Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews
3 ways of confronting the problem of diminishing attention spans through the Great Books
Adult biographies, Book Reviews, Teen non-fiction
Why read biographies?
More importantly, why stop? Any Christian who reads the Bible has been already been reading biographies. Let’s start with Genesis, where we read abo...
Book Reviews, Children’s picture books, Lists
5 powerful pictures book
Julia Gonzaga by Simonetta Carr 64 pages / 2018 This is another book in Simonetta Carr’s “Christian Biographies for Young Readers” series and it is once again a very well researched book with lovely pictures. Julia Gonzaga was born in 1513 into a wealthy nobleman’s family. She was married at age 13 and was widowed 2 years later. She never remarried but became a strong voice for the Reformation in Italy, and supported it financially. In the land of the Pope, the Reformation didn’t take place as it did throughout Europe. In 1542 the pope reopened the Sacred Office of the Inquisition, a court that put Christians on trial who opposed the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Many believers were tortured and martyred. Italian Bibles were outlawed until 1769 when the Roman Catholic Church published a translation of the Latin Bible. I learned that education flourished in the Protestant countries making it possible for the common people to read the Bible. In 1861 only 25% of the people of Italy and Spain, predominately Roman Catholic, could read and write over against 69% in Europe and 80% in USA. Julia Gonzaga is not at all well-known making this book an asset to the many books written about the Reformation in Europe. For children ages 7-12. – Joanna Vanderpol God’s Outlaw: The real story of William Tyndale and the English Bible by The Voice of the Martyrs with A. Paquette 40 pages / 2007 We all have many Bibles in our homes, something we take for granted. But there was a time when no one had that wonderful gift, a Bible which they could read and use to instruct their children. William Tyndale (1494) was a very learned scholar and the reading of the Bible in the original languages was a life-changing experience for him which he wanted to share with all people “even a ploughman.” Against the wishes of the Church and King Henry VIII, he began this task. But soon he had to flee to Germany and from there his pamphlets found their way into the hands of the common people in England. The Church responded by imprisoning and killing many of them. In 1535 Tyndale was betrayed, refused to bow the knee before the church leaders and was burnt at the stake Just before he died he prayed “Lord Jesus! Open the King of England’s eyes!” And two years later King Henry VIII decreed that the Bible should be available to all people. This book ends with some thoughts and questions for reflection. The pictures are bright and descriptive edging towards the graphic novel style. This is a good book for Primary school teachers to read to their class. This one is not widely available but can be found at Christianbooks.com. – Joanna Vanderpol Something from nothing by Phoebe Gilman 32 pages / 1993 This children’s book, winner of the Ruth Schwartz Award, has become my favorite book to read out loud to my grandchildren. It is adapted from a Jewish folktale and in wonderful, rhythmic language tells the story of Grandpa who lovingly sews a blanket for his newborn grandson to “keep him warm and to chase away bad dreams.” As the boy grows up, the blanket wears out and is altered into a jacket, which is altered into a vest, etc. The pictures are so delightful and add to the story. For instance, we see that mom is pregnant and then a few pages later a little sister appears in the story. A second wordless story takes place along the bottom of each page. Father and mother mouse set up house and as the little mice appear, use the scraps of material from the blanket that falls between the floorboards and make them into clothes for their family and also into blankets and curtains for the wee mouse house. This is a type of story where you want to take your little dear one onto your lap and just warmly snuggle and read, explore the pictures and find lovely little treasures. – Joanna Vanderpol God made Boys and Girls by Marty Machowski 32 pages / 2019 My not even six-year-old already knows that some people think girls can marry girls. And she knows God says that isn’t so. We haven’t had to talk – yet – about folks who think that girls can become boys, but when that time comes, this book will be a help. The story begins with a fast little girl, Maya, outrunning the boys…so one of them teases her that this means she’s going to become a boy. And that gets her worried. Fortunately, this little girl has a great instructor, Mr. Ramirez, who teaches the class that gender is a “good gift from God.” He shares how, if you are a boy, then you are a boy right down to your DNA. And the same is true for girls too. Mr. Ramirez then brings things back to the very first boy and girl, Adam and Eve, and how their Fall into Sin happened because they wanted to do things their own way instead of God’s good way. Today some want to do try their own way – not God’s way – when it comes to their gender too. One of the many things I appreciated about this book was how clear kids were taught what’s right, and then encouraged to act kindly to those who are confused. Finishing up the book are a couple of pages intended for parents, which, in small print, pack a lot of information on how to talk through gender with our kids. One caution: there is one depiction of Jesus, as a baby and with no real detail given, on a page noting that God the Son became a tiny speck inside a girl, Mary, and became a man. I don’t think this a violation of the Second Commandment, but maybe someone else might. The only other caution is in regards to what isn’t tackled in this story: gender roles. God made us different, and He also gave the genders some different roles and also gave us some different general tendencies. So yes, as the book notes, some boys do like dancing, and some girls like car repair…but that’s not the general trend. And because the general trend is never noted in the book, this absence could, if left undiscussed, leave young readers with the impression that no such trends exist. Then they would fall for a different one of the world’s gender-related lies: that other than sexual biology, men and women aren’t different at all. This is not a picture book you are going to read over and over with your children because it is more of a conversation starter than a story. But it is a wonderful help for parents in discussing an issue that none of us ever confronted when we were kids. It is a different world today, and we want to be the first to broach these topics with our kids. Reading and discussing a book with your little one is a fantastic way to do it. - Jon Dykstra Sophie and the Heidelberg Cat by Andrew Wilson & Helene Perez Garcia 32 pages / 2019 The story, written in engaging rhythm, opens with Sophie crying because her sister broke her dollhouse and Sophie, in anger, pushed her over and then yelled at her parents. As she thinks about what just happened and meditates on how bad she is, she looks out the window and sees the Heidelberg’s cat from next door. Surprisingly, the cat asks her why she is crying and Sophie tells her sad story. He invites her onto the rooftop and as they walk along, they chat. At first I thought, oh no, this is not a Reformed story, as Sophie tells her story and how she tries to be so good but fails. But then the cat sets her straight by explaining that no one can be good because we are all sinful. There is only one person who is good and that is Jesus. Only He can free us from our sins. The cat then uses Lord’s Day 1 from the Heidelberg Catechism and comforts Sophie with the words that “I am not my own” but belong to Jesus. This is a lovely book for ages 4 and up who can understand the concept of God’s love and grace in Christ Jesus. – Joanna Vanderpol...
