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Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The Phantom Tollbooth

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

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

In the Beginning: Listening to Genesis 1 and 2 

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

Apologetics 101, Book Reviews, Teen non-fiction

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

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

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The Revolt: a novel in Wycliffe's England

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

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

In the hall of the Dragon King

by Stephen Lawhead 1982 / 370 pages This is an old-fashioned fantasy tale, with a loosely Christian underpinning. Quentin is a young man who has had a quest thrust upon him. He was going to spend his life behind the walls of a temple, so this turn of events isn’t unwelcome. But he has to figure out how he can see the queen. And someone needs to rescue the king. Oh, and there’s a dark wizard that needs to be dealt with. Is this really a job for a young former priest-to-be who doesn’t know one end of a sword from the other? The young Quentin, looking for help, meets a hermit of sorts, who serves not the gods, but the one God. That’s an ongoing theme throughout, as author Stephen Lawhead is trying to point readers to the true God. Cautions However, Lawhead sometimes gets it wrong. Quentin is told that God leads by “hunches and nudges” and “very rarely by direct command.” But our God does give us clear direct commands, in His Word, though some who profess to be Christians reject His Word in favor of hunches. Also, when a soldier is dying and asks how to go to heaven, the hermit tells him to just believe, but doesn’t mention anything about repentance. Conclusion While those are notable flaws, and worth bringing up with younger readers, they amount to only a few paragraphs in a rollicking adventure. There is a true and proper villain who had delved deep into the dark arts – he's a necromancer even! – which sharpens the contrast with the hermit, who has turned away from magic to serve his Lord. One feature I really appreciated is that, while this is the first book of a trilogy, it is a full and complete story – this is not the sort of trilogy that is actually one story split over three books. But readers can look forward to Quentin's further adventures in The Warlords of Nin and The Sword and the Flame. Like any great children's book, this will be a great read for adults too – I'd recommend it for 12 and up....

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock

by Eric A. Kimmel 32 pages / 1988 Things begin with Anansi (uh·naan·see) the spider making quite the discovery: a strange moss-covered rock that somehow knocks you out if you say "Isn't this a strange moss-covered rock!" It takes Anansi a couple of goes – along with a couple of hours of unconscious time, lying on his back – to figure this out, but once he does, he knows just how he's going to use this magical rock. He starts bringing his friends to come see it, and encourages them to comment on it. Once they do, and are lying on their back taking an unintended one-hour nap, Anansi goes to their house and takes their food. He begins with Lion, then Elephant, Rhinoceros, Hippopotamus, and goes on and on.  The careful reader will notice that there is another animal watching all these goings-on. Somewhere behind the bushes, on most every page, is the little Bush Deer. He decides to make things right by pulling a trick on the trickster. When Anansi invites him to go look at the rock, Bush Deer goes but he doesn't comment on the rock. He even pretends he can't see it. In frustration, Anansi ends up spouting the troublesome phrase himself...and down he goes! That allows the Bush Deer a whole hour to clear out Anansi's house and return his ill-gotten gains Cautions There are no cautions for this book, but parents should be aware that Anansi the trickster is a folktale from Africa, who, in some versions, isn't simply a spider but is a god in the form of a spider. So the only caution would be not to presume, if you are buying another author's Anansi stories, that they will simply be morality tales with animals standing in for people, as is happening here. Conclusion This is a fun animals-as-people folktale that rewards the observant child (even the pre-reader) who spots the bush deer long before he makes his first "official" appearance. On the first go, a child might need some encouragement from mom or dad to look closely, but once they spot the deer once, they'll love finding him the next times. That's what makes this a book kids will look through repeatedly....

Articles, Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

David Wiesner: weird and wonderful

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

Adult fiction, Book Reviews

The Last Disciple

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

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews, Gender roles

Men and Women in the Church: A Short, Biblical, Practical Introduction

by Kevin DeYoung 2021 / 170 pages. Kevin DeYoung’s latest tackles an always timely topic. In the last few years, the “women in office” issue has been on the radar of various Reformed churches. This is especially owing to the fact that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated) went in that direction in 2017. But we shouldn’t think it’s only a Dutch issue. In every church I’ve served as a pastor there have been those convinced that women should serve in church leadership. The need is always there for well-written resources clearly explaining the Bible’s teaching. DeYoung, pastor of a Presbyterian church in North Carolina, wrote this book with his congregation in mind. He writes in the Introduction: “I have often wished for a book that explained the Bible’s teaching about men and women in the church in a way that the interested layperson could understand and a size that he or she could read in a few hours.” I’d say DeYoung has hit the mark. A complementarianism stand Men and Women in the Church advocates for a position known as complementarianism and against egalitarianism. Complementarians hold that men and women are essentially equal, but have been given different, complementary roles. Egalitarians hold that whatever roles men can perform, women can also perform. All of this is in the context of the church and its offices. Complementarians are against women in office and egalitarians are for. About two-thirds of the book is taken up with exposition of the most debated passages: Genesis 1-3, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 14:33-35, Ephesians 5:22-33, 1 Timothy 2:8-15, and 1 Timothy 3:1-13. The last third of the book looks at common objections made against the complementarian position (Deborah? Phoebe? Junia?), as well as explaining how the biblical teaching applies to boys and girls, men and women. The book concludes with an appendix interacting at length with John Dickson, a “broad complementarian” who nonetheless argues that women should be permitted to preach in public worship. I’ve read a number of pro-complementarian books over the years, but DeYoung stands out. He rightly argues, for instance, that this issue isn’t the proverbial molehill – the gospel is at stake. This is because of how God links male/female complementarity with the relationship between Christ and his church in Ephesians 5:32. So DeYoung writes: Ephesians 5 may be about marriage, but we can’t make any sense of the underlying logic unless we note God’s intentions in creating marriage as a gospel-shaped union between a differentiated and complementary pair. Any move to abolish all distinctions between men and women is a move (whether intentionally or not) to tear down the building blocks of redemption itself. When the issue is stated like that, its importance comes into clear view. Refuting eternal subordination Another highlight is DeYoung’s helpful correction of some complementarians who’ve argued that the husband-wife relationship is parallel to God’s headship over Christ. The Trinity thus furnishes a model for marriage, particularly the relationship between the Father and the Son. This position has come to be known as the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS). It’s based on a misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 11:3, “I want you to understand that head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” DeYoung offers a sound refutation, though the language here does get technical. Cautions There were only a couple of things I must be critical about. DeYoung argues that women should be able to “share a testimony, give an announcement, or offer a prayer” in public worship. It’s debatable whether testimonies and announcements belong in public worship. Prayer certainly does, but it is corporate prayer being led by someone. Moreover, corporate prayer in public worship has a teaching quality to it. The congregation is learning to pray by being led in prayer. DeYoung bases his argument on his observation that 1 Corinthians 11 assumes there is some place for women to be speaking in the church’s public worship. However, as my colleague Dr. Dean Anderson has pointed out, 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 is not speaking about public worship services. Another criticism, of less importance, is not about what DeYoung said, but what he left out. Near the end, he writes that “men and women should not relate to every other man or woman as husband and wife. And yet there is something about the marriage relationship that shows for everyone the sort of people men and women were made to be” (p.136). It would have been helpful to flesh that out a little more. For example, what does that mean for women in politics, business, the military, or law enforcement? I know it’s meant to be a “short” book, but couldn’t we just have had a paragraph or two? Conclusion Men and Women in the Church ought to be in church libraries and high school Bible classes. It’s also important reading for church leaders. Our church runs something called the Service and Leadership Training program. This is to prepare young men for church leadership. One of the sessions deals with the topic of women in office. Kevin DeYoung’s book will be on the recommended reading list from now on. It’s a fairly simple and biblically faithfully guide in an area where Satan is working furiously to undermine not only God’s Word in general, but also the gospel in particular. Dr. Bredenhof is the author of many books, including Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship, which is excerpted here. ...

