Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Housekeeping Note: Be sure to check out the new gadget on the sidebar: A Jane Austen quiz developed by Suzannah Rowntree from In Which I Read Vintage Novels. If you dare to take it, you'll discover which Jane Austen character you REALLY are. :) It's great fun!

One of my beloved bookshops to visit is a log-cabin style place in the northern part of my state. Most of it is full of New Age stuff, but once you go past that, up a crooked step into the dim-lit back room, you'll find a host of treasures; including a set of Waverley novels that I've drooled over for the last three years. A lot of things are over-priced, some are real gems, worth fetching a higher price tag. Autographed Sam Campbell books. First editions of Chaim Potok's The Chosen and Augusta Evan's St. Elmo (both of which were sadly beyond my budget) and numerous Laura Lee Hope children's books.

The first year I found Scott's Lady of the Lake there. Alas, last year the Dickens book I so longed for was gone, and I am not its happy possessor. But one year I found Cranford, and I spent my hoarded vacation money most happily for this classic amongst Elizabeth Gaskell's works.

It's in awful shape, and in my book-loving heart I probably paid too much for it. But happiness has no price, and this weekend I finally pulled it out to enjoy it again. I loved every moment with the Cranford ladies, and today I would like to share a review of this book with all of you.

The Book

In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women....For keeping the trim gardens full of choice flowers without a weed to speck them; for frightening away little boys who look wistfully at the said flowers through the railings; for rushing out at the geese that occasionally venture into the gardens if the gates are left open; for deciding all questions of literature and politics without troubling themselves with unnecessary reasons or arguments; for obtaining clear and correct knowledge of everybody's affairs in the parish; for keeping their neat maid-servants in admirable order; for kindness (somewhat dictatorial) to the poor, and real tender good offices to each other whenever they are in distress, the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient. ~Cranford, Chapter One

And self-sufficient the Cranford ladies really are; incoming railways to bank failures, hilarious robbery scares to the knotty question of how to address Lady Glenmire when she comes to town, in every dire need these ladies are the pattern of gentility and small-town sisterhood. From the strict Miss Jenkyns to her soft-hearted sister Miss Matty, from the practical Miss Pole to the lethargic Mrs. Jamieson, these ladies and their way of dealing with what life throws at them are sure to delight and entertain.

If you're looking for what to read next, I suggest curling up with Cranford. It's a Gaskell classic that you won't want to miss.

My Thoughts
What can I say? Full of charm, rambling in and out, and encompassing the large and small of Cranford's life, this book is charming and poignant and relaxing all at the same time. It won't take you to giddying heights of epicness--it's like a soothing cup of tea and a cozy fleece blanket that you can curl up with. And books like that are good to have in anyone's library. If you have an e-reader, you can pick it up for free on Amazon.

Mary Smith (who, I might add, you don't know the name of until almost the end of the book), makes a most charming first-person narrator. She's younger than most of the Cranford ladies, and doesn't speak much of herself, but the respect and love for her elders that breathe through every line make her, too, a good companion--she reminds me a good deal of Esther from Bleak House, in her self-deprecation which serves to heighten, rather than hide, her true worth.

Language is minimal, and almost nonexistent--only a couple of instances at best. This is a clean story, and I can't think of any themes to be aware of before reading. The most graphic elements are old ladies telling stories about how to get lace out of pussy's insides, and flannel drawers for hairless cows. :)

A lot of Gaskell's works were written as serials for magazines, and though I don't know for sure on this one, I rather suspect it was as well. Having experience with once-a-week chapter deadlines myself, I can recognize information cramming when I see it, and a couple of her plots are rather hurriedly concluded at the end. But in Gaskell's instance, she can blessedly get away with it. Cranford, its culture, and its people are above and beyond the normal rules of literature, and can meander along its way or rush forward red-faced and out of breath while still maintaining its dignity. :)

I must say, I think our culture could use some Miss Poles and Misses Jenkyns and Mrs. Fitz Adams today. They may have their faults, and little scrimping habits, and tendency for gossip--but they're the most civil, loyal friends you could ask for, and they have the happy knack of being able to instruct young people in the rules of polite society while still being charming about it.

The dear ladies of Cranford have enchanted thousands of viewers on BBC's movie adaptation. As a note, BBC chose to combine several of Gaskell's books in the film, so it's not strictly confined to Cranford's tale; you may find elements in the film that are missing in the book, and if so that would be why.Though I've never seen the movie myself, I hear that it is excellently done, and look forward to watching it sometime.  But today, if you've never actually read the book Cranford, I do entreat you to check it out. The original story behind the movie is such a treat, and a fast, delightful, easy read. The small town charm and delicate characterizations make for a pleasurable weekend's reading--even if poor Miss Matty does think Richard III murdered the two little princes in the tower.

Lady Bibliophile

Friday, April 25, 2014

Demolishing Contradictions

Answers in Genesis has provided a host of helpful resources for our family's education and spiritual growth. Their unapologetic stance on a literal, 6 day creation, careful attention to quality, and dedication to producing articles on movies, scientific discoveries, and cultural events have really helped us grow in apologetics over the years.