Church history, People we should know
Rahab the whore...mother of Christ
"...the LORD your God is He who is God in heaven above and on earth beneath..." - Joshua 2:11 ***** In the house where one pays for love there arrived two young customers who had a different kind of business on their minds. They were engaged in espionage, nothing less: covert activities which required circumspect movements; activities that disguised their real intent, that even lead to the pretense of tourism, accentuated by a trip to the establishment of the local prostitute. They had been sent out by the master of strategy, Joshua the son of Nun, one of the two survivors of an earlier spy mission some forty years ago. At that time the economic intelligence gathering yielded interesting results, but the military intelligence had been devastating for an unbelieving generation. It took forty years to purge the nation of that element of destructive disbelief: they were all buried in the sands of the desert. Forty years of grave digging, forty years of sighing about "the wind passing over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more," (Ps. 103:16) as one of their offspring, David, would later sing. Then, at last, even Moses died; the LORD Himself took care of the funeral arrangements. Some safe house! Rahab hiding the spies in the flax. But now a next generation had come forth, the covenant had been renewed, and with it came a new willingness to serve, as these young men demonstrated, arrayed in their disguises. They were in the business of gathering information, and for information, they searched. This woman they met was ready to give answers to questions that had not even been raised. And so, notwithstanding the surroundings of ill repute, they had come to the right address; this too was of the Lord. Maybe they did not realize it, but they ended up in what the spy industry calls a "safe house." "Some safe house," one might mutter; hardly had they bedded down then that the local constabulary arrived for their arrest! Had the woman ratted on them? They were instructed, "to view the land, especially Jericho" (Josh. 2:1). Had they been too obvious in their observations of the land, even in their disguises? Were their questions reported? Thinking fast What do you do when soldiers come with their raucous order: "Open up in the name of the law!"? How do you respond to the gruff demand: "Hand them over, those enemy agents that we know came to your house!"? What do you do? Do you panic? Do you deny the obvious? In times of war and threats of war, house searches are not always conducted under the sanction of a warrant, the validity of which one could politely argue so as to gain some time to contemplate one's next move. But here was a woman who did not panic, who did not need to stall for time. Had her trade made her skillful in leading men astray? She surely knew how to forestall a house search! She was, likely, more than a little coy when she assured them that, indeed, these men had come to her, you know these things happen in an establishment like mine, and they left not so long after they arrived, and that is not unusual in my profession either. And you tell me they were spies? Wow! Then, in a conspiring manner, she might have whispered, "They can't have gone far; they went that-a-way. Run after them and you'll be sure to catch up with them." The path she pointed out to the soldiers seemed to be clear route towards promotion in rank, and maybe even a decoration. The gates were opened for them and the gates were shut again after them, and the pursuers of Israel's heroes chased after wind. The “white lie” Through the years much has been theorized and debated about the possibility of "white lies." It seems that up until World War II most commentators agreed that a deception like the one performed by Rahab was still, in itself, a sinful act. But during the war many persons of great integrity suddenly faced Nazi soldiers and their loud demand: Aufmachen, Polizei!! "Open up, it's the police!" Since then the condemnation has not been so outspoken any more. Those who managed to lead the authorities down the garden path showed no remorse when later they admitted to have given their deceptive testimony. In fact, they were rather gleeful to report how several Jews were saved, the consequence of a gullible interrogator. There are some amusing anecdotes about those days. The scene in the book of Joshua is not without humor either, enhanced by this preposterous elaboration: "so the men pursued after them on the way to the Jordan, as far as the crossing points..." (Josh 2:7). You could almost hear the eager conversations between then: how pleased the captain would be when they brought the spies in, and how proud their wives would be when their men would have their medals pinned on them. And then, gradually, the conversation slowed until finally they muttered: Where on earth are those fellows? But the readers of Joshua know where those fellows were all along: right there, hidden under the flax on the roof! Yet, "the men pursued them," Joshua said seriously. What a joke! Prostitute and now traitor? All this may seem somewhat goofy, worthy of an occasional chuck, but yet... couldn't we say that Rahab the whore had now added to the abominable character of her profession the sordid crime of high treason? She had joined in with the enemy camp! If we think back to World War II again, who would have anything to do with someone who stooped that low? However, is that verdict fair? Should she be displayed in the marketplace, shaven, shorn, and tarred, to have all the passersby spit on her? "The love of country is inborn in every citizen," it is said. We know all about that. During wars opposing armies claim: "We have God on our side." How convincing are the speeches of the leaders! How strong the conviction of their followers! "With honor and valor we fight for our cause, with God on our side." It has been repeated over and over at wreath-laying ceremonies. But inside this woman something had changed. Was she aware of Noah's curse over Canaan? Who were those gods that were supposedly on their side? Wasn’t it to demons that they offered their sons and daughters? The cruelty of those evil forces! Then, in total contrast, there were the stories of this large nation trekking through the desert, the children of Abraham. There was a cloud to guide them by day and a fire by night, she was told. Those were the manifestations of an entirely different God – One who loved His people, who was like fire around them to protect them, who rained bread from heaven to feed them, and who let them drink from the rock. True, He punished them for their evil doings, but He still upheld them and destroyed their enemies before them. Who knows, but that some wandering minstrel might have come by with fragments of the song of Moses "...the Lord will vindicate His people and have compassion on His servants..." (Deut. 32:36). This God was not like the demons who belong to the netherworld. He was the God in heaven above and on the earth beneath. But in His holy nation, would there be a place for her, daughter of the accursed Canaan, a woman who had availed herself of the profits of fornication? From rebel to child of God Rahab helps the spies climb out over Jericho's wall. But then this wonder took place, as miraculous as creation itself: according to His decree, God softened her heart and inclined her to believe. At the same time the crisis of possible detection having been forestalled, she ran up the stairs and blurted out her confession: "I know that the LORD your God is He who is God in heaven and on earth beneath." Would a critical onlooker find