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction, Teen fiction

The Bark of the Bog Owl

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

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews, Theology

Two on worship...and the prevention of worship wars

With the restrictions on church attendance easing, many people are saying: “Can't wait for Sunday." Did you know that there is also a book with that name by Michael Walters? The back cover has a large heading which says: "A Silver Bullet for the Worship Wars." After reading Dr. Wes Bredenhof's book on worship, Aiming to Please, I dove into this one book with its intriguing title. There is some overlap between it and Aiming to Please, in chapters on liturgy, music, and sacraments. However, there are also new topics in Walter's Can't wait for Sunday. For example, Walters comments on the acoustics of the sanctuary. While many (of our) church buildings are optimized for the speaking voice, Walters points out that the sanctuary has multiple functions, including a space for singing and music. Therefore, the room should be acoustically designed for both speaking and singing. Bredenhof and Walters both look at pulpits, which Walters sees as being replaced by a “lectern” in modern churches. He comments: "The presence of a pulpit communicates that it is the Word of God, not the communicator, that is most significant in preaching." He continues, noting that modern communicators often prefer to have no barrier between themselves and their audience. Yet, pastors would do well to let their congregations know why they use "the sacred desk." While Bredenhof comes from a singing tradition with a select number of songs that the congregation knows well, Walters comes from a different practice where the songs are in abundance. The result: "Hymn singing can be a stretch for many worshipers these days." Having many songs for the congregation to sing means there may be too many to be familiar with them. His advice is: "It is better to know ten or twelve hymns well than thirty perfunctorily.” Perhaps something to keep in mind while the Canadian Reformed churches are considering adding more songs. Worship often changes, and Worship Wars start because of a lack of knowledge and understanding. It is essential to know why we do what we do. Both of these books would be an aid to any who want to learn. Frank Ezinga blogs at FrankEzinga.com....

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

Devoured by Cannabis

Weed, liberty, and legalization by Douglas Wilson 2020 / 99 pages Why shouldn’t Christians smoke marijuana? The go-to answer to that question used to be: because it is illegal. But with its legalization in Canada and many US states, that argument is increasingly irrelevant. But are there any other reasons not to inhale? In this slim volume, Douglas Wilson says yes, arguing that it is a sin, and despite what’s happening in jurisdictions all over, it is the sort of sin that should also be a crime. Intoxication is out So why is it a sin? Wilson points to God’s prohibition against intoxication. While alcohol can also cause intoxication, he notes the Bible also spells out five legitimate uses including: sacramental medicinal aesthetic quenching thirst a celebratory, gladdening the heart, function. It is this last one that is sometimes pointed to as a legitimate usage for marijuana, but in answer to that argument, Wilson notes that God’s condemnation of drunkenness and His call for self-control puts constraints on what sort of celebrations we should have. “True celebration is discipline, accompanied by hard work, training, and fruition of joy” while the use of marijuana “is a celebratory slide downward…” His point is that alcohol goes well with a been-cooking-all-day-holiday-feast, with one wine pairing “well with the beef, and another chosen because it complements the pasta.” Meanwhile, “marijuana goes well with Oreos and mustard.” The one can be a part of a God-glorifying family gathering, the other simply a lead-in to letting loose. Thus “the only possible lawful use for marijuana is the medicinal, the use to which everyone puts marijuana is the one that is denied to alcohol,” i.e. intoxication. Should it be a crime? Wilson also makes the argument that marijuana usage is not simply a sin, but a crime, and notes that's a departure from the more hands-off stance he once leaned toward. Why the change? While acknowledging not all sins should be crimes – we wouldn’t want the government trying to police the 10th commandment – Wilson notes that in a finger-in-every-pot State such that we have, whatever isn’t criminalized is all too often then encouraged and tax-subsidized. And it isn’t hard to see how that would happen with marijuana usage. Our welfare state will have the government picking up the pieces, doling out tax dollars. That might be money for medical treatments dealing with increased cases of psychosis. Or it might be increased unemployment and welfare payouts that will be needed for the addicted. Another cost will come to employers. The way legalization has proceeded, it is as if it's been some sort of neutral act, granting the pot-user a freedom at no cost to anyone else. If that were so, Wilson notes, then: “…the liberty to smoke pot and the liberty to fire a pothead should be the same liberty. Otherwise, we are granting liberty to the privilege and no liberty at all to the responsibility.… the way the push for legal pot is happening now, the pressure is on us to increase the liberty of the irresponsible while simultaneously decreasing the liberty of the responsible ones.” Government will be stuck with the cost, as will employers, who will not be allowed to fire someone for using what will now be a perfectly legal substance. Wilson is not arguing so much that marijuana must always and in all circumstances be criminalized, but more that if presented with a choice of the State either criminalizing usage or encouraging it, then we should choose the former. But are those really the only realistic options? Can't the State take a neutral stance, neither against, but also not for? Well, the latest bit of evidence on that front is Washington State's "Joint for Jabs” where the government is using the promise of a free joint to promote Covid vaccination. And California has announced a $100 million bailout for their struggling marijuana shops. It really does seem that if they aren't against it, then they will be pushing it. So what then is to be done? Wilson is writing for the US, where some states have legalized it and others have not, and there he's hoping it might still be possible, if not to maintain an outright “red,” to at least run with a “yellow” rather than a “green.” Where it is completely legal, like Canada, the hope would be that at least the Church can recognize what should be – that it is a sin, even if it isn’t a crime. Unconfused on that point, God’s people can minimize our own addictions. And to help others, we can make a push for restrictions, particularly for teenage and young adult usage. Sinners need their Savior The book concludes with a Gospel appeal, in which Wilson reminds us that it is only when our country turns back to God that we will be able to turn away from such addictions. But he is quick to point out that while our addictions should have our country desperate for God, we don’t turn to Christ simply to right ourselves or our country. “If we treat Christ as the means to an end (freedom from drugs, say), then we are not coming to Him as Christ. He is a Savior, not a self-help specialist. We come to the Giver for who He is and not for the gifts that He might give. At the same time, He is the Giver of gifts (Eph. 4:8).” Our culture doesn’t just need to be freed from addiction – a sober pagan is still going to hell. What the Church can direct people to is not simply freedom from drugs, but freedom in Christ. In Him, we are free to enjoy our God and Maker, and we are free to live to His glory. That will also be a freedom from addiction, but that is the fruit that comes from turning to God. What Wilson is reminding us of here is the need to point others to the Tree of Life, and not simply its fruit. Conclusion The value of Wilson's book is, first and foremost, the section on whether marijuana usage should be a sin. The clarity on offer here could be a great help for our teens and young adults when (not if) they are pressured into trying it. For parents who think that won't happen, just remember back to the parties you either attended or heard about where all the attendees were church-goers, but where underage drinking was prevalent nonetheless. So let's not be naive about whether our children are going to be offered marijuana at their own parties today. Dad, mom, Wilson's book is a quick, insightful discussion that would make for a great read for you to tackle along with your teen – it's a tool here for you to use....

