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Amazing stories from times past

On conmen and other masters of deceit

God made man upright, but they have sought out many devices (Eccl. 7:29)

There are vagabonds and there are villains; there are crooks and there are victims; and sin and temptation are present in the hearts of all. Listen to the story of a man who stood behind an old woman just ahead of him at the checkout counter at his local supermarket. The woman was crying. She was well-dressed, although a bit on the shabby side. He tried not to pay attention but could not help but notice that she was in distress. Eventually compassion overcame him and he spoke to her, tapping her on the shoulder: "What is the matter? Can I help you?" She turned to face him, looking surprised, tears visible on her wrinkled face. "Oh, I'm sorry to have disturbed you," her voice, soft and genteel, awoke more pity in his heart, "I've recently lost my son. He died last month." "Oh, I'm so sorry," the man murmured. "The truth is," the woman continued softly, "that he worked here." She stopped to blow her nose, and the man thought of his own mother. "He worked here," the shaking voice went on, "and I would see him every time I bought my groceries." "It must be quite painful for you," the man replied, overcome with sympathy. "The most difficult thing," the bereft woman added, "is remembering that he would always wave to me after my groceries were packed and when I reached the door with my cart he'd say, 'Bye, Mom. See you soon.'" She bent her head and two tears rolled down her cheeks before she looked up at him again. "I don't suppose," she said tremulously, "that you would say, 'Bye, Mom', and wave to me after my groceries are packed and I reach the door, just to help me this first time?" "Of course, I will," the man agreed instantly. The woman's turn at the checkout arrived. The bus-boy packed her things and wheeled her cart to the door. At the door she turned and looked the man in the eye. He waved to her with his right hand and called out loudly, "Bye Mom. See you soon." This single act made him feel good inside and a bit emotional. He began unpacking his own items, placing them on the counter, and thought about how he should call up his own mother that very evening to ask how she was doing. Lost in thought, he was startled when the checkout girl told him the bill was more than $300 dollars. "You must be wrong," he said, "I didn't buy that much." "Oh, but your mother did," she responded with a smile, and instantly he knew he'd been had. Yes, there are crooks and there are victims, and evil resides in the hearts of all of us. When we hear questions like, "How do you keep from getting parking tickets?" and laugh at the answer "By removing your wipers," that is because there is something within us which resonates with getting the better of someone. A master of deceit One of the most infamous masters of deceit and trickery was a man by the name of Victor Lustig. Born in 1890 in Bohemia, now known as the Czech Republic, Victor was gifted with a brilliant mind. Part of an upper-middle class family, his father was the mayor of a small town, so small Viktor's future was, humanly speaking, rather secure. In school he studied languages, easily becoming fluent in Czech, German, English, French and Italian. Victor could have used these talents to become a wonderful teacher or diplomat. Instead, he opted for gambling, turning his abilities to billiards, poker and bridge. In his early twenties he went on pleasure cruises and cheated many gullible, wealthy people out of their money. However, when World War I put a stop to these cruises, he headed for the US. Giving himself the title of "Count," his devious mind conned many in the States out of huge sums of cash (including the gangster Al Capone). The story that really put the native born Czechoslovakian in the news occurred in 1925 when he was 35 years old. Lustig was in Paris at this time and he read in the newspaper that the Eiffel Tower was in great need of repair. The cost of fixing the monumental fixture seemed rather prohibitive. There was even a brief footnote in the article which mentioned that the French government was considering scrapping the tower as it might be cheaper for them to tear it down than to repair it. Upon finishing the article, Lustig's fertile and calculating mind literally saw huge sums of money floating by. His connections with other nefarious characters enabled him to acquire official French government letterhead giving himself the title of "Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Mail and Telegraphs." He typed up letters in which he said that he had the authority to sell the 7,000 ton steel structure to the highest bidder and sent this letter to five leading scrap metal dealers in the city. He instructed the recipients of the letter to keep the matter secret as the public would most likely be upset about the demolition of such a landmark. All five scrap metal dealers showed up and Lustig carefully picked the one most apt to be his patsy: a man by the name of Monsieur Poisson. Poisson gladly paid a handsome amount of money for the privilege of obtaining the contract, and upon receiving it Lustig quickly retreated to Austria. Hearing no news of the swindle, he concluded that Poisson had been too embarrassed to have told anyone. Boldly Lustig returned to Paris and tried to sell the Eiffel Tower a second time. This time, however, the police were made aware of the swindle. The conman barely eluded authorities and was forced to flee to America. Ten years later, in 1935, after having flooded the US with counterfeit bills, and having cheated many more people, the Secret Service finally caught up with Lustig. They reacted to an anonymous phone call made by his mistress who was jealous because Victor was cheating on her. He was arrested and sentenced to twenty years in Alcatraz. Although he initially escaped from jail, he was re-apprehended and spent the next twelve years behind bars. A set of tips, known as the "Ten Commandments for Conmen," are attributed to Lustig. They are:

1. Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a conman his coups) 2. Never look bored 3. Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions; then agree with him 4. Let the other person reveal religious views; then have the same ones 5. Hint at sex talk, but don't follow it up unless the other person shows a strong interest 6. Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown 7. Never pry into a person's personal circumstances (they'll tell you eventually); 8. Never boast - just let your importance be quietly obvious 9. Never be untidy 10. Never get drunk

There is accounting In 1947 Victor Lustig contracted pneumonia and died after a two-day illness. His last enemy, death, was not to be conned out of its prey. Having shunned God's commandments, and the One Who kept them perfectly, he had no place to hide. Although proficient in languages, he was forced to clap his hand over his mouth. Perhaps our lives do not compare with Viktor Lustig's life; perhaps our deeds shine when we hold them up next to his obvious deceitfulness; but we do well to remember that we ought to

...fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. – Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

Christine Farenhorst is the author of many books, including a short story collection/devotional available at Joshua Press here. She has a new novel - historical fiction - coming out Spring 2017 called "Katharina, Katharina" (1497-1562) covering the childhood and youth of Katharina Schutz Zell, the wife of the earliest Strasbourg priest turned Reformer, Matthis Zell.

Family, Movie Reviews

Condorman

Action/Adventure 90 min/ 1981 RATING: 7/10 When comic book creator Woody Wilkins gets the chance to help out the CIA he jumps at it. But he gets a little too into the role, telling his Russian contact – his beautiful Russian contact – that he is a long-time secret agent with the code name "Condorman." He so impresses the Russian agent that when she later decides to defect she tells the CIA she'll only go if they send their "top agent" Condorman to come pick her up. Woody is willing to help again...but with a few conditions. He'll go, so long as the CIA agrees to give him a few special tools he's dreamed up, that come straight out of his superhero comics! The only cautions are of a minor sort. The beautiful Russian agent wears a rather clingy dress on the DVD cover but that is more risqué than anything in the film. In one scene she changes clothes behind a dressing screen and is shown naked from the shoulders up. There are a lot of fistfights, car chases, and explosions, all of the comic variety, with no blood seen. Younger children, particularly those under 6, may find it too much. This is an action-adventure, romantic comedy, Cold War, spy, superhero parody. If you take it seriously this is dreadful…so don’t. As a parody it is hokey, cheesy, goofy, slapstick fun.

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction, Children’s picture books