that confession a bit meager? It is probably fair to say that she wouldn’t have passed an exam in systematic theology. All we know is that in that confessed faith she bargained with the two representatives of God's holy nation: their safety for her and her family. They made a deal and it was confirmed by oath. The last words reportedly from her mouth were: "Amen, so be it" (Josh 2:21). Of these actions, undoubtedly recited through the ages, James, the leader of the church at Jerusalem, would later make honorable mention, listing them in one breath with the great works of faith by father Abraham (James 2:23-25). So it was that the first major strategic undertaking of Joshua, the son of Nun, seemed to have been upset by the tardiness of the spies. What kind of secret agent accomplishment was that, to bed down in a house of ill repute, to sneak through a window, to hide three days in the caves? Not a very good start, was it? Yes, true, it did not seem like much, but out ways are not God's ways. Just look at the valuable intelligence they received out of the hands of a woman chosen by God: "Truly the Lord has given all the land into our hands; and moreover, all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of us" (Josh 2:24). God’s ways are not man’s ways ...and the walls came tumbling down. The preparations for the battle of Jericho, seen from a military point of view, seemed to be directed towards a total disaster. When the first encounter with a fortified city is to take place, what military exercises come up front? Stamina-building drills? A mock attack? Special wall-climbing exercises? None of that happened. Instead, the sign of the covenant was administered (Josh. 5:2-9). All the army was circumcised. The effect of adult circumcision was that the army was sapped of its military strength for days. If the enemies were to find out... But thus it pleased the LORD to fulfill all righteousness. And stranger yet, a patch of ground within view of Jericho was declared holy territory, where the military leader of Israel met the commander of the mighty host of the LORD (Josh. 5:13-15). Joshua, the son of Nun, was in this very peculiar way made ready for battle: he had to take off his shoes. Now Jericho, known for its mighty men of valor, was sealed up tight ready to defend itself behind its fortified walls with whatever strength still remained within its armed forces. So, we would say: "Time for action. Get on with it! Let the battle start...” But then again the events took a weird turn. Instead of an attack, there was a solemn procession around the city: seven priests blowing horns, followed by the Ark of the Covenant, and after that, the army detachments. No shouting, no banging of drums, no belligerent songs. Only the mournful sound of the seven rams’horns. The army followed silently; it was an uncanny show. Once this was accomplished, everybody headed back to their own camp and the deathly silence returned. The following days it happened again, and the next day again, and again. And every time the procession came by the house of Rahab the whore the people saw the scarlet cord hanging out of the window. And every time Rahab the whore looked out of the window and saw this strange procession going by, her heart beat wildly in anticipation. The battle of the Lord was taking shape and she had taken His side, or rather, He had taken her on His side. Now it was going to happen: the Hour Zero approached rapidly. The tension was building to an unbearable level. Finally, on the last day the procession around the city was repeated several times over, till the final trip was made and the horn blowing ended. There was a short moment of utter silence. Then the trumpets sounded their dramatic long blast, and the whole scene erupted into turmoil. The entire army gave off a loud shout, a howl of derision for the enemies of God. After that a rumbling came up, as bricks and mortar split apart, as boulders cracked and rolled away, and in their course felling and crushing the hapless defenders. Then the walls of the city fell upon them, and the ruins of the structures covered them. And through the clouds of dust, over the rubble, clambered the victorious armies of God, in endless waves, to fulfill the command of total destruction. Total destruction? Yes, the city was devoted to the LORD for destruction. Nothing was to be spared. Nothing except... The war correspondent in Joshua 6 first passes on the direct order as it was given: destroy everything. Everything, except the house of Rahab the whore. Reason for the exception? She hid the spies. Then follows the narrative: as instructed by General Joshua, the young spies went into the one remaining structure of the ring-wall. It was marked with the crimson cord. Spitting out the gritty dust of the ground granite that made film on their lips, they egged on the occupants: "hurry, hurry, quick this way to safety!" Finally comes the recap, the summing up of the total victory: the city was burned with fire. The vessels of bronze and iron were put into the treasury of the house of the LORD. End of report? No! Again it is stated, and now with greater emphasis yet, that Rahab the whore and her father's household, and all who belong to her were saved alive. "And," concludes the report, "she dwelt in Israel to this day." Why? "Because she hid the messengers, whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho," that's why. In the Hall of Fame In the hall of fame of the heroes of faith, there is a long wall lined with portraits. Hebrews 11 leads us through it. There is Abel, all scarred up, but still speaking through his faith. And look, there is Noah, that ridiculous shipbuilder on dry ground, but therefore heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. See Sarah there, laughing, because at age ninety she still conceived, and God had made laughter for her... And then...yes, indeed there she is. Rahab the whore. Even now the title of her terrible profession is still etched on the copper plate that carries her name. But her features seem familiar. Haven't we seen her somewhere before? Yes, of course, the evangelist Matthew listed her in the genealogy as a not-so-immaculate mother of Christ! The company some people keep! Look at the strange smile on her face. After all those centuries, does she still think that sending those poor soldiers on a wild good chase was rather funny? Frankly speaking, it really was funny, but it seems that the smile is not about that. No, this is a fond smile, a smile caused by amazement and expressing great love. How could she, daughter of the cursed Canaan, and practicing prostitute, how could she possibly have ended up here, among these great ones in the kingdom of Christ? Indeed, there is every reason for amazement. Here was one woman who came in last, totally unworthy, not even qualifying for the crumbs of the dogs, and yet she was given a seat of honor up front by her Great Son, the Christ, through the eternal love with which He loved her before the foundation of the world. If that does not make you smile, what else would? In this reflection the author wants to direct us back to the text to look at it with new eyes – an oh-so-familiar story startles us once again when viewed under this different light. But like any commentary on Scripture, it shouldn’t be read instead of the text itself. Read on its own, it could become confusing as to what are the author’s thoughts, and what the text actually says. So an important follow-up then is to read Joshua 2-6. This is a slightly edited version of an article that first appeared in the December 1993 issue. John de Vos was the very first editor of Reformed Perspective....