Adult biographies, Book Reviews

John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock

by Iain H. Murray 240 pages / 2011 Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001 John MacArthur has been a help and a hero to me. The help has come from his insights on important issues like creation and evolution, psychology, Pentecostalism, gender roles, and the need for fruit in a Christian’s life. I really appreciated books like Charismatic Chaos (on Charismatics) and The Battle for the Beginning (on Creation vs. Evolution) which were educational and accessible. But the biggest reason I became a MacArthur fan was due to his regular appearances on the Larry King Live show. This was an interview show on CNN and when the host wanted to talk about religious issues there would be MacArthur, alongside of Deepak Chopra, a full-on new age guru, and some forgettable weak-kneed Roman Catholic priest. The setting wasn’t exactly hostile – while Larry King is agnostic, he’s quite polite – but sitting there, in the midst of three fellows who not only had no idea what the truth was, but at points even denied there was a truth to be found, it was certainly a challenging position. MacArthur, as the sole voice for God’s Truth, had to not only present that truth, but in a winsome way that would give God his due. And he nailed it! It was just so encouraging to see him clean up, coming off as the only sane one on the panel. I think he even got me clapping, after a particularly good answer. So, a help and a hero. And to top it off he’s Reformed. But he’s also Baptist and a Dispensationalist. He's wrong about these major matters. That’s why, when I found out Iain Murray had written a biography on him, I knew I’d have to check it out. On the matters where we differ with MacArthur, Murray does too, so his biography highlights the great good God is doing through this man, and takes gentle note of areas where both Murray and we too would differ. Topics covered What Murray offers us here is a more topical than chronological look (though it is that too) at MacArthur’s life. So, for example, a chapter is spent on his wife, both on her influence, and a major car accident that nearly killed her. Another chapter is spent on the spiritual state of Russians after the Berlin Wall fell when MacArthur was invited to preach and teach there. We also learn about the role MacArthur had in fighting the “easy-believism” that was found in many evangelical churches. Pastors were teaching that not only is salvation not due to our works, after we are saved we still don’t have to do good works! MacArthur’s book The Gospel according to Jesus was a response to this error. Of course, Murray does also give un a look at the man himself. One little factoid that I found of interest was that one condition he set on accepting the call to Grace Community Church, the church he has served these last 40+ years, is that they allow him 30 hours a week for Bible study. He said that if he was going to teach the Word he needed time to be in the Word. I’m sure he works more than 30 hours a week, but even if he was at his task 10 hours a day six days a week, this still amounts to half of all his time. How much time, I wonder, do we give our ministers to simply study God’s Word? Murray clearly admires his subject, but that doesn’t stop him from, when needed, rebutting him. For example, Murray takes up the issue of Dispensationalism in a chapter titled “Objections and Corrections.” There is no better example of loving criticism to be found than in this chapter in how Murray corrects MacArthur! Conclusion While I loved this book – I liked it so much I took the luxury of reading through it slowly – it is not the sort of biography that everyone will enjoy. The battles MacArthur has fought have been of a spiritual nature, which doesn’t make for quite the same gripping nature as, say, a biography about a shot-down World War II pilot who had to contend with actual bullets and bombs. But spiritual battles should be of interest too – after all, we’re all in one. And for anyone who has read or heard MacArthur and wanted to know more about the man this will be a wonderful treat. Here is a man who sought the Lord first and foremost. A version of this review first appeared in the June 2015 issue. ...