20 read-aloud suggestions…

I’ve been reading out loud to my girls since they were born, and now that they are older we're still reading, ending each day with a chapter or two of something. That means for years now I've also been on the hunt for that next great book to read, talking to others and searching their bookshelves to find out what their favorites are and what they might recommend. If you're looking for that next book too, or maybe the coronavirus quarantine has you thinking about reading to your kids for the first time, here are some favorites that our family and others have sure loved. Many of these can be checked out electronically from your local library. Otherwise, considering buy the e-book version of one of the chapter books – it's an investment that'll pay off in the hours you and your family can enjoy these stories together. While there are 20 recommendations below, some are of books series, so the total number of books recommended amounts to well over 100, and all of them fantastic! PICTURE BOOKS All of these have big bright pictures on every page, and the first three are rhymed, which makes it a lot easier for a beginning Dad to get off to a good reading-out-loud start; these will make you sound good! A camping spree with Mr. Magee by Chris Van Dusen – it has 2 great sequels The Farm Team by Linda Bailey – about a hockey-playing barnyard Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel  – a favorite of millions for the last 40 years Charlie The Ranch Dog by Ree Drummond – while the 10 sequels can't quite match the enormous charm of this, the original, your kids will love them too Don’t Want to Go by Shirley Hughes – Shirley Hughes has dozens of other wonderful read-aloud picture books The Little Ships by Louise Borden – this is a stirring WWII account suitable for the very young, about the bravery of ordinary folk James Herriot’s Treasury for Children – a big book with 8 sweet stories for animal-loving children Mr. Putter and Tabby series by Cynthia Rylant – an old man and his cat, and his wonderful neighbor and her trouble-making dog - 23 books in all. Piggie and Elephant series by Mo Willems – an Abbot and Costello-like duo of Piggie and Elephant getting into all sorts of antics. 29 books, most of which require from the reader only the ability to do just two different voices BOOKS WITH PICTURES There are pictures in these selections, but not on every page. These are slightly longer, more involves stories which your children will not be able to read on their own until the later part of Grade 1, or the beginning of Grade 2, but they’ll love to hear them a lot earlier than that. Bruno the Bear by W.G. Van de Hulst – one in a series of 20+ classic books that are impossible to find except here Winnie the Pooh & The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne – it’s worth getting the big collected treasury to read and reread again and again The Big Goose and the Little White Duck by Meindert DeJong – a gruff grandpa wants to eat the pet goose! Rikki Tikki Tavi by Rudyard Kipling – the gorgeous Jerry Pinkney adaption is the very best Prince Martin Wins His Sword by Brandon Hale – epic story, in rhyme - this is just so fun to read out loud, and there are 3 sequels! CHAPTER BOOKS Once the kids are hitting kindergarten or Grade 1 mom and dad can read books they might read for themselves only in Grade 5 or 6, or even as adults. That can make reading aloud more fun for parents, as the stories will be of more interest to them now. The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder – this is not the easiest read aloud – the sentences can be quite choppy – but girls everywhere are big fans, and there are 8 sequels The Bell Mountain series by Lee Duigon – only downside to this 11-book Christian fantasy series is that each title leads into the next; it’s one big story with no clear ending in any of the books. But we've read all 11 so far and are eagerly anticipating #12! The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson – A laugh out loud hilarious adventure for older children (maybe Grade 3 and up), with 4 main books, and then a book of short stories too. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien – much more of a children’s tale than Lord of the Rings and shorter too (maybe also best for Grade 3 and up) The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton - the author is Christian though that doesn't come up directly anywhere; it's just good silly fun Treasures from Grandma's Attic by Arleta Richardson – a clearly Christian grandma talks with her granddaughter, telling stories about way back when she was a little girl. This wouldn't work for boys, but our girls absolutely love it (and there are 3 sequels every bit as good). Innocent Heroes by Sigmund Brouwer – Brouwer has collected true stories about the amazing feats different animals managed while working in the trenches of World War I, and then told them as if they all happened in just one Canadian army unit. This is probably my wife's favorite book on this list, and the girls sure liked it too. There were one or two instances where I had to skip a few descriptive words, just to tone down the tension a tad - war stories are not the usual fare for my girls – but with that slight adaptation, this made for great reading even for their 5-9-year-old age group.

Jon Dykstra, and his siblings, blog on books at www.ReallyGoodReads.com.

Animated, Movie Reviews

The Lord of the Rings animated "trilogy"

