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Adult fiction, Articles, Book Reviews

A better brand of Christian historical fiction

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

Culture Clashes

Can one culture be better than another?

Yes, in so far as one culture can be more Christian than another ***** Can one culture be better than another? We use to think so. We used to understand that Western values — those that are rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition — were values worth promoting, and values that could adequately replace other cultural values. The West was best But the West’s values aren’t what they once were. Today what we are best known for now is the promotion of “values” like gay marriage and abortion. No longer are we famous for our freedom and democracy, but rather Internet porn, pop music, and Hollywood films. One can scarcely blame people for assuming that the West is populated by sex-crazy hedonists, since our pop culture icons usually are precisely that. When we contrast these values with those of other cultures there wouldn’t seem a better or worse – it seems more a matter of different – and we find cultural barbarism practiced on both sides. Some cultures circumcise little girls; some abort them by the millions. Some drape their women in body bags; others produce entertainment celebrating the pornographic destruction of the feminine. Some deny women their inherent rights; others consider the destruction of life in the womb to be one of them. So the West’s values as they are, can hardly be said to be superior. And yet even now there is a shadow of what once was. And even that shadow shows that one sort of culture – Christian culture – is superior. A controversial thing to say, sure, but the Christian religion is one that makes universalist claims and has a universalist message. Some differences remain Consider this example from a report by CNN reporters Jake Tapper and Kim Berryman: Sergeant 1st Class Charles Martland, the Green Beret being separated involuntarily from the U.S. Army for kicking and body slamming an Afghan police commander he describes as a "brutal child rapist," began telling his side of the story Monday. Martland is under a gag order imposed by the Pentagon, but at the request of Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif, he wrote a statement detailing his actions on Sept. 6, 2011, which was obtained by CNN… "Our ALP (Afghan Local Police) were committing atrocities and we were quickly losing the support of the local populace," Martland writes in his statement. "The severity of the rapes and the lack of action by the Afghan Government caused many of the locals to view our ALP as worse than the Taliban." Quinn and Martland were told by a young Afghan boy and his mother, through an Afghan interpreter, that the boy had been tied to a post at the home of Afghan Local Police commander Abdul Rahman and raped repeatedly for up to two weeks. When his mother tried to stop the attacks, they told the soldiers, Rahman's brother beat her. Quinn says he verified the story with other ALP commanders from neighboring villages… "While I understand that a military lawyer can say that I was legally wrong, we felt a moral obligation to act," Martland writes. In short? Sergeant Martland was kicked out of the Army for interfering with something that was considered to be none of his business, even though what was happening was brutal child rape. The Christian contrast Now contrast that with a different example. Sati is a now-obsolete practice of an Indian widow immolating herself on the funeral pyre of her husband, but it was once widely practiced. In fact, when the British colonial forces first arrived in India, they ignored these practices, considering it outside their mandate to limit the cultural practices of others, no matter how repulsive. However, Christian influences inside Great Britain soon effected a change in policy, and the British began to view civilizing as synonymous with colonizing. British officer Charles Napier is famous for his response to a number of Hindu priests who complained about the British prohibition against widow burning. As related by his brother William, Napier responded: Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs. Regardless of your views of colonialism et al, I think it’s important to recognize the words of a man who is confident defending his national customs, and confident in their moral rightness. Today’s West doesn’t recognize objective morality, and doesn’t recognize any concepts of right and wrong. And thus, the “values” we end up promoting both politically and culturally end up being a relativism that is understandably repulsive to many. We used to know how to combat cultural practices and values that we recognized as repulsive: put forward and promote an objectively better set of values, those rooted in the Christian tradition. Short of that, we have no adequate response. As I wrote after the shootings in the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, we are too often presented with a false choice: The barbarism of some cultures versus the lazy, blasphemous nihilism of our own. Conclusion Christians in the West need to be intellectually honest, even when it hurts. We need to reject both in favor of a third way, one that is mocked and ridiculed by cultural elites as it has been for 2,000 years. It is, after all, the only way that has survived both decadence and barbarism many, many times before. Christians passed laws against infanticide, banned gladiatorial combat, destroyed the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and led the movement against segregation. We need to share what it is like to have a culture better than any other – a culture that is Christian. Christianity has been declared dead by the elites time and time again. Each time, this demise has been greatly exaggerated. This time will be no different. Jonathon Van Maren blogs at The Bridgehead, where you can also find his podcast. This post was first published in the December 2015 issue....