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

Broken Beauty – Reflections of a Soul Refined by Cancer

by Helena Bolhuis 252 pages / 2020 It’s kind of exciting when someone you are personally acquainted with publishes a book. It’s a bit of a thrill to hold the book in your hands, read their name on the cover, breathe in the new book smell, and anticipate sitting down with a cup of tea to crack it open and begin to read. I certainly felt this way when I purchased Broken Beauty – Reflections of a Soul Refined by Cancer, written by Helena Bolhuis. I don’t know Helena well, but having sat under her teaching on a couple of occasions – there experiencing her warmth, wisdom, and openness and seeing in her a sincere love for the Lord – I was definitely looking forward to reading her book. Attending her book launch at the local Free Reformed bookstore only heightened my eagerness, for that morning we got a glimpse into the beautiful and emotional journey this book would take us on. Yet – dare I admit this? – I also felt a little bit of wariness, maybe even skepticism about the book, and at first I could not put my finger on why I felt this way. But on reflection, I realized what was making me uneasy: how could a book detailing someone’s personal experience not be a bit self-glorifying? How could the author, in human weakness, write about themselves without it being… all about them? Would God be given His proper place in this story? And now, having read the book, I can answer that last question with a resounding “Yes!” Broken Beauty is, indeed, not a book about the author, but about the faithful God and loving Father who carried and led her through her cancer journey. From the dedication on the very first page – “for You, Father, for Your glory” – to the thanks at the end of the book, and everywhere in between, God is given the glory. Again and again, Helena points us to the Lord who supplied her every need in a time of sickness. The reader is left with a renewed sense of awe for the Great Physician, the God who refines us and draws us to himself through times of trial and weakness. The Father who carries us on eagle’s wings is the loving Author of this author’s story. The book is organized in three main sections: the journey the provisions and the destination “The Journey” tells Helena’s cancer story as it unfolded in her life, describing doctor’s visits, waiting for and receiving test results, and the various treatments she had to undergo. And throughout this section of facts and details, Helena weaves the story of her inner struggle – emotional and spiritual – as she faced the very real possibility of her own death. In the second section, “The Provisions,” Helena speaks about how God provided for her in so many ways along her cancer journey, and she draws a parallel here to how God provided for the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness. He provided for her relationally through the people in her life, and mentally through prayer, meditation, music, and books. God also supplied what she needed emotionally, physically, and spiritually in tangible ways. It was beautiful to read how every need was met by the loving hand of our Father. “The Destination” describes the emotional and spiritual process of adjusting to life post-cancer, navigating life outside the close “cocoon” of God’s shelter and love that Helena experienced during her illness and recovery, and then having to move forward. The cancer journey was at an end, but regular daily life continues on towards the final destination – eternal glory! Written with warmth, raw honesty, and so much hope, Broken Beauty gives the reader a close glimpse into a heart-rending yet beautiful time of suffering and sickness. Saturated with references to God’s Word and the comfort that Helena received from it, this book will be a real encouragement to anyone going through a period of trial or illness. It would also be useful to read when walking alongside a friend or relative experiencing a tough time, for throughout the book there is helpful advice and practical wisdom on how to be there for someone who is suffering. In this world broken by sin, we will all encounter suffering during our lives, whether our own or that of someone we love, and Helena’s book shines a bright light on how God turns our suffering into something beautiful, to His glory. I highly recommend it! “Now I understood that life is all about God’s glory in my story and my delight in Him through that story. Now I understood that through His glory, my joy is made complete.” (p.239) Broken Beauty is available at Amazon, including as an audiobook read by the author. A version of this review will also appear in Una Sancta....

Adult biographies, Book Reviews

R.C. Sproul: A Life

by Stephen J. Nichols 2021 / 400 pages Stephen J. Nichols has produced the first biography of Sproul since his death in December of 2017. The author, teacher, and pastor truly appears here as a man after God’s own heart: a man in pursuit of his Maker’s holiness – eager to understand it, to mirror and communicate it as faithfully as he might. Following his conversion very early in his college years, Sproul’s zeal drive him and his wife, Vesta, to hunt after vital educational and ministry opportunities, both formal and informal. As a result, they relocated almost annually during the first decade of marriage. Very soon Sproul’s winning personality, warmth, seriousness, and authenticity as a “battlefield theologian” make him a magnet for those determined to grow in – and publicly defend – the faith. We see the launching of the Ligonier Study Center in 1971 in rural Western Pennsylvania, the writing of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and Sproul’s costly stand against reductive ecumenicism. Nichols gives ample space, as well, to the substance and impact of Sproul’s many books and the Renewing Your Mind radio program. Finally come the stories of his Florida pastorate, the building of Saint Andrew’s Chapel, and the founding of Reformation Bible College (RBC). Nichols succeeded Sproul as president of RBC in 2014, and his writing is aided by close acquaintance with Sproul and his family, colleagues, and friends. One can hardly imagine major detractions to Sproul's legacy and certainly will find no ammunition for that here – though glancing notice is made to R.C. Junior's sudden resignation from the board of Ligonier and RBC in 2016. The Sproul we meet in these pages is the gentle lion so many of us felt we knew, at least distantly and casually, through the books and radio program. Nichols has chosen to write an everyman biography, an accessible book with a tone popular rather than scholarly. And here we rediscover several Sproul family anecdotes which many have encountered previously in his teaching. Sometimes the stories are expanded, sometimes the reader can anticipate and supply added detail. Yes, we meet again an old friend, and a true one. Without a doubt, Sproul loved the church, and he immersed himself in the vocation of shepherd. Nichols's book is both deeply encouraging and even convicting as we view the whole-life portrait of this dedicated, faithful teacher unfolded before us. The church in the 21st century, as much as any time before, greatly needs the stories of such brothers and fellow saints....

Book Reviews, Children’s non-fiction

God’s Big Book of Animals

Edited by Shirley Rash 248 pages / 2019 Did you know that baby elephants drink three gallons of milk each day? Or that “woodcock” means “roosters of the forest” And did you know female great white sharks are actually larger than the males? God's Big Book of Animals is GIGANTIC - it's bigger than any other book I've read. It is filled with amazing information about intricate animals – like the great white shark! – all created by God. Each of the 60 animals are given 4, bright, beautiful pages full of descriptions, fun facts and pictures. Plus each animal has their own 14 x 10 inch full-page photo. More examples: “Turtles do not have teeth. They have strong, jagged jaws that help them take bites.” “Komodo dragons are also called monitor lizards.” “Elephants have long trunks, longer then any living animal. Their trunks are heavy, and can weigh over 300 pounds! They move their trunks from side to side, and when they want to rest, they lay it on their tusks. God gave elephants the ability to lift pieces of straw and push heavy pieces of wood.” “A group of butterflies is called a kaleidoscope of butterflies, a swarm of butterflies, or a rabble of butterflies.” “Baby octopuses can hatch in different colors. They can be orange, red, yellow, or different shades of blue.” I think kids 7 and up would love this! But even kids younger would like the many pictures inside....

