Category Archives: book review

In 2013 I was excited to discover…

(a) excellent Christian writing about writing;
(b) Christian music that I could play, over and over, without “Christian music fatigue”; and
(c) Christian spiritual memoirs, so good I read them too quickly and need to pay them another, slower, visit.

 

(a) Thank you Bret Lott, for writing so well, and writing so well about writing, and writing so well about being a Christian and writing. You reminded us that Christians writers can and should put effort into creating literary fiction. You reminded us that this fiction will honour the sovereign, supernatural God if it jumps into the messiness AND hope of living.

(b) Thank you Bifrost Arts and the Welcome Wagon. I knew I would find my musical treasure one day. I love these slide guitar pennies more than all the shiny pop coins of Christian music. And Rain for Roots.. I’ve sprinkled this goodness for children into my family and into the lives of a few in my church and playtime group. They’ve enjoyed the rainy goodness too.

 

(c) Thank you Sheridan Voysey, and Carolyn Weber for writing down your lives. Sheridan, for writing so honestly about how you and your wife have continued to grow into God’s love after you gave up your cherished dream.  Carolyn, for writing about how your study of Romantic poetry, and your friendships with real life Christians, dragged you before the truth of the great incarnational Love.

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Saved, assuredly so

On the fourth night of every week, Pete’s dad gave an important talk in front of a bonfire in the amphitheater, and afterward lots of campers always accepted Christ… Kids were filled with the Spirit, which made them stare and quiver and confront their friends with divine messages… The first time he saw a fourth-night bonfire, he wondered whether he was really saved, because no such thing had ever happened to him, and later he asked Jesus into his heart again just to make sure. After a while he decided that things were different for him because of his dad.  Maybe his revelation was spread out over his whole life, a little at a time, so that it never seemed like a big deal.

                Mary Kenagy, Loud Lake.
In Bret Lott (editor), The Best Christian Short Stories.

 

 

Stop asking Jesus Into Your Heart. The title will either intrigue you… or put you off.  If you are feeling put off, perhaps the  book’s subtitle will draw you in: How to Know For Sure You Are Saved.  If the subtitle doesn’t appeal, perhaps the fact that you can tell your friend who knows a lot about theology that you are reading a nice little book on the doctrine of assurance might do the trick.

J.D. Greear of this book reckons that, by the time he was eighteen years old, he had probably “asked Jesus into his heart” five thousand times, and prayed the sinner’s prayer at least once in every denomination.  And each time he “gained a little assurance”, he would feel compelled to get re-baptised. But no matter what he did, he could not shake the fear that he was going to hell. Did I really feel sorry enough for my sin? Did my life change enough after I asked Him into my heart? Did I understand enough about Jesus, or my sin, or grace, when I prayed? Were there other areas of rebellion I was unaware of?

Greear came to realise that he was scared because he held the wrong picture of God and Jesus.  He had imagined Jesus standing before God begging for mercy, or leniency, on his behalf.  Please God, just give this guy one more chance.  However, the truth is that Jesus does not need to appeal to God for mercy on anyone’s behalf:  Jesus has already satisfied all the claims against us by dying on the cross.

Salvation comes not because someone has prayed a prayer correctly, but because they lean the hopes of their soul on the finished work of Christ.  Jesus has paid for all our sins: not an ounce of judgment remains. We do not have to beg for mercy or prove that we deserve a second chance. Jesus in my place. The essential, amazing message of the gospel. Woohoo!!

So…you can rest totally in Christ.  And there is no concern if you haven’t had a dramatic conversion experience, or don’t remember the first time you believed (e.g. if you grew up in a Christian home).  There is no need to analyse the authenticity of a past prayer, experience or ceremony.  The important thing is that you continue in your current posture of repentance and belief.

The section I found helpful (albeit very short) was Leading My Kids to Jesus. Little children, of course, are capable of real faith. But there may be situations in which a child “prays the prayer” more to make their parents happy, than as an expression of their actual faith in Christ.  How can parents be passionate demonstrators of faith to their children, and at the same time avoid manipulating their children into saying or doing things that they may not (yet) understand?  Greear emphasises that it’s never to young to begin trusting in and surrendering to Jesus. So- teach your children, all along the way, to be surrendered towards Jesus and believing in what He said He accomplished.  Present Jesus as Lord.  Even if a child does not yet grasp all that salvation entails, a parent can encourage them in the appropriate posture towards Christ from the beginning: repentant and believing.  And how wonderful if that child grows up without an exciting testimony- if they grow up in the light, always aware of the Lordship of Jesus, believing that He did what He said He did.

The section I didn’t like so much was Appendix 1, where Greear outlines situations in which (he thinks) a believer ought to consider re-baptism (e.g. pressure by parents at the time of the first baptism).  This checklist seems to convey the idea of baptism as a performance before God, something that is necessary to “get right” or do again.  But this is a minor quibble vis-a-vis the helpfulness of the main book (and it’s an appendix- you may not even get to it).

