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Tim Challies

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fiction

1 year 1 month ago

I do not read a lot of fiction. It’s not that I have anything against a good novel, but more that there is just so much I want to know and so many facts I want to learn, that time dedicated to story feels like it is taking me away from a more urgent pursuit. Or, to hear my wife tell it, I’m just a big snob. Regardless, all the experts say I need to read in a well-rounded way, so I do make way for at least the occasional novel.

Speaking broadly, I see two different kinds of Christian novel. The first begins when an author has a great idea for a story, and, in a desire to make it “Christian,” adds Christian elements to it. In this way the story is primary and doctrine is secondary. The other kind of Christian novel begins when the author has doctrine he wants to teach, and he creates a story as a means of conveying it. Here the doctrine is primary and the story is secondary. In the hands of an especially skilled author, Marilynne Robinson for example, a story can do both of these with excellence.

Trevin Wax has published several books in the past and has just made his first foray into fiction with Clear Winter Nights, a novel that falls into the second category: doctrine taught through narrative. The back cover says this:

What happens when a young Christian dealing with disillusionment and doubt spends a weekend with an elderly, retired pastor? They talk. And no subject is off limits. Clear Winter Nights is a stirring story about faith, forgiveness, and the distinctiveness of Christianity. Through a powerful narrative and engaging dialogue, Trevin Wax shows the relevance of unchanging truth in an ever-changing world.

This is the story of Chris Walker, a young man entering into a dark night of the soul where he finds himself questioning the Christian faith he had once so joyfully professed. As he descends into doubt, he grows hard and skeptical and wanders from all he once held dear. Then he and his grandfather Gil are thrust together for a couple of days and he finds someone who will patiently listen and lovingly provide good answers. Chris’ questions are the questions so many people are asking today, and Gil’s responses are wise, winsome and biblical.

Interestingly, the publisher classifies Clear Winter Nights as Christian living rather than fiction, which shows that this is essentially theology in story, doctrine wrapped in narrative. It succeeds well on both accounts.

Wax is a good thinker and in writing this novel aptly plays both parts—the skeptic and the man of confident faith. He is able to take his readers into sound Christian doctrine but without depending upon answers that are just too neat and too easy. Readers will encounter the basics of Christian worldview and apologetics while learning how to defend Christianity against some contemporary charges. They will also come to understand some of the most important implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection and learn what it means to rely on Jesus through all of life’s peaks and valleys. Wax accomplishes this without being heavy-handed and without ever abandoning his story in order to hammer home a pet doctrine.

Wax is also a skilled storyteller. While he writes compelling narrative, but I found him at his best when creating an atmosphere. He has a knack for simile and comparisons and other elements of writing that work together to create intriguing settings. He made me care about the characters, their stories, their beliefs, and their development. Though this is hardly a tale of intrigue or heart-pounding suspense, it contains a story compelling enough that it easily carries through 160 pages. I cared about the characters enough to be just a little bit sad to have to leave them when the story drew to a close.

Theology in story is a genre that comes and goes in Christian writing and one that, in the past, has been used for good and for ill. I am grateful to see Wax both attempting it and succeeding well at it. Clear Winter Nights is a book, a story, that will encourage the Christian and provide answers to the skeptic. I highly recommend it.

2 years 1 month ago

Is it fact or fiction? That is the question everyone asks when they first encounter Jonathan Cahn’s book The Harbinger. The answer is both, I guess—a little from column a and a little from column b. How about this: The Harbinger is meant to be fact presented in the form of a novel; in reality it is an unfortunate mixture of truth and error presented in the form of a script. Still with me?

What is demonstrably factual is that The Harbinger is a phenomenon. It has held steady for forty weeks on the New York Times list of bestsellers, selling over 700,000 copies through fifteen reprints. At the time I write this, Amazon ranks it #2 on their list of Christian fiction and #7 on their list of Christian theology. The book had largely escaped my view until the past few weeks when I received a series of emails from people wondering what it was all about. I finally caved and read it. Consider this more of an explanation of what it is than a thorough review.

I will get to the content in a moment, but first a word about the form. Though described as a novel, the book is actually far closer to a script (a script that would make an exceptionally tedious play or film). There is very little action, only the barest semblance of a plot, and no development at all of the three characters. Instead, the book is composed of amateurish dialog that proceeds at a plodding pace. The writing is repetitive to the point that it could easily have been boiled down to a third or a half of its current length. The book is a chore to read and, speaking personally, the end simply could not come too soon.