An interview (of sorts) with "Gay Girl, Good God" author Jackie Hill Perry
Jackie Hill Perry is an American poet and recording artist on the Humble Beast label. Married to Preston, she is the mother of two children. Last year, she published her first book Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was and Who God Has Always Been. This is an “interview” of sorts, with her responses coming as excerpts from her book. ***** WES BREDENHOF: At its heart, what is your book really about? JACKIE HILL PERRY: Every sentence is the pursuit of showing off God….This is a book with a lot of me in it but with a whole lot more of God. He is what the soul needs for rest and what the mind needs for peace. He is the Creator God, the King of Glory, the one who, in love, sent the Christ to pay the penalty for and become the sin that we are all born with. It is the words from and about this resurrected Lamb of God that I hope will lift off the page and into the heart. This book is a lifted hand, a glad praise, a necessary hymn, a hallelujah overheard and not kept quiet. This work is my worship unto God that, with prayer, I hope will leave you saying, “God is so good!” WB: You say that it was the story of who you were. So who were you? What were you like? JHP: To me, the devil made more sense than God sometimes. Both he and God spoke. God through His Scriptures; Satan, through doubt. I’d learned of the Ten Commandments in Sunday school in between eating a handful of homemade popcorn and picking at my stockings. The “Thou shall nots” didn’t complement the sweet buttered chew I found myself distracted by. They were a noise I didn’t care to welcome. “You can’t. You shouldn’t. Do not,” didn’t sound like a song worth listening to, only a terrible noise to drown out by resistance. Satan, on the other hand, only told me to do what felt good or what made sense to me. WB: When you finally came out as gay, what were you thinking about God? And what do you think He thought about you? JHP: As much as I wanted to believe God grinned when He thought of my life, I knew He didn’t. My conscience spoke to me throughout the day. In the morning, it reminded me of God. A few minutes before the clock brought the noon in, it brought God to mind, again. Night was when it was the loudest. On the way to sleep, my head lay relaxed on my pillow surrounded by the natural darkness of night, I thought about God. I was His enemy (James 4:4). How could I, an enemy of God, have sweet dreams knowing that He sat awake throughout the night? WB: So by God’s grace you became a Christian in 2008 – through his Spirit and Word you were miraculously brought to faith and repentance. What impact did your conversion have on your same-sex desires? JHP: To my surprise, being a Christian delivered me from the power of sin but in no way did it remove the possibility of temptation. A common lie thrown far and wide is that if salvation has truly come to someone who is same-sex attracted, then those attractions should immediately vanish. To be cleansed by Jesus, they presume, is to be immune to the enticement of sin. This we know not to be true because of Jesus. He being completely perfect and yet He still experienced temptation. WB: What was that temptation like for you? JHP: It was slapping me around like a weightless doll in the hands of an imaginative child. Being tossed between fun and funeral, who would I decide to trust more? What the temptation wanted me to believe or what God had already revealed? The struggle with homosexuality was a battle of faith. To give into temptation would be to give into unbelief. It was up to me to believe Him. His Word was authoritative, active, sharp. The simplicity of faith is this: taking God’s Word for it. And I might not have felt like it, but I had no choice but to believe Him. WB: Why do we have a hard time believing that a gay girl can become a completely different creature? JHP: Because we have a hard time believing God. The Pharisees saw the man born blind, heard his testimony, heard about his past and how it was completely different from the present one, and refused to believe the miracle of Whothe miracle pointed to. The same power that made a man born blind able to see through the means of something as foolish as spit and mud is the same enormous power contained in a foolish gospel brought into the world by a risen Saviour. It is through faith in Him, initiated by His pursuit of me, that I, a gay girl, now new creature, was made right with God. Given sight, able to recognize my hands and how they’d been calloused by sin, and how Jesus had come to cleanse me of them all. Now seeing, I worship. One thing is sure, if ever I am asked, how am I able to see now, after being blind for so long, I will simply say, “I was blind, a good God came, and now, I see.” WB: You have experienced the struggle with same-sex attraction. Should those who are tempted with that identify themselves as “Gay Christians”? JHP: I don’t believe it is wise or truthful to the power of the gospel to identify oneself by the sins of one’s past or the temptations of one’s present but rather to only be defined by the Christ who’s overcome both for those He calls His own. All men and women, including myself, that are well acquainted with sexual temptation are ultimately not what our temptation says of us. We are what Christ had done for us; therefore, our ultimate identity is very simple: We are Christians. WB: In your book, you warn about the “heterosexual gospel.” You write that “God isn’t calling gay people to be straight” and it’s actually dangerous to teach that he is. Why do you say that? JHP: Because it puts more emphasis on marriage as the goal of the Christian life than knowing Jesus. Just as God’s aim in my salvation was not mainly the removal of my same-sex desires, in sanctification, it is not always His aim that marriage or experiencing an attraction for the opposite sex will be involved. Excerpts from Jackie Hill Perry’s “Gay Girl, Good God” have been used with the gracious permission of the author (and publisher). Dr. Bredenhof blogs at yinkahdinay.wordpress.com. A Dutch translation of this article can be found here. ...
