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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 about the call of Abraham and his response; the prodigal son Jacob and God’s pursuit of him into the land of Laban; or the exile of Joseph, his life as a rather successful stranger in a strange land, and his return to Canaan several hundred years after his death. The books of Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, and the prophets are filled with biographies of judges, kings, queens, governors, and prophets. The New Testament has biographies of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and plenty of autobiography of His most famous follower, Paul, as well as history of the work of Peter and other apostles. Perhaps you are thinking that none of these count as biographies, since their purpose was not to recount the life of a famous person, but were instead intended to reveal God in his covenant love for the seed of the woman, and to show us our sin and the one Way to salvation. Fair enough – but that should be at least one of the purposes of all Christians’ biographies. Christ at work So, one benefit of biography is to show Christ at work defending, preserving, and increasing His people. The natural question at this point might be why we should read any biography beyond those God gives us in His word. The answer is that God didn’t stop saving people at the end of the Book of Revelation. We can gain great comfort by seeing just how active Christ is in his Kingly work after the close of the New Testament period. For example, what is often called the first autobiography is Augustine’s Confessions, written between 397 and 398 A.D., showing both how far he wandered from his Christian upbringing, and how the Lord brought him back. Augustine’s life is a great source of comfort for those who have family members straying from the faith, as his mother Monica prayed for his return for twenty years – and her prayers were answered. Many Christians’ biographies and memoirs have a similar purpose – to reveal just how God moved them toward their conversion. C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy shows the three main stages in his spiritual journey.  First, he was raised within a very nominal and cold “Christian” upbringing.  He went through a period when what he thought was his reason contradicted Christianity. Finally, by the grace and providence of God, he came to the realization that reason and faith both point to Christ as the Son of God. (A great follow up to Surprised by Joy, is Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress, his updating of Pilgrim’s Progress – it shows the hero John, like Lewis, overcoming intellectual stumbling blocks on the road of faith.) A less famous and more recent conversion story is David Nasser Jumping through Fires: The Gripping Story of One Man's Escape from Revolution to Redemption. Nasser tells how in childhood the author’s family escaped the religious fanaticism of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, how he at first therefore rejected all religion as dangerous and fanatical, and how Christian love showed him that the way of Christ is something different altogether. A similar type of journey out of the grip of Islam toward Christ is shown in Mosab Hassan Yousef’s Son of Hamas, about the son of a major Palestinian leader. Yousef goes from seeking to kill his Israeli enemies to seeking to love them. This revelation to the reader of a new purpose for his life brings up a second reason to read autobiographies – to learn from great examples of Christians being used by God for His purposes. Great examples Let’s go back to Augustine for a moment. Like Nehemiah’s Bible book, Augustine’s Confessions is directed first of all to God. Thus, beyond showing God at work, both of them also give us models for our prayer and praise in response to God’s work. Many Christian biographies show us that there are many ways beyond prayer and praise to respond to what God has done. Some more recent ones show us just how big God’s call is on our lives, how we can serve and represent Him in so many different places and stations in life. For example, we all sense that the army is a noble way to serve your country, but both movies and the day-to-day routine of army life may bring a sense of skepticism about the possibility of a Christian serving there. As an example, the movie Black Hawk Down captures the cost of the American military’s mission in Somalia in 1993, but the language in the movie certainly would not make it one worth recommending. (The cliché “swearing like a trooper” has some truth to it.) However, the story of Captain Jeff Struecker’s actions in that crisis in his memoir The Road to Unafraid tackles many of the same issues of fear, courage, loyalty, and sacrifice for teenage guys (and others) without the problem of inappropriate language. In his autobiography Struecker makes us aware that you can serve both God and country. Two books that can inspire teenage girls are Abby Sunderland’s Unsinkable and Bethany Hamilton’s Soul Surfer. Sunderland reveals how a teenage girl’s faith in God strengthens her as she seeks to circumnavigate the world – solo – by sailboat. (We’ll look at the wisdom of that quest later.) Hamilton reveals how a teenage girl copes with the loss of her arm due to a shark attack while surfing, and how she found God’s purpose in the aftermath of that terrifying event. What makes Soul Surfer particularly intriguing is that Hamilton is so normal: her story is broken up by lists of her favorite surf spots, favorite things about her home of Hawaii, and a history of surfing. Yet in the midst of all that typical teenage stuff is the awareness that God is helping others through her willingness to share her experiences. Sharing experiences Which brings us to a third reason for reading biographies. Someone once said that experience teaches us the stuff that we needed to know to avoid the problems that experience brings us. In other words, the school of hard knocks is a really strict school. Biographies can help us learn about the tough stuff without having to go through it ourselves. Remember Unsinkable? Some people have really questioned the wisdom of Abby’s parents in letting her sail around the world alone. Reading the book thoughtfully can bring us to some reflection on whether such a trip is too high a risk – whether it contradicts what the Catechism says about the command “not to recklessly endanger ourselves.” There are countless biographies about a period of history that we all hope will never return to endanger anyone – the Second World War. A quick list of such books from my school’s library would include Diet Eman’s Things We Couldn’t Say, Jan de Groot’s A Boy in War, Albert VanderMey’s When a Neighbor Came Calling, J. Overduin’s Faith and Victory in Dachau, Hermanus Knoop’s Victory in Dachau, and Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. Why do we need to know about that time? First, we need to honor our grandparents, great-grandparents, and others who went through those years, with the strength that God gave them, in a way that honored Him and served their oppressed neighbors. Second, we need to understand the currents that led to the oppression of that time, to make us aware that it could happen again. Biographies can show us both the ideas that led to the devaluing of human life then, and the urgency of the struggle against those ideas now. A biography that shows us the path toward the Nazi rule of Germany, from the perspective of teens living there at that time, is Eleanor Ayer’s Parallel Journeys. Her book shows how a member of the Hitler Youth and a Jewish girl who survived the Holocaust eventually joined to show the horror of that time to audiences now. Hard experience shared can also show us that the danger is not over. David Gibbs was the attorney who fought to keep Terri Schiavo alive when her husband wanted to prevent her from receiving any treatment after a stroke. Gibbs’ book Fighting for Dear Life shows us just how far the promotion of euthanasia has gone. Another threat to human life that is still so often taken for granted is abortion. Abby Johnson’s Unplanned shows us her journey from being a director of the abortion provider Planned Parenthood to acting and praying against abortion. Conclusion One of the fruits of the Reformation was that Protestants stressed, as one writer put it, that God’s people should be a reading people. Reading biographies, in particular, can inspire thankfulness for Christ’s heavenly work on behalf of His people; give us courage to face difficult circumstances; and provide us with wisdom to know where to begin, by God’s grace, to change the world around us.

