isn’t concerned with the declining volume of my output. But, as Jankovic notes, He does demand everything I have to give. If that sounds like a lot, of course, it is. Jankovic emphasizes obeying God in the day-to-day grind, making every moment about Him. We're not going to succeed at that, but when we understand what Christ has done for us, and how we are His, then we will want to try. And in trying, we will glorify Him. In failing we will also glorify Him. And we can glorify him, too, in repenting and then, secure in what Christ has done for us on the cross, going to bed assured of forgiveness and getting ready to do it all over again tomorrow. If I’m not making this sounds exciting, then that’s a good reason for you to pick up You Who? where Rachel Jankovic says it a lot better. And if you are excited, well, what are you waiting for? You're going to love You Who? I’d recommend it for any study group, women or men, and if your group is interested, then be sure to check out the study group e-book that you can download for free here. ...

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Know why you believe

by K. Scott Oliphint 2017 / 221 pages There’s a need for different types of books on apologetics. We need the books on theory – and there are plenty of them. Several efforts have been made over the years to write books specifically addressed to unbelieving skeptics. However, so far as I’m aware, there haven’t been too many books written for believers at a popular level. I’m talking about the kind of book you could give to your teenage son or daughter when they start asking hard questions about the Christian faith. This is that book. As a professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, Dr. Scott Oliphint is well-qualified to write this kind of work. He has a great grasp of the background philosophical and theological issues – and this is evident in his more scholarly apologetics books. Yet he also has a track record of accessible writing for popular audiences – for example, some years ago I reviewed his great series of biblical studies entitled The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture for Defending Our Faith. He’s done it again. Except for a couple of more technical sections, most of Know Why You Believe should be comprehensible to the average reader from young adults upwards. And the book launches with this profound quote from C.S. Lewis at his best: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” That really sets the tone for everything following. One of the reasons I love this book and can highly recommend it is because it takes God’s Word seriously. It takes Psalm 36:9 seriously: “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.” God’s light especially shines forth in his Word. If you want to see clearly, you need to see things God’s way. This is also true when it comes to the reasons for believing the Christian faith. The best and most trustworthy reasons come from God himself – the faithful God who never lies. That’s the basic approach undergirding Know Why You Believe – a biblical, Reformed approach to apologetics. Oliphint covers 10 questions we might struggle with: 1. Why believe in the Bible? 2. Why believe in God? 3. Why believe in Jesus? 4. Why believe in miracles? 5. Why believe Jesus rose from the dead? 6. Why believe in salvation? 7. Why believe in life after death? 8. Why believe in God in the face of modern science? 9. Why believe in God despite the evil in the world? 10. Why believe in Christianity alone? Each chapter deals with one of these questions. It explains the reasons and then also addresses responses or objections that might arise. There are also “Questions for Reflection” and recommended readings with every chapter. Just touching on one chapter, the second last deals with the problem of evil. It describes the problem and then explores two ways in which Christians have tried to address it, albeit unsatisfactorily. Instead, Oliphint attempts to offer biblical reasons as to how evil can co-exist with a good God. He points out that God has recognized the problem of evil from before creation. Furthermore, God created human beings in his image as responsible agents. When Adam and Eve fell, God rightly judged their sin. The real blame for evil is on them, not God. He then points out how God himself has dealt with, is dealing with, and will deal with the problem of evil through his Son Jesus Christ. This is a good explanation, but Oliphint might have said more. For instance, he could have added that because God is good, he must have a morally good reason for allowing whatever evil there is to exist. Not every Christian ponders the deeper questions of why we believe what we do. But if you or someone you know does, this will be a great read. It would also make a great gift for consistories to give to young people who make public profession of faith. A 12-part video series based on the book is also available. Here below you can see the episode based on "Chapter 5. Why Believe Jesus Rose from the Dead?" Dr. Bredenhof reviews many other books on his blog Yinkahdinay.wordpress.com. ...

Children’s fiction

5 great chapter books

With the start of summer what parents everywhere need are some fantastic reads for their young'uns. The chapter books below come in all shapes and sizes, so no matter what your son or daughter may be interested in, one of these should grab their attention. All would be good for children who have just completed Grades 1, 2 or 3. And if mom or dad are reading, kids as young as 4 might find these exciting too. Akimbo and the Lions by Alexander McCall Smith 1992 / 66 pages The author, Alexander McCall Smith, is best known as the author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency but he does children's books as well. Akimbo is a boy who has access to all the coolest animals in Africa – his dad is one of the rangers in charge of a wild game reserve, which means that from one book to the next Akimbo is having adventures with snakes and baboons and elephants and crocodiles, oh my! In Akimbo and the Lions he accompanies his father to trap a lion harassing a small village. But things don't go as planned – instead they trap a cub and scare the momma away. That means someone needs to take care of this wee little lion, and Akimbo convinces his dad that he is just the boy for the job! McCall does a wonderful job of balancing the tension in the book. There were moments where my 5 and 7-year-old were covering their mouths (and sometimes their eyes) but these moments didn't last too long. This is just a good old-fashioned adventure, perfect for their age group. It is short – a book that can be read in two or three sessions – exciting, sometimes sweet, with gentle humor along the way too. We've tackled the other 4 books in the series and would recommend two of them: Akimbo and the Crocodile Man and Akimbo and the Snakes, though the latter has a passing endorsement of evolution after the story, in the notes. The other two have some more problematic content which you can learn about here. Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter & Kathleen Olmstead 150 pages / 2007 I'm not one for abridged classics – why not just read the original? However, there is an exception to every rule. I recently realized that my little ones could benefit from learning about Pollyanna's "glad game" – like her they need to learn how to look for the positive side of things. But they just weren't old enough yet to sit through the original. Fortunately Sterling Books' "Classic Starts" has a very good abridgment. Half as long as the original, it is the perfect size for my girls’ ages, three through seven. Pollyanna is a poor but lively orphan girl who goes to live with her rich, strait-laced aunt. Hilarity ensues as this somber lady is gradually won over by her cheerful niece. There is one shocking/sad moment that could cause young listeners some distress – Pollyanna gets hurt quite badly. I peeked ahead and made sure that the chapter with the accident was the first one I read that night, and then I kept on reading the next couple chapters so we could finish on a happier note. That helped my audience work through this tense section. Andi’s Pony Trouble by Susan K. Marlow 61 pages / 2010 Andi is 5 going on 6, with dreams of owning her very own horse. Andi lives on a farm in the West in the 1870s, and already has a pony, named Coco. But Coco can only trot, and that not fast enough for Andi's liking. So she wants a horse for her birthday. But as little Andi tries to prove she's big enough for a horse, everything goes wrong. Author Susan Marlow, does a good job of interjecting comedy throughout - at one point Andi ends up with eggs on her head, which had our girls giggling. There are 11 pictures throughout, which helps make it an accessible book for younger children too. The author is Christian, and it shows –Andi also gets into some minor naughtiness, but afterwards asks her mom, and her pony Coco, for forgiveness. The only downside is that while Andi knows she shouldn't say disrespectful things, she still thinks them. Quite a lot. That’s okay in small doses, but it pops up more in other Andi books. I would give Andi’s Pony Trouble two thumbs up, but this internal backtalk is the reason why we’re not going to buy the rest of this series. Though we probably will get them from the library. The Adventures of Lancelot the Great by Gerald Morris 92 pages / 2008 This has all the adventure you’d expect from an Arthurian tale, but way more humor. And maybe the best way to review it is to share one of those jokes. Sir Lancelot wants to be one of King Arthur's knights because "They have the bravest hearts, the noblest souls and the shiniest armor in all the world." Lancelot is a little obsessed with his appearance but on his journey to Camelot, (to introduce himself to the King) he gets caught in a rainstorm, and his armor ends up getting "splashed all over with dirty spots." When at last the rain stopped, Sir Lancelot turns his attention to his spattered appearance. Moving his lance to his left arm, he draws a towel from his saddlebags and begins scrubbing at his armored legs. Soon he is absorbed in the task, paying no attention to where his horse is taking him. When he does finally look up, Lancelot sees a knight bearing down on him. Thinking it one of those roving evil knights and "having no time to shift his lance to his right arm...he met the knight’s charge left-handed, popping his attacker very neatly from his saddle." Almost without pause, another knight attacks him, and then another and another, which gets Lancelot quite annoyed, as this near constant assault really interferes with his cleaning efforts. But he quickly dispatches them one after another. This happens 16 times in all, and after the 16th knight was dispatched, Lancelot hears clapping. It turns out he had wandered into a tournament unawares, and won it quite unintentionally while using his lance left-handed. Then when he finds out the King himself is the host of the tournament and wants the noble knight to join the Round Table, Lancelot is distraught. Why? "Look at me! I'm all covered with mud! And I did want to make a favorable first impression!" The rest of the book is more of the same – my girls were laughing out loud, and I was having a great time too. The only caution would be that other books in this series have some magic and supernatural elements that might be of concern to some parents. But this book is just good silly, feudal fun. This could be enjoyed by kids all the way through Grade 5 and 6. The big goose and the little white duck by Meindert DeJong 169 pages / 1938 It begins with a big boy buying his mother a big goose for her birthday present – she's always wanted one for a pet. But there is just one problem: to buy the goose he had to borrow money from his gruff grandfather. Now the grumpy old man was more than happy to loan the money but only because he misunderstood what the big boy intended. He thought the boy was buying it for his birthday – for his eighty-eighth birthday just a few months away. He thought the big boy was buying it so that grampa could, for the first time in his long life, have a taste of roast goose. So the fun in the story is seeing how this can all conclude with a happy ending! It was a great read-out-loud book to share with my young daughters. The big goose is an excitable character, and the grandfather likes to bellow, which means that I got to get loud too. DeJong won both the Hans Christian Andersen and Newbery awards for children's literature, so the man could write. If mom or dad are reading it, this is good for ages 4 and up. Jon Dykstra and his siblings blog on books at ReallyGoodReads.com....

