Book Reviews, Teen fiction
The Hobgoblins: a novel on John Bunyan
by Douglas Bond 2020 / 268 pages There are people who carry out such heinous acts and live such immoral lives that we’d think, surely they could...
Book Reviews, Graphic novels
We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American resistance to wartime incarceration
Adult fiction, Book Reviews
Once Upon a Wardrobe
by Patti Callahan 2021 / 285 pages The year is 1950, and an eight-year-old George Henry Devonshire has finished a book, just published, called Th...
Articles, Book Reviews, Remembrance Day
5 books to help us never forget
Next week will mark Remembrance Day, and to help us remember these men and women – many in uniform, and also many who were not – here are 5 books about their courage and conviction. There is something here for every age. By reading these – especially together with our children, or maybe in a book club with friends – we can be inspired and prepared. These stories remind us of why some wars need to be fought, and through these stories we can better appreciate those who fought for us so long ago. They provide us examples worth imitating for the battles, big and small, physical, and in our cases more often spiritual, that still need to be fought today. The reviews that follow have been arranged by the age of the intended audience - youngest to oldest - though all of these would be enjoyed by adults too. The Poppy Lady by Barbara Elizabeth Walsh 40 pages / 2012 How did poppies become the symbol for Remembrance Day? This beautifully illustrated (I love the water colors in this book - it's a treat just to look at it!) and well-researched children’s picture book tells the story of Moina Michael, who was 45 when World War I broke out. She was a teacher at the University of Georgia’s Normal School and realized that every home in America would be affected. “Her girls” would see fathers, brothers and sweethearts sent to the war front. As the war progressed, she did what she could to help. Her motto from a young age was “Whatsoever your hands find to do, do it with all your might." When she read John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” she knew what she had to do for all her beloved soldiers. She went on a search for poppies and found one large red poppy and 24 small ones in a department store. She put the large one in a vase in the YMCA canteen and gave 23 away. From that small, significant gesture, the Poppies have become a symbol of remembrance and bring much needed funds to help the veterans. The book has an epilogue that is helpful for teachers or parents who wants to tell children more about the history of the poppy. This book would be an asset to any elementary school library. – reviewed by Joanna Vanderpol Innocent Heroes: Stories of animals in the First World War by Sigmund Brouwer 186 pages / 2017 Animals had a bigger role in WWI than most of us realize. Author Sigmund Brouwer has taken heroic stories of these animals and, in the interests of making a continuous, compelling storyline, fictionalized the details, placing all the animals in just one Canadian platoon, the Storming Normans. While each chapter is built around the story of a particular creature –a cat, a bird, two dogs, a horse, a mule, and a lion – the book's main characters are three fictional Canadian infantry soldiers. In the trio of Jake, Charlie, and Thomas, the author gives us soldiers who couldn't have more different backgrounds, with Jake a farm boy, Charlie the city-dwelling millionaire, and Thomas a Cree Indian. With this “odd couple” friendship Brouwer injects his story with humor even in the midst of the horrors of war. It also allows him the opportunity to educate readers as to how Natives were treated on the front lines and back home in Canada during this period. My highest praise for a book is that it is so good I have to read it to my family – we’re loving it! Brouwer has weaved these animal stories together into a compelling book that tackles some tough topics at an age-appropriate level for pre-teens and teens. – reviewed by Jon Dykstra War in the Wasteland by Douglas Bond 273 pages / 2016 "Second Lieutenant C.S. Lewis in the trenches of WWI" – if that doesn't grab you, I don’t know what will. War in the Wasteland is a novel about teenage Lewis's time on the front lines of the First World War. At this point in his life, at just 19, Lewis is an atheist, and his hellish surroundings seem to confirm for him that there is no God. Now when men are hunkered down in their trenches waiting through another enemy artillery barrage, there is good reason, and plenty of time, to talk about life's most important matters. Bond gives Lewis a fellow junior officer – Second Lieutenant Johnson – who won't let Lewis's atheistic thinking go