A Book Fit for Any Time

Some works translate well across time, while others don’t. It’s interesting to me that intellectual and polemical works tend to be more temporally bound than spiritual literature. For example, in Augustine’s Confessions, the portions that deal with the workings of the human heart can be read profitably by any Christian, while the portions dealing with the Manichean heresies are less accessible.

Some works are simply ageless; perennially helpful. I consider this book, Backslider, by Andrew Fuller, to be such a work. This short book is wholesome spiritual food for any Christian in any age.

I believe that the editing and reprinting of classic spiritual works from centuries past is one of the most beneficial things modern publishers can do. Ressourcement is one of the great needs of the church; to feed upon nutritious truth that has stood the test of time. This short handsome volume put out by H&E Publishing (Hesed & Emet) is a great example of that. The formatting and editing helps the book to look and feel comfortably accessible for modern readers.

Oh that it and works like it would be plastered on the front page of the ChristianBook.com catalogs that I receive rather than the thin modern drivel that is usually there.

But enough slightly self-righteous moaning about the shortcomings of modern evangelical publishing and on to the content of the book. Backslider is a short book, or lengthy tract, written to counsel believers who have backslidden to some degree in their walk with God. And this means it is applicable to every believer at least once in a while. Fuller’s pastoral sensitivity is on display as he nimbly diagnoses the various causes and sources of backsliding, warns the wanderer not to presume upon any later opportunity for repentance, and sets forth the ever-merciful heart of God which welcomes any and all who repent and turn to Him by faith in Christ.

Fuller identifies five categories of backsliding: 1. Relinquishing Evangelical Doctrine (abandoning orthodox beliefs); 2. Falling into Gross Immorality (moral failure); 3. The Love of the World; 4. Conformity to the World; and 5. Political Disputes.

I’ll admit I didn’t expect #5 (Political Disputes), but it contained many a timely word for us today. Listen to this insightful comment on how revolutionary movements lead Christians astray:

The flattering objects held out by revolutionists were so congenial with the wishes of humanity, and their pretenses to disinterested philanthropy so fair, that many religious people for a time, forgot their own principles. While gazing on the splendid spectacle, it did not occur to them that the wicked, whatever name they assumed, would do wickedly.

Backslider, page 19.

He concludes in this way concerning inordinate interest in politics: “It is not only contrary to the whole tenor of the New Testament, but tends in its own nature to eat up true religion.” That is a very good and timely word for us today.

To highlight just one example of Fuller’s characteristic careful thinking and balance, consider this comment, still on the topic of politics: “Nor does the danger belong exclusively to one side. We may sin by an adherence to the measures of a government, as well as by an opposition to them.”

I promise I am trying to get to the rest of the book, but, perhaps because of the particularly tumultuous politics of the last few years, or because I stand in need of it, this last paragraph on the danger of politics seems too good to pass by:

By standing aloof from all parties and approving themselves the friends of government and good order, by whom so ever administered, Christians would acquire a dignity of character worthy of their profession. They would be respected by all, and possess greater opportunities for doing good. By a contrary conduct, they render one part of the community their enemies and the other, I fear, would derive but little spiritual advantage from being their friends.

Backslider, page 25.

Fuller goes on to examine the various symptoms that accompany backsliding, such as a departure from our first love, and a self-justifying spirit. The next chapter explores the effects of such a state. How the ‘symptoms’ differ precisely from the ‘effects’, I am not entirely sure, but folks in those days sure did love to draw tiny distinctions and make lists, so we must not be too bothered by it. On page 48 I came across a gem of a quote which captures pithily what has been a pillar in my understanding of human sin since early in my Christian life: “There is no sin committed by the most ungodly man of which the godliest is not in danger.”

That is worth reading again.

There is no sin committed by the most ungodly man of which the godliest is not in danger.

The last chapter discusses the ‘Means of Recovery’. I conclude this review with a quote from that chapter which jumped out at me for its resonance with the singular theme of John Piper’s ministry, and more importantly, with the teaching of Scripture.

Sin is not to be opposed so much directly as indirectly; not by mere resistance, but by opposing other principles to it which shall overcome it. It is not by contending with the fire, especially with combustible materials about us, that we should be able to quench it, but by dealing plentifully with the opposite element. The pleasures of sense will not be effectually subdued by foregoing all enjoyment but by drinking deeply of other pleasures, the relish of which will deaden the heart to what is opposite.

Backslider, page 80.

In other words, fight the pleasures of sin with the pleasures of God. By delighting in God, our hearts lose their taste for the small paltry pleasures that sin promises but never delivers.