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

Foresight: How the chemistry of life reveals planning and purpose

by Marcos Eberlin 2019 / 147 pages Back in 1996 "Irreducible complexity" was Michael Behe's contribution to the origins debate: he argued that some biological structures couldn't possibly have evolved because there is no way they could have come about by evolution's stepwise-process – the complexity of micro-machines like a bacteria's flagellum motor was irreducible. Now Marcos Eberlin is making a similar point, but bringing a new piece of rhetorical ammunition to the fight with Foresight in which he argues the deeper we delve into the biological world the more we discover "artful solutions to major engineering challenges." These solutions, he explains, look to "require something that matter alone lacks.... – foresight." With this term "foresight," Eberlin is arguing some biological abilities couldn't have come about as a response, but had to be the result of anticipation. So, for example, cells, right from the beginning, had to anticipate the problems that would come with using oxygen: The oxygen (O2) molecule is essential to life, but only a life form that can efficiently wrap and transport the devil O2 exactly to a place where it can be used as an energy source would benefit from its angel side. Otherwise, O2 becomes life’s greatest enemy. Rupture the membrane of a living cell, exposing it to the air, and you will see the great damage O2 and a myriad of other chemical invaders can do to a perforated cell. Death would be swift and sure. From an engineering standpoint, then, it was essential that a way is found to protect the cell, life’s most basic unit. The solution was clever: The cell was surrounded by a strong chemical shield, from the very beginning. It is often said that a solution always brings with it two additional problems, and a cellular membrane shield is no exception. A simple shield could indeed protect the cell interior from deadly invaders, but such a barrier would also prevent cell nutrients from reaching the inside of the cell, and it would trap cellular waste within. Small neutral molecules could pass through the membrane, but not larger and normally electrically charged biomolecules. A simple shield would be a recipe for swift, sure death. For early cells to survive and reproduce, something more sophisticated was needed. Selective channels through these early cell membranes had to be in place right from the start. Cells today come with just such doorways... .....a gradual step-by-step evolutionary process over many generations seems to have no chance of building such wonders since there apparently can’t be many generations of a cell, or even one generation until these channels are up and running. No channels, no cellular life. So then, the key question is: How could the first cells acquire proper membranes and co-evolve the protein channels needed to overcome the permeability problem? Even some committed evolutionists have confessed the great difficulty here. As Sheref Mansy and his colleagues put it in the journal Nature, “The strong barrier function of membranes has made it difficult to understand the origin of cellular life.” So Eberlin concludes: "There would be no hope for a cell to become viable if it had to tinker around with mutations over thousands of generations in search of a functional membrane. It's anticipate or die." This is but his first example – Eberlin is arguing that wherever we look at life, "the evidence of foresight is abundant." That's true in the fine-tuning of the universe, where gravity had to be just so, Earth had to be just the right distance from the Sun, and had to have enough water, and water needed to have certain specific properties. Oh, and the planet needed to have just the right amount of lightning too. That foresight is also evident in the structure of our DNA - which has to be stable – and RNA - which has to be malleable. He goes on and on, diving into these examples, and showing how brilliantly problems have been anticipated and solved. But by who? Well, Eberlin doesn't really get into that until the final chapter, and it is in the book's very last line that he gives credit where it is due: "Great are the works of the Lord." I loved this whole book, but will confess to only understanding about two-thirds of it clearly. But even when it got more technical, the gist I did catch was still utterly fascinating. I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest and at least some high school science....