Within this work of fiction are claims that the author insists are factual, biblical, and of the utmost importance. He claims to reveal an ancient mystery that holds the secret to America’s future. Like so many other books, it claims that the truth has been hidden in the pages of the Bible until one man ferreted it out. It is essentially a long exposition of Isaiah 9:10: “The bricks have fallen down, but we will rebuild with hewn stones; The sycamores are cut down, but we will replace them with cedars.” More correctly, it is a dual exposition of this text, applying it both to ancient Israel and to contemporary America. A snippet of dialog will explain how this can be (and, undoubtedly, convince many of you to read no further):

“But what does America have to do with ancient Israel?”

“Israel was unique among the nations in that it was conceived and dedicated at its foundation for the purposes of God.”

OK…”

“But there was one other—a civilization also conceived and dedicated to the will of God from its conception…America. In fact, those who laid its foundations…”

“The Founding Fathers.”

“No, long before the Founding Fathers. Those who laid America’s foundations saw it as a new Israel, an Israel of the New World. And as with ancient Israel, they saw it as in covenant with God.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning its rise or fall would be dependent on its relationship with God. If it followed His ways, America would become the most blessed, prosperous, and powerful nation on earth. From the very beginning they foretold it. And what they foretold would come true. America would rise to heights no other nation had ever known. Not that it was ever without fault or sin, but it would aspire to fulfill its calling.”

“What calling?”

“To be a vessel of redemption, an instrument of God’s purposes, a light to the world. It would give refuge to the world’s poor and needy, and hope to its oppressed. It would stand against tyranny. It would fight, more than once, against the dark movements of the modern world that threatened to engulf the earth. It would liberate millions. And, as much as it fulfilled its calling or aspired to, it would become the most blessed, the most prosperous, the most powerful, and the most revered nation on the earth—just as its founders had prophesied.”

Of course there is a “but” that follows. Just as ancient Israel turned its back on its covenant with God, so too has America. By doing so, America has called down God’s judgment.

Cahn sees the prophecy of Isaiah 9:10 as applying as directly to America as to Israel, and all because America is a second Israel, a second nation dedicated to God and set apart for her purposes. The purpose of The Harbinger is to unmask a series of nine omens which have been manifested in America since September 11, 2001. Just as God warned Israel and gave her specific warnings of impending judgment, God has now given America a similar series of warnings, all beginning with 9/11. The time of warning has now passed and all that remains is for America to make her choice: Will she return to the Lord or will she continue to wander? If she returns to the Lord by such tokens as returning the Ten Commandments to view in public squares and reinstituting prayer in public schools, she will once again receive his blessing; if she refuses, terrorism will increase and the nation will suffer a fate similar to Israel’s.

These omens are very obscure and, not unlike The Bible Code, visible only in hindsight and by stretching both Scripture and logic well past any rational limit. Time would fail me to trace each of those omens, how they are drawn out of that short text, and how they have supposedly been fulfilled in the US of A. In a sense, though, that is neither here nor there, because those omens depend upon supposing that America is a second Israel. That may sit well with some Americans (and probably not so well with the rest of the world), but it is entirely absent from the Bible. While a historian may be able to make a case that America was founded upon Scriptural principles, nowhere in the pages of the Bible are we told that America has any special standing in God’s eyes; nowhere are we given even the smallest hint that America is to be equated with Israel while England or Canada or Nigeria are not. Certainly we cannot reasonably read Isaiah 9:10 as if the original prophecy was meant to apply equally to Israel and America.

For the sake of time and space, I will forgo extensive discussion of the book’s errors. If you are interested in greater detail, you may like to visit this critical review.

Much like The Shack—quite an obvious point of comparison—Cahn displays the power of melding fiction and theology. What stood out to me as I read The Harbinger that perhaps was not quite so clear in The Shack, is that writing fiction allows the author to dictate his reader’s reaction. He can present a mundane fact and follow it with a gasp or an expression of awe as if the reader has missed the obvious importance. This is something Cahn does often and to his advantage. What seems like a great stretch in logic can be rationalized or given increased credence by a character’s excitement. It’s an effective tactic I hadn’t spotted before now. To be fair, unlike The Shack, this book contains a clear and substantial call to the gospel, definitely one of the few highlights and rather a rarity for a book that makes its way to the bestseller list.

It’s not that The Harbinger has nothing good to say, but that so many of even those good things are built upon a poor and even dangerous foundation. The book depends upon a fundamentally flawed way of understanding and applying the Bible, treating the Bible as a mystery to be solved rather than a clear and sufficient explanation of what we are to believe concerning God and how we can live in this world to his glory. There is no good reason to read or recommend this book.

2 years 7 months ago
I had tried reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead at least three or four times, but without success, which is to say, without completing it. I would read twenty pages, or even eighty, and eventually put the book aside and forget to return to it. Gilead is wonderfully written, so it is not that I was trying to slog through dense or poorly-written text. Far from it! It is for good reason that this book received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. For some reason I just couldn’t get into it far enough to take it to completion.