I trust that by now you can see this book is worthy of reading and re-reading. I hope it finds its way into many more hands and blesses, challenges, and encourages many more hearts like it did mine.

Thoughts on Devoted to the Service of the Temple: Piety, Persecution, and Ministry in the Writings of Hercules Collins

This is a little gem of a book.

The opening biographical essay sketches the history of the Particular Baptists clearly and helpfully. It also gives the reader a foretaste of Collins’ warm and experiential style. Hercules Collins, though largely unknown today, was an important figure in the Particular (Calvinistic) Baptist community in the 17th century. These Baptists were part of the Dissenters, a larger group of Christians that, for one reason or another, were not in the Church of England.

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I found it interesting that in the body of Collins’ work was an early defense of religious liberty, where he argued that compulsion cannot bring about true spiritual enlightenment. Indeed, force cannot change the heart, and heart change is at the very core of Christianity.

His is a legacy where his teaching is highlighted, underlined, and put in bold by the powerful testimony of his life. Imprisoned for his opposition to the prevailing religious and political authority of his day, in abysmal conditions (two fellow pastors in prison with him died while in captivity), he remained faithful and wrote stirring letters to his congregation while in chains. This harrowing context gave his writing a kind of Pauline grittiness and verve.

The selections, well picked and edited, give the reader a real sense for his style and substance. The length of the book makes this long-departed brother’s words accessible, portable, and edifying. What a gift! How else is a 21st-century Christian going to encounter such material?

For those in ministry and leadership, there were a number of selections specifically dealing with the realities of ministry and the task of preaching. While all the selections were good in content, some of them were simply stellar. My favorites were #s 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 20, 21, 24, 28, 30, 35.

The last selection was actually a poem that Collins wrote. This third stanza I thought was really quite good:

Come haste that blessed break of Light,

Let shadows flee away;

When ordinances all shall cease,

Come on Eternal Day.

Then through a glass shall look no more,

Unless the glass divine;

We shall through human nature see,

The blessed Godhead shine.

I highly recommend getting a few volumes in this series. There is nothing like reaching across the centuries and reading the words of a fellow Christian from another age. There is blessed similarity and blessed dissimilarity. Similar because the experience and convictions of true Christians have a common thread wherever they are found; dissimilar because we have lost much in our day and are blind in ways they are not.

If I was to try and find one thing to quibble with, it might be the title. Having finished the book, I now get it. At first glance, however, it was not a title that drew me in towards the book or piqued my interest.

Ivan Ilych is Alive

One of the purposes of this blog is to help people access the world of literature. (You can pronounce it the boring way, or you can do it properly, the way Michael Caine would – “litshratshurr“). I do this through book reviews and short reflections on things that I’m reading. Not only does this help me process what I’m reading, it also hopefully gives others a taste of the benefit from engaging with this material, which often feels too distant and intimidating. One of the things that compelled me to make the effort to read “the classics” was hearing how they had such an impact on others, and observing others appreciate them.

Recently I was listening to Karen Swallor Prior in discussion with Matthew Barrett on the Credo Podcast. One of the things that came up was Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, and that discussion prompted me to re-read it. One of the nice things about this story is that it is so short. Everyone has heard of Tolstoy, but most people do not have the courage to take on some of his better-known novels such as War and Peace (1400 pages) or Anna Karenina (950 pages).

If you would like to read it, you can download it here (I’m not sure about the quality of the translation – but hey! it’s free). Note that the following reflection contains spoilers if you haven’t read the story yet.

I am struck by the power of words, ideas, and story. In only 50 pages or so, Tolstoy harnesses that power and delivers to the reader a profound encounter with truth. One of the first things that strikes me in the story is the brutal honesty of the internal dialogue. Tolstoy gets inside the mind and around the various self-deceptions we employ and reveals what is truly there in all of its ugliness. It is done in a matter-of-fact way:

Each one thought or felt, “Well, he’s dead but I’m alive!” But the more intimate of Ivan Ilych’s acquaintances, his so-called friends, could not help thinking also that they would now have to fulfill the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.

The story reveals how hard it is to come to believe something that you really don’t want to believe, something that has profound and far-reaching implications for the verdict of how you lived your life. We oppose these kinds of paradigm-shifts in many areas of our lives because re-evaluation is costly. We are invested in our way of seeing things. Within the story this is seen in everybody’s stubborn denial of their own mortality (save for the peasant Gerasim), and especially in Ivan’s wrestling with whether he has lived a good life. There were many layers to peel away before he could get to the honest core of this question. It is only at the end of a long struggle that he breaks through his own defenses to the truth:

… the question suddenly occurred to him: “What if my whole life has been wrong?” It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. And his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.