Articles, Book Reviews

A better brand of Christian historical fiction

As a history buff, historical fiction has long been one of my favorite genres. Unfortunately, I rarely read fiction anymore, as much of modern historical fiction is so rife with sexually explicit scenes and blasphemous language that it should be avoided by the discerning reader. I’ve tossed several in the garbage over the past few years despite incredible writing and riveting plotlines for these very reasons. Another key issue with much historical fiction is the inability of modern authors to actually infiltrate the mindset of those they are attempting to bring to life. Too often, the sentiments of historical characters end up resembling those of the late 20th century or the 21st. Especially when it comes to the treatment of religious belief, authors frequently prefer to portray faith as feigned and religious practice as cynical. One of the best authors of historical fiction writing today, Conn Iggulden, fell into this trap in Dunstan: One Man. Seven Kings. England’s Bloody Throne, a fictional rendering of the great Archbishop of Canterbury. While Iggulden’s Wars of Roses series is excellent, he portrays Dunstan as a Machiavellian figure, taking pains to explain away anything spiritual or miraculous. The result is deeply unsatisfying. The Christian fiction industry, however, is plagued by its own problems. Many authors appear to have a single good idea, write one or two good books, and then settle down to replicate variations of the same story over and over again. The cottage industry of Amish romance is a good example; Christian romance, in general, is a tired genre in which the reader faithfully plods the worn and weary path to the inevitable conclusion (often some variation of: non-Christian falls in love with Christian; they agonize over this and part ways; the miracle occurs and they live happily ever after.) You get what you pay for, and it isn’t literature. This also applies to the hundreds of cookie-cutter historical novels that are often laughably short on research and simply place the same plot in a different time period. In short: Just because it’s “Christian” doesn’t mean it’s any good. Badly-researched historical novels are painful pablum and generally, in my view, a waste of time. But there are some magnificent examples of historical fiction by Christian authors that easily rival some of the best works by non-Christian writers. This list could be much longer, but I’ll highlight just a few. Paul Maier Paul Maier is a historian and writer born in 1930, and formerly served as the Russell H. Seibert Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University, where he still retains the title of professor emeritus in the Department of History. He’s written many books, but his two “historical documentary” novels, Pontius Pilate (1968) and The Flames of Rome (1981) are outstanding. Drawing from all available historical sources, Maier renders the ancient world in vivid color. Pontius Pilate follows the career of the Roman Empire’s most famous provincial official while detailing the politics in painstaking detail. The Flames of Rome follows the family of Flavius Sabinus, the mayor of Rome under Nero, covering the Great Fire of Rome and the religious clashes that defined Christianity’s early beginnings. I’ve read both several times and learned more with each reading. Francine Rivers’ The Mark of the Lion Trilogy Also set in the first century is the Francine Rivers’ magnificent Mark of the Lion series, which begins with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD and follows the life of a Jewish slave girl, a young Roman aristocrat, and a Germanic barbarian captured in battle and trained as a gladiator. The decadence of Rome is detailed with both bluntness and prudence: promiscuity, abortion, materialism, and the ugly spectacles of public blood sports are all present, and the world Rivers’ renders bears eerie similarities to our own. I should note here that the distinctly evangelical Arminianism throughout the series is unfortunate, but the trilogy is still a brilliant achievement. Brock and Bodie Thoene’s historical fiction The Thoenes are a ferociously productive writing team (more than 65 books), and not everything they’ve produced is of the same quality. But the five-book series The Zion Chronicles, detailing the lead up to the State of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, is one of the best historical works on this period ever written (easily matching Leon Uris’s Exodus but without the objectionable material). Their prelude series, The Zion Covenant, which covers the run-up to the Second World War up to the Blitz, is also rich with historical detail, well-rounded characters, and riveting plotlines. Along with the Shiloh Legacy series, which covers some of the same characters during the Great Depression, these books alone place the Thoenes in the top tier of historical fiction writers. Bodie was a journalist before she was an author, and it shows. Some of their other works – the AD Chronicles, for example – do not possess the same level of detail, historical research, or character development. To be honest, the shift in quality from the Zion and Shiloh books to some of the others (including the short-lived and apparently discontinued series the Zion Diaries) is somewhat jarring. These books are still quite good – I’ve read them all – but I’ll admit I was somewhat disappointed after having the standard set so high by their first historical works, which I’ve re-read multiple times. (As a side note, some readers may be interested in an interview I did some years ago with Brock Thoene, a historian, on how legal abortion paved the way to eugenics in Hitler’s Germany.) Davis Bunn’s Priceless Collection Davis Bunn’s Priceless trilogy follows a young American business executive who leaves the rat race to join an antique shop in London. Mentored by an older relative, Jeffery Sinclair pursues exquisite treasures behind the Iron Curtain during the lead up to the collapse of Communism, and the totalitarianism and suffering he witnesses are derived from scores of interviews the author conducted with eyewitnesses. Bunn only wrote three books in this series – Florian’s Gate, The Amber Room, and The Winter Palace – and I wish he’d written more. He captures life in the Warsaw Pact; the antique trade; and the suffocating soullessness of both Western materialism and Communism in a fashion reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn’s Warning to the West. The detail, however, doesn’t suffocate his characters, and even the somewhat stereotypical romantic subplot flows seamlessly. Michael Phillips’ Secret of the Rose Trilogy In this masterful set, Michael Phillips traces a family through wartime Nazi Germany into East Germany under Communism. They’re thick novels – Phillips is a fan of the historical fiction master James Michener – but riveting nonetheless. Many novels set during this period use historical events as mere backdrop (generally for romance), but Phillips takes his time setting the scene and the result is well worth your time. Jonathon Van Maren blogs on life and cultural issues at TheBridgehead.ca where this first appeared. It is reprinted with permission....