People we should know

How the ruling princes of Liechtenstein defeated the abortion activists

As our rental car groaned up the steep mountain slope, I strained to see the landmark we were hunting for: Vaduz Castle, the permanent residence of the ruling princes of Liechtenstein. As we rounded a bend, it suddenly loomed up before us, a massive, sturdy structure, built to last centuries and the inevitable evils that history would bring. The ancient keep surged skyward, topped by a steeple. First built in the 12th century, it was buttressed by an enormous circular tower topped by battlements and a more recently constructed roof. The first mention of this fortress was in documents in 1322, and it was partially destroyed in 1499 during the Swabian War. Since 1938, however, the 130-room castle has been closed to the public, and only the royals walk its halls. A country like few others Liechtenstein, a tiny German-speaking country landlocked between Switzerland and Austria, is both the world’s sixth smallest country and one of the wealthiest, a constitutional monarchy with one of the highest standards of living in Europe. The small city of Vaduz, which is nestled in a valley between gorgeous blue Alpine peaks capped with pure white snow, serves as the capital. When we arrived at the castle, we gazed down at the valley, a patchwork of sunlight and shadow cast by the billowing white clouds passing overhead. The fields were gleaming green, and the brown trees were just about to bud. (“The trees are coming into leaf/like something almost being said,” as Philip Larkin once put it.) A handful of trees near the base of the castle were just beginning to bashfully display their white blossoms. Driving from a meeting with ProLife Europe in Austria and heading to another with Human Life International in Switzerland, stopping in Liechtenstein had been one of my goals. Very few pro-life activists know that the tiny nation of Liechtenstein also prohibits abortion – it is illegal in almost all circumstances, with the possibility of prison terms for those who decide to perform them. To get abortions, women must drive, in total secrecy, to either Austria or Switzerland. Perhaps it is Liechtenstein’s size – 160 square kilometers with a population of only 36,000 people – but abortion activists rarely seem to bother mentioning this pro-life country. Attacked but unbowed Perhaps that is because the royal residents of Vaduz Castle have thus far fended off all attempts to bring feticide to their nation. In 2012, Hereditary Prince Alois, a devout Roman Catholic, responded to a proposed referendum on abortion several weeks before it was scheduled to be held by announcing that he would exercise his royal prerogative to veto any change in law that relaxed restrictions on abortion. The referendum would have legalized abortion up until 12 weeks, as well as in cases of fetal deformity. Abortion activists, who had been confident that a referendum could produce the result they desired, were furious – it was the prince’s intervention, they claimed, which resulted in a vote of 51.5% to 48.5% to keep abortion illegal. In response to the prince’s stand for the pre-born children of Liechtenstein, abortion activists launched a second campaign to target the 900-year-old dynasty, which has ruled the country ever since the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. In 2012, a citizen’s initiative to curtail the power of the ruling princes was put forward, proposing that their power to veto future referendums be limited or removed. Prince Alois was unapologetic, noting through his spokeswoman Silvia Hassler-De Vos that his statement had been a “clear signal that abortion isn’t an acceptable solution for an unwanted pregnancy.” If the citizens of Liechtenstein voted to limit his royal veto, he said, he would step down from his royal duties entirely. The follow-up campaign resulted in a second bruising defeat for abortion activists. A full 76% of Liechtensteiners voted to uphold the prince’s right to a royal veto, thus reaffirming the previous referendum on abortion yet again and confirming that the status quo banning abortion in their country would remain in place. The Royal Family had stood firm in defense of the smallest and weakest citizens of their tiny country, and they had prevailed. In fact, they had prevailed so totally that the end result of the campaign by abortion activists had actually been a rousing endorsement of their right to veto any attempts to legalize abortion by a huge majority of Liechtensteiners. An example to the world The story of Liechtenstein’s royal princes and its pro-life laws is always one I have found very encouraging. I wonder how much bloodshed could have been prevented across the Western world if more courageous and principled leaders had simply stood up when the mob began baying for blood and firmly, with the strength of faith and conviction, told them no – and exercised the full extent of their power and authority to protect those they were obligated by oath to defend. The royal princes of Liechtenstein have shown the world what genuine leadership looks like, and I hope that their story will enter the annals of pro-life heroism. Jonathon Van Maren is the author of "The Culture War" and blogs at The theBridgehead.ca where this post first appeared. It is reprinted here with permission....