… he saw himself—all that for which he had lived—and saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death.

There is another dimension to this. Just like Ivan has been living in a cocoon of self-deception, the same is true for his colleagues and his family in their own ways. As mentioned above, they are all in denial about their own inevitable death. But without the harsh and inescapable pain to shock them into a sober honesty, we do not see these characters make any progress towards escaping that deception.

At the very end, in the last two or three hours of Ivan’s life, he experiences a conversion and rebirth. He breaks through into light. Tolstoy does not name Christ, but rather describes the change of heart and makes an oblique reference to God:

At that very moment Ivan Ilych fell through and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified. He asked himself, “What is the right thing?” and grew still, listening. Then he felt that someone was kissing his hand. He opened his eyes, looked at his son, and felt sorry for him. His wife came up to him and he glanced at her. She was gazing at him open-mouthed, with undried tears on her nose and cheek and a despairing look on her face. He felt sorry for her too.

…He tried to add, “Forgive me,” but said “Forego” and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.

… He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.


In place of death there was light.


“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”

Modern secular readers are probably tempted to view this as a moral reformation or a kind of epiphany, but Tolstoy clearly has something deeper in mind. It is quite common in literature for the conversion of characters to be described in ways that hint at Christ but do not explicitly name him. I’m not entirely sure of the reason for this. C.S. Lewis discusses it somewhere, commenting on the habit of medieval Christians to ‘hide’ Christ in pagan themes and deities in their fiction, something he does in his writing as well.

Nevertheless, the Christian reader can recognize many (though not all) of the elements of true conversion: conviction of sin, repentance for sin, and a changed heart with new desires. Is this fictional portrayal sufficient to point others towards faith in Christ for their salvation? No. But what good fiction (and good art generally) does is faithfully represent some part of reality, it serves as a signpost on the good road. In doing so it adds one more voice to that choir made up of countless voices, singing not the same note but a great and variegated harmony.

Peter Nimble

There is lots to love about this book. A great title, a great first line, and moments of brilliance throughout. The story moves at a fine clip and carries the reader along to an exciting finish. My kids read this book as part of their schooling and they adored it, so I wanted to read it also. I can see why they were taken with it! It certainly leaves the reader wondering what will happen next at each chapters’ end. And while I enjoyed reading this book, I wanted to enjoy it more. There were a few hindrances and shortcomings that impeded that enjoyment. As a debut novel, I say bravo and well done! If I were to write a first novel this good, I’d be a happy man indeed. And so I offer some thoughts – in a spirit of constructive criticism – on what kept this book from being, to my mind, on par with the classics.

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First, while the breadth and playfulness of a fertile imagination is on display throughout the book, there is a certain lack of cohesion and gravitational center to that imagination. The worlds, characters, landscapes, buildings, and monsters are all fantastical and creative, but it felt like there was something lacking that would draw them all into a narrative that fit together well. This unpredictability can give the reader a kind of whiplash as she tries to keep pace with the story. A few unexpected twists and turns makes a story interesting; but constant unexpected turns undermines the stability of the narrative and gives it a chaotic feel.

Second, and related to the first point, is the issue of world-building. This is the bread and butter of all fantasy-fiction. The author must build a world that is believable. But believable does not mean it must conform to our world. As Tolkien said, the key is that world must be internally consistent – what happens there must make sense within the framework of that world. This is the secret ingredient that explains why some fantasy worlds feel real, like Middle-Earth, Narnia, and Aerwiar, and others don’t. The author here shows real promise in the world that he creates, and yet fails to fully convince the reader that this place is so real in his own mind that all this could really take place.

Third and last, stories are irreducibly moral. The best stories are deeply moral, for it is the moral instinct in myself as a reader that makes me care deeply about the characters. On this point, once again, the author does a good job with some characters but does not quite pull off a complete victory. We see some development in Peter Nimble, but not a whole lot. His moral character remains quite static, while his self-understanding grows as he discovers his true identity and steps into the role he has been destined for. Sir Tode seems to me to be more promising, for we find out he is largely a fraud and has not truly earned his knighthood. Yet this assumed persona of a brave knight seems to draw out his courage and moral fibre and self-sacrifice. By the end of the book, despite the dubious origins of his knighthood, he has grown into the true picture of knighthood. This seems to exemplify something that C.S. Lewis pointed out: when growing in virtue, we often start by behaving as if we were more virtuous than we really are, which can feel like a kind of pretending or false persona. But if persevered in, this is often the route by which we do really become virtuous.