Adult fiction, Book Reviews, Teen fiction

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

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

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

The Genesis Account: A theological, historical, and scientific commentary on Genesis 1-11

by Jonathan Sarfati 786 pages / 2015 Outside of sermon preparation, it is not often that I read a commentary from front to back. If my reckoning is correct, this is only the third time and certainly the longest of the three – but it was well worth it! Dr. Jonathan Sarfati of Creation Ministries International has provided the Church a monumental resource on issues relating to the first 11 chapters of Holy Scripture. Sarfati has produced a thorough commentary on Genesis 1-11 which takes Scripture seriously as the inerrant Word of God. The greatest strength of this volume is its commitment to the inspiration of the entire Bible and everything that necessarily must follow from that. For example, one of the foundational issues that confronts Genesis commentators immediately is authorship. Commendably, Sarfati appeals to all of Scripture to prove the traditional view that Moses wrote Genesis, though quite possibly collating materials from earlier. Throughout the commentary, he also refutes the arguments of the “documentary hypothesis” – the old liberal idea that several authors were responsible for the Pentateuch, authors who lived much later than Moses. Generally, Sarfati lands on the right side of the issues in the interpretation of these chapters. He defends creation in six ordinary days – a creation which happened thousands of years ago, not millions. He maintains that Adam was created on the sixth day out of literal dust from the ground, while Eve was created from Adam’s rib. There was a literal snake which led to a historical fall of the first man and first woman. Later, Sarfati makes the case for a global flood in the days of Noah. He gets full marks on the big-ticket items. Some disagreements When we get down to some of the interpretive details, I disagree with Sarfati on some points. For example in Genesis 6:2, we read that “the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose.” Sarfati vigorously argues the old view that “the sons of God” were angels. In other words, angels were married to human beings and had sexual relations with them. He argues that Jude 6-7 proves that angels engaged in sexual immorality. He argues that since angels can eat, surely they could also reproduce. I am not convinced. In their essence, angels are spiritual beings, not physical beings and therefore cannot engage in sexual relations, much less reproduce by inter-breeding with humans. I find the “Sethite interpretation” to be correct – people descended from Seth (the line of the Messiah) married rebellious unbelievers. However, I would also grant that Sarfati’s view falls under the umbrella of what we call “the freedom of exegesis.” As a Reformed reader, regrettably, there are other areas where I cannot be as forgiving. While I have a lot of appreciation for the work Sarfati has done here, I would be remiss if I did not highlight several serious theological issues. One issue that arises here and there is Sarfati’s dispensationalism. He often quotes from (and refers to) fellow Messianic Jew Arnold Fruchtenbaum, another dispensationalist and figure on the “biblical prophecy” scene. This view emerges when, for example, Sarfati argues that Genesis does not speak directly about the church. For a Reformed believer, Genesis is all about the church! Sarfati makes a distinction between the Old Testament people of God (Israel) and the church, but the Belgic Confession says in article 27, “This church has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end, for Christ is an eternal King who cannot be without subjects.” Not unrelated to this is the muted development of covenant theology in this commentary. For example, there is hardly a word about God’s covenant with Adam and Eve either before or after the fall into sin. Another issue which caught my attention was Sarfati’s occasional references to followers of philosopher Gordon Clark, particularly Gary Crampton and John Robbins. Clark was part of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church when it first began in 1936. However, theological complaints lodged against him eventually led to his departure in the late 1940s. In Clark’s thinking, logic and God are to be identified with one another. God is pure logic, according to Clark and his followers. Clark famously translated John 1:1, “In the beginning was Logic, and Logic was with God, and Logic was God…” Critics of Clark (like John Murray and Cornelius VanTil) argued that Clark had confused creation with the Creator. God stands sovereign over logic; he is not subject to it nor equal to it. Unfortunately, Sarfati seems to follow Clark’s reasoning in several places. It leads him to assert that maintaining the presence of any paradoxes, antinomies or tensions in Scripture (even apparent contradictions or humanly irreconcilable statements) is very dangerous. However, I would argue that this makes God, the author of Scripture, subject to our notions of what must be logical – far more dangerous! There are things taught in Scripture that are simply not capable of rational explanation – for example, the one God eternally existing in three persons. This is why the Belgic Confession says in article 9 that “this doctrine far surpasses all human understanding.” Helpful insight Enough about the theological and interpretive issues – this commentary also promises to shed scientific light about the first chapters of Genesis. This is where this commentary is most helpful. A few examples will illustrate. Genesis 2:21 says that God created Eve from Adam’s rib. Sarfati notes the fact that human ribs can actually regenerate. Hence, Adam would eventually have had a complete set of ribs again. When discussing the Flood, the commentary point outs that catastrophic plate tectonics can explain the mechanism of this deluge. How do we explain the formation of canyons that appear to be millions of years old? Sarfati describes how canyons have rapidly formed following catastrophic events like the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980. Off the coast of Iceland, an island (Surtsey) appeared due to volcanic activity in 1963. Scientists have since been dumbfounded at how quickly Surtsey developed a “mature landscape," including cliffs that would otherwise have been dated as far older. In many instances, I was skeptical of Sarfati’s claims. However, I did my own research on many of them and in every instance, so far as I could tell, his claims proved accurate. This commentary aims to be scholarly in many respects. The author has used the original biblical languages – Greek and Hebrew are found throughout, but always transcribed. A lot of research is in the background, both biblical and scientific. However, an incongruent feature is the informal style of writing often used – this can be distracting in a commentary that strives to have an academic calibre. Conclusion The Genesis Account would especially serve well in the context of Christian education. Christian science and Bible teachers should have this volume on hand and refer to it often – they will find that their teaching on creation-related issues will be greatly enhanced! Preachers would also appreciate it, especially when confronted with questions from parishioners. I regularly give my catechism students the opportunity to ask me questions. I am always surprised how many of the questions have to do with either the beginning (protology) or the end (eschatology). This book has already helped me to be better prepared to deal with the former. Last of all, all Christian households could benefit from having a book of this nature on hand as a reference tool. When you hear or read the claims of the world, Sarfati will typically lead you back to the solid ground of biblical teaching on origins. Yes, as noted above, there are some caveats, but overall this commentary can be recommended. Dr. Bredenhof blogs on books and many other things at Yinkahdinay.Wordpress.com...