unchallenged. Their back and forth sparring is brilliant; Bond has pulled the points and counterpoints right out of Mere Christianity and other books Lewis wrote when he became the world’s best-known Christian apologist. Bond has crafted something remarkable here, capturing in grim detail what it must have been like to live, eat, and sleep barely more than a stone’s throw from enemy troops hidden away in their own trenches. I think older teens and adults who have an interest in history, World War I, apologetics, or C.S. Lewis are sure to enjoy War in the Wasteland. – reviewed by Jon Dykstra Prison Letters by Corrie Ten Boom 90 pages / 1975 This is a collection of the correspondence between Corrie Ten Boom and her family while she and her sister Betsie were being held in prison by the Nazis during World War II. If you haven’t already her remarkable wartime biography The Hiding Place, then you must read that first. It recounts how her family hid Jews, not because they were brave or courageous, but simply because they were obedient to what they knew God was calling them to do. We see how God sustained them. It is a book of doubts being answered, and God being found sufficient even in the most trying of circumstances. If you loved The Hiding Place (and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t) then this collection of letters will act as a moving appendix to that remarkable book. It is the same story, but told a very different way, one letter at a time. However, because no correspondence was allowed in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, where Corrie and Betsie were sent last, the book ends abruptly. So, this will be a wonderful supplement to The Hiding Place, but it is not one to read simply on its own. – reviewed by Jon Dykstra On to Victory: The Canadian Liberation of the Netherlands, March 23 - May 5, 1945 by Mark Zuehlke 2010 / 552 pages This book is a detailed account of the Canadian Army’s advance into the Netherlands and northwestern Germany during the last phase of World War Two. It is written in a popular (rather than academic) style and frequently relies upon first-hand reports provided by the soldiers themselves for a vivid narrative of combat and other experiences of frontline troops. For this part of the war, the Canadians were superior to the Germans in almost every way, but the terrain heavily favored the German defenders. The ground was frequently too soft for military vehicles so they were confined to roads, making them easy targets. As well, there were a large number of rivers and canals that had to be crossed to reach objectives. The Germans would blow up bridges as they retreated, and time after time the Canadians would have to cross by boat in the face of enemy fire. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the frequent accounts of heroic actions by individual Canadian soldiers. When the chips were down and the situation looked grim, some responded with acts of bravery that could be straight out of a Hollywood-style movie. For example, when Major Harry Hamley found his unit pinned down and threatened by a German attack he grabbed a large machine gun. Charging into the face of enemy fire, Hamley burned through a magazine as he ran, shooting eight Germans dead, wounding several others, and scattering the rest. There were many such real-life heroes. We learn here that the Canadians were not reluctant combatants. When Dutch authorities requested that Canadian forces undertake a particularly dangerous mission, the Canadian commander consulted his troops about their willingness to attempt it: “There wasn’t the slightest hesitation or any objection raised, they were prepared to lay it on the line for the Dutch people.” Author Mark Zuehlke goes into much detail about individual army units and their experiences as they move from one objective to another, fighting much of the time. Many of the events described occur simultaneously in different parts of the Netherlands and northwestern Germany. At times it can be difficult to keep track of how each event relates to the others. This is not the fault of the book so much as a reflection of the large battlefront continually in action. Thankfully, there is a series of maps at the front of the book, making it possible for the reader to keep track of events as the Canadian Army advances over a broad geographical front taking in numerous cities, towns and villages. There are also two sections with photographs. In short, this book lucidly describes a period of history that will make any true-blooded Canadian feel proud, and anyone of Dutch roots so very grateful. – reviewed by Michael Wagner...
Articles, Book Reviews
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 think 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....