The best stories have a moral depth that speaks deeply to the reader about right, wrong, goodness and evil. While the book had a pretty clear moral compass (unlike the nihilistic morally-relativistic nonsense that sometimes gets passed off as modern fiction these days), it would have been improved, and would leave a deeper impression on the reader, if the characters’ moral trajectory had been explored more deeply.

All in all, a very fine book. I look forward to reading some more of Auxier’s fiction and seeing how he has grown as an author over the years.

Reflection on The Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray

Say what you will about Murray, he is a pretty honest guy. And these days that is a rare quality. He is willing to say what many are not, and willing to ask questions which make people squirm. The on-the-ground feel of the book was one of its strengths. Murray draws on his travels and conversations for first-hand experience of the realities on the ground. Upon this foundation he builds his arguments using carefully researched statistics and citations.

I think there is a counter-argument to be made, and I hope it is made publicly. The problem seems to be that these important conversations and debates are so often being shut down with slurs and slanders before they can even begin. Despite the fact that Murray everywhere rejects far-right nationalism and racism, a quick glance at the reviews in major outlets shows that these accusations are often made.

While the entire book was interesting, the most fascinating part to me, as a Christian, was chapter 16, titled “The feeling that the story has run out.” In this chapter, Murray delves into the big questions: “What am I doing here? What is my life for? Does it have any purpose beyond itself?” and reflects on the inability of modern Western Europeans to come up with satisfying answers: “the answers to these questions that we have held onto for centuries seem to have run out.” With striking clarity, Murray argues that modern Europe, with its culture of human rights and freedoms, is built on “beliefs that we have left behind…” And yet, despite acknowledging that this has prompted some “to become better acquainted with our own traditions,” such as Christianity, he says multiple times that modern people “cannot force themselves into sincere belief.” It is clear that he finds this to be true for himself as well as others.

In another striking part of this chapter, Murray reflects on a quote by Richard Dawkins to the effect that the theory of evolution bequeathed to us by Charles Darwin has solved ‘the greatest of all mysteries’: “Right there is the gulf that now exists between the accepted secular-atheist world view of our culture and the reality of how people live and experience their lives. Because although Dawkins may feel that our mystery has been solved – and although science has indeed solved part of it [notice how Murray is more modest in his claim than the ever-bombastic Dawkins] – most of us still do not feel solved.” Turning to the fact that humans are now shown to be highly evolved apes, he says “we also know that we are more than animals and that to live merely as animals would be to degrade this thing that we are. […] We know we are something else, even if we do now know what that else is.”

Perfectly anticipating my exasperation at his clear-headed insights and half-answers, the next line is: “Of course religious people find talk like this frustrating because for real believers the question will always be, ‘Why do you not just believe?’ Yet this latter question ignores the most likely irreversible damage that science and historical criticism have done to the literal-truth claims of religion and ignores the fact that people cannot be forced into faith.” He is exactly right that I find it frustrating, but he is exactly wrong about the question I would pose. ‘Why do you not just believe’ is a stupid question to ask someone whose intellect and reason have raised objections to the content of Christianity. Real faith does no violence to the intellect, although it may transcend it.

The most crucial part of the quote above is Murray’s listing of his two main intellectual objections to belief: ‘science’ and ‘historical criticism’. So the questions should be: ‘Why do you believe science and historical criticism make belief impossible? Have you taken the time to read the best responses to those objections? Why is it that there are leading thinkers in nearly every advanced field of scientific knowledge who are devout Christians? Do you understand the science better than them?’ It’s almost like he’s read the pamphlets put out by the atheists and thrown up his hands and said “so it’s hopeless – no intelligent person can believe this God stuff!”

But Murray is certainly correct that one cannot simply choose to believe. There is a mystery to true conversion; as Jesus explained to Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). Even once the intellectual objections are dealt with, there is a surrender, a yielding, an unveiling, an inner transformation, which only the Spirit’s work can accomplish.

On the Writing of Novels

I joked about writing a novel a few days ago, but the truth is that I feel as far from writing a novel as ever before.

Seriously, just thinking about it makes me feel like this:

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It’s similar to a one-legged man who has always dreamed of climbing mount Everest. He arrives at base camp and gets a taste for the effects of high altitude and the difficulty of, well, climbing the world’s highest peak with half as many legs as is typically needed. In other words, he gains an appreciation for the immensity of the task, and the romantic glow which accompanied the thought in his mind is replaced by a stagnant dread.