News

Saturday Selections - Oct. 20, 2018

How our sun and atmosphere show evidence of being Intelligently-designed (3 minutes) A different take on pro-abortion bully Jordan Hunter When Jordan Hunter kicked pro-life protester Marie-Claire Bissonnette on a street in Toronto, video of his attack went viral. That viral video led to Hunter losing his job, and to the police pressing charges. Both results were unusual – though violence and destruction of property are regularly committed against pro-lifers, it's probably more common that pro-lifers are arrested by the police than the police arrest someone for attacking pro-lifers. It felt good to be on the winning side for once. But one commentator questioned whether the pro-life camp came out looking good. On a related note, even as this was all about the unborn – Hunter kicked Bissonnette for speaking up for the unborn and the unborn were the reason Bissonnette was out there protesting – what got lost in the news coverage was the unborn themselves. The press presented this as being about the principles of freedom of speech, and peaceful protest. Jordan Hunter was certainly attacking those principles, but those principles don't need defending like the unborn do. So, when attention comes our way, how can pro-lifers direct the media spotlight towards the unborn? Most importantly, we have to stick to our own talking points, about the humanity of the unborn, no matter where a reporter might want to take us. The media wants to do something on freedom of speech? We talk about how important it is that we be free to tell the country about the humanity of the unborn. They want to talk about peaceful protest? We talk about how it isn't our own peace we most want to ensure, but peace for the unborn. Of course, sticking to our message is no guarantee that the unborn's humanity will make it to the nightly news – we can't control reporters – but by ensuring all our answers are about the unborn (even as the media tries to take us in other directions) we can make it more likely the media will pass along at least some Truth about the unborn. A warning for parents: Instagram is full of porn Reformed commentator Jonathan Van Maren shares a secular magazine's warning about Instagram, and then shares a helpful resource – Social Media and Teens: The Ultimate Guide to Keeping Kids Safe Online – that parents may appreciate. The deadly Canadian M.A.I.D Three Canadians doctors are promoting the idea of euthanasia for children without their parents' permission. That's where you end up when life is no longer understood as intrinsically valuable. Man wins women's cycling race A man who says he is a woman just won a women's cycling race. How is that fair? The transgender winner argued that because he's lost to the women he was competing against more times than he's beat them, that makes it fair. That might make it competitive in much the same way that if a 40-something-year-old on foot raced his 8-year-old daughter on her bike, it might be close for the first 50 meters or so. But that doesn't make it any less a matter of apples competing against oranges. What was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah? Some are arguing it wasn't homosexuality but was really about inhospitality or rape. Koukl shows how an honest look at the text says otherwise. (5 minutes) ...

Adult non-fiction, Pro-life - Euthanasia

SPEAKING AGAINST SUICIDE: a summary review of "A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide"

Do you find it harder to make the case against euthanasia than against abortion? That might be, in part, because we have less experience – abortion has been legal in Canada since 1969, and euthanasia only since 2016. Also, in abortion, we have victims who need advocates because they can’t speak for themselves, whereas in euthanasia the victims are also the perpetrators. How do you help someone who doesn’t want to be helped – who wants to die? And consider how, in euthanasia, many of the cases involve terminal illnesses, and so have the same emotional tension as the hardest cases – those involving rape and incest – have in the abortion debate. That’s why it’s more difficult. JUST TWO OPTIONS But, just as in the abortion debate, the key is to first find the central issue. With abortion, the main question is, "Who is the unborn?" There are only two options. If the unborn is not human, there is no justification needed for “its” surgical removal. But if the unborn is human, then no justification is sufficient for killing him or her. As in Blaise Alleyne and Jonathan Van Maren’s explain in their new book, A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide Similarly, the crux of opposition to euthanasia can also be boiled down to just one question: How do we help those who are feeling desperate enough to want to kill themselves? And again, there are only two options: either we prevent suicide, or we assist it. Alleyne and Van Maren have given us a wonderful tool in this book. Their extensive experience in the pro-life movement is evident as they start by framing the debate. If we’re going to be effective, pro-lifers need to understand the three possible positions that people hold on this issue. They are: the split position – we should prevent some suicides while helping others the total choice position – anyone who wants to commit suicide should be helped to do so and the pro-life position – all life is precious, and all suicides are tragic THE SPLIT POSITION So how do we respond to the split position? Van Maren and Alleyne say that it is the job of pro-life apologetics is to show the split position’s inherent inconsistency. Suicide is tragic sometimes, but to be celebrated other times? The authors then give ways to counter the reasons often used to justify some suicides, given by the acronym QUIT for: Quality of life Unbearable suffering Incurable condition Terminal prognosis They spend 20 pages showing why these are fallacious reasons, so I can’t properly sum up their argument in just a line or two, but one underlying flaw to these justifications for suicide is that they are based on ageism and ableism. So in much the same way we can expose the inadequacy of many justification for abortion by bringing out an imaginary "two-year-old Timmy" (“What if the mother was too poor to have a baby?” “Would that be a good reason to kill Timmy?”) in the assisted suicide debate we can bring out an imaginary able-bodied 19-year-old. If someone opposes this 19-year-old committing suicide, why is it that they are fine with that 90-year-old doing so? Or that wheelchair bound lass? We can expose them for being ageist and ableist – treating people as less worthy of life based on their age or ability – and show them it is wrong to assist the suicide of anyone, of any age or level of health because as the authors put it, "suicide is a symptom , not a solution." TOTAL CHOICE Next, the authors take on those are (sadly) willing to be consistent and advocate total choice for all who desire to be assisted in ending their lives. Our only response is to insist that the suicidal need love even more than they need argument. THE SOCIAL CONSEQUENCES The fourth chapter shows how dangerous it is to accept either the split or the total choice position, because they have always involved a slippery slope toward more and more assisted killings they reduce the willingness to prevent suicide they undermine the morale of everyone who works in any facility that provides suicide assistance THE PRO-LIFE POSITION Finally, the authors show the pro-life position. We know, on the one hand, that life is a gift from God, so it is not to be thrown away, but on the other, that all life ends, and because of Jesus we need not fear death. So the pro-life position is not about continuing life at all costs. It allows for: the refusal of burdensome treatment the use of pain medication, even when that risks hastening death, as long as the intent of such medication is to alleviate pain rather than to kill The pro-life position also offers positive responses to the suicidal: psychological health resources, pain management, palliative care, and dignity therapy. The authors end with two pleas: "Let death be what takes us, not lack of imagination." In other words, may no-one ever have their death hastened because we refuse to imagine how we may show more compassion. "As people who believe in the dignity and value of every human life, it is our responsibility to.... persuade people that assisted suicide is wrong." In their Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide Alleyne and Van Maren have done an admirable job of giving us the tools to carry out that responsibility. Given the urgency of the push toward euthanasia in both Canada and U.S., we need to read this book. “A Guide for Discussing Assisted Suicide” can be ordered at lifecyclebooks.com (where you can also find the option to buy in bulk for your pro-life group or circle of friends at greatly reduced prices)....