A few months ago I came to the realization that some books are better heard than read. I don’t know why this came as a shock to me, but for some reason it did. Now that I have discovered the beauty of a well-read audio book, I wanted to revisit Gilead to see if I would enjoy listening to it. Earlier this week, before I set out on a nine-hour drive from Toronto to Louisville, I loaded up the book on my iPhone and listened to it all the way from the north to the south. It was sublime.

Gilead is a novel in the form of a long letter, a memoir of sorts, written by John Ames and addressed to his young son. Ames, a pastor in small-town Iowa, married late in life, was blessed with a son of his old age, and in his declining years shares his “begats.” He wants to give his son a record of his own life and a knowledge of family history. But as Ames writes this memoir, adding to it day-by-day, Jack Ames Boughton, a character from his past enters his life and he finds himself in a kind of spiritual crisis.

Let me borrow a paragraph from Wikipedia that aptly summarizes the heart of the book:

Although there is action in the story, its mainspring lies in Ames’ theological struggles on a whole series of fronts: with his grandfather’s engagement in the Civil War, with his own loneliness through much of his life, with his brother’s clear and his father’s apparent loss of belief, with his father’s desertion of the town, with the hardships of people’s lives, and above all with his feelings of hostility and jealousy towards young Boughton, whom he knows at some level he has to forgive. Ames’ struggles are illustrated by numerous quotations from the Bible, from theologians (especially Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion) and from philosophers, especially the atheist Feuerbach, whom Ames greatly respects.

It is strange and unexpected—and delightful, of course—to find so much theological content in a novel that achieved such widespread acclaim and popularity. Ames does not wrestle with minor matters here. Rather, he wrestles with profound and important truths, looking to the great theologians of days past to reflect on the nature of forgiveness, the sin of envy, and so much more. This character of John Ames is wonderfully-crafted in all his confidences and questionings, all his strengths and weaknesses. So too is young Jack Boughton, who serves as something of a foil by forcing Ames to work out his theology in real life.

All of this comes from the pen of a skilled author, who is able to bring a liveliness to the text, who is able to use the English language as powerfully as any contemporary author I’ve read. Gilead really does exemplify writing at its best—an intriguing story, fascinating characters, the proclamation of truth, and beautiful writing. I just had to listen to it to fully appreciate it.

2 years 8 months ago
Is it satire or is it parody? Whatever it is, Douglas Wilson’s Evangellyfish must be unique in the Christian market. This is a book, a novel, first serialized online but now re-edited and formally published, that provides a scathing indictment of evangelicalism. It does it well.

Of course if you know evangelicalism you know that it isn’t all that difficult to satirize. What you dream up as a hilarious punchline is the kind of thing you’ll see next month on the shelves of the local Christian bookstore or in the advertisements for the nearby megachurch. It makes me wonder, why haven’t more people written books like this?

Evangellyfish revolves around Chad Lester, a massively successful megachurch pastor who makes Bill Clinton look positively chaste. He is loved and adored by his legions of devoted fans and by the millions who read his hopelessly shallow books. He drives a flashy sports car and has a massive home and a girlfriends all across the city. He suddenly finds himself embroiled in a sex scandal which is shocking only because this time his accuser is a man.

Laboring near Lester is John Mitchell, also a pastor, but of a small, conservative church. He has no real following and drives an old, beat-up car that is shedding parts. Though he may be a little bit of a legalist at times, he is a genuine and caring pastor who toils in obscurity. He is representative of any number of really normal pastors. The lives of these two men, and so many others, are thrown together as the details of the scandal unfold and explode. As is the case with such scandals, the facts mean nothing when compared to the lurid details.

Allow me to make a few observations about the book.

First, I found that the book was more about “them” than “us.” What I mean is that Wilson appears to be satirizing the run-of-the-mill, cliched, program-driven megachurch. At least that is how I read it. I enjoyed the story, but didn’t feel like it really sucker-punched me the way I had expected it to. I wanted Wilson to aim at me as well because I’m pretty sure there is a lot of foolishness that I am blind to as well. There were a few of those digs, but not as many was I would have liked.

Second, I was surprised, though not particularly offended, at Wilson’s use of language. He quite often uses the kinds of words that tend to be foreign to Christian books (things like “What the hell”). He also uses words related to sex and sexuality that are, well, a bit crude. He does all of this in the name of realism—this is how people actually speak. I did not find it offensive as much as surprising. Are Christians allowed to be realistic? Can we write books that include dialog that sounds the way real people actually speak?