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading one of their publications, Demolishing Contradictions. It was a huge encouragement and affirmation of my understanding of the Bible, and today I would like to share it with all of you. :)

The Book
Looking for Bible contradictions can be the non-Christian's biggest form of attack, and the Christian's most frightening 'what if' in daily devotions. After all, the apostle Paul said: "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins." (1 Corinthians 15:17) Both Christians and non-Christians realize that our Bible needs to be true at every point for God's standards to hold true.

What if the Bible isn't trustworthy? Then our faith is futile, and we are still in our sins. And one of the biggest ways critics try to persuade believers that our faith is futile is by searching for contradictions in the Book we base our faith on.

Answers in Genesis called together their team of scholars to discuss some of the most common Bible contradictions in this book, Demolishing Contradictions. They divide the alleged contradictions into five sections ranging from Genesis to the Kings era, the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Letters, and explain confusions that many people have. Issues include why a loving God would order the complete slaughter of Jericho, the differences in the Luke and Matthew chronologies, whether or not Abel ate meat, how God can say he doesn't change his mind when Moses persuaded him not to kill the Israelites; and how God could say all our sins are forgiven, and then state that there is an unforgivable sin. (This last one took me years to understand correctly.)

These contradictions and many more, along with their answers, are put together in a powerful resource that grants clarity, helps Christians understand that the Bible is infallible, and equips creationists to answer critics when the authority of the Word of God is under attack.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
~1 Corinthians 15:19-22 [emphasis mine]

My Thoughts
The book is worth it simply for Jason Lisle's introduction. I'm glad to have it just for those few pages. Contradictions, Lisle says, are 'a serious allegation against the Christian worldview, and we must be prepared to defend the Bible against such claims.' Before the authors start going through specific contradictions, Lisle explains several logical fallacies that many critics use to create false contradictions, and how to tell the difference between a logical question, and an illogical claim. Going through issues such as proper context, creating false dilemmas, sweeping generalizations, and several other problems, Lisle explains the tactics that some critics use to attack the Christian worldview, and how we can recognize and refute them.

Only after that foundation is laid do the authors proceed to answer specific contradictions.

I've read several different resources that attempt to explain 'alleged' Bible contradictions, and the fault with many of them is that they are simply too long and detailed. When an explanation leaves you more confused than ever, it only serves to reinforce your doubt, and answers on Bible contradictions need to be simple and extra-clear. Fortunately, Answers in Genesis avoided the pitfall of confusion; their answers are short, to the point, and easy to grasp. There were a couple of answers that I still did not understand completely, but interestingly enough, they both had the same author involved, so it could have been more due to the author's way of wording things than the answer itself.

The contradictions they chose to include in this book were relevant, and the answers were honest. If it might be a scribe's error, they said so. If they didn't know for sure, they said that also--but every question had at least a plausible answer or two that would take the contradiction away.

This book answered many of my questions, and I hope to read the second volume soon to answer even more.

My brother and I took many of the principles we learned from AiG's ministry and applied them to other areas of interest we had. I use a lot of apologetics principles in writing articles for this blog, and again and again I find myself referring back to things I learned from their books and dvds. My brother developed and taught his own extensive apologetics series called 3:15 Defenders, based in part off of books purchased at the Creation Museum, though most of it was his own work. We've been greatly blessed by AiG resources, and if you've never checked them out, you can find a host of articles, videos, and books at www.answersingenesis.org

Thanks be to God, His Word has stood the test of time, archaeological discoveries, debate, and countless attacks, just as infallible and relevant today as it was when the canon of Scripture was first put together.

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. ~Matthew 24:35
If you have ever come across something in Scripture that seems to be contradictory, there are answers. AiG has Demolishing Contradictions 1 and 2, which I highly recommend, though I've only read the first volume. Even if you already know the answers, the books will give you concise and short answers to pass on to others.
And if these books don't cover everything you're wondering about, God is still able to provide the answers to your questions. He delights to uphold His Word to those who seek after Him. His promises are sure, His Word is infallible, and it shall stand after all its critics bow the knee to Jesus Christ. We can trust it, and trust the One who gave it to us.
It's a precious thing to be able to have one book we can rely on completely.
Lady Bibliophile

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Red House Mystery

The beloved author who gave us the tales  of Pooh and the Hundred Acre Wood, also, believe it or not, wrote a murder mystery. When I first heard that, it was a bit of a shock. After all, I've known A.A. Milne forever as the author who wrote fresh, innocent children's stories that adults love as well. There is no murder in Pooh. Nothing graphic, nothing sad--sure, you have your problems and melancholy moments. But they're never much beyond the Woozle-Who-Wasn't-There-After-All.

So when I heard of Milne's book The Red House Mystery, I put it on hold right away, and gave it a try.

How would the author of Pooh handle a murder mystery?

The Book
Antony Gillingham is on a bit of a holiday, and on a whim decides to stop to see an old friend, Bill Beverley. Beverley is staying at a place called the Red House, the home of Mark Ablett, whose coveted invitations bring many visitors to enjoy the sports and jolly good times to be found under his hospitality.

But when Antony Gillingham walks up the drive to this popular place, he hears a loud banging, and someone crying "Open the door! Open the door!" And he steps straight into a locked room murder scene.

Mark Ablett, Beverley's host, has disappeared, and a man is lying dead on his study room floor. The man is Mark's disgraced brother from Australia who had come to see him that morning. Caley, Ablett's secretary, said that Mark went in and then a shot was fired, and he never came back out again.