This was first published in the July/August 2012 issue.

Family, Movie Reviews

The Wild Brothers: 8-episode DVD series (+ free vlog series)

Reality / Documentary Each episode is 28-30 min / 2015-2016 Rating: 7/10 Everyone in our family enjoyed this DVD series, from our 2-year-old all the way up to mom and dad. At series start, the Wild family lives in the deep jungles of Papua, Indonesia, where dad is a missionary to the Wanu tribe. The four Wild brothers are the sort of boys who collect pets in their pockets, and who love to explore the jungle with a butterfly net in one hand and a slingshot in the other. In their first adventure, titled Welcome to our World, we get introduced to the family, and the boys introduce us to God’s creation. We go hunting with them, we’re introduced to their best friend, a native Indonesian child named Pu, and we get to watch their facial expressions as Pu introduces them to a local delicacy, raw echidna brain. A fun extra is the boys skinning a ten-foot python that even after it has been dead for an hour is still moving! The second in the series, called Jewels of the Jungle, follows the family as they go butterfly and moth-hunting. Our girls wanted to buy butterfly nets of their own after that one. Then in the third, Paradise Lost, the family is on vacation with another missionary couple, the Browns, and their three girls. My own girls love this series even though it is all about boys, but I think they appreciated how the girl-to-boy ratio was upped for this adventure. The two families head from the inland missions to on the coast of a beautiful island. From this home base they head out each day to explore reefs and bays and check out sea turtles, manta rays, and sea snakes and so many gorgeous fish. Some misadventures also occur, some painful, like mom getting stung by a jellyfish, and some hilarious, like the boys contending with a large snake (8-12 feet long) that decided to take up residence in their cabin roof. As they do in each episode, the boys bring a solid Christian perspective to their exploration: when they come across an old bone deposit – a burial grounds where skulls are haphazardly stacked by each other – they take the opportunity to talk about how despite the beauty of this world, it is still fallen, and waiting for restoration. There are five other episodes, and each is just as interesting as the next. The only disappointment is maybe in the way the series concludes. In the last two episodes they are make preparations to sail across the ocean in a giant canoe. It is fascinating, as they carve the boat out with local help, and point out parallels to what Noah had to do. But because this is real life, and because in real life sometimes plans get upended, the finale doesn't end on the triumphant note we might have wished for. Cautions There are no cautions to note. While it isn’t clear what denominational background the family is from, the Christian reflections the boys and their parents share with viewers are thoughtful and solid. In one episode a brief shot of some human skulls is seen, and an encounter with a snake in the extra features of one episode was just a tiny bit scary for my little ones. That said, my girls, at the time 2 though 6, enjoyed this immensely – that little bit of tension didn't scare them away! Conclusion The Wild Brothers are very adventurous boys, the sort who play with bugs, and even eat the odd one now and again...at least when they are properly cooked! And they are very godly boys too, very aware of how God makes Himself evident in the creation all around us. And while they are boys, this was exciting for me girls too – I don't know that they fully appreciate bugs yet, but this did move them in that direction. I'd recommend this as great viewing for families with young kids from 10 and under. Mom and dad will enjoy it too, but there might not be enough action for the teenagers. You can buy the series on DVD or via download at AnswersInGenesis.org and as DVDs at Amazon. The trailer below is for the first episode, Welcome to our World. Addendum: free vlog series The Wild Brothers also now have a free vlog series, called "Highlands to Island" that you can find here. While you should watch the first episode, my daughters and I found the later episodes, from maybe 8 onward (there are 30 so far) more interesting than the first few. The vlog isn't quite the DVD series, but until new DVDs come out, this sure is a nice way to reconnect with this wonderful missionary family. https://assets.answersingenesis.org/vid/prod/etc/trailer/30-9-507_wild-brothers-1-trailer.mp4