Adult non-fiction

An interview (of sorts) with "Gay Girl, Good God" author Jackie Hill Perry

Jackie Hill Perry is an American poet and recording artist on the Humble Beast label. Married to Preston, she is the mother of two children. Last year, she published her first book Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was and Who God Has Always Been. This is an “interview” of sorts, with her responses coming as excerpts from her book. ***** WES BREDENHOF:  At its heart, what is your book really about? JACKIE HILL PERRY:  Every sentence is the pursuit of showing off God….This is a book with a lot of me in it but with a whole lot more of God.  He is what the soul needs for rest and what the mind needs for peace.  He is the Creator God, the King of Glory, the one who, in love, sent the Christ to pay the penalty for and become the sin that we are all born with.  It is the words from and about this resurrected Lamb of God that I hope will lift off the page and into the heart.  This book is a lifted hand, a glad praise, a necessary hymn, a hallelujah overheard and not kept quiet.  This work is my worship unto God that, with prayer, I hope will leave you saying, “God is so good!” WB:  You say that it was the story of who you were. So who were you? What were you like? JHP:  To me, the devil made more sense than God sometimes.  Both he and God spoke.  God through His Scriptures; Satan, through doubt.  I’d learned of the Ten Commandments in Sunday school in between eating a handful of homemade popcorn and picking at my stockings.  The “Thou shall nots” didn’t complement the sweet buttered chew I found myself distracted by.  They were a noise I didn’t care to welcome.  “You can’t.  You shouldn’t.  Do not,” didn’t sound like a song worth listening to, only a terrible noise to drown out by resistance.  Satan, on the other hand, only told me to do what felt good or what made sense to me. WB:  When you finally came out as gay, what were you thinking about God? And what do you think He thought about you? JHP:  As much as I wanted to believe God grinned when He thought of my life, I knew He didn’t. My conscience spoke to me throughout the day.  In the morning, it reminded me of God.  A few minutes before the clock brought the noon in, it brought God to mind, again.  Night was when it was the loudest.  On the way to sleep, my head lay relaxed on my pillow surrounded by the natural darkness of night, I thought about God.  I was His enemy (James 4:4).  How could I, an enemy of God, have sweet dreams knowing that He sat awake throughout the night? WB:  So by God’s grace you became a Christian in 2008 – through his Spirit and Word you were miraculously brought to faith and repentance. What impact did your conversion have on your same-sex desires? JHP:  To my surprise, being a Christian delivered me from the power of sin but in no way did it remove the possibility of temptation.  A common lie thrown far and wide is that if salvation has truly come to someone who is same-sex attracted, then those attractions should immediately vanish.  To be cleansed by Jesus, they presume, is to be immune to the enticement of sin.  This we know not to be true because of Jesus. He being completely perfect and yet He still experienced temptation. WB:  What was that temptation like for you? JHP:  It was slapping me around like a weightless doll in the hands of an imaginative child. Being tossed between fun and funeral, who would I decide to trust more?  What the temptation wanted me to believe or what God had already revealed?  The struggle with homosexuality was a battle of faith.  To give into temptation would be to give into unbelief.  It was up to me to believe Him.  His Word was authoritative, active, sharp.  The simplicity of faith is this:  taking God’s Word for it.  And I might not have felt like it, but I had no choice but to believe Him. WB:  Why do we have a hard time believing that a gay girl can become a completely different creature? JHP:  Because we have a hard time believing God.  The Pharisees saw the man born blind, heard his testimony, heard about his past and how it was completely different from the present one, and refused to believe the miracle of Whothe miracle pointed to. The same power that made a man born blind able to see through the means of something as foolish as spit and mud is the same enormous power contained in a foolish gospel brought into the world by a risen Saviour.  It is through faith in Him, initiated by His pursuit of me, that I, a gay girl, now new creature, was made right with God.  Given sight, able to recognize my hands and how they’d been calloused by sin, and how Jesus had come to cleanse me of them all.  Now seeing, I worship.  One thing is sure, if ever I am asked, how am I able to see now, after being blind for so long, I will simply say, “I was blind, a good God came, and now, I see.” WB:  You have experienced the struggle with same-sex attraction.  Should those who are tempted with that identify themselves as “Gay Christians”? JHP:  I don’t believe it is wise or truthful to the power of the gospel to identify oneself by the sins of one’s past or the temptations of one’s present but rather to only be defined by the Christ who’s overcome both for those He calls His own. All men and women, including myself, that are well acquainted with sexual temptation are ultimately not what our temptation says of us.  We are what Christ had done for us; therefore, our ultimate identity is very simple:  We are Christians. WB:  In your book, you warn about the “heterosexual gospel.”  You write that “God isn’t calling gay people to be straight” and it’s actually dangerous to teach that he is.  Why do you say that? JHP:  Because it puts more emphasis on marriage as the goal of the Christian life than knowing Jesus.  Just as God’s aim in my salvation was not mainly the removal of my same-sex desires, in sanctification, it is not always His aim that marriage or experiencing an attraction for the opposite sex will be involved. Excerpts from Jackie Hill Perry’s “Gay Girl, Good God” have been used with the gracious permission of the author (and publisher). Dr. Bredenhof blogs at yinkahdinay.wordpress.com. A Dutch translation of this article can be found here. ...