Assorted

A hill to die on

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a public lecture by Dr. Jordan Peterson at the University of Western Ontario. For those of you who don’t know, Dr. Peterson has found himself the target of transgender activists, some of whom actually claim that his refusal to use recently-invented “transgender pronouns” constituted violence. Labeling someone a perpetrator of violence for refusing to use the words you just made up, of course, also allows you to begin perpetrating real violence in response, and this has resulted in Peterson’s lectures being shut down by angry mobs. After the lecture, one student asked Peterson an interesting question. You’ve articulated at great length the dangers of post-modernism and political correctness, the student pointed out. But why this issue? Why choose transgender pronouns as the proverbial hill to die on? Peterson’s response was striking. “Why not?” he replied. When you’re fighting a war, there’s very rarely a compelling reason to die for the next yard of soil – but that’s how wars are won, and that is how the line is held – yard by yard. You have to pick something, and this is what I chose. His response reminded me of something I wrote about at length in my own book The Culture War: the tendency of Christians to count the cost and decide to opt out of fighting. Secular progressives are willing to fight a bloody war of attrition for every crimson inch of soil, from prayers at city council meetings to nativity scenes in public to launching cyber-lynch mobs on little old ladies who don’t want to bake cakes for gay weddings. Christians, on the other hand, often cave at the first sign of pressure. Douglas Wilson commented wryly on this habit on his blog in 2015: Whenever we get to that elusive and ever-receding “hill to die on,” we will discover, upon our arrival there, that it only looked like a hill to die on from a distance. Up close, when the possible dying is also up close, it kind of looks like every other hill. All of a sudden it looks like a hill to stay alive on, covered over with topsoil that looks suspiciously like common ground. So it turns out that surrendering hills is not the best way to train for defending the most important ones. Retreat is habit-forming. Now granted, as I’ve written before, Christians are often too busy raising their families and trying to live their lives to take a stand in the culture wars. For every baker or florist who gets targeted by gay rights activists, you can bet there are hundreds of others who quietly knuckled under to avoid becoming the center of a noisy lawsuit. But we need more men like Dr. Jordan Peterson. He may not be a Christian, but he is, as one writer so eloquently put it, “the frog that wouldn’t boil.” Each yard of ground we give up without a fight is another step closer to being backed into a corner. Dr. Peterson was willing to take a stand. He was willing to stop, look around, and say “Here. This is where I fight.” Each of us will have to make that decision sometime in the near future. And better now than later – it is easier to defend territory than it is to reclaim it. Jonathon Van Maren is the author of The Culture War and blogs at The theBridgehead.ca...