Peter Jackson wasn't the first to put J.R.R. Tolkien's books on film. Two decades before the first of Jackson's live-action/CGI films hit theaters, three animated versions were crafted in the space of three years, and by two different animators. The first two are well worth checking out. The third is not. THE HOBBIT Animated 77 minutes / 1977 RATING: 7/10 The Hobbit was the first Tolkien book to be filmed, in 1977. Director Authur Rankin chose a particularly cartoonish style of drawing that made it clear from the start that this was intended as a children's film. But his work had some humor to it – just as the source material does – which makes it pleasant enough viewing for adults too. Our hero Bilbo Baggins is a Hobbit, creatures that look much like humans, though they are half as tall and have far hairier feet. Normally Hobbits like nothing better than to stay close to home, but when the wizard Gandalf brings 12 treasure-seeking Dwarves to his doorstep Bilbo signs up for the adventure. And with the help of a magic "ring of power" Bilbo finds, he helps his new friends fight Orcs, Elves, and even a dragon. At 77 minutes long, readers of the book may be disappointed as to just how much the film condenses the story. However, as children’s films go it is quite a nice one, and a good introduction to Middle Earth. That said, for a children's film there are some fairly scary bits, including attacks from Orcs, giant spiders and a "Gollum" so this isn't suitable for the very young. Parents will want to preview this to see how suitable it is for their children. I know I can't show this to my girls yet, but will when the youngest hits about nine or ten. THE LORD OF THE RINGS Animated 133 minutes / 1978 RATING: 7/10 A year after The Hobbit was released, another animator, Ralph Bakshi, decided to try his hand at The Lord of the Rings.  The story begins with an aging Biblo Baggins passing on his magic ring to his nephew Frodo. Shortly after the wizard Gandalf shows up to warn Frodo of the ring's danger. It turns out this ring is so powerful that whoever holds it could use it to rule the world. This is why the evil Sauron wants it, and why the good Gandalf knows that it must be destroyed – this all-encompassing power is too much of a temptation for even the best of men to contend against. It is up to Frodo, who as a little Hobbit is far less tempted by the pull of power, to take the ring deep into the enemy's lands to destroy it in the lava of the mountain where it was first forged. And on the journey he has the company of hobbits, men, an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard to help him. Animator Ralph Bakshi used a style of animation that involved filming scenes with real actors and then tracing over each frame of film to create a line-drawing picture of it. This "rotoscoping" allowed Bakshi to incorporate the endless possibilities of animation with the realism of live-action. The realism also meant that this is a scarier film than The Hobbit. The lurching Ringwraiths (see the picture) are freaky, and some of the combat scenes, especially at the very end, are quite bloody. Though this is animated, it is not for children. There is one major flaw with the film: it is only half of the story! The director planned it as the first part of a two-film treatment, but the second film was never made, so things wrap up abruptly. While it lacks a proper ending, the story it does tell is intriguing. THE RETURN OF THE KING Animated 97 minutes / 1979 RATING: 4/10 This is sometimes treated as a sequel to Ralph Bakshi's film, but it isn't. Arthur Rankin directed, and he returned to the cartoonish animation style of The Hobbit. And while the events in this story do, loosely, follow after the events of the Bakshi film, Rankin seems to have been envisioning this as a sequel to The Hobbit, so he begins with an overview of everything that took place between it and The Return of the King. Or, in other words, it begins with a quick summary of two 500-page books – as you might expect this overview doesn't do justice to the contents of these enormous tomes, and the continuity of the story is completely lost. If a viewer isn't already familiar with the books he'll have no idea what's going on. Things don't get any better once the overview is complete - there is no flow to the story. Huge plot elements are skipped over, and random snips of scenes are stitched to other scenes with stilted narration and cheesy ballads. In addition, Frodo Baggins twice calls on God to help him. Some might argue this could be an appropriate use of God's name, but in the context of a fantasy world in which God is never otherwise mentioned, this seems a misuse. In short, The Return of the King is a dreadful film that is not worth anyone's time.

AA
Adult biographies, Teen non-fiction
Tagged: John Calvin

This was John Calvin

by Thea B. Van Halsema
224 pages / 1959

I’ve read four John Calvin biographies and this is by far my favorite. It is tightly written at only 224 pages, and interspersed with dozens of illustration, but what sets it apart are the many minor details the author includes.

One example: other biographies will mention that Martin Luther read and greatly respected what John Calvin wrote about the Lord’s Supper, but in This Was John Calvin we discover how Luther first learned Calvin’s thoughts. He picked up a Latin copy of Calvin’s Little Treatise On The Holy Supper Of Our Lord in a German bookstore. It’s only a small bit of additional detail but it is this sort of extra tidbit that makes history come alive – now I can picture the large Luther ducking through the small front door of a local bookstore, scanning the shelves of the Religion Section and plucking from the titles a slim volume by this young Calvin fellow he had heard so much about. That’s fun to imagine.

Another example: every Calvin biography will note that half of Geneva’s citizenship opposed the Reformer, many of whom were constantly scheming to get him expelled from the city. Van Halsema goes further, spending 3 chapters (out of the book’s 36) to tell the story of Geneva before Calvin’s arrival, and explain the historic reasons for the division in the city.

She also provides a helpful background to Calvin’s encounter with Michael Servetus – a heretic that Calvin is sometimes accused of murdering. Servetus was burnt at the stake by the Genevan authorities for denying the Trinity, and while Calvin agreed with his execution, Van Halsema notes that most everyone at that time did too. In fact the Roman Catholic town of Lyons had previously burnt Servetus in effigy, only substituting a dummy because the man himself had escaped their grasp.

To sum up, this is a great, readable biography that will be enjoyed by anyone in their late teens or older who has even the tiniest bit of interest in church history.

Jon Dykstra blogs on books at www.ReallyGoodReads.com


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