Since Gillingham helped discover the body, he takes rather a proprietary interest in the solution, and when the inspector takes the obvious line of reasoning that Mark Ablett killed his brother, and ran away to flee the consequences of the law, Gillingham isn't so sure. He signs up his friend Beverley to be his trusty Watson, and sets off on an exploration of secret passageways, lakelets, croquet boxes, and libraries in his attempt to pin guilt on the man who he suspects is the real culprit.

As the investigation unwinds, Gillingham fears that there may not have been just one murder, but a second one that no one has any idea about.

My Thoughts
What I find fascinating about this mystery is that Milne didn't write it just to get published. His father loved a good old-fashioned whodunnit, and Milne developed this story just to give delight to him.  His beginning dedication reads:

My dear Father,
Like all really nice people, you have a weakness for detective stories, and feel that there are not enough of them. So, after all that you have done for me, the least that I can do for you is to write you one. Here it is: with more gratitude and affection than I can well put down here. A.A.M.

That was a very sweet way to start off a murder mystery. :)

I've read a great many mysteries, and Milne did a fantastic job plotting-wise. I could figure it out along with the characters, but there were still a few surprises that Milne pulled which fit in perfectly and rationally--the delightful, head-smacking twists that every mystery worth its salt incorporates into the solution. Gillingham's step-by-step explanations to Beverley were interesting, funny, and logical (In spite of his jabs at Sherlock Holmes. Come on, people, why criticize the greatest detective ever?) 

Milne doesn't mess around when he writes a murder mystery. It has all his charm and freshness in the form of his amateur sleuths, but there's a streak of macabre grimness winding throughout it that gives the investigation all the frightening suspense of a proper mystery novel.

In spite of its being Milne, there were a couple of things that I didn't find particularly enjoyable. Beverley was always using profanity in the good-natured, joking sort of way, and he and Gillingham had some rather peppered conversation between them, which spoiled the story just a little for me. There are books that only have a few instances, but this book has more than a few, and there's no escaping it. So be forewarned.

The other thing I found a little unsettling was Milne's creep factor. There are books with more than his, certainly, but there were a few late-night scenes that I read a little too close to bedtime. By the end of the book the murderer was too easily sympathized with. For writing a cliché amateur detective plot, and even a cliché reason for the whole murder, Milne managed to put in--whether purposefully or accidentally--a murderer who was the underdog in the whole thing. That's a bit dangerous, because we always tend to sympathize with the underdogs, and murderers as a general rule should not be sympathized with. Deal breaker? Oh, no, it wasn't that bad. But just something to keep in mind as you read.

In this story you won't find situational ethics, so that's wonderful. It's a good, clean story, barring language, and the cast of characters is well put together. From the good-natured Beverley to the pert housemaid Ella to the perspicacious Antony Gillingham, they're all well done. The characters were real and funny; just as well personalized as Tigger and Rabbit and Eeyore in Milne's other stories.

Altogether, unless I could procure my own copy and white-out some of Beverley's penchant for spicing up the moment with a profanity, I probably won't read this book again. I find it much pleasanter to read when I don't have that kind of stuff to wade through. But the mystery was well-written, and gives good credit to Milne's prowess as a writer. It was an intriguing little jaunt into one of his adult books, and had a mix of funny parts that sounded just like what I knew of him, and elements that I would not have expected from the author of well known children's literature.

He can knock up a pretty decent mystery. But Winnie the Pooh is where he really shines.