Articles, Book Reviews
Learning about Luther: 10 titles your family will enjoy
Five hundred years ago a learned monk drew up 95 pointed arguments and asked for a debate. What he got was a revolution. Fast forward five centuries, and on the very same evening that others are dressing up as demons and celebrating death, at least a few kids are putting on brown bathrobes and dressing up as a round Reformation giant. On Oct. 31, each year, we remember Luther posting his 95 theses, and we celebrate the man's courage, his insight, and his love for the Lord. Largely overlooked are his faults. Oh, yes, we know about his attempts at self-justification, and his crass insults, and even his anger, but in the books and films that are recommended below, Luther’s darkest side is hardly raised. Maybe it comes from a desire not to speak ill of the dead. After all, when we reminisce about our Great Aunt Ditty we fondly recall how she loved to sew doll clothes for all her grandchildren, but we don’t bring up the disagreeable face she made whenever a particular ethnic group crossed her path. The fifth commandment would seem to encourage us to talk only about what was good and praiseworthy about our dearly departed. That’s a good approach for the Great Aunt Dittys of the world, but something more is needed when it comes to Christian heroes. Then there is a reason to acknowledge both the good and the bad. As Calvin said, our hearts are idol factories – so much so that we can take the proper respect (Heb. 13:7) we have for one of God’s servants and twist and pervert it into something that blocks our view of God. We go from respecting the man, to worshipping the legend, and getting angry if anyone dares mention his faults. But acknowledging his flaws guards us against hero worship. It also keeps us from being blindsided by the critics who want to attack the good God did through him. When we understand that even a man after God’s own heart like David – giant-killer and slayer of tens of thousands – was also an adulterer and a murderer, we aren’t going to put him on a pedestal. And then we won’t have to worry about critics trying to knock him off that pedestal. It’s important, then, to acknowledge that Luther said some dreadful things about the Jews. In his earliest writings he was kind and winsome, trying to evangelize to them. But in his later years he concluded that God was done with the Jews, and he wrote a 60,000-word treatise called On The Jews And Their Lies. In it he encouraged that their synagogues and homes be burned, their books and money taken, and their rabbis killed if they didn’t stop teaching. He also repeated, as true, lies about Jews poisoning wells and kidnapping children. This is Luther at his worst, writing a book that Nazis reprinted. So how do we handle Luther’s dark side? We acknowledge it and clearly identify it for the sin that it is. And then we continue our 500th anniversary party. This was never supposed to be all about the man, but rather the wonderful truths he rediscovered about God’s grace and mercy and love. And when we understand our hero’s failings, then how can we help but glorify God all the more, appreciating how He can use fallen, frail, sinful sorts like Luther – and like you and me – to accomplish his glorious ends? ***** It’s been said there are more books about Martin Luther than on any other human being. But some are dry and dusty. Some need a forklift to pick up. And some need a dictionary in hand just to get through them. These aren’t the kind of books we’re after. Our focus is on engaging, and readable. So we're suggesting novels, pictures books and comics that parents will enjoy reading to their kids. And there's a movie, novels, and non-fiction for mom and dad, that they can finish in a quiet evening or two. These aren’t big books, and these aren’t long movies, but they are intriguing. My hope is that you’ll find a good match for everyone in your family. CHILDREN’S BOOKS Martin Luther by Simonetta Carr 2016 / 62 pages This is the perfect book for any 4th grader and up looking to do a school project on the Reformer. Like other entries in Simonetta Carr's series of "Christian biographies for young readers" Martin Luther is a gorgeous book. It is a beautifully bound, with thick pages, and includes 12 full-page paintings among its 44 illustrations. It is also well-researched, and wonderfully detailed. After reading more than a dozen works on Luther I was pleasantly surprised to still be learning so many new things from a children's book. For example, I don't think I'd ever before heard that Martin had a special relationship with his young brother Jacob, nor that Jacob might have been with him when Luther was "kidnapped" on his way home from the Diet of Worms. And it was interesting to learn that Luther's famous "brand" – the Luther rose – was designed for him at the request of his protector, John Frederick of Saxony. What makes this book special is how much Carr has managed to pack in its 60 pages. But that also means that even though this is a picture book, it is probably too much for children in Grades 1 or 2. I think the best bet is Grade 4 and up. Overall, Carr gives a generous assessment of Luther, focussing on his strengths. But she is willing to at least note his faults, the biggest of which is what he wrote about the Jews in his later years. Carr