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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.

Science - Creation/Evolution

The Galileo myth as a universal solvent

What do theistic evolutionists and church-attending gay activists have in common? Both think Galileo makes their case. Theistic evolutionists have long loved the story of Galileo - how he corrected the Church, and was persecuted for it, when he proved that the Earth went around the Sun, and not, as the Church said, the other way around. The moral of this story, they propose, is that just like Galileo corrected the Church in his time, the Church today needs to reinterpret it's understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 in light of what Science has discovered about our origins. Church-going gay activists are taking up Galileo as their champion, too, to argue that the Church needs to re-examine its stance against homosexuality and gay marriage. In his book God and the Gay Christian, Matthew Vine writes:

...remember that Christians in Galileo's day....did not change their minds about the solar system because they lost respect for their forebears or for the authority of Scripture. They change their mind because they were confronted with evidence their predecessors had never considered.... Does new information we have about homosexuality also warrant a reinterpretation of Scripture? (his emphasis)

Galileo as the universal solvent There is a problem though. This version of the Galileo story can be used by more than evolutionists and gay activists - it's infinitely adaptable, and can act as a universal solvent to dissolve orthodoxy of every kind. Yes, the Bible says we are conceived and born in sin (Psalm 51:5). But that's not what many psychologists contend, so isn't it about time the Church learned its lesson from the "Galileo incident" and re-examined Original Sin in light of what we now know about human nature? The Church once thought God created them male and female (Mark 10:6). But now we know gender is a social construct with dozens (71 to date on Facebook) to choose from. So why wouldn't this new information about gender also warrant a reinterpretation of Scripture? Evolution, homosexuality, Pelagianism, gender fluidity, polygamy: Galileo is a friend to them all. Or what if Galileo taught a different lesson? But what if the Galileo story doesn't prove what so many want it to prove? What if a better moral to the story might be something along the lines of, it is very dangerous to let outside sources tell us how to understand Scripture? The truth is, it wasn't a biblical view that Galileo overturned, but rather a Greek one. As Philip J. Sampson explains in his book 6 Modern Myths, "Aristotle – not the Bible – taught explicitly that, 'everything moves around the Earth.'" The Church held to a Earth-centered cosmology because they were influenced by Aristotle, and, as one author put it, read the Scripture "through Greek spectacles." They were wrong to do so. Of course, it certainly is possible for the Bible to be misinterpreted by the Church – that's one of the premises behind the Protestant Reformation! But the story of Galileo has been used by evolutionists, and is now being used by gay activists, to argue that it is self-evident that what we are discovering today, particularly in the field of Science, is far more reliable than the Bible, and thus we should readily reinterpret even the longest-standing biblical doctrines in light of what these new findings tell us today. Not only is that not a lesson we can draw from Galileo, we could very readily draw the opposite: the moral to this story should be that the Church's big mistake was interpreting Scriptures in light of the Greek Science of the day.

Hat tip to Gary DeMar's "Kirsten Powers Jumps on the Pro-Homosexual Bandwagon"

Apologetics 101

One simple question: "What do you mean by that?"

In the May 17, 2016 Breakpoint Daily, John Stonestreet shared a few questions he uses when he finds himself in a tough conversation. The first and most helpful is:

“What do you mean by that?"

The battle of ideas is always the battle over the definition of words. Thus, it’s vital in any conversation to clarify the terms being used. For example, the most important thing to clarify in the ongoing gender discussions is the definition of "gender." So when the topic comes up, ask, “Hold on, before we go start talking about personal pronouns, puberty suppression, or surgeries, I want to ask, what do you mean by gender?” Often, when it comes to these crucial issues, both sides are using the same vocabulary, but not the same dictionary. So to present the antithesis – to speak God's Truth to a confused culture – we have to begin by defining our terms. Defining terms can also serve as a good defense when you're getting attacked, not with an argument, but simply with an insult. When someone tries to dismiss you by calling you a name, the best response is to question the insult.

"You're just a homophobe!"

“What do you mean by that?”

“Um, I mean you hate gays.”

“But I don’t hate gays. I do disagree with their lifestyle – I think it harms them by separating them from God. Is disagreeing the same thing as hating?”

“Yeah, of course!”

“But you’re disagreeing with me? Wouldn’t that mean you’re hateful?”

"Well...um....but you deserve it!"

As in this dialogue above, defining the terms might not win you the argument, but it can expose the vacuous nature of what the other side is saying. And even when you don't win over your debate partner, clarifying the terms is one way to help bystanders see through the name-calling. However, the most important reason to lead with this simple question – "What do you mean by that? – is because showing the anthesis, making plain what the two sides actually are, brings glory to our God. And who knows how He might use the seed we plant?

Culture Clashes, Theology

May I judge?

I hear repeatedly that we’re not supposed to judge another.  Young people express themselves this way, and that’s not surprising – after all, not judging others fits hand in glove with the postmodern dogma of tolerance that’s so rampant today. Different strokes for different folks, so let the other be; who am I to say that what you’re doing or thinking is wrong…. I’ve heard Christians appeal to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount to provide Biblical justification for the position, for Jesus told His disciples:

“Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).

Case closed: do not pass judgment on another. Inconsistent But the Internet is full of comments passing distinctly unfavorable judgments. These leave me puzzled.  We’re quick to repeat the mantra "do not judge" but judgments abound. Something is not consistent here. This sort of thing happens more often. In our relatively small community we hear numerous details of what happens in the life of the person in the next pew, or in the congregation up the road.  And very quickly we have a judgment ready on what we hear. It affects what we say to one another, and affects too how we think about or treat the person(s) about whom we heard a story. Do not judge rashly A quick judgment is simply unbiblical. Solomon put it like this:

“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17).