Lady Bibliophile

Friday, April 18, 2014

Let Us Fix Our Eyes On Jesus

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Every year I take Good Friday to focus on the work of Jesus Christ here on the blog. The last couple of years I've posted an article called The Battle Won. But today I want to update. When I originally wrote that article, it was after seeing someone we knew walk away from the Lord. That hurt, and I haven't forgotten it. But in the last few months, things have changed--and the battle between good and evil has gotten a lot more intense.
For instance, just last month my state voted to allow homosexual unions. We're still fighting to the bloody end on it, but we know it's coming. Two significant Christian ministries just caved on the gay marriage issue. Other ministries have crumbled, and some of the very tools we used to fight against evil have now turned double-edged and disintegrated in our hands. I've watched good Christians pass away in the last couple of months, friends move, families hurt--it seems to be a time of the changing of the guard, both in Christian and secular circles.
And I think not just in my own family, but in the Church at large, faithful followers are feeling just a little overwhelmed at how fast things are progressing. We trust that God is sovereign, but still deep down we wonder what's going to happen, and what it all means for our future.
When I see darkness in the culture, I for one am tempted to hide from it--to push it down and lock it up, and make sure that it doesn't come back to my remembrance. Because, deep down, if I admitted it, I'm afraid of being swallowed by the darkness.
But that's not what Jesus did. And today we celebrate the fact that he faced the darkness and overcame it.  
And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
~Luke 22:41-44
He went out and faced the darkness in the full knowledge of what he was facing-and even though he pleaded that the cup might pass from him, he did not hide or quail--he offered himself up willingly. And he told us that we would face it someday as his followers.
 Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. ~John 16:20-22
Jesus took on every bit of our human frailty, and was tempted in every way as we are, and even with that he conquered a greater darkness than we will ever face. But lately it's sure hard to admit that anyone but Jesus can finish the race victoriously. There are so many stories of compromise that are reaching the headlines, it's easy to focus on the people who stumbled in their race instead of so many stories of faithfulness that nobody ever hears about.
That finishing the race stuff? Surely that's just for the apostles. How can we fight the good fight, and win the prize in today's culture? How are we assured of the victory that Paul seems to promise so freely to those who love Christ?
Is it just by chance that some finish well and some don't?
It's when I'm wrestling with this question that I love to turn to Hebrews chapter 11. It's a most encouraging, yet mind-boggling chapter about the people that God holds up to be our example of faith. The men in there, they were all counted as victors, even though they bedded down with prostitutes and killed faithful followers, embezzled money and abdicated leadership to women. The people in the hall of faith couldn't lead their sons, and told God they were too weak, and sacrificed their daughters, and went about in public spectacles of disgrace and torture--but they were still counted.
Just look at the nation of Israel--they couldn't keep to the law God gave them if their life depended on it. They spend more time in apostasy than they spend following the Lord, and yet He loved them and redeemed them again and again, even when they were sawing his prophets in two and stoning them to death, and putting up detestable man-made images. Our age of apostasy is starting to look more and more like theirs.
Why are these people even counted as victors at all?
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord." ~1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Maybe our perception of 'winning the race' is a little different than God's.  Maybe we think that if we just run that race then we'll get the glory, just like Jesus Christ did. But in reality, every race is won when Jesus' name is exalted, not ours. Jesus Christ gets the glory that these people won in Hebrews 11, even though they were so faulty and broken. It wasn't so much that each of these men were perfect--though they overcame, true--but that God won through them. He was glorified through them. If we had lived in their time, we would have said they lost the race before they even started. But they won the race--because they desired to exalt their Lord rather than themselves.
It's only those who face Satan's darkness in their own strength and pride that fall. They have to. God will not abide anyone trying to take His glory. But those who go out in humility, not because they know they can do it (for oftentimes it seems they can't) but in the knowledge that they have been called, and they must obey one step after another, until the Lord calls them home--those who trust that God is working through them, and rely on His grace, and cling to His ability to see them through all perils--they are the ones that will stand firm in the day of Jesus Christ.
Because when God has someone finish a race, he wants Jesus Christ to get the glory, not the person running. And he can use faulty messengers to bring him glory, because of Jesus' redeeming blood. He looks on the Church, and sees a blood-bought bride for his son, and the sin that we are so frightened about already conquered by her Bridegroom.
Soli Christus. Soli Deo Gloria.
Maybe in the last few months as we've seen people fail, we're still looking to them just as much in our sadness as we were in our hero-worship when they were on top of the world. Despair turns inward. Manward. But hope--enduring, unconquerable hope--looks to Jesus, because today we celebrate the fact that by his death He crushed Satan with his heel.
The devil thought Jesus had lost the race, too, on that day. But praise God, He won, so that we too might be conquerors of sin and death.
 "I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” ~John 16:33
Christ is victorious, and he shall be glorified in today's Church just as much as in the time when his physical body was here on earth. Jesus' victory over sin, even with the ministry closings and ministry compromises, has not diminished one jot since the moment he first achieved it. Jesus' victory over death is still just as true, just as effective, and just as relevant, and shall be forevermore.
That's what we commemorate today. So today when you think of Good Friday, think not just of the God-man who died to cleanse your  individual sins, but the one who came that all sin might be conquered. Finished. Annihilated. We do not need to deny the darkness we see in our culture today. We can acknowledge it--as long as we lean deeper and deeper into the victory that was purchased, and know that our victory is in the Christ who died for us.
That being said, even though Christ won the victory, he's still given us a battle to fight. Because Satan hasn't acknowledged Jesus as victor yet, and he is attacking Christ's glory by seeking to crumble his Church.
Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
~Ephesians 6:11-13
So friends, arise and put on the armor of Christ. For we are fighting. And we'll be wounded, and we'll be facing darkness that is bigger than any one of us individually. Jesus had to bear wounds, too. Jesus had his dark night when he had to look into the face of utter terror. Jesus had his moment of despair when he cried out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
What happened after that?
Well, what did happen?
If the One who bore every sin that we are seeing played out in our culture today, paid for them, and conquered them--all the gay marriage compromises and leader failures, and the consequences of death that invade our world--if he paid for them--then we his people look to our Lord who won the victory, and we do not quail in the present darkness.
Every darkness we face now was conquered 2,000 years ago. And though we still face them--though the world is breaking more and more, and we still have to bear the consequences and sadness of the effects of sin--yet we hope. We should not expect to escape the darkness Jesus faced, for if we share in the glory of our Lord, then we must also share in His sufferings.
We can expect to reach the light after the darkness. Because Jesus rose again, and in that security we press on. We do not give up. We do not lose heart. We do not break faith--because Jesus himself kept faith, and if we abide in him, then He will grant to us His abundant victory.
Lady Bibliophile

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Accessible Gospel

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There are plenty of articles on the web about how badly Christian authors bungle the obligatory plot of a character coming to Christ. I've written some of them.