makes brief mention of it, noting that he "wrote against the Jews" and there is no "excuse for writing what he did." I'd recommend this as a wonderful educational resource, and by that I mean that while it makes learning easy, this isn't the type of frothy, brightly-colored picture book that young children will pick up simply for entertainment. It will need a teacher's or parent's prompt. Thunderstorm in Church by Louise A. Vernon 1974 / 132 pages It isn't easy being the son of a giant. In Louise Vernon's children's novel, we get to hear Luther's story told from the perspective of his young son Hans, who is worried that he won't measure up to his father. Though I'm a bit outside the intended demographic, I found it a very fun read, and I think that's because, with one of his offspring acting as the narrator, this is a really unique look at Luther. Hans reveals to us a father who is both funny and furious - a man of quick temper who also laughs a lot. Having Hans narrate also allows Luther to teach us, as he instructs his son, some of the truths that he uncovered about God's grace – that we don't have to buy the forgiveness that God freely offers. Some reviewers have faulted the book for being too dialogue-driven, and there is a lot of talking. But Vernon inserts a few actions scenes as well, like when the town's bullies want to teach the son of the famous Doctor Luther a lesson or two. If your child is a reader, this is a book that could be enjoyed simply as entertainment – it is fun, even if it has some slower sections. As an educational tool, the age-level this is aimed at – as young as Grade 3 – may have to be alerted that this is a fictionalized biography, and that this means only the general facts are true, but many of the details are just a matter of imagination. Overall, Thunderstorm in Church is a wonderful book that could make for a nice night time read with your kids. Also worth a mention Old Testament historian Paul L. Maier’s picture book Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World is simply gorgeous, and a wonderful introduction to the man for younger readers. RC Sproul also has a great picture book for younger children called The Man Who Wanted to Pray, about Luther teaching his barber how to talk to God. And what the barber learned from Luther, our children can learn from the barber. I should note that there is one picture of Jesus, with his face mostly, but not entirely obscured. GRAPHIC NOVELS Luther by Rich Melheim illustrated by Jonathan Koelsch 2016 / 72 pages I've reviewed other "comic biographies" and never enjoyed one more. Luther is scripted like a movie, has witty dialogue with actions scene interspersed, and the artwork is of the same quality you would find in Marvel or DC comics – it is fantastic! Educational comics, as a genre, are valuable in that they make learning history a lot less painful. But very few of these educational graphic novels are the sort that a teen would just pick up and start reading. Luther is the exception. I don't want to over-hype it – a kid who reads nothing but superhero comics will still find this a bit of a stretch – but it really is as good a comic as you will find. Since this is intended for teens, I'll note a few cautions. The word "crap" is mentioned three times, "ass" once, and "old fart" once. But when you consider this is a comic about the notoriously potty-mouthed Luther, this is really quite tame. I’ll also note there is a depiction of Christ on the inside back cover of the book that is not part of the story, but rather part of an ad for other comics by the same publisher. Also: the comic treats as fact that famous conclusion to Martin Luther's speech at the Diet of Worms, where he is said to have declared, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen." There is some dispute as to whether he ever said these words. The comic has several strengths including the overall picture it gives of the happenings going on in the broader world that made it possible for Luther to both spark this Reformation and live into old age and die a natural death. I’ve always wondered why the Emperor didn’t just have him killed. Perhaps it was because, as we learn in this comic, Charles V was busy contending with Turkish expansion and might not have wanted to risk alienating any of his German princes. Another strength is that while this account is sympathetic, it does note one of Luther's weaknesses: that sometimes Luther's pen got the best of him and he could write some "terrible and hateful words" denouncing Jews, Calvinists, and Anabaptists alike. Overall this is a comic that teens and adults (who aren't embarrassed to be seen reading a comic) will certainly enjoy. Luther: Echoes of the Hammer by Susan K. Leigh illustrated by Dave Hill 2011 / 144 pages I think this is the perfect compliment to the other Luther comic reviewed here. Whereas Luther is the more exciting of the two, it plays a little looser with the details. Meanwhile Luther: Echoes of the Hammer is a more reliable history lesson, but it isn't as dramatic. I tested this graphic novel on two of my nephews with mixed results. The older one, heading to grade 10, was happy to take a look, and thought it would be a great way to learn about Luther. The other, two years younger, seemed to think it was too much biography, and not enough comic book