Adult biographies, Book Reviews
i am n
Inspiring Stories of Christians Facing Islamic Extremists by the Voice of the Martyrs 293 pages / 2016 The “n” in the title is Arabic shorthand for “Christian,” and Islamic extremists will paint it on houses owned by Christians as a means of intimidation. It is, in some places, the equivalent of being marked for death. This was a very different and much better book than I thought it would be. I was anticipating something hard to endure: story after story of Christians getting beat up, beheaded, or jailed. I started reading only because I knew the topic was important. As the front cover puts it, we must "not let our brothers and sisters suffer in silence, nor...let them serve alone." So I started reading out of a feeling of duty. However, I kept reading because I am n is encouraging, and challenging, and just too awe-inducing to put down. Encouragement It was encouraging to see what God is up to in the Islamic East, even in the midst of severe persecution. As one story details, before 1983 Christianity was almost unknown in Algeria. There were "no Christian bookstores, no indigenous churches, and virtually no access to Bibles." But then a few Christian tourists invited the locals to play a soccer game. The invitation was declined because the local team's best player was sick. These Christians then asked if they could come pray over the young man, and they were allowed to do so. The next day the young man was fully recovered and able to play in the soccer game. News of his healing quickly got around, and these tourists, while not missionaries, were very happy to answer the many questions that came their way. While they eventually had to go back home, the gospel news they shared stayed behind. "I felt that the stories they told were not just stories, but real," recalled Hassan. "It made we want to leave everything and follow Jesus." Hassan and other Algerians began turning to the God of the Bible. The "soccer miracle" is credited with initiating an explosion of faith in a country where Christianity was once rare. With the growth in numbers also came a growth in persecution – it is not easy to be a Christian in Algeria. But what a wonder to hear about how God can gather a people for Himself using even a soccer game. There are many other encouraging stories throughout. In chapter 43 we learn about Alejandro, from the Philippines, who was "a cold-blooded killer, a terrorist for Allah" before turning to God and becoming a pastor. And as remarkable a turnaround as his life is, God wasn't done with the amazing. "During the final evening of conference, Alejandro conversed deeply with an attendee grieving the lost of relatives – a pastor, his wife, and children – who had been killed by Muslim militants several months earlier. Only God could bring together a former Muslim murderer of Christians to comfort and pray for believers who were suffering at the hands of Islamic extremists. Challenging Now, it was challenging to read story after story of Christians who lost everything: their businesses, their homes, their friends, their family connections, even their own lives, or those of their children or spouses. They gave this all up because they understood that what they were losing paled in comparison to what they have in Jesus their Lord. In a section of the book titled " JOY" we meet Jon, a Malaysian Christian, who was able to laugh as he was beaten, expressing the joy he felt "for the honor he was feeling. 'I was okay with being beaten,' he recall. 'They beat Jesus too.'" Then, in the next chapter there is Musa, a North African who was able, for a long time, to be a quiet Christian. He wasn't sure what he would do if he was confronted about God. But then the moment came: one of his coworkers wanted to know why he didn't take a break with them to go do their prayers. "Musa realized. This is it. This was the moment he had to decide if he was for Christ or against him. A phony or the real deal. All in or all out. After a long pause, he looked his friend in the eye. 'Prayer,' he began, 'is an intimate conversation with God, and it should be done all the time, in my heart, rather than at specific times using the same phrases and postures.'" This is a world away, but a situation we can understand. We have co-workers too, who ask us questions. But the stakes aren't nearly so high for us. Musa knew he faced the loss of his job, and even the loss of his family just by making it known he follows Jesus. But still he professed his Lord. Awe-inducing Why then am I so slow to speak the name of my Savior? Why don't we profess God's name loudly and constantly? This is the challenge that I am n throws at western Christians. We have so much, and we risk so little. Why are we so quiet? What do these persecuted Christians understand about God that we still don't? They know that God is all. While we can get distracted by the abundance around us, they often times have nothing but God. And they know He is more than enough! Cautions When it comes to cautions, I can think of some minor quibbles. Mention is made of how The Jesus Film was used as an evangelistic tool. Visually depicting Jesus, and having an actor portray Him is not something we would do. But we also know that God can use even bent sticks to draw straight lines. At another point a new convert refers to himself as becoming a "son" (rather than brother) of Christ. But we should expect new converts to have some misunderstandings. Finally, there are many descriptions of persecution, but none are graphic. Conclusion I am n is a book to delight in, pray over and pass along to others. The 300 pages are broken down into 54 chapters with 48 of the accounts from the present day, and another half dozen from the pages of Church history. The short accounts make this a very easy read, and while many atrocities are described, it is always done delicately, so this may be appropriate for children as young as 10. The front cover subtitle has made this a controversial book. It reads "Inspiring Stories of Christians Facing Islamic Extremists." Yes, most of the persecution Christians face around the world is at the hand of Muslim radicals. That is not a fact that many want to acknowledge, but when we ignore it, we do so at the expense of the Christians suffering at their hands. No, not all Muslims are violent and no one is saying they are. No one is calling on us to hate Muslims. This is, in fact, a book full of Muslims who have been brought to God through the love of their Christian neighbors and family. So yes, this is an account of the Muslim persecution of Christians, but it is also an account of how that persecution should best be met: by loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute the body of Christ." (Matt. 5:44). I am heading out to an abortion protest in a couple days, and after reading this, I am not nearly so intimidated as I might have been. It is indeed an honor to face persecution for the sake of God. This review first appeared on the Dykstra book blog www.ReallyGoodReads.com....