But there aren't so many articles encouraging Christian authors that they should write conversion stories. And this is just a guess on my part, but it has to get discouraging to keep hearing the negative side from readers of how badly they did trying to include the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So today, with much prayer seeking for God's wisdom, I want to write an article on the other side of the coin. Because sometimes we Christians see a problem and bludgeon it to a bloody death instead of reaching out a helping hand. And instead of just saying that Christian authors are always bungling conversion stories, perhaps it would be edifying to say as well, "Let's see how we can fix it."
So here are five points on the difficulties, the proper mindset, and the ultimate aim of putting conversion stories into literature. It can and should be done.
1. Writing Conversions Isn't Easy
I'm a writer. And if you had asked me four months ago, I would have told you that I wasn't about to write a conversion plot until I absolutely had to. I had a story idea knocking around in my head that required a character coming to Christ, but it was a long ways out before I would get that far, and I really wasn't looking forward to it.
Conversions are hard to capture because they're a very emotional, life-changing experience. They're a knockout fight between Jesus, the flesh and the devil; they're humbling, and how do you bring into words that one elusive moment when the character makes a decision to reject sin and accept Christ? If we sat down for five minutes to try it, I think we'd have a brand new respect for authors. There's no way to describe that moment. What makes it harder is that a lot of Christian authors are saved at a young age, making some of those details a little fuzzy. And they're trying to save characters who have knocked around a bit and are in their twenties or thirties. You can't just have their mommy and daddy tell them they're a sinner and need a savior at that point. So first of all, I think we as readers should admit that it's not easy to write a conversion plot. It's hard; an emotional, humbling experience. How do you bring it across in a story without making it sound overly emotional or overly preachy?  

2. Hard Shouldn't Stop Us from Evangelism
So if no one likes the way most conversion plots are written, we're all clear to leave them out, right?
Nope. Definitely not.
God never intended the gospel to be unreachable, and he never intended evangelism to be such an art that it's impossible for the average writer to include. On the contrary, it's a command--you know--Go into all the world and preach the gospel. The last one that Jesus gave before he ascended to heaven.

Part of why I was determined never to do try writing a character coming to Christ was out of pride--if I couldn't do an awesome knock-out job then I wasn't about to touch it. But then I realized how wrong my thinking was. First of all, it shouldn't be about how awesome I can write, but about giving God the glory through my writing, using the best ability I have. Second, I'm a Christian, and I should have a passionate delight to tell others of Jesus' work for me. And if he's given me the talent for writing, then an element I should be including in a few of my stories is the Gospel.

Writing the gospel is almost as humbling for the writer as for the character going through it. It requires constant prayer, and all the time there is the anguish of what if I write it wrong and so damage the cause of the Gospel without wanting to? Words have great power to damage or help, and that's a huge weight for authors to carry. But just because we know we can't write conversion plots perfectly doesn't mean we don't write them at all.

Sure, we can admit that we Christian authors have messed up and written a lot of cheap grace. But the pitfall I fell into, and I'm sure I'm not the only one, was that of beginning to have a prideful rejection of all conversion stories, because of the bad ones. I made the gospel into something that should be put on display, rather than something that gets down and does the dirty work of saving sinners.

Writers are going to mess up. Only God can write the best conversion story. It's already been written. But that doesn't mean we should stop trying, even if we sometimes still get it wrong. God is powerful enough to work through imperfect conversion stories and cheap grace to bring a sinner to himself. That doesn't mean we settle for shoddy quality--but it does mean we don't have an attitude of looking down on fellow authors who we think didn't quite cut it. Because God can use their five loaves and two fish just as easily as he can use ours.

3. The Gospel is Simple. Keep it That Way.
Perhaps sometimes in our drive for learning good theology, we make simple truths of Scripture a little unreachable (or in the case of bibliophiles, unwriteable).
How do you put in a conversion story without backlogs of explanation? I mean after all, if you're a Calvinist you can't have it sounding too Armenian when the character comes to Christ. So you have to put in something about God's sovereignty. And then they can't just be left in a glowing new conversion. They have to demonstrate all sixty-five fruits of the Spirit in about 24 hours flat for the reader to know they're really saved. And that's going to take a lot of writing, and tweaking, and theological study, and--
But it's meant to be simple. We sinned and defied God. Jesus is our Savior and substitute for sin, reestablishing fellowship between us and our Heavenly Father. That's what it all boils down to.