Children’s picture books

God made Me and You: Celebrating God's design for ethnic diversity

by Shai Linne illustrated by Trish Mahoney 32 pages / 2018 Reformed rapper Shai Linne has written a children's book about racism and God's appreciation for diversity. And it's really good. As those already familiar with his albums know, Linne loves to delve deep into God's Word, and his insights are not only profound, but he knows how to present them powerfully. This picture book is no different. In response to racism Christians typically talk about how we all come from the same two parents so there is, in fact, just one race – the human race. Linne builds on this point, even as he makes another – yes we are all alike in one way, but in others, we are wonderfully different. And as you would expect a rapper to do, he makes this point in rhyme. The book begins with a teacher arriving late to her class just as a couple of boys are making fun of other kids for their hair, clothes, and skin color. After telling the boys to ask for forgiveness, she teaches the class a lesson about how diversity is a testimony to God's greatness. She says: In Genesis 1, what we see in each verse Is God made a world that is REALLY diverse. The sun and the moon, the planets and stars, Saturn and Jupiter, Venus and Mars... Each one is different... Class, why did God make this? He made it to show off His beauty and greatness. And just as the variety and diversity in the rest of creation speaks of God's greatness, so too the diversity in Mankind. He gave some curly hair while others have straight. It pleased God to fashion each wonderful trait. Brown eyes and green eyes, hazel and blue, Each in their own way works of art we can view. Some that are deaf and some that are blind All have great worth in God's sovereign design. This is a morality tale, and sometimes this type of Christian books can be quite forced – more sermon than story – but the rhythm and rhyme of God Made Me and You carries us along. There so much to love in this fantastic book, from the much-needed message, to the bright colorful pictures kids will love, to the fun bouncing rhymes that make it great fun for mom and dad to read out loud. So two very enthusiastic thumbs up! Linne has released a children's album, Jesus Kids, along with the book, and one track shares the same title as the book. You can hear some of the song in the book trailer below. You can also check out a 10-page excerpt from the book here. ...

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

Calvin's Institutes: Which edition should you read?

John Calvin published five different Latin editions of his Institutes, expanding on it with each new edition. The 1536 edition was just 6 chapters long, and the addition of 17 shorter chapters in 1539 doubled the book’s size. Four more chapters were added in 1543, and then only minor changes made in 1550. But the final, 1559 version was fully 80% larger than its predecessor. In addition to these Latin editions, Calvin also created French versions that, while very similar, were not strict translations – they taught the same doctrine, in the same order, but sometimes said things in different ways. It is the final Latin 1559 version that most translations are based on, including the two best-known English-language translations: the 1845 Henry Beveridge, and the 1960 Ford Lewis Battles (edited by John T. McNeill), translations. 1845 Beveridge One advantage of the Beveridge edition is that the copyright has expired on this translation, so it is readily available online for free (there is also a harder to find 1813 translation by John Allen also available online for free – Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3 – as well as in print). Cheap print and e-book copies are also available, but this is where you have to be wary, as some have crisp new type and a beautiful layout, and others look like they are copies of copies of the original 1800s publication, with dark text cramming every nook and cranny of the page. If you plan to be reading the Institutes front to back – all 1,700 some pages of it – then a nice airy, legible layout is important. So buyer beware – be sure that you can take a look at the inside of whatever edition you are buying. 1960 Battles This edition came a hundred years later, so as you might imagine, the language is somewhat more current. The editor, John T. McNeill also provides lots of helpful explanatory notes at the bottom of many pages. However, as Dr. Bredenhof notes in his Institutes review, McNeill's liberal theological bias comes out in some of these notes. 2014 White In addition to being the most modern translation (by Robert White and published by the Banner of Truth) this edition's main feature is one that will be regarded as a strength by some and a weakness by others – it is based on the much smaller 1541 French edition. It clocks in at just 920 pages, instead of the more than 1,700 pages of the final 1559 version. So, this would be the best one for those interested in checking out the Institutes but who would appreciate an abridgment...in this case, done by the author himself! Conclusion While it might seem a trivial thing, I really can't emphasize enough the importance of buying an edition with an inviting layout. You're going to be investing a lot of time with this book, whatever edition you buy, and if you get one with dense text, and a hard to read font, it will wear on you. And on that point, the White edition is beautiful, the Battles/McNeill seems good though not great, and the various editions of the Beveridge run the gamut from beautiful to atrocious. Jon Dykstra and his siblings blog on books at ReallyGoodReads.com....

Children’s picture books

Dance at Grandpa’s

by Laura Ingalls Wilder illustrated by Renée Graef 33 pages / 1994 I'd expect most everyone has heard of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series. Not only are the book loved by children and parents alike, they spawned a 1970-80s TV series that was wildly popular too. If by chance you aren't already familiar, the series is based on the author's own experiences in the late 1800's as a small child living the pioneering life. This picture book, Dance at Grandpa's, is an adaptation of Chapter 8 from the first novel, Little House in the Big Woods. While neighbors are far-flung, they do come together for special events, and this time everyone is invited to Grandma and Grandpa's big cabin. Laura, her Pa, Ma, big sister Mary, and baby sister Carrie, get bundled up in gloves, boots and coats, then covered up with blankets on the sleigh, as they head on their way to Grandpa's. Everyone brings their children so as the big cabin fills, Laura finds that there are "every so many babies lying in rows on Grandma's feather bed." Her pa then takes out his fiddle and the dozens of couples begin to dance and swirl. Laura discovers there's also food of all sorts, including wonderfully sour pickles! When the dancing finally stops Laura heads to bed, and come morning her family heads back home on their sleigh. As with any adaptation the obvious question is, why not just read the original? Our family has previously enjoyed the original novels as audiobooks – from youngest to oldest, everyone liked the novels, and probably more than these picture book versions. So, again, why read the picture book adaptations? There are a couple of reasons. First, my youngest can't read yet, but after going through the picture book once together, she could then "read" through it on her own, which she quite enjoyed. Second, our middle daughter is learning to read and needs books that are easy, but still have an interesting story. Many of the books at her level are so boring she finds they just aren't worth all the effort it takes to read them. But the books in this series are fun and familiar, and she has enjoyed working through a number of them. There are 14 picture book in all in this "My first Little House books" series, all of them based on the first three novels in the original series. The first two novels, Little House in the Big Woods andLittle House on the Prairie, are about Laura's childhood, and the third, Farmer Boy, is about her husband's childhood. One little annoyance we found was that the books were not published in chronological order and aren't numbered, so it was hard to figure out which to read first. For the most part it doesn't really matter, with the exception of the three based on chapters from Little House on the Prairie where one does lead into the next. So you can read most of them in whatever order you'd like, but, if you do want to tackle them in the proper chronological order, this is what it would be: Based on Little House in the Big Woods Winter Days in the Big Woods Christmas in the Big Woods A Little House Birthday Sugar Snow Dance at Grandpa's Going to Town Summertime in the Big Woods The Deer in the Wood Based on Little House on the Prairie Going West Prairie Day A Little Prairie House Based on Farmer Boy Winter on the Farm A Farmer Boy Birthday County Fair CAUTIONS The one caution I'll pass along concerns not Dance at Grandpa's, but another in the series. A Little House Birthday is based on Chapter 5 of Little House in the Big Woods and, just as in the original, the story here is all about how bored Laura is with Sunday. Her parents are very strict: "On Sundays they could not run or shout or be noisy. They must sit quietly and listen while Ma read stories to them They might look at pictures, and they might hold their rag dolls nicely and talk to them. But there was nothing else they could do. One Sunday Laura could not bear it any longer and she began to play with Jack and run and shout. Pa told her to sit in her chair and be quiet, and Laura began to cry. So Pa took her on his knee and cuddled her and told her a story." Eventually, she falls asleep and, waking up the next morning, she realizes with relief, "It was Monday, and Sunday would not come again for a whole week." So she's got quite the attitude about Sunday, and her parents really aren't helping things. Now, a story like this is no big deal when dad or mom are reading it – then we can explain that Sunday isn't a day of "don'ts" but a day of "get tos" – we get to have time off from our daily work and get to spend it together as God's people praising, and learning about, Him. Laura's parents made Sunday the worst day of the week and we can share with our kids that this is simply not the way the Lord's Day should be celebrated. CONCLUSION To this point we've read 11 of the 14 available and enjoyed them all (though we did have to have a talk about A Little House Birthday). I'd recommend them as fantastic books for Grades 1 and maybe 2. With girls as the primary characters, boys might not like most of them, but perhaps they'd be interested in the three based on Farmer Boy (I hope so, but I haven't tested these out on any boys). However, if your girls are anything like ours, they'll enjoy them all. Jon Dykstra and his siblings blog on books at ReallyGoodReads.com....