for his tastes. As far as comics go, this one is quite an involved, even heavy, read. Interspersed throughout are explanations of key events, like the Diet of Worms, key terms, like “indulgences,” and key figures, like Charles of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor. These one or two-page insertions really add to the narrative and make this a highly educational comic. However, a few of these insertions will also trouble informed Reformed readers. In one list of Luther’s adversaries, Calvin is numbered among them! While it is true Calvin and Luther had their differences, it is surprising to see Calvin listed as an opponent. Especially when, some pages later, we find Erasmus listed as one of Luther’s supporters! While Erasmus was, like Luther, critical of the Roman Church, he never left it, and this led to strong, vitriolic disagreements with Luther. In fact Luther once called Erasmus, “the very mouth and organ of Satan.” It is downright silly, then, for the authors to list Erasmus as a friend if they are going to list fellow Reformer John Calvin as an adversary. The only other quibble would be the overestimation the authors have of Philip Melanchthon, describing him as “a great Reformer, second only to Martin Luther.” Second? Really? How can they overlook Calvin like that? Those quibbles aside, this is a impressive book. The writing is crisp, succinct and engaging. The artwork is attractive and instructive – many of these pictures are worth a thousand words. For example, in the pages covering Luther’s visit to Worms illustrator Dave Hill shows us the man’s quiet passion, his many supporters, and his opponents marshaled together. This gives us a good understanding of the setting, and thus a better understanding of the courage it took for Luther to stand up for what he knew to be true. Older teens will enjoy it, and many an adult too. Also worth a mention The same folks who created Luther: Echo of the Hammer, created a sequel, focused on his wife. Katie Luther is a little shorter, and a little less involved, but also quite enjoyable. YOUNG ADULT FICTION The Story of Martin Luther by Danika Cooley 2015 / 231 pages This is a treat! The target audience is teens, but like any fantastic book, adults are sure to enjoy it too. In fact, this is the perfect book for any adults who feel a need to know more about church history but are a little reluctant to get started. That's how I'd characterize myself. As a student I hated history – learning dates and names seemed pointless. Now I understand it is important to know where we came from, and I want to learn more....but I have no interest in learning it from a dry, dusty tome. That's why this was such a treat. In the hands of a talented writer, it doesn’t take much to make Luther's life exciting. As doubt-filled as he was early on, the Reformer was bombastic after he understood that forgiveness is a gift given, not earned. This is a man who: was condemned by the pope as a heretic had 200 knights pledge to protect him didn't want to marry lest he quickly leave his wife a widow was kidnapped masqueraded as a knight helped formulate the German language cared for Plague victims ended up marrying a nun And it would be easy to go on and on. While much of the day-to-day dialogue is fictionalized, a strength of the book is the many genuine quotes that are interspersed throughout (these are identifiable by the endnote numbers after such quotes). One example: in a debate at Lepzig University, Johann Eck hits Luther with a stinging question: "Are you the only one who knows anything? With the exception of you, is all the church in error?" It stung because Luther, plagued by self-doubt, had been wondering this very same thing. But Luther also knows that God's truth doesn't depend on Luther being brilliant. Nope - God can spread his truth using even the dumbest of beasts, as Luther notes in his reply: "I answer that God once spoke through the mouth of a donkey." Another strength is how the book reveals more of the man – warts and all – than many other biographies. While Cooley largely skips over Luther's love of scatological insults (this is a book intended for younger readers, after all) she does share how Luther's anger stung not only the pope, but allies as well. She has Luther attempt to justify himself: "It is precisely because of my outbursts that the Lord has used me! I never work better than when I am inspired by anger; for when I am angry, I can write, pray, and preach well, for then my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened." There is a time and place for anger, and God made good use of Luther's righteous anger. But later, as Luther aged, it seems he came to indulge in anger, and that got him and others into trouble. Cooley shares how Luther's anger cost him friends. And it was in his anger that he wrote his tract condemning the Jews, who were already facing persecution. So he used his influence for great good, but his anger meant that at times his influence also caused great harm. When Lightning Struck! would make a great present to just about any reader, particularly if they have even the slightest interest in church history. I'd even recommend this to teens who have the same bad attitude towards history that I once did. For them, this might be a bit of a gamble, but if you can get your son or daughter