Articles, Book Reviews, Parenting

Why you should keep reading to your kids

Parents read to their pre-school kids on a pretty regular basis – it’s a great way to snuggle up for some one-on-one time with mom or dad. But once school starts, and especially after Grade One, those times reading together begin to peter out. It might be because your little one isn’t asking you as often, or maybe it’s because you’ve stopped suggesting it. After all, why would you keep on reading together when Junior is ready and rarin’ to read on his own? Well, before you close the book on that part of your life, here are a few reasons why you’ll want to keep on reading with your kids for as long as you can. 1. It’ll keep them interested in reading A First Grader is going to be excited to read about how “Ike and Mike both got a bike.” But it won’t be long before they start noticing there’s something missing here. Ike and Mike are fine fellows, but there’s no real tension, no suspense, no conflict to overcome in their story. So if all your child gets to hear are Cat in the Hat and books like that – only the stories that he’s able to read on his own – it’ll be no wonder if he gets bored with books. There’s no payoff: the reading takes lots of effort, and the reward is a downright boring story. But if mom is still snuggling up with them on the couch to tackle In Grandma’s Attic, or dad is sharing his favorite Piet Prins book at night, then your young reader can still grow in his love for great stories, even as he might be a few years from tackling these bigger books on his own. We parents can whet their appetite for the future, by feeding our kids great books now. One reason to keep reading to your children even after Grade One is to show them what there is to look forward to. 2. It’s a way to shape their tastes Just as many kids prefer candy to vegetables, their literary tastes would gravitate to empty calories like Captain Underpants and Magic Kittens if it were only up to them. You can impact what they read by going on library runs with (or without) them, or by developing a decent home library. But even when you’re picking out the selections, you’re likely to find them heading straight to whichever of those books are the most candy-like. So another way you can help them develop a taste for more substantial, meatier fare is by reading it to them yourself. We’ve been doing a bedtime story for almost ten years now, and while we’ve read lots of their requests – I don’t know how many times I’ve tackled Elephant & Piggy, Fancy Nancy, and the Little Critter series – we’ve also fed them the Chronicles of Narnia, Winnie the Pooh, and The Big Goose and the Little White Duck, none of which they would have picked up on their own. I’ve done most of the bedtime reading, but my wife will read when I have meetings, or have to catch up on some work in the evenings. That has allowed both of us to share our own favorites. So my wife likes Little House on the Prairie and I like great Christian fantasy like Jonathan Rogers’ The Wilderking Trilogy, and between the two of us, we now have girls who like both. 3. It’s a time to connect Reading together is about more than just words on paper; it’s a time to connect, maybe cuddle side by side on the couch, and just spend time together. That’s one reason why many a kid will keep asking, “Can you read this mom?” even after they can tackle a book on their own. I sometimes find life is just too busy, with many evenings filled with work. But because we’ve made a commitment to always end our day with story time, that means that, at the very least, I have this time to talk with my girls. We end the days with prayers, and then a story. With the story comes questions (not too many, but there’s always time for a good one), and that’s when I get the best measure of how my girls are doing. My wife is with them more than I am, so she can get the measure of things other ways too. But for me, this nightly ritual is a time for me to not only read, but hear, and help. 4. It’s a way to learn from other’s lives Our kids can learn from us, and whereas we’d like them to learn from our example, we can also pass along the hard-won lessons we’ve learned from our own mistakes. But their lessons don’t need to stop with just us – they can learn from fictional lives too. They will need some parental guidance to get the benefit, otherwise our elementary-age kids could miss the point of a story entirely, or even learn the wrong lesson. That’s because some of them are reading too fast to really chew on anything, but when dad is reading and they are forced to slow down to his speed, they really start hearing the story. Other kids might miss the lesson because they didn’t understand parts. It’s only when mom is reading, and they have her there to ask their questions, that they can figure out what’s going on. We can also help them understand by asking our own questions. Something as simple as The Three Little Pigs can be fodder for a great discussion if parents ask their kids to pause and consider: “What do you think this story is trying to tell us?” We can even “riff” off of what’s on the page, asking questions that might not even have clear answers in the story like: “Do you think it was just luck that Pig 3 got the strongest building material? Or was he looking for something like that?” When parents read, that makes it possible to go beyond picture books and on to bigger books and their deeper lessons. One example is Sigmund Brouwer’s Innocent Heroes, about the many animals that helped the Allied soldiers in World War I. Each chapter “stars” a different animal, but the deeper story is about the Canadian soldiers that cared for them. When the group's one native soldier returns home to his reserve we learn that Canadian natives at this time weren’t allowed to leave the reserve without getting approval from the local Indian agent. So my girls were angry that this returning soldier was getting treated as a second-class citizen, even after fighting for his country. That was a great opportunity for me to talk not simply about racism, but also about governmental paternalism, and ways to (and ways not to) stick up for your friends. I don’t know when I would have discussed these topics with my girls if not for us all reading this rich book together. Of course, not every book has to lead to a long discussion (especially if you’re reading to them for bedtime and actually need them to go to sleep). Kids will benefit from and be inspired by the determination and Christian faith of a Robinson Crusoe. In Grandma’s Attic offers all sorts of lessons, but the biggest is simply that some older people, like grandmas, are wise, so it’s smart to listen to them. The lessons learned don’t have to be complicated to be good. Sometimes I vary how deep we’re going to go by how tuckered I might be feeling. If I were reading Anne DeVries’ fantastic Journey Through the Night series about the Dutch Resistance in World War II, I might limit my commentary to highlighting that this was ordinary people doing these extraordinary things. I’d want my girls to understand that their courageous example is the type of courage God calls all his people to, in the face of evil. But on another night, maybe when I’m sufficiently caffeinated and if one of my girls wants to know, I might talk about how the Dutch Resistance is an example of what godly civil disobedience looks like. It doesn’t matter whether any particular discussions are big or long or on important topics; if you keep reading to your kids, then over the years you’ll have lots of these discussions and with that volume will come opportunities to address the important topics you might not get to any other way. 5. It’s a way to foster discernment There’s a moral to every story, and a lot of the time what’s being pitched at our kids is something we wouldn’t want them to swallow whole. So another reason to keep reading with your kids is to help them learn to discern what messages and morals they are encountering. Sometimes the moral is simply silly: I was reading an abridged version of King Arthur to my girls and after the teenage Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone, the chapter concludes that, just like Arthur, if we want something strongly enough, then we’ll be able to get what we want. This is the moral of our age: that believing makes it so. But in addition to being nonsense, this moral also ran in direct opposition to the events of the chapter, in which dozens of dukes, earls, and other nobles had tugged at the sword with all of their might – they had all strongly wanted to be king. Yet despite their passion and desire none of them had been able to pull it loose. The girls didn’t spot the contradiction at first, but they sure appreciated the irony afterward: believing does not make it so. Other times even the tamest, most G-rated of stories can still teach a moral that runs right up against what parents are trying to teach. A couple of weeks ago my wife was reading a book about talking kittens – kittens! – with our youngest, and one of the cats asked the little girl in the story to promise to keep a secret from her mom. That was quite the request, but the kitten had a very good reason: if anyone found out that she was a talking kitten she would be in danger! So, on the one hand, our daughters have all been told that if anyone ever wants them to keep a secret from their parents then they should go straight to us and tell us the secret, since only bad guys would make such a request. But on the other hand, this kitten was clearly not a bad guy. So our soft-hearted little girl decided that in this case it would be good to keep the secret from the mother. That was not what we were hoping she would say. But because my wife was reading along, this became an opportunity to reiterate what we’d want her to do, and explain it more clearly. What would have been the wrong lesson learned if our daughter had been reading this alone, turned into another teaching opportunity because mother and daughter were reading it together. I’m currently reading a series with my oldest daughter that is also as G-rated as you could ever expect a secular series to be: the tiniest bit of flirtation, and minimal violence. But to deal with guilt, the creatures in this story would methodically suppress and deny it, lest it drive them crazy. This is a book for teens, and my oldest isn’t yet, so I wasn’t surprised that she didn’t spot that this response to guilt was problematic. And because I was reading right along with her, it just became another opportunity for a good discussion. It’ll be when she can spot these elements herself and bring them to my attention that I’ll know I can start backing off and not being so protective. But until then, it's just more fodder for a good discussion. To spur on some of those discussions the most common question I ask is, “Who or what is the ‘god’ in this story?” What is the story presenting as the ultimate good, or the ideal we should pursue? It’s quite the question for kids to answer, and it’s very interesting to see how perceptive they can sometimes be. 6. It’s fun for the whole family Reading together is just fun. Whether it’s at bedtime, or on a road trip, the family that reads together ends up having great books as a common experience, and a shared vocabulary. Now, I’ll admit that on nights when I’m just barely chugging along, the idea of reading a bedtime story doesn’t always excite me. But even that can have its amusements: I’ve discovered that I can actually read out loud, in my sleep (is that my superpower?). My daughters say that sometimes I’m barely understandable, but I do keep reading. The unfortunate thing is, when I resume the next day, I’m a chapter behind everyone else. When I’m awake, it’s something I absolutely love. Your kids, especially if you start reading to them early, are going to be a very good audience. They’ll be up for your bad pirate accent, and your even worse grandmotherly voice. And you can try it all with them, even if you’d never do so in public. Reading together is also fun because a good book, read with the whole family, is a shared experience and it becomes part of a shared vocabulary. So if we’d recently been reading Winnie the Pooh, and a child is down but not sick, we might talk about how they are feeling like “Eeyore” right now. Or if we’d recently read Pollyanna we might try to apply her “glad game” (finding the silver lining to every ill). The logistics That’s the why for reading to your kids as long as you can, but what about the logistics? What’s the best way to actually do it? It’s all about finding good books, and finding a good time. In our family, bedtime is best, but I know some people use that time to read the Bible with their children (in our house we read the Bible at mealtimes). Other families will create a regular time, maybe every day, or once a week, with everyone sitting around the living room, and parents and children taking turns doing the reading. Another opportunity is any time your family is out driving. Whether you’re heading out on a 20-minute drive to Costco or a 16-hour trip to grandma and grandpa's, those are perfect times to read or listen to an audiobook. One family takes the time after Sunday services to read through some wonderful classics with their grown kids. Regularity is more important than the specific time. For us, reading at bedtime is a bit of a motivator: the sooner to bed, the sooner the story starts. One problem with bedtime stories is that it isn’t the best time to read anything remotely scary. One option is to save those bits for the trip to Costco. Another workaround is to either read the scary bit in as unexciting a voice as you can, or for you to quickly read ahead and then give an abbreviated summary of that section before continuing on to the next chapter. Logistics can be even more challenging if you’re reading to more than one child. All three of my girls are in the same room, so that makes it simple. But bigger groups can still get it done. One father, whose girls are in one room and boys in another, alternates the room he’s going to read in. When he reads in the girls’ room, the boys bring their pillows and a blanket to curl up and listen on the floor. And vice versa when he reads in the boys’ room. However you work out the logistics, it’ll be worth the juggling. The final ingredient is good books. You can find all sorts of recommendations online, and our family’s favorites can be found here. I’ll wrap up here with Albert Mohler, from the March 4 edition of The Briefing: We need to read to our children…. There is something that is expressed in tangible love when parents read to their children. Choose well, read well, read carefully to your children, but yes, read to your children. You're shaping hearts and minds, and furthermore, expressing love to your children in a way you might not think of as a hug. And one of the axioms of our time that wouldn't make sense to most previous generations, but certainly makes sense with urgency now: put down the smartphone, turn off the television, get disconnected from anything that requires a power cord, other than a reading light. Put a child in your lap and read that child a good book....