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

BOOK REVIEW: Beating the college debt trap

Getting a degree without going broke by Alex Chediak 212 pages / 2015 In Canada, the average student debt among university graduates is now more than $26,000, and in the States, over $37,000, with only three in ten graduating from college debt-free. This may seem an inescapable reality – college tuition levels are on the rise, as are other costs like housing and textbooks. But author Alex Chediak makes the case that students can, and should, pursue post-secondary education with no, or manageable, debt. He does so by illustrating nine “traps” or commonly held notions about college that lead many students into debt. These traps include the ideas that a four-year degree is best for everyone, spending a fortune on a prestigious university is always a good idea, and that student loans are always worth it. This book is written from, and for, the American context, and the author acknowledges that although he’s “writing as a Christian” this isn’t a densely religious book. In spite of this, the principles taught in this book are applicable for a broader audience. And, while the pages aren’t brimming with scriptural proofs, the advice given is grounded in sound scriptural teaching about finances, stewardship, and debt. This is an excellent read for prospective post-secondary students, but maybe even more so for parents looking to give them sound advice. ...

Adult biographies, Book Reviews

i am n

Inspiring Stories of Christians Facing Islamic Extremists by the Voice of the Martyrs 293 pages / 2016 The “n” in the title is Arabic shorthand for “Christian,” and Islamic extremists will paint it on houses owned by Christians as a means of intimidation. It is, in some places, the equivalent of being marked for death. This was a very different and much better book than I thought it would be. I was anticipating something hard to endure: story after story of Christians getting beat up, beheaded, or jailed. I started reading only because I knew the topic was important. As the front cover puts it, we must "not let our brothers and sisters suffer in silence, nor...let them serve alone." So I started reading out of a feeling of duty. However, I kept reading because I am n is encouraging, and challenging, and just too awe-inducing to put down. Encouragement It was encouraging to see what God is up to in the  Islamic East, even in the midst of severe persecution. As one story details, before 1983 Christianity was almost unknown in Algeria. There were "no Christian bookstores, no indigenous churches, and virtually no access to Bibles." But then a few Christian tourists invited the locals to play a soccer game. The invitation was declined because the local team's best player was sick. These Christians then asked if they could come pray over the young man, and they were allowed to do so. The next day the young man was fully recovered and able to play in the soccer game. News of his healing quickly got around, and these tourists, while not missionaries, were very happy to answer the many questions that came their way. While they eventually had to go back home, the gospel news they shared stayed behind. "I felt that the stories they told were not just stories, but real," recalled Hassan. "It made we want to leave everything and follow Jesus." Hassan and other Algerians began turning to the God of the Bible. The "soccer miracle" is credited with initiating an explosion of faith in a country where Christianity was once rare. With the growth in numbers also came a growth in persecution – it is not easy to be a Christian in Algeria. But what a wonder to hear about how God can gather a people for Himself using even a soccer game. There are many other encouraging stories throughout. In chapter 43 we learn about Alejandro, from the Philippines, who was "a cold-blooded killer, a terrorist for Allah" before turning to God and becoming a pastor. And as remarkable a turnaround as his life is, God wasn't done with the amazing. "During the final evening of conference, Alejandro conversed deeply with an attendee grieving the lost of relatives – a pastor, his wife, and children – who had been killed by Muslim militants several months earlier. Only God could bring together a former Muslim murderer of Christians to comfort and pray for believers who were suffering at the hands of Islamic extremists. Challenging Now, it was challenging to read story after story of Christians who lost everything: their businesses, their homes, their friends, their family connections, even their own lives, or those of their children or spouses. They gave this all up because they understood that what they were losing paled in comparison to what they have in Jesus their Lord. In a section of the book titled " JOY" we meet Jon, a Malaysian Christian, who was able to laugh as he was beaten, expressing the joy he felt "for the honor he was feeling. 'I was okay with being beaten,' he recall. 'They beat Jesus too.'" Then, in the next chapter there is Musa, a North African who was able, for a long time, to be a quiet Christian. He wasn't sure what he would do if he was confronted about God. But then the moment came: one of his coworkers wanted to know why he didn't take a break with them to go do their prayers. "Musa realized. This is it. This was the moment he had to decide if he was for Christ or against him. A phony or the real deal. All in or all out. After a long pause, he looked his friend in the eye. 'Prayer,' he began, 'is an intimate conversation with God, and it should be done all the time, in my heart, rather than at specific times using the same phrases and postures.'" This is a world away, but a situation we can understand. We have co-workers too, who ask us questions. But the stakes aren't nearly so high for us. Musa knew he faced the loss of his job, and even the loss of his family just by making it known he follows Jesus. But still he professed his Lord. Awe-inducing Why then am I so slow to speak the name of my Savior? Why don't we profess God's name loudly and constantly? This is the challenge that I am n throws at western Christians. We have so much, and we risk so little. Why are we so quiet? What do these persecuted Christians understand about God that we still don't? They know that God is all. While we can get distracted by the abundance around us, they often times have nothing but God. And they know He is more than enough! Cautions When it comes to cautions, I can think of some minor quibbles. Mention is made of how The Jesus Film was used as an evangelistic tool. Visually depicting Jesus, and having an actor portray Him is not something we would do. But we also know that God can use even bent sticks to draw straight lines. At another point a new convert refers to himself as becoming a "son" (rather than brother) of Christ. But we should expect new converts to have some misunderstandings. Finally, there are many descriptions of persecution, but none are graphic. Conclusion I am n is a book to delight in, pray over and pass along to others. The 300 pages are broken down into 54 chapters with 48 of the accounts from the present day, and another half dozen from the pages of Church history. The short accounts make this a very easy read, and while many atrocities are described, it is always done delicately, so this may be appropriate for children as young as 10. The front cover subtitle has made this a controversial book. It reads "Inspiring Stories of Christians Facing Islamic Extremists." Yes, most of the persecution Christians face around the world is at the hand of Muslim radicals. That is not a fact that many want to acknowledge, but when we ignore it, we do so at the expense of the Christians suffering at their hands. No, not all Muslims are violent and no one is saying they are. No one is calling on us to hate Muslims. This is, in fact, a book full of Muslims who have been brought to God through the love of their Christian neighbors and family. So yes, this is an account of the Muslim persecution of Christians, but it is also an account of how that persecution should best be met: by loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute the body of Christ." (Matt. 5:44). I am heading out to an abortion protest in a couple days, and after reading this, I am not nearly so intimidated as I might have been. It is indeed an honor to face persecution for the sake of God. This review first appeared on the Dykstra book blog www.ReallyGoodReads.com....

