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Book Reviews, Children’s non-fiction

Animals by design: exploring unique creature features

by ICR illustrated by Susan Windsor 125 pages / 2018 Mexican walking fish, lantern fish, immortal jellyfish, and zorses – those are just some of the crazy creatures featured in this fun little book. Every two-page spread showcases another animal, and even when it’s one you’ve heard of before, there’s sure to be cool details that’ll surprise you. Animals by Design is published by the Institute for Creation Research. That means that, in addition to all the fascinating facts, a clear Christian perspective is also included. The point of this book is to introduce our children to how awesome our God is: hey kids, just look at the amazing, bizarre, surprising, unique, and simply astonishing creatures He’s made! This has been sitting on our coffee table, off and on, for a few months now, and it turns out I was the only one in the family who hadn’t been regularly reading it. My wife and girls had all been taking turns flipping through it. It’s an easy book to dip in and out of – it doesn’t require a big time commitment – because each animal can be read on its own. So, maybe this time I’ll learn a little about zorses, and the next time I sit down at the couch, I can always find out then what makes an immortal jellyfish immortal. The colorful drawings will appeal to kids but it’s a kids book that mom and dad and anyone interested in animals or science will love too. In the US you can find it at ICR.org and in Canada you can order it through the Creation Science Association of Alberta.                  

Theology

PAUL vs. JAMES? Dealing with Bible difficulties

“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” - Paul, writing in Romans 3:28 “You see that a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” - Jam­­es, writing in James 2:24

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Supposed contradictions in the Bible can be unsettling. I had a few aggressive professors in university who offered up Biblical contradictions in a proselytizing sort of way. They were looking to win converts to their atheistic (or, in one case, theistic evolutionary) ways by attacking the trustworthiness of the Bible. I had attended a Christian high school and had almost entirely Christian friends, so I’d never run into this type of attack before. I didn’t know how to respond. Did trusting God mean just ignoring these challenges? Should I just keep believing despite all these seemingly irreconcilable difficulties being offered? Well, contrary to some popular Christian notions, our faith in God isn’t meant to be blind. We trust Him, not despite the evidence, but because of His track record – He has proven Himself trustworthy again and again. And because we can trust Him, we can go all “Berean” on these supposed contradictions. We can look at them closely, without fear, knowing that because God is true, these contradictions are no contradictions at all. Now, not only can we proceed without fear, we can even delve into these with a spirit of anticipation. Why? Because some of these “contradictions” are among the most enlightening passages of the Bible – we can look closer knowing that by better understanding these difficult passages we are learning more about our God. A CLOSE LOOK AT ONE DIFFICULTY One of the most illuminating “contradictions” occurs in James 2. It’s here that James seems to take a direct shot at much of what Paul writes. In Romans 3:28 and James 2:24 the contrast is clearest. Here Paul takes a stand for faith apart from works, while James is certain that both faith and works are needed. This is a big problem here – the Bible appears to contradict itself about the most important of matters: how we are to be justified! We aren’t the only ones confused. In his book Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament Robert H. Stein calls James 2 the one biblical passage that has “probably caused more theological difficulty than any other.” Martin Luther, who loved Paul’s book of Romans, also had problems with the book of James, in part because of this seeming works vs. faith dilemma. ENGLISH TEACHERS TO THE RESCUE? There is a problem here, but it turns out it is the sort of problem that can be solved by any decent high school English teacher. It was your English teacher who taught you words can have multiple meanings. For example the word bad means both not good (“You are a bad boy!”) and very good (“You is bad boy!") depending on the context. While words have a degree of flexibility to them, there are limits to this flexibility – if a word could mean absolutely anything, no one would know what it meant (the word bad might mean both not good and very good but it doesn’t mean blue, root beer, or canoeing). FAITH The word faith also has a degree of flexibility and even has numerous dictionary meanings. As Robert Stein notes, it can mean any one of the following: a religion (the Hindu faith) a branch of a religion (the Protestant faith) a specific set of theological doctrines (A church’s statement of faith) a living vital trust in God (she has real faith) The problem that many people have with James 2 and the contrasting passages written by Paul, is that they assume both James and Paul are using the word faith in exactly the same way. This isn’t so. If we take a look at the context in which Paul uses the word we find him speaking of: faith that seeks to please Christ (2 Cor. 5:7-9) faith coupled with love for the saints (Ephesians 1:15) a faith like Abraham’s (Romans 4:9) and a faith that is accompanied by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:14). James uses the same word quite differently. He talks of: a faith that allows Christians to see brothers in need and ignore them (James 2:14-16) a faith that is purely intellectual (James 2:19) and a faith that even demons have (James 2:19). James and Paul are not using this word the same way! WORKS There is also a notable difference in the way that James and Paul use the word works. Paul talks about works as something men boast about before God (Romans 4:2) or as a legalistic way of earning salvation (Gal. 5:2-4) or as something that people rely on instead of God’s grace (Romans 11:6). James on the other hand talks about works as the natural outgrowth of faith. James’ use of the word works includes Rahab’s hiding of the spies (James 2:25) taking care of the poor and other acts of compassion (James 2:15-16) and works as acts of obedience to God (James 2:21). So again, Paul and James’ meaning is significantly different. THE VALUE  If Paul and James mean different things when they use the words faith and works, then the apparent contradictions between Romans and James, turn out to be no contradictions at all. But it is only by studying these “contradictions” that we can get a proper understanding of the relationship between works and faith. James’ book can be seen as a rebuke to Hyper-Calvinists – people who take the doctrine of salvation by faith alone to mean they don’t have to do good works. Paul’s many letters are a rebuke to people on the other end of the spectrum – Pelagians who believe that they have to earn their own way into heaven by doing good works. And in between these two polar opposites are Calvinists who know that faith without works is indeed dead, but that our works do nothing to earn us salvation. It is indeed by faith alone. And by grace alone. The result of wrestling with this seeming contradiction is that we’ve gained in our understanding of what God has done for us, and what God expects from us! CONCLUSION  So how then are we to deal with supposed Biblical contradictions? Ignorance is not bliss. We don’t need to turn a blind eye. God is trustworthy and that means we can trust that His Word will not contradict itself. We can trust that examining the Bible closely will not be dangerous, but only to our benefit. Trusting God also means that when answers are not so easily had, or just aren’t coming at all, that shouldn’t lead to doubt. We will be able to resolve the vast majority of troubling texts presented to us but we also need to understand some difficulties will remain, and some questions may not be answered for years. Why is that so? Because omniscience is one of God’s attributes, not one of ours. We aren’t going to understand everything. But even if we are limited, there is still so much more we can learn about God. So trust Him enough to seek solutions to any biblical difficulties you’re presented with. And trust Him enough to be content when you only get 9 out of 10 questions answered.