So for readers--let the author keep it simple. If you find books with gospel stories that keep it real and keep it clear, recommend those books, let the authors know you appreciated them, and encourage them to keep on writing the good news of Jesus Christ.
4. So What About Preaching?
I know some people say "But you have to be careful not to preach!" And sure you do. It's not a good idea to split up your climax and put in five pages of straight gospel explanation, unless that serves to build up the action. But what are we really saying when we say "It can't be too preachy"? Could it by any chance be "We don't want to be offensive"? We want to write nice, comfortable conversion scenes where the characters find their emotional needs fulfilled?
Because the gospel is offensive, folks. The idea that Christ is the only way to be saved, and sin is absolutely sending the unrepentant sinner to hell, and Christ requires to be Lord of our lives as well as Savior--that's going to set any sinner's teeth on edge, no matter how you try to write it up. Sure, a story can make it slip down easier--but in the end, the Christian gospel is straight. Narrow way. One way. You're either in, or you're not; no half-measures.
And preached properly, there's no way to sweeten that up or tone it down in story form. So don't complain every time when authors make you squirm in your chair, when characters are making choices that you know you should be making, but don't want to. The difference between 'preachy' and 'convicting' isn't always so very far apart. And it's okay when a story makes a point--when a character learns something that we should be learning.
That's what Jesus used stories for. The Pharisees were livid with rage after his parables of the vineyard and the renters. They knew he was preaching, and he laid it on thick. In fact, Jesus a lot of times was pretty clear what the story meant--he didn't always leave it to the characters to illustrate for themselves.
We should be encouraging authors to convict us, to make the gospel clear, and lay sin and punishment, Savior and grace down as firm and absolute as they can.
5. A Note on Allegory.
We see a rising trend in today's market to write fantasy and allegory. I'm seeing a lot of good fruit come out of that, and one of the benefits of writing in allegory is that you can include a Christ figure in a much more subtle way--it's easier for an allegorical sinful person to come to an allegorical savior without people being accused of heavy-handed preaching. Christian authors are doing a fantastic job with this genre, and it's only getting better. That being said, I'd like to make one note that is in no way intended to marginalize the works that fit in this mold.
We need authors who write real-life conversion stories too. Not just allegories. People who will write of farmers and businessmen, housewives and students finding real and abiding life in Christ. That's what I would love to see more of. That's just as valuable as creating a whole new world and a whole new God-figure. I know we've marginalized those types of stories all too often--but when Jesus told the stories, he used real-life examples as well as epic poetry. So we need both.
In Conclusion
If you write the gospel into your stories, then from one bibliophile to another, my hat's off to you. Keep doing it; keep using fictional stories to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.
Let's not settle for poor quality, but let's also not beat to death the stories that we think don't quite cut it. Loving critiques. A humble helping hand. That's what authors need from bibliophiles who read their books. Because if we're humble, and genuinely want to help, then authors will value our opinion. And if we realize all the hard work that goes into the very things we're criticizing, then I think we would be quicker to put away the sledgehammers and give grace for those genuinely trying to put out good quality work.
I wrote today's article as the one side of the coin. If you haven't read The Power of the Cross, Part 1 and Part 2, then that covers my thoughts on the side of authors doing the gospel of Christ a disservice by poor work. It requires both sides to make a complete perspective.
As we look forward to celebrating the death of Jesus this weekend, and his resurrection, let's make it our goal as readers and writers to keep the Gospel clear, and simple, pure, and held in high honor.
"Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord
and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
-Romans 10:9
Lady Bibliophile


Friday, April 11, 2014

What Makes a Book Endure

photo credit
Why is it that countless girls love a red-head who wishes she was named Cordelia? Why do college students watch the tale of a ring that needs to be destroyed again and again and again? Why is it that each generation rediscovers with fresh wonder the marvelous feats of an English dandy who rescues men and women from the guillotine, or travel in delight with two outlaws--a Whig and a Scottish covenanter--on their run from the Campbells?

What makes a book endure? Why are the stories we love so lasting, so universally beloved and delighted in?

I've been kicking around this title idea for a long time, but I had no answer for my question. Was it seeing the Christ figures again and again in each story? Was it the love of a man for a woman, such a universal milestone on life? Or perhaps it was friendship, two people in a close bond that stick together through all difficulties. But I knew that all those elements, though they are certainly recurring in the greatest literature, didn't strike at the heart of the matter. They were just off-shoots--branches on the tree, when I wanted to get at the root.

Perhaps it was my reading The Children of Hurin that triggered the final conclusion. But when I pulled this article out today, the Lord graciously clarified it in my mind, and I discovered two specific elements that just might make up the whole answer to this question. You can fit all your favorite books into these two themes--and every classic book has them to a certain degree, whether written from a Christian perspective or not.
1. The Hand of God
And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand
Or say to Him, ‘What hast Thou done?’
 ~Daniel 4:35

Any Christian who loves history can't go long without seeing God's hand in it. He controls everything from the rise and fall of empires to the election of city officials. It's like a giant puzzle made of up kingdoms and time where there are no missing pieces, and everything that is done has purpose and usefulness. Nothing is outside of his control.

God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: ~Acts 17:24-27

In the best of tales, you see the intrinsic concept that everyone's life and actions fit together to make sense. Take Dickens, for example--he'll throw around 30 characters at you with plots for each character, and in the end it all fits. I get so excited in the confusion of keeping track of everything, because I know that at the great revelation, I'll see the whole picture, and it will be beautifully complete.

That's what makes a story last--whether it's a ring travelling through a wonderful land on its way to final destruction or a mystery in which you have a myriad of clues that somehow all fit together to reveal the culprit. Every detail matters, the stories are rich with meaning, and in that fictional tale, the author imitates his or her Creator and the Providence that we see ruling the whole world.

2. The Journey of the Soul
One time I asked myself, "If you could boil down your writing into one reason why you write, what would it be?"

And I thought--it is because through it I explore God's working in the human soul. God breathed life into it; God redeemed it. And that is why fiction is so important to me: a thousand mirrors of ourselves, our real life, all placed into a masterful plot arc that shows us the big picture of how God entwines our souls with the lives of the dozens of people we meet for our good and His glory. I love studying characters. Emotions. Events. What makes them smile, what makes them cry. Throwing hard choices at them, and seeing what in the end they'll choose to stand by the longest and treasure the most. Watching characters meet people, and seeing who helps them and who hurts them, and why.