Adult biographies, Adult non-fiction
Shocked by Augustine's Confessions
There are many classics I mean to read in my life, but I just haven’t yet. Fortunately this summer, while laid up with an injury, I found myself facing Augustine’s Confessions without an excuse. So I dove into it. And I was quite shocked – not by any of his confessions, but how readable it is. You always imagine classics to be quite unreadable, which doesn’t really make any sense, because how could anything become a classic unless people read it? But whatever the case, this classic is engaging. FREE TO QUESTION The best thing about the first few chapters is all of Augustine’s questions. Instead of doing what most books do, which is pose a question (such as ‘Why does a good God allow evil?’) and then immediately answer it, Augustine just begins with posing questions. Many chapters start with a block of questions directed towards God, and Augustine doesn’t even pretend he has answers to most of them. If he has part of an answer, or a thought about the answer, he’ll say it, but it’s not from a position of authority. His bits of answers are not presented as definitive. He just lets his mind go wild with wonder over God. I’d give a few examples, but to baldly state the questions in my own words destroys his beautiful wording of them. I’ll just say one or two – for example, haven’t you ever wondered whether you have to know God first before you cry out to him, or if you can cry out to him in order to know him? And haven’t you ever wondered how a God who’s outside time, and created time, experiences time? AN ATTRACTIVE HUMILITY The unexpected thing about this is Augustine is such a revered figure in the church. He’s more or less the ancestor of many of the churches that exist. So much of Christian theology has roots that go back to his writings. So I expected him to present himself as an expert. It was refreshing because I haven’t read a book that admitted it didn’t have the answers for a long time. Most often people write books because they do think they have the answers. Or they write because they think people need the answers, so they cobble together some kind of explanation. They know their book won’t attract our precious divided attention if they don’t make bold claims. But Augustine shocked me because he’s not presenting himself as the pattern the Church after him should follow…even though the Church does. (At least, he doesn’t present that way in the first part of Confessions.) If anyone has a right to make bold claims, it would be Augustine, of all writers. Some translations of Augustine’s "Confessions" can be easily found online and downloaded for free. But the free versions often have older language, with "Thees" and "Thous." A more current, very readable (but not free) version is Benigus O’Rourke’s translation pictured here. – JD This is not to say Augustine is completely uninterested in answers. No, in fact much of his search for God is driven by his dissatisfaction with the answers given by his pagan worldview. And finding a few answers was central in his conversion – he explores answers more and more the further you delve into his book. However, the questions never stop. In the end, he is willing to have faith without answering every question that could be asked about God. QUESTIONS ASKED IN FAITH The second really cool thing about Confessions is that, unlike if I was the one asking the questions, Augustine is able to ask them without a trace of cynicism. He doesn’t resent God for not providing answers to all of them. Somehow Augustine is able to put down all his wonderment with the deepest humility, and in a fever of steadfast love. He’s asking because he loves God. He wonders because a person is obviously interested in the ones they love. I can only hope I present a similar attitude one day. If someone had wanted me to read Confessions before now, they should not have described it as Augustine’s autobiography, or however else people describe the book. They should have said, “Here’s a guy who lived a couple thousand years ago, who has a mind that works just like yours.” It’s crazy to reach across the centuries and find a thought pattern that feels familiar. And as for the unanswered questions? This is what Augustine says about them: “Let ask what it means, and be glad to ask: but they may content themselves with the question alone. For it is better for them to find you, God, and leave the question unanswered than to find the answer without finding you.”...
Book Reviews, Lists
4 great Christian novels
If the fiction section in your local Christian bookstore is all-Amish all the time, then here are 4 recommendations of a very different sort: a fictional biography, a modern-day myth, a Western of sorts, and a super hero epic....sort of. What links them all is that they are all Christian adult fiction, and they are all really good reads! Redeeming love by Francine Rivers 1997 / 464 pages They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and that was never more true than with Francine River’s novel Redeeming Love. When it first appeared on bookshelves it was marketed with a schmaltzy romance cover. Two Reformed ministers told me it was fantastic, but I couldn't get over the cover. I only got around to reading it a year or two later, after it came out with a much more subdued cover, one that I could walk around in public without all the other boys making fun of me. It was worth the wait. A powerful, poignant, even brilliant novel, it tells the story of Michael Hosea, a settler in the California of 1850. The story is inspired by the biblical book of Hosea, and the true power of the story is in how it forces the reader back to the Bible to reexamine a small prophetic book many have overlooked. You can’t help but study the book of Hosea after reading this novel. If you are well acquainted with Hosea you’ll understand why this novel comes with a “PG-13” rating. The prophet Hosea, after all, marries a prostitute, and Francine Rivers closely parallels those facts in her account. So some disturbing subject matter is dealt with that probably isn’t suitable for young teens. Now, I'm always leery of books that purport to be fictionalized retellings of biblical stories, and with good reason. I remember one novel about the apostle Paul that left readers with the impression that he and James actually disagreed as to the importance of works, which is entirely untrue. Francine Rivers also has a number of fictionalized biographies of biblical characters and because fact is mixed with fiction it is so very hard, after reading one of those stories, to remember just what the Bible really says. So, I don't thinking fictionalized Bible tales are a great idea. But because this is inspired by, rather than purporting to be, the book of Hosea, Redeeming Love is something else entirely. It would be hard to confuse this with the original source material. And yet, it is an insightful parallel of Hosea that might make this somewhat mystifying Bible book a little more understandable for some readers. Steal Away Home: Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson by Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey 290 pages / 2017 This is two biographies in one, about the little know relationship between the "Prince of Preachers" Charles Haddon Spurgeon and a former slave, Thomas Johnson. The men couldn't have grown up in more different circumstances. Spurgeon was in the United Kingdom, and establishing his reputation as "the Prince of Preacher" while Thomas Johnson was still a slave in the America. Johnson first heard Spurgeon's name mentioned when the preacher's sermons and books were being burnt by slavery-defenders in the South. They didn't like the strong and clearly biblical way that Spurgeon had been denouncing slavery. When emancipation came and Johnson was freed he also became a preacher. And with his heart inclined to the mission field in Africa, he eventually ends up at Spurgeon's bible college where the two meet and become friends. Perhaps one reason they became friends was because Spurgeon struggled throughout this life with depression, and his young friend Johnson knew something of that too, borne out of his despair as a slave. As true Christians brothers, they are a help and a companion to one each other. While these two men are both real, I should note this is a fictionalized account. That means that while the broad