Third, I found that some of the strongest parts of the book are the ones that describe John’s marriage to Cindi. Wilson offers little glimpses into the secret world that exists between husband and wife. These were warm and sweet and true, even if they were more about atmosphere than about story. Of all the books I’ve read, I can’t remember any that have celebrated that little world. I loved it.

Fourth, Wilson gaffed in having John Mitchell preaching 2 Corinthians; no one has ever preached 2 Corinthians because in order to do that, you’ve first got to preach 1 Corinthians, and by the time you get through that book, you are ready to move on to something else. Or that’s my theory anyway. (Seriously—take a look at the number of commentaries on 1 Corinthians compared to those on 2 Corinthians.)

Fifth, well, I really enjoyed the book. Evangelicalism is ripe for satire and Wilson does it well. He is often insightful, often hilarious, and always enjoyable. Here is a lengthy quote that is representative of what you’ll find:

Johnny Quinn sat in his cubicle in the Wildlife4YouthRampage offices, but was not fully sure that was the right name. They kept changing the name on the brochures so it was hard to know from day to day what the ministry was called. Uncertainty was part of the appeal. That was just one problem with ministering to the youth of today—riding the wave of cool and contemporary youth ministry was like surfing the big ones, and with one false move, there you were with sand in your trunks.

Johnny was rubbing the back of his neck. He was one of seven assistants to the main youth minister, who was off doing stuff and never around anymore, and Johnny had been told many times that he had a promising future ahead of him in this “most important work.” He had short blond hair, and a diamond stud earring—big enough to give him street cred, so necessary in youth work these days, and yet the earring was small enough to not worry the small handful of people at Camel Creek who might possibly have a problem with it. And at one point in the church’s history there might have been a handful of people disturbed by this kind of thing in the church, but they had all died and gone to heaven quite a number of years before. Frankly, none of these people cared about it now, apparently having better things to think about. But Johnny still agonized over such things—what size earring would the apostle Paul have worn if his mission had been to the skateboarding and pants-droopy youth of today? Not an easy question to answer.

Every month or so the stress of youth ministry—dealing with the kids and all their issues—would get to Johnny, and so he would head on over to Brandy’s apartment to have her give him a neck rub, followed by her specialty back rub. But somehow her giving him a back rub always turned into him giving her a front rub, and then they would fall again.

That was actually how their relationship started, which is to say, through those darn back rubs. It was her senior year in high school and she was in Johnny’s youth group, which was a combination Bible study and daisy chain back rub circle. At the end of that year they all had a good working knowledge of the gospel of Mark, and significantly improved blood flow in the delts. Brandy gave him a few back rubs back then that brought them perilously close to the edge, but honestly, there was no front rubbing until after she graduated and got her job at KING radio. That meant that when they finally followed the manner of all the earth, they were not violating the professional standards of youth ministry, but rather simply the seventh item on an ancient list which was from the Old Testament anyway.

I hesitate to say too much more about the book lest I begin to give away too many details. Then again, the story isn’t the point; it’s the satire that’s at the heart of it all. Wilson takes aim at some of the worst of evangelicalism and savages it. I’m all for that.

3 years 12 months ago
The book is always better than the movie, right? It seems that way to me, even with movies as good as the Lord of the Rings series. The movies were amazing, but the books were still better. It seems inevitable that Unbroken will appear on the silver screen before long (and, if the rumors are to be believed, it will star Nicholas Cage). Before it does, make sure you read the book. Unbroken is, in a word, amazing—easily one of the best books I read in 2010. It’s written by Laura Hillenbrand who also penned Seabiscuit. This new book has shot straight to #2 on the New York Times list of bestsellers just days after its release.

Unbroken tells the tale of Louie Zamperini, a character who is so much larger than life that I can’t believe I hadn’t encountered him before. Zamperini grew up in California in the 1930’s, a troublesome kid who was constantly stealing, constantly fighting, constantly getting into trouble. He was that kid, the kid who was known by the police, the kid who was every teacher’s nightmare. He was also lightning fast, eventually becoming a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team where he ran the 5,000 meter race and even had the opportunity to meet Adolf Hitler.

War came in 1941 and, like so many men his age, Zamperini joined up, enlisting in the United States Army Air Force. He was made bombardier in a B-24 bomber and posted to Hawaii. He took advantage of all the world had to offer, drinking and carousing with the best (or worst) of them. On May 27, 1943, while searching the ocean for a crashed plane, his own plane suffered mechanical failure and plunged into the ocean. Zamperini survived the crash along with two other members of the crew. They were adrift in the Pacific for 47 days, living off whatever rain fell from the sky and whatever food they could somehow pluck from the ocean. Though one of the men eventually succumbed to starvation, the two who remained were eventually “rescued” by the Japanese Navy, some 2,000 miles from where the plane had crashed.