This small, intimate book is very encouraging.  Ultimately, God does not want believers to have any doubt that they are saved.  The Bible tells us so:

These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)

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The Hammer of God

The Hammer of God was written more than half a century ago by Bo Giertz, a Swedish bishop, and is set in rural Sweden. It contains three linked stories of young pastors serving the same parish at different times – in the early 1800s, later 1800s, and the 1940s. The stories are far away in time and space, but they are gripping and relevant. They show the kind of wonky thinking that can pop up anywhere where faith latches onto anything other than Jesus. The stories also show the dangers of taking pride in being the keeper of a more “authentic” Christianity than those around you.

The first pastor repents of the shallow and flippant way he has lived his life, only to fall into a legalistic thinking that demands that repentance be accompanied by plain clothing and temperance. He comes to hate the judgmental eye he casts over his congregation- how can they sing so joyously in church when the next day they will fall back into wretchedness, cursing and quarreling! Why couldn’t he see a resounding victory over sin, in the lives of others, in his own life? It is a relief when this pastor realises that one can receive forgiveness without making atonement for sins through sorrow or self-betterment. Grace, unmerited!

The stories are thoughtful reflections on the nature of the relationship between a pastor and his flock. In some situations a pastor is humbled by the godly example of a parishioner. At other times, a pastor is subjected to public humiliation, and painful division in his congregation. The second pastor is disheartened when the fervour of a “revival” starts to taper off, and starts to torture himself with the thought that the lag in revival might be his fault or failure. His epiphany comes when he realises that he has lost sight of Jesus, and has been flogging himself along a way of obedience that has no end:

“The conscience, our own anxiety, and all the slaves to the law bid us go the way of obedience to the very end in order to find peace with God. But the way of obedience has no end. It lies endlessly before you, bringing continually severer demands and constantly growing indebtedness. If you seek peace on that road, you will not find peace, but the debt of ten thousand talents instead. But now Christ is the end of the law; the road ends at his feet, and here his righteousness is offered to everyone who believes. It is to that place, to Jesus only, that God has wanted to drive you with all your unrest and anguish of soul.”

This novel was a great reminder that there is nothing we can do to be saved: we have nothing to offer God at the foot of the cross, because he has already offered everything on our behalf! We are privileged to believe all, and be saved, and in amongst our everyday realities the Holy Spirit helps us in the battles against sin- gently, little by little.
Gamla_uppsala_kyrka

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Old stories for young souls

Some new children’s books have recently come to us through the post.

I ordered them because I had started to think about Christmas, and how Christ was born into history to save us. But what of our history since then? Some times and places seem very dark: it’s hard to see evidence that people were (and are) shining the Christ-light (even in “Christendom”). One day, of course, we shall see more clearly how the lives of many godly men and women are woven through history like so many golden threads.

In the meantime, it seems to me, we should treasure some of the stories about God’s people in history that have been passed down. These children’s books tell lovely stories of how people have followed their King in different times.

 

Saint Nicholas: the Real Story of the Christmas legend by Julie Stiegemeyer

I love this book, not because it is a “Santa spoiler”, but because the story of the original Father Christmas, a fourth century bishop in Lycia (modern-day Turkey), is so full of love and concern for children in poor families. It explains some of the characteristics we attribute to the modern Santa (why does he deliver presents to children, in the middle of the night?), while showing that his generosity was derived from the One who had been so generous to him.

The Story of Saint Patrick by James A. Janda

The story of how Saint Patrick brought the gospel to Ireland is amazing! He was not Irish: as a teenager on the coast of England he is captured by Celtic pirates and sent to Ireland. After his return to England his love for the Irish people prompts him to train as a priest and go back. Saint Patrick travels the land, bringing the message of peace and forgiveness, winning hearts but also encountering hatred and violence from the old religion. He sings and prays all the way.

I buckle to my heart
This day,

The love of God
To show the way,

His eye to watch,
His ear to hear,

His hand to lead
Me on the way.

Brigid’s cloak: An Ancient Irish Story by Bruce Milligan

Brigid was born in the mid fifth century, a few years before Saint Patrick died. Brigid has a Christian mother, and even the local Druid recognises that Brigid has “God’s favour”, and “will be a mother to the new Ireland that is to come.” Brigid is given a lovely vision of the nativity, and later on her convents give shelter and food to poor people.

Caedmon’s Song by Ruth Ashby

This beautiful story is about Caedmon, a cow herder in the seventh century who became tongue-tied whenever it was time for he and his friends to share stories of great battles and fearsome warriors around the fire. He hates poetry until someone prompts him in a dream to “sing about the things you know.” When he wakes he composes a glorious hymn about God and his creation. Caedmon’s friends are astounded, and direct him to the local abbess in Yorkshire. She asks him to become a monk, and to continue to create these songs.