details are all true, and much of the dialogue is taken from the men's works, this work should only be enjoyed for the general impression, not the specific details, it provides of their friendship. I'll give one example of how this mix of fact and fiction does, on the one hand, stay very true to reality, but on the other hand, can give a bit of an inaccurate impression. When we read of how Spurgeon proposes to his wife-to-be, he comes off as quite the Prince Charming with all the right words, the perfect thoughtful present, and just the right timing. However, the authors have compacted the evening's events from events that took place over more than the one occasion. The facts are true, but this compaction of the timeline, to keep the story flowing, makes Spurgeon seem to be quite the suave fellow – super suave even. Steal Away Home is a wonderfully readable book, and attractively put together too. You aren't supposed to judge a book by its cover but it's wonderful when a good cover can give a reluctant reader just the encouragement they need to get started. I'd recommend this to anyone with an interest in Church history, or in knowing more about the American South during slavery and after, or anyone who enjoys historical fiction or biographies. Flags out Front by Douglas Wilson 196 pages / 2017 Flags out Front asks, what if a Christian leader took a stand on principle and, no matter what pressure came, just would not back down? What might happen if, instead of wilting under that pressure, he fought back fearlessly? Now, like Luther, Tom Collins didn’t set out to cause a fuss. This "mild mannered president of a dwindling southern" Bible college arrives on campus one day to find a prankster has swapped a couple of the flags at the campus entrance. Now, instead of the American flag flying above all, the Christian flag waves from on high, with the Stars and Stripes just below. Collins doesn't know quite what to think. But, upon reflection, he concludes the change is one he's content to leave be. Then the phone calls start coming. Conservative, patriotic sorts, wonder why the American flag is not in its central place. He hears from the other side too, from those who'd be happy enough to burn the flag, but don't want to see it waving below a Christian flag. Protests to the right, threats from the left, and yet Collins stands his ground. And he's willing to stand alone. But his resolve is inspiring, and alone is the one thing he won't be. Quiet, meek, Dr. Collins becomes the rally point for Christians of all sorts...including some clever college students who know how to make some noise. This is how is should be, and, maybe could be. Who knows what God would do with a fearless few? Actually, we already know: this year we're celebrating the 500th anniversary of the firestorm God started with one monk and his mallet. Flags out Front is a funny, clever, political feel-good novel that most anyone would enjoy, particularly if you want to be inspired as to how Christians can do politics differently. I've foisted this off on a number of friends and family (and read about half of it out loud to my wife) and the response has been enthused all around. Chasing Fireflies by Charles Martin 340 pages / 2007 This is part murder mystery, part adoption story (times two), and part...well, super hero epic. The murder mystery is an old one, and the person trying to solve is Chase Walker, journalist, and formerly a foster kid who bounced around from one house to another until he arrived on the doorstep of “Unc” and that's where he stayed. The murder victims are Unc's father and first wife, and while the police think the case is settled, Chase is not so sure. The adoption-story-times-two involves Chase, adopted by Unc, and a nameless boy who was so badly abused his vocal chords have been damaged, leaving him mute. With Chase all grown up, Unc has space in his heart, and in his home, for another boy in need. The super-hero of the story is Unc himself, a man so good as to be a bit unreal. That's the story's weakness, but also a lot of its charm. Unc is the father figure that us fathers want to be. He most often knows just the right thing to do or say. When Chase, as a boy, gets it into his head that his father is finally coming to get him, Unc does what he can to sooth the boy’s disappointment. Unc walked up next to me and hung his arms across the fence railing. In his hands he held an empty mason jar with holes punched in the lid. He stood there a long time turning the jar. Inside, a single lightning bug fluttered off the sides of the glass. Every five or six seconds, he’d light his lantern. Unc turned the jar in his hand. “Scientists say that these things evolved this way over million of years.” He shook his head. “That’s a bunch of bunk. I don’t think an animal can just all-of-a-sudden decide it wants to make light grow out its butt. What kind of nonsense is that? Animals don’t make light.” He pointed to the stars.” God does that. I don’t know why or how, but I am pretty sure it’s not chance. It’s not some haphazard thing He does in His spare time.” He looked at me, and his expression changed from one of wonder to seriousness, to absolute conviction. “Chase, I don’t believe in chance.” He held up the jar. “This is not chance, neither are the stars.” He tapped me gently in the chest. “And neither are you. So, if your mind is telling you that God slipped up and might have made one giant mistake when it comes to you, you remember the firefly’s butt.” Maybe Unc is a bit too wise, too patient and too good, but I was okay with that. That’s in part because the author is good at his craft and pulls it off. It’s also because there is something genuine about Unc – this is fatherhood as we want to practice it, this is sacrificial love the way it should be done, and this filling up a kid the way he ought to be. There is truth here. Finally, while Unc may not be entirely realistic, the world he inhabits is. There is some grit here. First off, several people are murdered. Also, one of the people Unc helps is an abused girl who later ran away to become an adult porn star. In addition, the physical abuse the mute boy has suffered is detailed and it included someone pinching and ripping his skin with pliers. That is about as descriptive as it gets, but these elements mean this is a book for adults only. Another caution would be about the hero's faith. While God is made mention of throughout the book, Unc doesn't attend church, though that is in part because he isn't welcome there. He also has a seemingly superstitious understanding of baptism, going to extreme lengths to get someone baptized shortly before their death. But those will be minor matters to Christians with discernment. Chasing Fireflies will likely make you cry, so if you don't like sentimental books, don't start it. On the other hand this is so much better than the average tearjerker because Martin's writing is simply remarkable. Jon Dykstra and his siblings blog on books at www.ReallyGoodReads.com....
Adult biographies, Adult fiction
The Betrayal: A novel on John Calvin
by Douglas Bond 383 pages / 2009 If you want to get an understanding of the times Calvin lived in, this novel is better than any biography. Douglas Bond immerses readers in the day-to-day details of living in France in the 1500s by telling Calvin’s story through the eyes of a life-long, entirely fictional, companion named Jean-Louis. Jean-Louis is born in the same village as Calvin, and for a time goes to the same school. But while Calvin’s intellectual gifts set him apart early, Jean-Louis is an average fellow living an ordinary, though rather brutal existence. Like many in the 16th century, he loses his whole family and his livelihood to the Plague. Left without a home or money, he falls back on his one extraordinary ability: Jean-Louis can lie without shame or qualm of conscience. It is this “talent” that gets him close to Calvin again, securing a job serving the Reformer. And it is this trait that allows him to act the role of loyal servant even as he vows to work against God’s servant. This is a fascinating read, but one that takes some effort. Though Bond is known as a teen fiction author, the weighty theological dialogues interspersed throughout The Betrayal make this a novel best suited for adult Calvin enthusiasts. It is available at Christianbooks.com and has also been translated into Dutch as Het verraad....