Zamperini’s war was about to get far worse.

While in captivity he was treated barbarically, a human guinea pig for new medications, a punching bag for sadistic guards, a slave laborer. In one camp he fell under the eye of Sergeant Matsuhiro Watanabe, one of Japan’s most notorious war criminals and a true sadist who beat Zamperini near the point of death time and time again. That he survived the camp at all is not far short of a miracle. But he did survive, right to the end of the war. Though just a shadow of the man he was before, he returned to the United States. He was consumed by hate and anger, haunted by the shadows of what he had gone through and, as with so many survivors of the Prisoner of War camps, he turned to alcohol to numb the pain. He got married but found himself turning on his wife, even physically at times, and he found himself deeper and deeper in the bottle. His life unraveled even further.

Let me pause here. If you already know that you want to read this book, just stop now and buy yourself a copy. Quit now before you come to the real spoilers. Do take note of this caveat: This may not be a book to give to your kids. There is some profanity used in dialog and there is the ugly truth that one of the Japanese prison guards was a sexual sadist who seemed to find sexual pleasure in beating and demeaning his prisoners. The sexual component of that sadism is not discussed in detail, it is not really qualified, but it is mentioned. The profanity and the sadism are historical, so not entirely out of place. But I do want to make you aware of them.

You can buy Unbroken at Amazon, in hardcover or on the Kindle. It will make a great gift for a lover of biography or a person who has an interest in history, and especially military history.

Now, for those who haven’t run out to buy the book already, let me tell just a bit more about Zamperini’s life.

Zamperini pretty much hit rock bottom right around the time that Billy Graham began a crusade in California. Zamperini’s wife had decided to divorce him, having come to the end of her ability to put up with his drunkenness and his abuse. But a neighbor persuaded her to go to the crusade and on her first night there she got saved. Soon she and the friend persuaded Louie to come along as well. The first night he stormed out in anger. The second night he began to storm out in anger, but on his way out, turned back and responded to the altar call. He got saved too. And his life was utterly transformed. He eventually returned to Japan to preach the gospel, even sharing it with some of the men who had imprisoned and abused him.

And here he is, decades after the war, still alive, suddenly coming into the limelight once again. And here, perched near the top of the New York Times list of bestsellers, is a book that tells a story of a marvelous transformation, of God’s stunning saving grace extended to one of his children. It’s almost too good to be true.

What can I do but recommend this book? It is receiving near-universal acclaim and for good reason. It’s an incredible story to begin with, and it only gets better as it goes along. The climax of the story is not when Zamperini is rescued or when he exacts revenge on his captors. The story hits its climax right where Zamperini is born again, where he lets go of the anger and instead finds himself overwhelmed with love, God’s love, and wants nothing more but to share that love with those who hated him. It’s a story that has waited a long time to be told; it’s a story that just needs to be read.

(Note: You may also like to buy Zamperini’s autobiography, Devil at My Heels. I would read Unbroken first and then read at least the final few chapters of Devil at My Heels where he fills out some of the details of his Christian ministry)

4 years 11 months ago

One of the things I enjoy about blogging is that a blog is, in a sense, a living media. It is a reflection of my life, of what I am thinking of at a certain time or in a certain place. Occasionally I go back and read something I wrote years ago and post it again, offering new reflections on it or even just leaving it as-is. Such is the case today as I began thinking about an amazing (and seasonal) word. This one was first posted about 18 months ago.

*****

For the past few weeks I’ve been transfixed by a word. That may sound a little bit strange but it is exactly what’s happened. It keeps coming to mind and I keep pondering it, trying to gain a sense of its meaning. Though the word appears just three times in Scripture, twice in Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming of Christ and once in Matthew in the fulfillment of that prophecy, it’s a word we have all used and a word whose meaning most of us know. Our children read about it every Christmas and our pastors mention it in their Christmas sermons. That word is Immanuel. God with us. God is with us.

I sense there is a lot to this word and to the truth behind it that I’ve never thought about before and I know that there must be great application to my own life. I hope to spend more time studying it and discerning how God wants me to live based on the awesome fact that “God is with us.” But even now as I’ve meditated upon this word I’ve been profoundly moved. How can we ever exhaust the wonder of God, the One who created the heavens and the earth, taking on human flesh? And even then, how can we but marvel that He did not come in the form of a great and mighty warrior, but in the form of a tiny, helpless baby. God in flesh; God in human flesh. Like every baby before and since He entered this world through pain and agony, sweat and blood. Though He was the power that had created the world, He depended upon His mother’s breast for physical sustenance. Though He upheld the creation by the Word of His power, He needed His parents to protect and nurture Him as a helpless infant.