Adult biographies, Book Reviews

The hardest peace

Expecting grace in the midst of life's hard by Kara Tippetts 2014 / 189 pages In this part biography, part devotional Kara wants us to understand it was not in spite of her long battle with cancer, but because of it and through it, that God showed his goodness to her. She writes of how her life hasn’t always been pretty – full of surgeries, and chemo, and hair loss, and scars, and medical tests, and radiation – but God has ensured it was beautiful. This is a must-read for everyone – I'd recommend it to young and old, married or not, men and women. Whether you are near death or far from it, there is but one end for us all – death is the final enemy, but before it comes there is the loss of strength and loss of ability, loss of friends, and loss of family. It is easy to trust God when the going is good, but what of when we have to ask, "Who is our only comfort in death?" At one point Kara shares how, as one of her daughters was being tucked into bed, the girl asked her father, "Is Mama going to die of cancer or old age?" Kara's husband couldn't find the strength to say the words and asked Kara for help. So Kara padded down the hall and slipped under the covers with her daughter. She wasn't asking for false hope; she wanted me to love her with honesty. I told her I had heard her question, and I asked her my own question in response. I asked her if she believed God would meet her in both of those places. I looked at her face and wondered at her love, her beauty, her tenderness and I asked her a question many grown people cannot answer or embrace. In the most painful fear and hurts of our lives, will God be good? Not just the simple: God is good, indeed always good. Not the rote, recited, memorized answers we have been trained to give in the edges of life. But the asking: Is Jesus really good in the awful of cancer, fire, heartbreak, and devastation? In the face of all that is broken, is God good? We all know the answer, but it is one thing to know the answer and another to believe it when the going is not good. This is why I loved this book: Kara praises God for his goodness, and all that He provided her, and she also acknowledges her own weakness and doubt. She asks, How do you speak to your young child of grace you struggle to have the imagination to behold? You just do. It’s the raw places of faith without sight. It’s the painful moments of preaching a sermon to yourself you know you struggle to believe. It’s the quiet prayer from Mark: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). That is what we are all struggling with: we trust God in the good times; help us trust You in the bad! Kara is wonderfully encouraging in showing how she came to understand that God is faithful, even in the bad, and even in her doubts. He is good, and He can be trusted. Several months after finishing the book, on March 22, 2015, Kara Tippetts died and went to be with the Lord. If you loved the book, you'll also want to see the documentary, The Long Goodbye: The Kara Tippetts Story which we review here....

Adult biographies, Book Reviews

Saving my assassin

by Virginia Prodan 2016 pages / 336 pages How would you respond if you were staring down the barrel of a gun held by someone the government had paid to kill you? That’s how Virginia Prodan found herself. A citizen of communist Romania, her memoir begins when she was a young girl, in trouble already for her family’s attendance at the Catholic Church. Then, as a recently converted lawyer, she defends fellow Christians from the government’s persecution, and eventually she is exiled to the United States. It is an intense story, full both of bravery on Virginia's part, and reliance on God to make that bravery possible. It is also an important window into the persecution that many of our brothers and sisters face all over the world. Finally, it wraps up with some information on the assassin mentioned on the title, showing the ways God’s grace goes much further than was ever expected. Cautions There are elements of daily life in Romania, especially prior to Virginia’s conversion, that fall outside of how Christians ought to live. There is also a brief mention of the ending of a marriage that feels strangely cavalier, though it is likely just not highlighted further as it falls outside the main timeframe of the book. These cautions are minor, and should not deter mature teens or adults from reading the book. Conclusion This is a book that would be interesting as an action story or spy thriller. But it is more than that, a book that examines how God can provide great courage to his people, how He works in situations that are frightening, and how He uses means that no one involved would expect to bring his sheep home to the fold. It’s an exciting and moving story that is well worth the time....

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