Adult non-fiction

Christ's Psalms, Our Psalms

edited by Rev. Peter H. Holtvluwer 383 pages / 2018 The Psalms are a rich treasure for God's people: so many inspired words of comfort, so many choruses of praise to our Father in Heaven! For generations, Christians have used these songs as a beautiful means to meditate on God's faithfulness and love. In Christ's Psalms, Our Psalms, Rev. Holtvluwer has compiled daily meditations that show how Jesus Christ is revealed and glorified throughout the 150 songs that make up the Psalter. Sixteen Reformed ministers, professors, and theologians contributed to these one-page devotions, each focusing on a few verses of a psalm, often with suggested short readings from elsewhere in Scripture. The writers act as guides, helping us to see the work of Christ in every psalm: in the imprecatory psalms with their themes of judgment, in the songs of lament, in the joyous choruses that praise God the creator, in the songs of deliverance from enemies. By providing this redemptive historical perspective, these teachers have done a great service to help Christians appreciate the Psalms more fully, and see Jesus revealed on every page. The writers also bring our attention to godly living. As Christ was the perfect Israelite, so we are called to lives of obedience, thankfulness, praise and prayer. Like the psalmists, we are reminded how far short of God's perfect standard we live, and how we are called to repentance and comforted with forgiveness. Christ's Psalms, Our Psalms is suitable for personal study, or for family devotions at mealtime for example. Since many Christians have the practice of starting their morning by reading a psalm, this may be an excellent aid to this good habit. In addition to one or two meditations on each psalm in numerical order, the book also has sections dealing with psalms about Christ's birth, his suffering and death, his ascension, and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. A final section highlights psalms suitable for use at special occasions like Thanksgiving, the turning of a new year, and prayers for fruitful crops. Beautifully bound in a long lasting hard cover format, Christ's Psalms, Our Psalms is a welcome addition to our bookshelves and breakfast tables. And if you enjoy this devotional, a companion study resource will also be available in 2019, written by the same authors, and intended as a pastoral commentary to help preachers and laymen see the themes of the redeemer in the psalms. You can find out more details about that on Rev. Holtvluwer's blog here. All proceeds from Christ’s Psalms, Our Psalms go to benefit mission work in Brazil, and specifically the Reformed Reading Room in Recife. Canadian, US, and International order can purchase it at PremierPublishing.ca. It is also available at Amazon.ca and Amazon.com. ...

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Ed Welch's "Blame it on the Brain?"

Blame it on the Brain?: Distinguishing chemical imbalances, brain disorders, and disobedience by Edward T. Welch 1998, 208 pages A boy won’t sit still so the doctor wants to put him on Ritalin. An aging grandfather, suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, is starting to make inappropriate comments to his grandchildren. A mother is depressed and asks her minister what he thinks about anti-depressants. These days we’re regular confronted with “brain issues” but few of us feel equipped as to what God thinks on these matters. Author Ed Welch notes that while going to the Bible would be the natural thing for us to do with most other matters, it might strike Christians as an odd approach in this case. After all, what does the Bible have to say about our brains? Welch answers that question by noting that God made us, so He knows what we are really like. And what God reveals about us – about how our body and spirit are both distinct and yet impact each other – is foundational to a good understanding of our brain. Blame it on the Brain is divided in two parts. In Part One Welch offers up the theological resources Christians will need to be able to “dialogue with the brain sciences.” These are the biblically-derived principles by which we can interpret and understand the (mostly secular) brain research being done. Once we are outfitted with the proper theology and taught how to apply it, Part Two then explores some “modern diagnoses and experiences, all attributed to the brain, and considers them from a biblical perspective. Then, in Part Two, Welch applies these principles to specific problems including Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia, head injuries, depression, bipolar disorder, anorexia, Attention Deficit Disorder, homosexuality, alcoholism and more. He groups them under three headings: The Brain Did It Maybe The Brain Did It The Brain Didn’t Do It Where Welch places different conditions will strike some readers as controversial. Doesn’t the world say all of these conditions should fall under the “The Brain Did It” umbrella? It does indeed, because the world think if the brain did it, then our sinful hearts can be excused. “Born this way” is supposed to clear us from any responsibility for our conduct. But Welch’s three-fold division is less controversial when we understand that even conditions with clear physical causes, like dementia, will have a spiritual dimension as well – responsibility persists, even if it is to a far different degree. For example, if a dementia patient’s confusion leads him to believe he has been waiting for his daughter all day long (even though she arrived right on time) she should try not to be bothered if he expresses some frustration. However, if the same patient starts making crude comments to the nurses, then that should not be dismissed as simply the disease talking. As Welch writes, Does the disease create the sinful behavior? Definitely not…. Sexual thoughts, jealousy, private profanity, and anger can be neatly covered when our minds are intact. But when we are intellectually less competent, some of the private events begin to slip out. Dementia isn’t the cause of this sin; it simply reveals what was always in the heart. In a situation such as this repentance should still be be sought. Even when our brain is damaged, we remain both physical and spiritual beings, and as in need of accountability, correction, and forgiveness as the rest of humanity. Cautions The only caution I have is not with what Ed Welch wrote, but with how a couple of passages might be misunderstood. In the first, Welch states that with psychiatric problems there “are always spiritual problems and sometimes physical problems.” I’m afraid that some will understand him as saying psychiatric problems are always the result of sin. That is not what Welch is saying. Sin will sometimes be the cause of spiritual problem, but other times the spiritual problems will be better understood as spiritual needs. Welch notes counselors have to be aware that psychiatric problems almost always involve suffering so the diagnosed person and their family will need to hear from the Scriptures about the hope and compassion that God offers in the midst of suffering. A second matter that might be misunderstood is how Welch designates homosexuality as something “the brain didn’t do.” If he denies the brain dictates someone’s sexual preferences, is Welch saying everyone chooses to be homosexual? No. Welch is only arguing that while the brain may have an influence it cannot be credited as the sole determiner of their sexual orientation – other factors have to be involved. Conclusion This isn’t a large book, but there sure is a lot to love! I must have highlighted half of the pages and I really can’t say enough good things about. Educational, thoroughly biblical, helpful, applicable, and it still manages to be enjoyably readable. This would be a valuable resource for minsters and elders, and a highly recommended read for everyone. We all need to learn how to think biblically about mental illness and matters of the brain and I can’t imagine a better introductory book for this topic. Jon Dykstra and his siblings blog on books at ReallyGoodReads.com, where this first appeared....