What mind could conceive of a God who would walk this world and be so misunderstood? Why would God come to earth only to have almost everyone He encountered ignore His divinity? How could people see God and not understand?

Yesterday my pastor preached on John 8, one of two chapters dealing with Jesus’ time at the Feast of Booths. Here, as in so many passages of the gospels, we see people trying to figure out who this person is. They accuse Him of being a Samaritan and of being possessed by Satan: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” They wonder how He could claim to know Abraham: “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” They ask if He is going to commit suicide: “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” They are utterly bewildered, blinded by their own ignorance and their own hatred of all that is good and true. Before them stood “God is with us” and all they saw was a wicked and perverse man who blasphemed their faith.

As Jesus’ ministry continued, people continued to seek but not find His identity. Even as He stood trial the questions continued. “Are you the King of the Jews?” asked Pilate, and then “So you are a king?” Pilate was incredulous, unable to understand who this man was. Even His beloved disciples wondered and wavered.

As I sat in church yesterday and pondered the mystery of so many who were unable to see that God was with them, standing before them, I was struck by the fact that this will not always be so. Jesus came to earth incognito, announced only to a group of shepherds as they tended their flocks in the night. Suddenly the dark night was disturbed and God’s glory shone all around. An angel announced the birth of Jesus and immediately a host of angels poured forth their praise at the wonder of it all. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” To so many others, though, Jesus appeared just as a man, walking the dusty roads of Israel. No angels foretold His coming; no trumpets blew as He approached. Even today, Jesus is present with us through the Word of God. He is quietly but powerfully present there, though just as when most people looked at Jesus and saw only man and not God, today most people look at the Bible and see words but not Word.

But this will not always be. God gives us today, He gives us now, to understand who Jesus is and to humble ourselves before Him. He tells us that today is the day we need to put our faith in this God who came as man. When Jesus returns to earth, He will not come incognito. He will come with all of the power and the glory and the honor that are rightly His. When He returns to earth, there will be no mistaking who He is. When He comes again, every knee will bow before Him and every tongue will confess that He is Lord. And God will be glorified in every one of us. There will be no mistaking who He is.

5 years 10 months ago

I don’t often post reviews two days in a row, but today you’ll need to bear with me.

I was somewhat surprised but rather pleased to find The Little Boy Down the Road in my mailbox one morning. It was the first I had heard of the book. I was drawn to it by its pastoral cover and its simple premise—“Short Stories and Essays on the Beauty of Family Life.” As the subtitle says, this is a collection of stories and essays that attempt to reveal the beauty of family life. It is, perhaps surprisingly, the first of Douglas Phillips’ books that I’ve read. Let me share a brief overview of its chapters.

“The Little Boy Down the Road” shares a son’s joy in the return of his father and goes on to speak of the simple joys of parenthood. “The Woman Who Chose Life” is a remarkable story of God’s providence in the gift of life while “The Art of Home School Opera” is a humorous look at the joys and importance of family eccentricities. I should note that in these early chapters I began to notice the repetition of certain words and phrases and felt like something was being said between the lines, that the author was building toward something, but was doing so using a lexicon that was unfamiliar to me. There was talk of homeschooling and patriarchy with many uses of the word multigenerational. But I digress.

Phillips is at his best when he is telling stories and allowing the stories to share the joys and beauties of family life. “The Animal Fair,” his chapter on the many animals that have been pets to his family is as humorous as it is poignant. He says rightly that “Pets tend to accumulate.” Once parents have opened the doors to one pet, others will inevitably follow. This has proven true in the Phillips family. “From rabbits to goats, tarantulas to chickens, dogs, horses, cats, fish, cows, crabs, birds, reptiles, vultures, and even baby deer—at some point or another, they have all lived with, beside, and even on top of the Phillips family.” Through the chapter he describes some of the best and some of the worst pets they’ve had, tells the awful truth about chickens, and pleads with the readers never, ever to trust a Llama (and especially so when it lowers its ears). And through the funny stories, he tells how pets have blessed his family, taught responsibility, and even forced the children to grapple with tough lessons on mortality. With its shades of James Herriot and Farley Mowat, this chapter is the book’s finest. You can download it and read it here.

“The Man’s Library” warms the heart of this avid reader and challenges me with the importance of not only building my own library, but beginning to build one for my son (and daughters) as well. “The League of Grateful Sons” shares what Phillips learned from filming a documentary with survivors of the battle of Iwo Jima and the children of some who did not survive.