The Lord in the 9th commandment gave the instruction not to “bear false witness against your neighbor,” and the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes the instruction of this command with this confession:

“I must not … condemn or join in condemning anyone rashly and unheard” (Lord’s Day 43).

That counts for what we say on Facebook too. We do well to repent before God and man of our easy judgmentalism and seek to learn that God-pleasing habit of doing to others as we’d have them do to us (Luke 6:31). As we hate being on the receiving end of perceived gossip or slander, so we need studiously to avoid being on the giving end of gossip or slander. Test the spirits This does not mean, however, that I’m to be neutral concerning all I hear. The postmodern mantra that I’m to be OK with whatever anybody else thinks or does is simply not biblical. Consider, for example, John’s instruction to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1). So much gets said, and people believe so many things.  But I’m to test whether what they say and believe is “from God.” John emphatically wants us to have an opinion on that – and then reject what is not from God. Testing, of course, involves so much more than hearing one thing and swallowing it dumbly as the final word on the subject. Testing involves listening carefully, understanding the details and circumstances, and then evaluating in the light of the revelation of the Lord of lords. You’re meant to have a considered opinion. That’s why, in 1 Cor. 5, the apostle Paul was emphatic to the Corinthians that they needed to pass explicit condemnation on the brother in their congregation who lived in sin, sleeping with his father's wife. They were not to be neutral on this man’s behavior but were to take a stand and excommunicate him. That’s because in this instance the details were abundantly clear (it wasn’t hearsay but indisputable facts evident to all parties), and so the saints of Corinth were obligated before God to form a judgment and carry it out. That obligation was so self-evident that Paul put the matter in the form of a rhetorical question: “is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” (1 Corinthians 5:12). Judging: that’s your duty…. Jesus wrong? Is Jesus wrong, then, when He in the Sermon on the Mount tells His disciples, “Judge not, that you be not judged?” (Matthew 7:1). Actually, Jesus does not tell us not to have a judgment on what we hear or see.  Instead, Jesus’ point is that we’re not to judge rashly. That’s clear from Jesus’ next line, “For” – yes, note that connecting word!

“For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged...” (vs. 2a).

If you are quick to condemn another, do not be surprised when others will be quick to condemn you;

“...and with the measure you use it will be measure to you” (vs 2b).

So if you hear one side of a story and condemn before you’ve heard the other side, be prepared to have folk condemn you on hearsay before they’ve heard your side of the story! Similarly, if you, from a self-righteous height, condemn others' behavior while you are yourself entangled in sin, do not be surprised that you’ll find no sympathy when others find out about your sin. Jesus puts it like this:

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (vs 3).

That, Jesus adds, is hypocrisy (vs 5). As long as you try to hide skeletons in your own closet, you are in no position to draw attention to skeletons you think you see in someone else’s closet. Clincher But Christians are not to hide skeletons in their closets! True Christians are repentant of their sins, and confess those sins to God and to those they’ve hurt by their sins. Then you’ve pulled the log out of your own eye – and at the same time have great understanding and empathy for another’s weaknesses and failures. Then you’ll test the spirits, and you’ll have an opinion on what you hear, and carefully avoid condemning the other in a spirit of lofty self-righteousness – and certainly avoid trumpeting your condemnation to John Public. The person who knows his own weaknesses and failures will instead sit down beside the sinning brother to show him his wrong and lead him on the way back to the Lord. It’s Galatians 6:1:

“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.”

Judge? May I judge another? It depends on what you mean by the word "judge."  I am not to condemn rashly and unheard. But I am to have an opinion on my brother and help him in the way the Lord wants him to help me.

This article was first published back in 2014. Rev. Clarence Bouwman is a pastor in the Smithville Canadian Reformed Church.

AA
Daily devotional
Tagged: Nearer to God daily devotional, Rev. Douwe G. J. Agema

Thursday January 31 – The feast of booths

On the fifteenth day of the seventh month you shall have a holy convocation. – Numbers 29:12

Scripture reading: Numbers 29:12-38

We end the devotions of this month with the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. In chapter 29, we find instructions for several feasts. Redemption is a joyful reality. These feasts were a way to remember the work of God in the past. The Feast of Booths was one of the most joyful feasts. Israel celebrated the care of the LORD when He led them through the wilderness. As we read in Deuteronomy 29:5, no piece of garment wore out, no shoes needed to be replaced. The LORD provided food and drink. God will provide; He daily bears us up (Psalm 68:19). We need to know this too as we travel on.

The Feast of Booths is marked by many sacrifices, indicating the thankfulness of the people. Each sacrifice came at a cost. But there is more. Throughout the feast, blood had to flow. The LORD reminds His people that His care for them is the result of redemption. This is emphasized also by the fact that this feast was a week after the Day of Atonement. God’s care is a result of the shedding of blood.

Our food and drink, all material possessions, are gifts of God. We receive them not because we deserve them or earn them, but only out of grace. A child’s prayer sums it up so well: “Lord, bless this food and drink, for Jesus sake.” We are on the way to the eternal rest. Let us travel in joy, in confidence and in obedience.

Suggestions for prayer

Thank the Lord for His provisions. Pray that we may remain focussed on Him in our traveling.

 This daily devotional is available in a print edition you can buy at Nearer to God Devotional. Rev. Douwe G. J. Agema is currently minister of Living Word Canadian Reformed Church in Guelph and also teaches several courses at Covenant Canadian Reformed Teachers’ College


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