Children’s non-fiction, Children’s picture books
Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World
by Paul Maier 32 pages / 2004 Take a look at your children’s bookshelves. How many of the stories there are about the history of God’s church? Here, finally, in a wonderfully illustrated edition we have a story for young children that gives a beautiful account of the life of Martin Luther. It was 1483 when Martin Luther was born in Eiselbern, Germany, but this story starts long before that. This story begins with God’s promise to preserve His church throughout history, and already on the first pages of this book we read of God’s mercy in sending people to call His church to repentance. Times were dark for the church in the 15th century. The church was leading the people away from the true word of God into a world of lies and false doctrines. The people were walking in darkness and it was into this world that Martin Luther was born. Luther’s story is very familiar to most of us. His name is a common one in our households. Yet this book brings out for the young reader what life was like for Martin Luther. As a child growing up, his life would have been much different than ours. Did you know, for example, that in his school children who did poorly had to wear a donkey mask! Or, can you imagine the students in your school having to go from door to door in the neighborhood to sing for their food? As Luther’s life unfolds, the young learner can see how the Lord leads Luther step by step. The author shows how Luther, through constant searching and studying of God’s word, learns that his salvation does not come from himself, or from the church, but that his salvation rests in God alone. It is with this sure knowledge and the confidence in his Savior that Luther confronts the Roman Catholic Church. His boldness to proclaim God’s Word leads him into many life-threatening situations but the Lord uses his efforts to spread His true word to many people around the world. Paul Maier is the professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University. His overview of the life of Martin Luther in this non-fiction children’s book remains true to the historical details of the time. He does not shy away from telling what was wrong with the Roman Catholic Church of the time and proclaims the message of salvation through grace alone as Luther himself did many years ago. Greg Copeland adds to the book’s appeal with beautiful illustrations that bring this story to life. There are very few books written about our church’s history that are geared to the young readers in our homes and schools. This book is ideal for a read-aloud at home or in the primary grades at school. Add it to your bookshelves as a research tool for your young students in both the primary and intermediate grades. It would be wonderful to be able to fill our children’s bookshelves with stories and resources like this little gem on Martin Luther!...
The life of John Calvin: A Modern Translation of the Classic
by Theodore Beza 148 pages / 1997 This biography has two strengths. First, it is short. Because it was originally written as an introduction to Calvin’s last published work, his Commentary on Joshua, it weighs in at only 144 pages. That could also be considered a weakness – the small size means it doesn’t have the detail or scope of most other Calvin biographies – but the slim size makes it more inviting than its 400 or 500 page rivals. This is a biography that can be read in a few days, rather than a few weeks. Second, this is an eyewitness account. Theodore Beza was a friend and disciple of Calvin and wrote his account as a tribute. That too could be considered a weakness; Beza’s admiration of Calvin made him incapable of seeing, or at least incapable of recording, any of his mentor’s faults. But this same admiration made Beza the best chronicler of Calvin’s gifts, the God-given talents that made the man a giant of the Reformation. The Life of John Calvin is available in a number of different editions but, because the original is over 400 years old, some translations are dated and simply dreadful. Fortunately Evangelical Press books have done “a modern translation of the classic” that can be found without too much digging on Amazon.com or Amazon.ca....
The Legacy of Sovereign Joy
by John Piper 160 pages / 2000 Meet the giants! In this slim volume, John Piper tells the tales of Augustine, Martin Luther and John Calvin with a very specific purpose. He aims to encourage modern-day believers by showing how God’s grace overcame each man’s flaws to provide the church with the gift of their work and example. Augustine was arguably the most influential church father after Paul. He was also a favorite of John Calvin, who quoted him 342 times in the Institutes. He spent the early years of his life enslaved to lust, living with a concubine, and drinking in the philosophical ideas of his day. His eyes were finally completely opened and God became his “sovereign joy.” Augustine spent much of his life and energy defending the centrality of God’s grace against the Pelagians, who taught that, “though grace may facilitate the achieving of righteousness, it is not necessary to that end.” His complete dependence on God is perhaps best summed up with his prayer: “Command what you wish, but give what you command.” Martin Luther’s story is generally well-known among Reformed folk, and is another striking example of the grace of God at work in history. Luther had an extremely high view of the Bible as the very words of God, and thus spent countless hours reading and wrestling with the Word. It was this relentless study that God used to open Luther’s eyes to the wonder of grace, which freed him from bondage to the works righteousness of the Roman Catholic church. This view of God’s Word also led Luther to warn against spending all one’s time reading commentaries and books and never going beyond this to the Word itself. Doing so makes us “like men who study the signposts and never travel the road.” John Calvin, another well-known Reformer, shared Luther’s view of God’s Word, and was awestruck at the majesty of God present in the pages of Scripture. B.B. Warfield once wrote that, “No man ever had a profounder sense of God than he.” Calvin had visions of spending his days quietly as a biblical scholar. However, God called him to pastoral ministry through the imprecations of William Farel and later Martin Bucer (contemporary Reformers). Calvin continued to dig through the gold mine of God’s Word, producing an astounding number of sermons, commentaries, and his well-known Institutes of the Christian Religion. This book is certainly not an exhaustive historical treatment of each of these men since it serves a more pastoral purpose of encouragement. Throughout the book Piper makes generous use of original quotations from these men, and, although some quotes are unnecessarily reused a number of times, they overflow with a love and zeal for God. In fact, they may stir the reader to reading the originals. Overall, an easy and encouraging read for anyone. To make it even more appealing, John Piper is giving the e-book version of it away free. You can download the pdf by going here. ...