As the book comes to its final chapters, it transitions from stories to essays and, sadly, becomes weaker. Here Phillips shows his hand, explaining more fully the emphases of his ministry. He espouses the importance of quiver full theology, of naming children with distinctive names (though here he is able to poke fun at himself for the unusual names he and his wife have chosen for their children), of multigenerational thinking, and so on. What were small hints in the book’s opening pages are unleashed more fully in its final chapters. This is not to say that any or all of what Phillips says here is wrong (though much of it is contentious and falls into the realm of disputable matters) but rather that the quality of writing is better when Phillips is telling stories rather than writing these essays. The book begins with a bang but ends with a bit of a fizzle.

There is a lot to learn from this man who has dedicated his career to emphasizing the importance of family but, more importantly, has dedicated his life to serving and leading the family God has given him. Your enjoyment of this book may well depend on just how much you enjoy the emphases of his ministry. Though I enjoyed reading the book (despite being convicted that my children are where they ought to be in public school, despite having only three kids, and despite never having used the word “multigenerational”), I couldn’t help but feel that the book would have been better had it been just about half as long or had the book’s second half been written in the style of the first.

 

6 years 10 months ago
Inside Narnia was one of the many books published in advance of the most recent movie adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. The book has proved a success, going through six printings since its release in 2005. In the book Devin Brown, a Lewis scholar and aficionado, offered a detailed look into the world of Narnia, digging far beyond the surface, and exploring this magical world. As I had just read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe with my children, I decided to read this as a commentary of sorts, to see what I had missed and what I would want to look for the next time I read the book. I learned more than I would have thought possible. Reading Inside Narnia greatly enhanced my understanding of C.S. Lewis, of the stories he wrote, and of the worlds he created. Because I so enjoyed Brown’s first book, I was thrilled to see that he written a second book in anticipation of the imminent release of Prince Caspian, the second film in the Narnia series.

The book begins with an explanation of how Prince Caspian came to be. It will surprise many readers to know that Lewis first began another story that was intended to stand as the second in the series. But this book led to a false start and a story that was left unfinished. After wrestling for some time, Lewis experienced a burst of creativity and, in eighteen months, completed four new works, one of which was Prince Caspian. After providing the book’s background, Brown looks to the film of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. He lists three areas where he felt the movie improved upon the book and then several ways in which it falls short. He does this hoping that some of the oversights will be corrected in the film for Prince Caspian. Then, as he did in the first book, he turns to whether or not the Narnia books are meant to be understood as allegory. He is careful to point out, as do most Lewis scholars, that Lewis did not intend for there to be a one-to-one relationship between elements of Christian theology and his stories. So, for example, we should not understand that there is a direct relationship between Aslan and Jesus, the cross and the Stone Table. This is crucial to a right understanding of the stories, the characters, and to what Lewis intended to convey through them. Brown also suggests, even if not dogmatically, that the books are best read in the order of publication rather than in the revised chronological order. This would make Prince Caspian the second in the series rather than the fourth. This is, of course, the order the films will follow.

Inside Prince Caspian then follows the pattern Brown established in his first book. He dedicates one chapter to each of the chapters of Prince Caspian and provides ongoing literary analysis. Because Inside Prince Caspian is primarily a literary analysis, it does not focus primarily on the story’s religious elements (though there are many other books that do this). Devin focuses instead on language, on consistencies and inconsistencies in this story and Lewis’s other writings, on symbolism and hidden meanings, and on the life experiences that stand behind the story. He interprets Prince Caspian through the wide lens of Lewis’s vast body of writing.

As an author and writer, this book revealed to me all kinds of good opportunities to look to Lewis for examples or for illustrations. As a reader it revealed to me just how much I missed in reading the book. As a Christian it revealed the depth of spiritual insight Lewis managed to relay even in what seem to be such simple stories.

Literary analysis may sound terribly dull and disinteresting; I found it anything but. I enjoyed both Inside Narnia and Inside Prince Caspian and commend both to you. If you have read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian you owe it to yourself to read these books as well. Read the stories, read the literary analysis, and then watch the movies. I am sure this will enhance your enjoyment and understanding of it all. Just trust me on this one.

7 years 8 months ago
Inside Narnia was one of the many books published in advance of the recent movie adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. In this book Devin Brown, a Lewis scholar and aficionado, offers a detailed look into the world of Narnia, digging far beyond the surface, and exploring this magical world. Having just read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe with my children, I decided to read this as a commentary of sorts, to see what I had missed and what I would want to look for the next time I read the book.