We like stories with struggles and triumphs that we can connect to. And perhaps that's why the most enduring tales come out of this second point. It is when we read books that trace human journeys that something in our soul reaches out in kindred fellowship with the soul of the character, and we embrace it. That is why stories are immortal. Because souls are immortal, and God's working in human lives is eternal, and each book--each enduring classic--takes the two themes of Eternal God and Finite Human and weaves them together into fellowship between Him and us.

Sometimes a soul journey can be as simple as a girl trying to accept her red hair. Sometimes it's something much more complex. But either way--it's something that we recognize.

While non-Christians don't always include both concepts, the Christian author needs both these points to make an enduring book. You can have the journey of the soul without reference to God's hand, but in the end that just leaves you with man's efforts to achieve life satisfaction. You can see the hand of God without the soul journey, but then you'll struggle to make the personal connection. But when you have both--just as God, the greatest author, has both themes in His Word--then you have the stuff that stands the test of time. Because it links us with Him, and that's what all good stories are supposed to do.

The stories that endure are when the author takes the eternal and the human, God and man, and mixes them together to enchant readers for endless generations.

Lady Bibliophile

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Children of Hurin

So I conquered The Children of Hurin last night.

Conquered literally. That book is hard.

Every time we went to our local library, they had all of four Tolkien books on the shelf--the three LOTRs, and a beautiful, hard-backed The Children of Hurin with Alan Lee illustrations.  I would pull out the latter book, and hold it, and imagine the perfect time when I could finally check it out and bring it home with me. Last Friday, I realized that the perfect moment would never come, so I picked it up for an enjoyable Sunday read.

Maybe enjoyable was a bit of a stretch, but I was spot-on-right that there is no perfect time to read The Children of Hurin. It's just one of those legends that you'll never really be ready for.

The Book
In a time of Middle Earth long before Hobbits, there lived the three people groups of Eru Iluvatar (God)--Elves, Men, and Dwarves. And of one of the houses of Men came Hurin.

Hurin was a great warrior, and married a proud woman, Morwen, who bore him three children. Turin, their only son, a daughter Lalaith who died as a young girl, and a daughter Nienor. Hurin never saw his third child, for when the forces of Elves and Men gathered for one great strike against the evil Morgoth (Satan-figure), Hurin set out with them and fought in the legendary battle Nirnaeth Arnoediad. Heaps of Elves and Men were stuck down, until Hurin and his men held the retreat of the last troop of elves. Hurin's guard was killed around him, but Hurin himself was captured and taken alive to Morgoth's stronghold. There, because he scorned Morgoth and mocked him to his face, Morgoth set Hurin upon a great chair overlooking the land of his people, and bade him sit there to watch its destruction. Morgoth also threatened Hurin that because of his scorn, his whole house and descendants would be brought low. And Morgoth cursed Hurin and all of his descendants.

When Hurin does not return, Morwen sends her only son far away from his homeland to the forest kingdom of Thingol, king of the Elves. There Thingol adopts Turin as his foster-son, and Turin grows up stern and proud, and brooding over the time when he will be able to avenge his father's supposed death. Brilliant with the sword, with a powerful ability to lead men, Turin helps the Elves hold Orcs out of the forest of Thingol until a tragic duel forces him away from Thingol's kingdom and brands him as an outlaw.

Or rather, Turin does not trust himself to Thingol's grace and brands himself as an outlaw, which is even worse.

In the wilds he takes up with a group of rough men; they raid and kill tomake a living for themselves. Turin can't stay with any one group for long, though; Morgoth pursues him relentlessly, and wherever he goes, darkness and death seem to follow. Morgoth's servant, the dragon Glaurung, seeks him and his sister Nienor throughout Middle Earth to kill them, and as the years pass, Turin goes into hiding, so that neither Morgoth nor Glaurung can find him.

Just as Turin thinks that he has overcome his fate, when he is married and his first child is on its way, he betrays himself in an act of pride and ill-judgement, and Glaurung knows exactly where to find him.

Turin does not quail at the news that the dragon approaches. For he has determined that he will face his final doom and conquer it, or die in the attempt.

Turin Turambar
artwork copyright by Jenny Dolfen

My Thoughts (contains general spoilers)
I couldn't even cry when I finished. Just sort of shivered with the sadness of it and went to bed and told Junior B that I had just finished reading something heartbreaking.

Junior B sighed in a poor-Sister-will-never-learn kind of way, and then made sure I was okay. She's nice like that. :)

The Children of Hurin is not a book I would recommend to everyone. I'll laud Lord of the Rings to the skies, and passionately recommend the Silmarillion to everyone I meet--but with The Children of Hurin, I will probably put some pretty careful thought into the type of person I recommended it to before I bring it out. If you're struggling with some depression, or are going on a happy and relaxing vacation, this may not be the book for you. You can be a Tolkien fan and not read the Children of Hurin. Don't be in a hurry to pick it up; it's tragic, and dark, and just as you read "This is the end of the story of the children of Hurin" you turn the page to find one last tragic post-script like a sock in the gut.