to promise to read through the first 60 pages, that should have them hooked. Luther in love by Douglas Bond 2017 / 320 pages Luther in Love shows us the Reformer from the perspective of his better half. The story begins with 62-year-old Luther spending an evening in his chair. He's not in the best of health – worn out from a lifetime of controversy and conflict – and his dear wife knows that it can't be long before he is gone. So she has given herself a bittersweet project to complete. Others have written accounts of the Reformer, but always from one extreme or the other - either thinking him "the spawn of Satan" or "a living angel." She wants the world to know the real man, and she's going to record his story as he remembers it. But Katie doesn't want her husband to know what she's up to, so even as she's prodding him about the past, and has paper and quill at the ready, he thinks she's busy keeping track of the family finances and other business matters. It's a great premise and let's Bond explore Luther's life through the appreciative, but far from naive, perspective of his helpmeet. After all, who knows a man better than his wife? One strength of the book is the thorough research evident throughout - we are immersed in Luther's world! And then there is Bond's writing – this is the fourth fictionalized biography Bond has written about Reformers, and he is a master of this form. Again and again I had to get up to find my wife and read sections to her that were simply too exciting, or too sweet, not to share. Some of that sweetness comes up when the couple is teasing and debating each other. Bond gives us a wonderful look at how two souls can grow old together and continue growing in love for one another. It's a book about Luther, but it's also a model for marriage. Of the many books I've read about Luther, this is one of the biggest. But it might just be the fastest read. That's why I'd recommend it to anyone and everyone, teens and up. It is funny, entertaining, informative, sweet, challenging, and more. Also worth a mention Christine Farenhorst’s new novel, Katharina, Katharina is the Reformation as it happened far from the walls of Wittenburg. While Luther never makes an in-book appearance, he is still a central figure – Farenhorst gives us an intriguing look at this monk and his work by showing us how he was being debated and discussed by the regular folk of his day. MARTIN AT THE MOVIES Torchlighters: The Martin Luther Story 2016 / 34 minutes The strength of this film is its short length. At just 34 minutes, it can be shown in the space of a single school period. For the pre-teens this is intended for, that might be just the right length, with the quick pace, and colorful animation sure to grab most students’ attention. But the biggest weakness of this short film is….its length. It is far too short to tell this story with the gravitas it needs – Luther’s spiritual wrestling is dealt with in just 7 minutes! It also ends abruptly, with Luther busy translating the Bible into German in Wartburg Castle. The narrator then spends just a single minute summing up the whole of the second half of Luther's life. And then the credits role. I should note a couple of inclusions that might have been better left out. Luther is told that the very night he nailed up his 95 Theses, his long-time protector, Duke Frederick, had a dream about a monk writing on a church door with a quill that was so long it extended all the way to Rome "where it toppled the crown off of a lion." This is presented as the reason Frederick was willing to defend his rebellious trouble-making monk: God had told him ahead of time that his monk was going to topple the pope. But while the movie portrays this as fact, there is reason to think this might just be a popular myth. Also, at the film's conclusion, there is a passing, two or three second shot of a title page illustration from one of Luther's books depicting Christ on the cross, with Luther and John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony kneeling below. I make mention of it, for any who consider this a violation of the Second Commandment. That said, this is a great film for children who don't yet have the attention span for a longer Luther film – it will certainly keep most children engaged, and does give a good overview. Check out the trailer here. Martin Luther 1953 / 105 minutes What sort of film is Martin Luther? The sort that gets produced by a church, and yet gets nominated for an Oscar – solid theology paired with high production values. How often has that happened? It does get off to a slow start; the first couple of minutes are more documentary than drama. But when we get introduced to Niall MacGinnis as Luther, his brilliant portrayal sweeps us into the story. We follow along, starting with his tormented time in the monastery, and continue all the way through to his marriage to an ex-nun. MacGinnis captures all the contradictions of the man – even as the Reformer stands before the Diet of Worms strong and defiant he is distraught and trembling. This is certainly among the best Christian films ever made. As a caution I will note that while there is nothing graphic in the film (it is G-rated), some scenes are psychologically intense. I think that would just go over the heads of most children, but for some young sensitive