Brown begins the book just where he should: with a rationale for the book’s existence. There are, after all, many similar titles available. He replies that the strongest reason for any new work must be that it first takes an approach not taken before and then must cover ground that has not been covered before. He does both of these. His approach to the story is in the first place literary rather than primarily devotional. He moves through the book chapter-by-chapter, providing literary analysis and supplying “a good deal of supplemental information from Lewis’s life and other writings.” He also offers comments and opinions from a wide variety of other scholars. In many ways the book is a running commentary rather than a collection of essays. “My claim is this: although The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe can be simply read and enjoyed by a child, it can also be read seriously by adults because it is a work rich with meaning. Some of this meaning will be discovered simply by spending time with the text and paying close attention to what Lewis has written. Further meaning will be seen by drawing connections—connections not only to other passages within the novel but also to other works by Lewis, to the events of Lewis’s life, and to the world of other writers who influenced Lewis. … I contend that this twofold approach—first, a careful reading and the second, adding these kinds of connections—will result in greater enjoyment of an already enjoyable book.”

Because this book is primarily a literary analysis, it does not contain a great deal of discussion about the story’s religious elements. There are many other books that look at the story from that angle. Devin focuses instead on language, on consistencies and inconsistencies in this story and Lewis’s other writings, and on the life experiences that stand behind the story. I really felt, as I read Inside Narnia, that the author was unlocking a great deal of the story to me.

Where Brown does deal with religious elements, he typically does so in a manner that is fair even if not thorough. He is careful to point out that this story is not meant to be an allegory for the story of the Bible. He writes “No topic surrounding the Narnia stories has been so misunderstood or has had so much written about it as the question of whether they are allegory.” He ultimately turns to Lewis who affirms that the books actually stem from this kind of thought: “Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, because a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.” While there are certainly obvious parallels between the witness of Scripture and the story told in the Narnia books, they are not and were not meant to be true allegory. This means that we should not go looking too deeply in our quest to find religious significant under every rock and in every crevice in Narnia.

Interestingly, this book made me realize what it is about Lewis’s world that kept me from falling in love with it as I did with Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I think the real difference is in the completeness of the world. In The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe we see a world that very obviously has not been thought through to the extent that Middle Earth has been. Narnia has many clear and obvious flaws. Some of these were reconciled in further books, but many were just left unreconciled. There is much about Lewis’s world that just doesn’t make a lot of sense. I can see now that this kept me from believing the world as I did with Middle Earth.

All-in-all, Inside Narnia was a good and valuable read and one I enjoyed a great deal. It put to rest the haunting memories of high school level literary analysis that seemed to award not truth but originality in dissecting stories we knew nothing about written by authors we had never heard of. This book, on the other hand, represents the work of a man who has studied both the author and his work. It opens up the story and allows us to see what we certainly would not otherwise know. I definitely recommend it to anyone who has read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

7 years 11 months ago
I do not read a lot of fiction. Of the titles I receive, I read only a small number since most do not interest me. Still, when a book looks as good as Germ looks (the cover is really catchy!), when the description mentions that the author’s previous book (Comes a Horseman) is being made into a major motion picture and when the current book had six Hollywood producers bidding on it before it was even completed, I thought it might be worth reading. The book promises to have “white knuckle intensity” and to be a “mesmerizing roller-coaster.”

The book is based around three “facts,” which may or may not be true. First, since 1962, all industrialized nations routinely administer the Guthrie test to their newborns. In the test, a sample is drawn from the baby’s heel to check for certain genetic diseases. Second, most of these cards, which contain identifying DNA, are stored in warehouses and never destroyed. Third, with the advent of gene splicing, scientists are capable of encoding viruses with human DNA. This gives viruses—germs—the ability to find specific DNA, specific people. You know, people like you. And so the book tells a tale of a scientist who has created a ghastly disease that seeks out only specific people based on their DNA. The motive is never made perfectly clear, but seems to be world domination. What else would we expect, really?

There are some books that rely on clever twists and intricately woven plots. There are others that rely simply on brute force. Sadly, Germ is a book that relies heavily, and perhaps almost exclusively, on brute force. Whenever the story begins to slow down, the reader should not expect something surprising or clever to happen. Rather, he should expect blood, gore and splatter. The same scenes play themselves out time and again. This is a book that relies on implausibility - one man having access to the DNA of nearly the entire population of the United States, both government and non-government agencies having near-omniscience, and men and women able to withstand ridiculous amounts of injury and pain. It relies on computers that can hack into any database in the world, of people being able to pass unnoticed through high security and people easily being able to track others anywhere in the world. It is, of course, fiction, so the author can take whatever liberties he likes. But for a book that is positioned as “could be true,” this goes beyond implausible into the realm of ridiculous.

Frantically paced and filled with gratuitous blood, gore and violence, Germ was intense, but also intensely annoying. While it begins with a bang, it ends with barely a whisper. By the end of the book I only wanted the story to end rather than having to endure another chase, another shooting, another round of bloodshed, another person disappearing into “a chunky mist of red and black” as he is blown away by a machine gun. It all got so tiresome, so over-the-top.

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