Caedmon’s Hymn is the earliest known poem to be written down in the English language.

Praise we now the Keeper of heaven’s kingdom,
The mind of the mighty Maker,
The glorious Father who made
The world and all it’s wonders;

How first he created the roof of heaven
For us, the children of men;
Then the holy Creator, the eternal Lord,
Gave the earth to people,
This middle earth to be our home.

 

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Oil on Water

Oil on Water by Helon Habila

A young journalist is asked by the husband of a kidnapped woman to go deep into the Niger delta to make contact with her captors.  The woman’s captors are “militants”, her husband is an engineer with an oil company.  The journalist goes on a disorienting, surreal journey into the delta,where he is never sure whether he has already crossed the paths of militants or soldiers, or whether he is about to. The territory is marked by the criss-cross of oil pipes, oil leakages, oil fires, gas flares burning and burning, corporate helicopters circling, sabotage.

In the middle of it all is an island built around a “shrine”, whose inhabitants wash themselves clean in the river every day as a penance for letting the rivers run red in the past, and who worship the sun as a harbinger of a new day and a new start.  As other communities on the delta are fragmented and experience the effects of awful environmental degradation, can this one survive?  And what hope can it offer its inhabitants, or its neighbors on the delta?

Very unsettling.  A novel, yes.  Not a documentary.  But terrible things have happened to the people and the environment in this delta.  Do I care about the welfare of communities across the world, or do I only care about the cogs of capitalism remaining…oiled?

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Book balm

I have just finished two books and the stories from both are spinning round my head.  I’m hoping a bit of writing will help the dizziness to pass, but enjoying the overwhelming-ness of it at the same time. 

 The books have made me wonder about the end of my life: Will death be a panicky full stop to everything I hold dear? Or will my road to the end be paved with such grace that I don’t fear that final jolt?

The rest is jungle and other stories by Mario Benedetti

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This is a collection of stories by a writer from Uruguay.  The stories were published  over 50 years (1949-1999). There is a lot of political and social upheaval caught up in this period (torture, corruption, imprisonment, exile), and this upheaval forms a sketchy, but ominous backdrop to the stories.  Many take surprising, abrupt twists after a person encounters someone (a visitor, a voice on the phone, a man on the street, an Alter Ego, a ghost) and this encounter forces the person to confront who they have become, or who they once were. 

In Death a man’s doctor advises him that “It’s advisable that you prepare for the worst.” The man confronts his own death, for the first time, head on. Knowledge of his impending death brings the man intense fear, as well as a strange exhilaration. It brings a sudden, harrowing appreciation that some of the routine, everyday things pegged throughout his life are actually finite and extraordinary- not perfect but still precious. He takes a kind of stocktake of his life and death:

Without his children, without his wife, without his lover.  But also without the sun, this sun; without those thin clouds, emaciated, in accord with the country; without the routine (blessed, loved, sweet, aphrodisiac, sheltered, perfect) of Cashier Desk No. 3 and it’s audits and lengthy searches for discrepancies that were always found; without his thorough reading of the newspaper in the cafe, next to the large window facing the Andes; without his exchange of jokes with the waiter; without the episodes of pleasant giddiness which suddenly occur when looking at the sea and especially when looking at the sky; without these hurried people, happy because they don’t know anything about themselves, who hasten to lie to themselves, to secure their armchair in eternity or to talk about the captivating heroism of the others; without the balm-like repose; without the books as intoxication; without the alcohol as an expedient; without sleep as death; without life as a vigil; simply without life.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson    

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The Reverend John Ames is given similar news by his doctor.  His response is to write a long letter to his young son.  This letter picks up the many threads in the Reverend’s life, such as his relationship with his father and grandfather, who were also preachers.  Rev Ames is by no means perfect, but the beauty of this book lies in the perspective of a man who has walked in the presence of the Lord all his days, so that his whole life becomes a sort of prayer.  The everyday is baptized by awe and wonder:

There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me.  The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glisteining and very wet.  On some impulse, plain exhuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water cam pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasnt.  It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth.  I dont know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash.  I wish I had paid attention to it.  My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really.  This is an interesting planet.  It deserves all the attention you can give it. 

This awe and wonder can be found even in dark and lonely times:

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life.  And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light… But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply.  Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration.  You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see.  Only, who could have the courage to see it?

Short story or long letter?

No matter what length of time I have left to live, I would like my life to be a long letter home  rather than a short story.  I do not wish to have the truth of my life flash before me at the last instant.  I hope instead that I will be able to walk a slow and reflective life in the presence of the Lord, and that He will let me rest and dream even before the wagon hits the final jolt.

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