For those of you who have never read Tolkien, it's best to start with the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Then read the Silmarillion. The Children of Hurin doesn't stop to explain regions, rulers, or history, and the Sil's background is essential for understanding the tale. Christopher Tolkien includes a map in the back of the 2007 edition that is somewhat helpful to find out where all the characters are going, but there were a few places that the map didn't mark, which made a few portions especially difficult.

Another reason to wait is that, while Tolkien is appropriate with the amount of detail he gives, The Children of Hurin contains adult thematic elements and should not be given to a young Tolkien reader.

When I finished this book, it begged the question, is there a place in literature for a story that has not one shred of happiness to it? Is the darkness really useful? In considering the question, it's easy to say "Oh, it's Tolkien! Of course it's good!" But Tolkien is prone to human error just like the rest of us, and if I ever got to the point where I took him with the same confidence I took Holy Writ, I would be seriously concerned.

I thought quite a bit on the usefulness of it. When I finished this book last night I thought it really wasn't up to par with Tolkien's other works, along with being pretty dark. I still think it's dark. But in writing this article, I no longer see it as sub-par. Oh, no, its themes run to the deepest conflict between man and God, and between God and Satan.

Word has it that Tolkien adapted this tale from a Finnish folktale, giving his own twist to the story. While I know nothing about the original folktale, this story has a strong sense of both predestination and man's freewill. Turin faces his 'fate', his 'doom', again and again. But in the end, it's not the ambiguous 'doom' that ultimately destructs things he holds dear. It's his own rashness, his own pride, and his own choice.

I used the term predestination loosely. This is not meant to be the Reformed terminology of God predestining someone's eternal fate. In Tolkien's work, Morgoth (probably a correlation for Satan, if Tolkein's work was an allegory) curses Hurin's family and children to doom. That's the predestination/doom we're talking about here.

So let's take it a step further (though this section might make better sense to people who are Tolkien-literate). If Morgoth cursed, or doomed, Hurin's house to destruction, where was Eru, the God-figure, in all this sadness?

At first in writing this article, I was at a loss where to find him. But then, it came to me. Eru may seem nonexistent in the pages of The Children of Hurin, but he's there. And  though the tale itself is tragic, the glimpses of Eru's offered grace are beautiful to search out. Time and again Turin is offered the choice of blessing, even of happiness, through friends like Thingol, Mablung, Beleg, Gwindor, and Brandir. They warn him like the verse in Proverbs that says "faithful are the wounds of a friend", and they tell him that if he will humble himself and accept advice, he can find grace and redemption, and conquer the destruction that Morgoth wants to bring upon him.

Time and again, like the Israelites with the prophets, Turin rejects them in pride and goes his own way. And this is where Tolkien strikes a brilliant balance between predestination and man's freewill.

Man does not have to self-destruct. Man does not have to take the choice of sin and death. Eru's (God's) grace is there for him to choose if he will only believe it and humble himself.

"The doom lies in yourself, not in your name." ~The Children of Hurin, Chapter 10

Useful lesson? Surely. Is there a better way you can learn it than reading this book? Perhaps.

Here's what, in my humble opinion, would have made this book better. I like to see books with parallel characters that have parallel lives who make opposite choices. Here we have Turin, a man who is cursed, who is offered grace time and time again, and each time rejects it. I think this story would have been more triumphant, more redemptive, and more grand in its scale if Tolkien had had a parallel character to Turin that chose to humble himself and accept the offered grace, and overcome the curse of Morgoth.

That's just my opinion. Take it for what it's worth.

The Final Battle (heavy spoilers below)
Believe it or not, in spite of The Children of Hurin's darkness, the ultimate healing and redemption comes long after Turin's death, when the land of Middle-Earth meets its final end:

In that day Tulkas shall strive with Morgoth, and on his right hand shall be Fionwë, and on his left Túrin Turambar, son of Húrin, coming from the halls of Mandos; and the black sword of Túrin shall deal unto Morgoth his death and final end; and so shall the children of Húrin and all Men be avenged.
 ~ The Lost Road: The conclusion of the Quenta Silmarillion.
What a glorious ending. It makes you weep with the fitting rightness, the final healing, the triumph of Eru's light over Morgoth's darkness, and all through a man, faulty yes, but hounded and wronged as well, who will overcome his own past and Morgoth's evil in one final death-blow.
It's so glorious that it hurts.
(end of major spoilers)
And though I love you, son of Hurin, yet I rue the day that I took you from the Orcs. But for your prowess and your pride, still I should have love and life, and Nargothrond should yet stand a while. ~The Children of Hurin, Chapter 11
For most people I would recommend an acquaintance of Turin Turambar through Tolkien's shorter version of it in the Silmarillion. It's much more emotionally manageable. But if you feel that you absolutely must read The Children of Hurin, take time to reflect on its themes: man's pride, Satan's darkness, and Eru's grace. And be sure to have your emotions well in hand to control the dark side of the story.
And when you've finished, don't forget to go to Wikipedia, to read of Turin's ultimate fate and triumph. It soothes the soul.
Unfinished Tales is next on my Tolkien list; but as with all his works, it takes a while to recover from one before you can move on to the next one. But I'll be back with more Tolkien, Lord-willing, in the months to come. :)
Lady Bibliophile
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