Adult non-fiction

BOOK REVIEW: God has a wonderful plan for your life

by Ray Comfort 128 pages / 2010 Why doesn't the modern evangelistic message "work"? In this book Comfort is confronting an enormous problem that he argues is related, at its root, to a lack of concern for the law – 90% of seeming converts in Christian crusades are gone from the church within a year, and many never set foot in a church at all. He argues the cause for this distressing statistic is the "modern message," which promises earthly happiness for those who turn to Him. Meanwhile the Bible and church history show persecution is a likely result of following Christ. Comfort tells us that the "lost key" to true evangelism is the use of the law. Only knowing our sin – our specific sins, not just our weakness or brokenness – begins "making grace amazing.” To illustrate this, Comfort makes a brilliant analogy about giving parachutes to two airplane passengers. The first man is  told that the chute will make his flight much more comfortable. When, instead, he finds that wearing it makes him feel silly in the eyes of the other passengers and makes it hard to sit in his seat, he gives it up in frustration. The second passenger is told that the chute will save his life when (not if) the plane crashes – a metaphor for our inevitable appearance before the judgment seat of God. You can imagine how much more grateful he is for his "gospel chute." Comfort next makes it clear that Jesus Himself used the law to convict sinners of their need for forgiveness through God's grace – the only chute that can save us from the crash of our condemnation – and concludes by stressing that churches filled with false converts are no testimony to the power of a false modern message. The appendix is a model of "gentleness and respect" as Comfort passes on a word "For My Campus Crusade Friends," demonstrating that some of the organization's own leaders have come to see the necessity for the law in the proclamation of the gospel. CAUTIONS This is not the first book by Ray Comfort that I have read. The previous one, Revival's Golden Key, was a good read, but this one is a really good read. The two books have similar messages, but God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Life is a better read for two reasons: 1. It's almost 100 pages shorter. 2. Comfort's use of Scripture is simpler and more literal. In Revival's Golden Key, Comfort sometimes slips into an allegorical interpretation of particular passages to support his contention that it is the law of God that brings sinners to true Christian conversion. God Has a Wonderful Plan sticks to texts that clearly relate to preaching and evangelism to make the same point. CONCLUSIONS If you believe that Comfort can show a better way to obey the Great Commission as Reformed churches begin to make evangelism a greater priority, you can download a free pdf copy of the book here (just click on "Start Reading Now"). This review first appeared on ReallyGoodReads.com....

Adult non-fiction, Teen non-fiction

BOOK REVIEW: Can I smoke pot? Marijuana in light of Scripture

by Tom Breeden and Mark L. Ward Jr. 103 pages / 2016 This book is valuable in two very different ways. First, it's valuable for anyone considering the title question: Can I smoke pot? For some that might be a personal interest, while others simply want to know how to answer the question when it comes up. Second, about half of the book is spent making the argument that the Bible is our go-to whenever we have questions. We might not think that when it comes to marijuana, since the Bible never mentions it directly. But if we want to know God's thoughts on the subject, then it doesn't take much digging to find principles which are applicable. The Bible does offer us the guidance we're looking for. As Cornelius Van Til put it: “The Bible is authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything.” That makes this a very useful book for anyone interested in learning how to use God's Word as a guide for all of life. Shorter answers are available to the title question. If you want the article-length response, I give one here. But the value in this book is that, even though it is short – at 100 pages it can be read in an evening or two – the authors have the room to delve deeper. So some of the topics they address include: the role of government and when we do and don't have to listen to it what the Old Testament and New say about the use of medicine what questions we need to ask when considering the wisdom of using marijuana for medical use how recreational marijuana use compares to recreational alcohol use is it possible to smoke marijuana recreationally in moderation? So what answer do the authors ultimately give to their title question? There is a sense in which they don't give a simple yes or no answer. But when it comes to recreational use, they want Christians to understand there are many reasons why we should just say no. So read the book, and then share it with your friends, your kids, and your church. Let's have a ready answer for this increasingly common question. This review first appeared on ReallyGoodReads.com...

Book Reviews, Music

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 non-fiction

BOOK REVIEW: Greg Koukl's "The Story of Reality"

The Story of Reality: How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important That Happens in Between by Gregory Koukl 2017 / 198 pages There are two types of apologetics books: there are the ones that tell you about defending the faith and then there are the ones that show you how to defend the faith. Greg Koukl’s new book falls into the latter category. It’s a book written with two main types of readers in mind. It’s for Christians who are struggling for answers to the big questions that come with the Christian faith. It’s also written for unbelievers who are open to considering the claims of the Christian faith. For both readers (and others), I think Koukl has something powerful to offer. The Story of Reality is a basic overview of most of the key elements of a Christian worldview. When I say it’s basic, I mean that it’s not written at a highly academic level. A high school or college student should be able to manage it. However, behind the basic level of communication, one familiar with the issues will recognize that Koukl is no slouch. The deeper stuff is in his grasp, but he has distilled it into something readily understood. A story but not fiction The concept of “worldview” is increasingly being criticized in Christian circles as something created by modern philosophy. Perhaps it’s for this reason that Koukl recasts the notion in terms of a story. In this story, there are characters and there is a plot. The main characters are God and man. The plot involves creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. But unlike other stories, the Christian story (laid out in the Bible) is objectively true — it is reality. Koukl addresses other competing “stories” such as: materialism mysticism/pantheism Islam He critiques these stories and shows how they’re inadequate for explaining the state of things as we see them. He then also provides ample argumentation to illustrate that it’s only the Christian story (or worldview) that can be true. Christianity is true because of the impossibility of the contrary. Readers familiar with Reformed presuppositional apologetics will recognize what Koukl is doing. His method is generally in that school. As I’ve noted before (in my review of his previous book Tactics), Koukl is a student of Francis Schaeffer, who in turn had been a student of Cornelius Van Til. Van Til was one of the pioneers of Reformed presuppositional apologetics. One of the key features of that school is a commitment to the place of Scripture in apologetics, not only as a foundation, but also as part of the actual method. Similarly, throughout The Story of Reality, Koukl is constantly either quoting or, more often, paraphrasing the Bible. This is highly commendable! Couple of cautions This is not to say that Koukl is always consistently in the Reformed school of apologetics. There are a couple of places where I put some question marks. In chapter 21, he discusses faith. He correctly notes that faith, in itself, does not save. Rather, faith is the instrument through which we are saved. Then he writes this: "This is why reason and evidence matter in the story. It is critical to get certain facts right. Put simply — reason assesses, faith trusts. That is the relationship of reason to faith. Reason helps us know what is actually true, leading to accurate belief. Faith is our step of trust to rely on what we have good reason to believe is so." There is some truth in this. You can say that faith needs and uses reason as a tool. However, there are also important limits to this. Above all, the unregenerate mind misuses and abuses reason because of sin. Unregenerate reasoning is not going to assess facts correctly. Deadened by sin, reason does not help you know what is actually true. Moreover, even when regeneration comes into the picture, human reason is going to run stuck with certain pieces of the Christian worldview (or story). Think of the Trinity. Reason assesses that doctrine and says, “Sorry, it doesn’t make sense.” Does faith then stop trusting? Faith has reasons for believing in the Trinity, but those reasons come down to the faithfulness and reliability of the One who revealed it to us, not the logical self-evidence of it. There were a few other questionable statements. In this blog post, I interacted with his suggestion on page 51 that the Big Bang is compatible with Genesis. In chapter 11, he opines that the Bible teaches that animals have souls. The biblical evidence offered for this is debatable. One addition would have been good I also want to draw attention to an omission. The subtitle tells us that the book will tell us “everything important that happens in between” the beginning and the end. But in Koukl’s story, an important part is missing. It’s the part where the lives of believers are transformed by the gospel. It’s the part where the Holy Spirit works to change us and make us into new people who take every thought captive for Christ in every area of life. I was hoping to read at least a paragraph, preferably a chapter, about that vital and wonderful part of the Story. It’s incomplete without it. A book worth buying for – and reading with – a friend Despite my criticisms, overall this is a well-written and well-argued book. Koukl deftly anticipates questions and objections. He uses helpful illustrations. The chapters are of such a length as not to be intimidating. If you know an unbeliever who is showing interest in the faith, I’d suggest buying two copies — one for yourself, and one for her or him. Offer to read it together and discuss it. You’d for sure find yourself enriched and, who knows, perhaps it would be God’s instrument to work faith in the heart of your friend too. For 5 great quotes from "The Story of Reality" click here. Dr. Bredenhof blogs at Creation Without Compromise and Yinkahdinay where this article first appeared. It is reprinted here with permission....