There are a number of very helpful books for digging into Bible difficulties including Robert Stein's "Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament," James W. Sire's "Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible," D.A. Carson's "Exegetical Fallacies," and Jay Adams' "Fifty Difficult Passages Explained." 

Pro-life - Fostering

7 ways to help a foster family

So you’re not able or ready to plunge into foster care? That doesn’t mean you can’t still be involved! Here are some practice ideas for how to help out a current foster family. Educate yourself Educate yourself on the local foster care system. Educate yourself on trauma and how it affects children. Educate yourself on what “reunification” means, and why we need to have a heart of forgiveness and compassion. Educate others The Church can play a big role in supporting the foster care system in your community. Find your local (Christian) foster care and adoption agencies and give freely, both financially and with your time. In our local church we did a special service offering at Christmas for a local foster care agency. Locally we also have a volunteer-run short-term “House” that is a place where children entering into foster care can spend their first few days before being placed…instead of in a hotel or social worker’s office. Get involved there! Search in your community for worthy organizations that are striving to repair the foster care system, and are Christian-based. Share with others, and pull together as a church to support them! Meals If you know a family that is fostering, chances are they have a houseful of children already, and have a lot of mouths to feed. Whether they’ve taken in a new placement or not, showing support by bringing a meal (or even some snacks to stock up the cupboards) goes a long way. They are likely spending a lot of time communicating with the team of people involved with their child, or helping the child work through trauma, or something along those lines. That’s why food is so appreciated! Items Foster parents in Washington State receive a monthly stipend from the state to cover costs but as you can imagine, the costs involved with becoming licensed, as well as ongoing costs incurred can, at times, exceed the stipend. Sometimes a child comes with nothing but the clothes on their back and suddenly the foster parent is making a trip to the store to get formula, diapers, PJs, toothbrush, shoes, underwear – you name it! In our case, we are licensed for ages 0-10, boys and girls. As you can imagine, it’s impossible to store clothes and items for each age group and gender. Also, as we were becoming licensed, we were required to have certain items available in our home (medicine cabinets that could lock, fire escape ladders, emergency food supplies for 8 people for a full week, as well as a bed available for each age of child, etc. etc.). This did become quite costly, so every little bit we got donated to us really helped. If you know of someone going through the licensing process, ask them what they are in need of, maybe you happen to have it lying around! Childcare Whether it’s offering to take their biological children for a time, or the foster child, it might just be exactly what they need. A date night? Groceries kid-free? Or maybe their foster child has yet another appointment (here in Washington State they’ve required what seems to be an overabundance of doctor and dentist appointments) and they’d love to not take along their other children. Whatever it may be, offer! Sometimes it’s hard to ask for help, but if it’s offered it might just be what they need right at that moment. House, yard, and transportation help This can be so helpful, especially around the time of a new placement entering a home. That’s when all the house and yard work gets moved to the bottom of the importance pile. The family needs time to bond, organize, and have a lot of communication with the new team of people that are now in their life. They need to spend that first critical week loving on that child, attaching and adjusting. Offer to come fold a load of laundry, or weed their gardens, or clean a toilet. Or, maybe they’d love you to run an errand or two for them, or pick their kids up from school, or bring a child to their lessons or practice. Just ask! Prayer Please lift these families, as well as the children they are fostering, up in prayer! Ask them if there are specifics to pray for.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. – Eph. 6:18