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Daily devotional

March 28 – Baptism as a sign of the goal of God’s creation

“In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism.” – Colossians 2:11-12a    Scripture reading: Exodus 28:6-21 In the Old Testament, the high priest was the substitute and representative of Israel, symbolized by the stones on his shoulder and the stones in the breast piece of judgment. Wherever he went, Israel went with him and whatever he did, Israel did with him. The Lord Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament high priest. In whatever He did, He functioned as the substitute and representative of New Testament Israel, the church, His body. Thus, when He died, the members of His body died with Him. Baptism is a sign and seal of our having died and been buried with Christ. Because circumcision in the Old Testament, made with hands, was an identity marker that members of the church had been cut off from the life of the flesh in the world and the flesh in their hearts – the old order of life – and had been placed in the church – the new order of life – Paul calls our having been buried with Christ in baptism the circumcision of Christ, one made without hands. It is a sign and seal that in Christ we have died to the life of the flesh in the world and the flesh that lives in our hearts. Thus, as circumcision was a reminder of what being a member of God’s covenant community entailed, so baptism reminds us of the same. If we are to be a blessing for the world, we need to daily die to the ways of the flesh of the world and the flesh of our hearts. Suggestions for prayer Ask your heavenly Father to show you where you need to die to the flesh so that you can be a blessing to those around you.

Rev. Dick Moes is pastor emeritus of the Surrey Covenant Reformed Church in Surrey, BC. He and his wife Elsina have five children and 14 grandchildren.

by Douglas Wilson
258 pages / 2019

Some books only merit a quick read, others should be slowly savored, and a select few are so good you just have to read them out loud to your wife. This is that third sort!

Savannah Westmoreland, a self-assured school teacher, finds herself in the middle of a love triangle. Except that it wouldn’t be accurate to call what the town’s biggest businessman feels for her love. Desire…hunger…lust. But not love. And while the church’s newly arrived pastor is interested, and seems a worthy sort, he can’t get past the walls Savannah has set up.

But events – and friends – conspire against Savannah, putting her repeatedly in the pastor’s company. And even as he uses these moments to make a good case for his marriable merits, Savannah is still actively discouraging him. Why? Something from her past still has a hold on her. The pastor is trying to get around this obstacle, but the businessman is trying to discover exactly what her secret is so he can use it to control her.

This is Douglas Wilson’s third novel, but first romance. It is the second of his books that I’ve read out loud to my wife, the other being Flags out Front. That’s really the highest praise I can give a book. But lest you think Wilson is only a two-hit wonder, I’ll share that his other novel, Evangellyfish, won Christianity Today‘s 2012 best fiction award. This man knows how to tell a story.

As you might suspect of a book written by a Reformed pastor, there is a lot of theology, from the dinner table conversations to the metaphor underlying the whole story. But conversations about God are a great way to learn about God, and even though the book has a pastor right in the mix, this is not a sermon disguised as a story. This is, instead, great fiction telling something true. And if you think the ending a tad contrived, I might agree with you. But I’d also invite you to consider what the author is saying about this God of wonders that we serve.

And speaking of truth-telling, I should own up that as much as I enjoyed reading this out loud to my wife, she didn’t get to hear the whole story. That’s because when she fell asleep I just had to keep reading.


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