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

God and government

Biblical Principles for Today: An introduction and Resource by Cornelis Van Dam 330 pages / 2014 Any Christian who wants to be involved in politics, or any politician who wants to understand Christians who are involved in politics, needs to read this book. Dr. Van Dam explores the two great foundations of Canadian politics – Christianity and humanism – and the nature of the conflict between them. Then, after outlining the conflict, Dr. Van Dam makes clear how Christian principles can function in a world dominated by humanistic ideals. Christians and humanists have very different views of the origin and task of government, the relationship of church and state, and the concepts of human rights and toleration – but, as Van Dam shows from both Biblical and historical evidence, the Christian understandings of these concepts leads to both greater stability and freedom for society. That same general form of looking at the fruit of the two worldviews leads to enlightening discussions of the differences an approach guided by the Bible could make in areas like the abortion and euthanasia debates, the issue of capital punishment, the need for traditional marriage, the balance of productive work and necessary weekly rest, the stewardship of creation, and immigration policy. By this point in my reading, my renewed commitment to see Biblical values reaffirmed in our politics had me primed for the last section – "Working for Change" – which first describes the Biblical reasons for getting involved in the government of the country, and ends with a look at the many excellent organizations that are doing just that. The study questions and bibliography at the end make this an excellent resource for starting some political activism of your own, with both insightful Biblical application and plenty of written and online works, as well as the groups mentioned above, to help you (and me) and like-minded Christians to get going (or to keep going, only with a little better grounding in basic principles). Of course, this conflict isn’t limited to Canada – humanism and Christianity are also battling it out in the US, in Australia and most other Western nations – so this would be a great book for Reformed Christians in all those counties. To get a print copy of God and Government, Australians, Canadians, and Americans can email info@ARPACanada.ca for information – they have a suggested donation of $10. Americans also have the option of a Kindle version for just $10 at Amazon.com. This review was first published on ReallyGoodReads.com. You can read two excerpts from the book: the first is on what principled pluralism is, and the second is on the Bible and pluralism....

Book Reviews, Lists

4 great Christian novels

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

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

Sex Matters

128 pages / 2015 Today we have a guest post by Annie Kate Aarnouste on a book, "Sex Matters," that parents could find a great resource to give to their kids. ***** Sex Matters is a book intended for Christians – McKee provides answers from the Bible and explains the Bible’s message using research and real life examples. Jonathan McKee wants to make it easier for parents to talk to their kids about sex, and to that end he’s written a book for parents to give to their teens, which addresses the two common questions, “Why wait?” & “How far?” WHY WAIT? Why wait? McKee takes over 20 informative pages to explain the statement, “God has given the gift of sex to enjoy in marriage.” And in addition to making the biblical case, he shares how research shows that this command is in alignment with how human beings function. HOW FAR CAN I GO? How far can people go, and when should they stop? McKee’s answer rests on the rather obvious observation that once the process is started it is designed to be continued. That is why it is so difficult to stop, a fact that has been known for millennia. So his advice? Don’t start the process; don’t do anything you would not do in front of your grandmother. WHAT DOES FLEEING SIN LOOK LIKE? Sex outside marriage is a huge temptation, especially in our media-saturated culture, and it is the one temptation the Bible repeatedly tells us to flee. McKee explains clearly what fleeing temptation means for girls and how it is different for guys. Christians need to understand the truth, recognize natural consequences, and establish safeguards, and parents need to help their teens do these things as well as to encourage them to take responsibility themselves. McKee also covers the dangers of porn, questions about masturbation, and the effects of abuse. Over and over he turns to the gospel, reminding young people that Jesus offers a fresh start for everyone, whether you have sinned or been sinned against. He also encourages young people to remain pure by pointing out that a few years of self-discipline can be traded for a lifetime of awesome connecting without baggage after marriage. Who in their right mind would choose anything else? But the trouble is that we are sinners and that disobedience seems so attractive. Finally, McKee offers some practical suggestions: Marry earlier. Be careful what you listen to and watch, what you wear, who you are alone with, and where you go. Beware of the dangers of the Internet and install safety systems. CAUTION I will add one caution. Sex Matters is a book for teens exposed to our culture and, as such, it can be explicit. When parents wonder if the book itself could cause more problems than it solves, McKee’s response would be that our culture is explicit, and that equipping our teens requires us to be forthright. So do pre-read this before giving it to your teen to see if it meets your expectations. CONCLUSION McKee’s Sex Matters is a valuable book (especially in conjunction with More than Just the Talk, which he’s written for parents). It is unabashedly Biblical – so much so that our huge public library refused to buy it – but it deserves a place in home, church, and school libraries and would be a blessing to any community that has it in its public library. What’s more, it is short (only 122 pages), easy to read, and contains discussion questions at the end of each chapter. I highly recommend it. This is adapted from a review on Tea Time with Annie Kate and used with permission. The original can be found here....

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction, Teen fiction

Wings of Dawn

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