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.

Wings of Dawnwings-of-dawn
by Sigmund Brouwer

Chariot Victor
1999 / 456 pages

Why would anyone go through all the trouble of building an immensely strong castle in the middle of the North York moors in England? Why else but to hide a secret organization of intellectuals who are protecting the wisdom of past ages. The plot of this novel is based on the tension between two secret societies. The first group, the Druids, have their roots in early British history. Brouwer proposes that after the Druids were repressed by the Roman Empire they went underground and plotted to regain power. The second secret society grew from the first. According to Brouwer, Merlin was the best and brightest of the Druids and he was slated to bring the Druids back to power, but Brouwer’s legend has it that he was converted to Christianity by a simple priest. As a result of this conversion he is said to have foiled the Druid’s plan and established his own secret society, the Merlins, to counteract the efforts of the Druids by using and conserving the knowledge of the Ancient Civilizations.

But now it is 1312 A.D. and after centuries of struggle, Magnus, the castle Merlin had built to carry on his struggle, has fallen under the control of the Druids. The only hope for the Merlins is a teenage boy who either carries the secrets needed to regain the ascendancy or has been turned to the Druid cause. This young man, Thomas, becomes the centre of the conflict between the Merlins and the Druids. Always unsure of who he can trust Thomas conquers and loses Magnus. He is forced to flee from England to Palestine and is chased even there. He returns to England where the conflict even involves the king’s immediate family.

Although this is an excellent novel, Brouwer falls short on a few points. First, although Thomas’ uncertainty about who he can trust works well early in the novel it drags on much to much. The same questions are raised again and again about the same people even when they seem to have proven their loyalties earlier in the novel. Additionally the characters that Brouwer develops lack depth. One finds the rough but noble knight, the fair lady, the wise old man, and the evil scheming villain. Even Thomas himself has that youth destined for glory feel, like some medieval Luke Skywalker.

Still, despite these failings this is an exciting piece of historical fiction. In a historical sense the accuracy with which Brouwer recreates the time and setting of the novel is excellent. Naturally, certain events are changed to reflect the existence of the Druids and Merlins but the book feels right, historically. Brouwer also provides chapter-by-chapter historical notes that explain how the novel could fit into history. Even the questions about who Thomas can trust, although they are overused, provide an “I can’t put the book down” level of tension for much of the novel.

However, the most gripping part of Wings of Dawn is the way that knowledge proves itself the true power. The secret Merlin and Druid societies take so many unexpected twists and turns in their pursuit of knowledge that all the reader can do is hang on and enjoy the ride.

As a Christian novel, Wings of Dawn very successfully manages to be solidly Christian in nature without feeling the need to scatter the pages with incessant sins and weaknesses or seemingly superficial conversions. Thomas begins the novel as a somewhat materialistic agnostic and he, as well as the other characters, has his weaknesses but they aren’t frivolously exploited for sensational reasons. He is soon converted to Christianity but his conversion is simple and believable. Really, when the book deals with overtly Christian themes, they are themes that one can identify with. One sees faith carrying Thomas through extreme trials but he experiences realistic doubts and shows realistic weaknesses.

In the final analysis Wings of Dawn is an excellent novel. Its sound historical background gives it an authentic feel. It provides an excellent level of tension and uncertainty and the twists and turns it takes keeps the reader guessing throughout. I would strongly recommend Wings of Dawn to anyone interested in an entertaining Christian novel.

This novel was originally published under the title Magnus. [Editor’s Note: Brouwer has also expanded this story into a 4-novel series called Merlin’s Immortals (but the 4th book is only available as an e-book).]

–  Richard Veldkamp


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