sorts, Luther's spiritual turmoil might be too much. This is a black and white film, which is a mark against it in many minds. But if you're considering showing this to your class or to your family, here's the secret to helping them get into it: make the sound your priority! In a dialogue-driven film it's the sound, much more than the visuals, that really matters. I still remember watching this with my Grade 6 classmates, years ago. The screen was small – minuscule by today's standards – but this big box TV had great speakers. There was no fuzziness, no straining to understand what was being said – we could all follow it. And after 30 minutes or so, we were all hooked. There are quite a number of films about Martin Luther, with at least a half dozen dramas, and more than a dozen documentaries. The best known is probably the 2003 Luther that played in major theaters, and starred Joseph Fiennes (of Shakespeare in Love fame). It is a wonderful film (and in color!) but marred by an instance or two where God's name is taken in vain. As well, it focuses a little more on Luther's external struggles with the powers that be, and a little less on his own internal struggles. That makes for more action, but less of a theological focus – more about Martin, but God somehow fades into the background. So the 1953 Martin Luther is the better educational film. This would be great for a family movie night. I've seen kids as young as 7 enjoy it, though with younger children you're going to want to break it into a few "chunks" so it's spread out over two or three nights. But for those 12 and up, so long as they are "forced" to give it a half hour ("No, you can't check your smartphone while watching this") it will grab them and give them a good understanding of the amazing work God performed through this man. Watch the trailer here. ADULT NON-FICTION The heroic boldness of Martin Luther by Steven J. Lawson 145 pages / 2013 My brother Jeff called this “a book that every Protestant minister should read….because it uses the story of the first Protestant minister, Martin Luther, to show what Protestant ministers should be doing with the word of God.” To be clear, this isn’t so much a biography as it is an examination of Luther’s “conviction about the Word” and his approach to preaching. Before the Reformation, church services were dominated by the Mass, and by rituals, but Luther and others made preaching central. And not just preaching, but biblical preaching that was willing to be controversial, not for controversy’s sake, but because apostasy needed to be challenged, and sin needed to be named. There was a need to have God’s Word set loose. Author Steven Lawson thinks that’s just as true today, so he’s hoping that Luther’s example – his respect for Scripture, his practice of reading through the whole Bible twice each year, his passionate delivery off the pulpit – can inspire others to go and do likewise. That makes this a book that might seem like it would only be for ministers. But while it does definitely have particular relevance for them, all of us can learn from Luther’s zeal to grow in the knowledge of his Lord. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses by Timothy J. Wengert 2015 / 90 pages If you want to understand Luther and the reforms he began, can there be a better place to start than his 95 theses? When I first got my copy in the mail, I was struck by how short it was. This is the Pope-shaking document that God used to start it all? Shouldn't it be...heavier? And if we were to take out the introduction, commentary, and study guide, Luther's 95 theses only amounts to 13 or 14 pages! Thankfully, Timothy Wengert stretches it out to (a still slim) 90 pages so he can present Luther's pivotal work in the right context. He uses his introduction to set the scene, explaining how the doctrine of indulgences evolved from bad to worse. He also includes two other documents – Luther's letter to the Bishop of Mainz in which he respectfully asks the bishop to consider the theses, and Luther's "Sermon on Indulgences and Grace" written a year later, in 1518, which was an explanation of his 95 theses intended for the common people. In the theses themselves, Wengert fills almost half of each page with footnotes to clarify Luther's more difficult points. So this is a short, but intense read – it will take some effort to work through it, but not all that much time. And to make the going a little easier, Wengert has sprinkled in all sorts of fascinating facts. Did you know Luther may never have posted his theses to the church door? The first published account of this particular detail occurs in 1546, four months after Luther's death. If he did post them he probably used wax, not nails. Luther's 95 theses were not the first he had written. This was a common communication form among students and professors, and just one month before, in Sept 1517, Luther composed 97 theses against scholastic theology. Outside of God's Word, Luther's 95 theses might be the key document that our Father used to reform his Church. It isn't long. It is an education. Also worth a mention John Piper’s The Legacy of Sovereign Joy is about Luther, Calvin and Augustine, and the joy the three found in knowing God better. It is short, at just 150 pages, and an informative encouraging read. It’s also free as an e-book here....