Recently I discovered that my brother is into writing electronic music, and being musically inclined myself, I asked him to show me how he does it. I figured I could take a look at the interface and whip up something decent sounding in a few minutes. Well, not so much. He uses an online interactive in-browser set of tools that is as expansive as it is complicated and intricate, from mixing boards to effects pedals to wave synthesizers and loops, each with dozens of settings and adjustments. I didn’t even know how or where you could even start putting notes down, never mind putting together something with any more complexity than The Itsy Bitsy Spider in C major.

Even if I could manage to produce a sound that I liked, and wrote a little hook, to think of building upon that layers and layers of individually tailored sounds and beats and loops, each requiring a mastery of minutiae, is just overwhelming. The effort required to focus all your faculties on tiny details all while holding in your mind a vision of the entire piece so that each created section fits cohesively within the whole is simply staggering. And writing a novel is just like that. In that sense, even the most basic and formulaic novel is an impressive achievement, never mind creating believable characters that draw you in emotionally, scenes that play out in the readers’ minds with 1080p clarity, story arcs that are suspenseful and thrilling, and a depth of humanity and honesty that moves the work from mere entertainment to literature.

Maybe, I hope, I’ll get there someday. But for now I’m sticking with bite-sized pieces that my mind can wrap itself around. I’ll leave the grand weaving to others who feel so inclined, and heartily cheer when they do it. It is no small task. My humble goal this month is to submit a short story I’ve written to the CBC Canada Writes Creative Non-Fiction Competition. All the previous winners seem to be legit published authors with actual credentials so my expectations are low, but that’s not a reason not to try!

So here’s to you, novelists: well done, well done indeed.

*slow clapping*

Announcing My New Upcoming Debut Novel Pioneering An Entirely New Sub-Sub-Genre

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Do you love horse-drawn carriages and the sweet smell of manure wafting across the endless prairies? Do you long for the thrill of international espionage and counter-terrorism? Well thanks to me you won’t have to spend one single more candle-lit evening sitting at home and wondering how you’ll ever be able to reconcile these two passions…

Well that’s it, I’ve decided to throw my lot in with all those countless aspiring authors. The problem is: how to get noticed? How can one stand out of the crowd? Or conversely, how can one find a niche so nichey that one becomes a big fish in a very, very small pond? Well, as I was driving to Wal-Mart today to buy more Hot Wheels cars for mysel– I mean my son — I had the idea of a lifetime. Well actually I shouldn’t be quite so modest; it was the idea of a generation, an era, an eon. What if I could take a niche and niche it a little further? And then what if that new niche was actually a hybrid super-genre with massive public appeal? Well shoot if I haven’t gone and done it.

segwaycommandosIn fact it wasn’t terribly complicated – I simply combined the one genre that all Christians who are female and between the ages of 12 and 82 can’t resist: Amish Romance, with one of the hottest selling genres of all time. No, not vampires – someone beat me to the punch – I’m talking about the very first Amish Romance Geopolitical Terrorist Plot Thriller.

The title will be:

A Bomb in Her Bonnet

Synopsis: The incredible based-on-a-true-story story of a young Amish woman who rebels, heads to a massive city of twelve thousand people, and falls in love with a rebellious occasional drinker of alcoholic beverages who turns out to be a CIA spy who actually turns out to be a Middle-Eastern terrorist mastermind who forces this poor damsel to become the world’s first Amish Suicide Bomber by threatening her fourteen younger siblings with iPhones and Netflix accounts and similar forms of torture. She pretends to go along with the plot but secretly informs the police by way of carrier pigeon that she is indeed carrying a bomb in her bonnet. With the help of an extremely handsome, pious, and conservative police officer, she thwarts the threat and returns home on horseback and he proposes to her in the rain and they marry and have lots of children.

Scheduled for release in late March 2014, with sequels every six months afterwards, you may want to pre-order these puppies because they will sell faster than Twilight at a Justin Bieber concert.

My Top Ten Books from 2013

Caveat: These books were not necessarily published in 2013. In fact none of them were except for the last one.

Phil’s Top Ten Books of 2013 (in no particular order):

19063The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

My wife got this book at a family gift exchange at the end of 2012, and it was the first book I read in 2013. I’ll say three things about this book, and then you should go read it. First, the narrator is Death himself, and so you can be sure that the writing is incredibly imaginative. Second, the main character is a little girl, orphaned, in Germany, during the second world war. Third, the story is sweeping and beautiful, and I couldn’t wait to finish it. It’s also been made into a movie, which I haven’t seen yet, but certainly will.

matterhornMatterhorn by Karl Marlantes

A novel of the Vietnam War by a marine veteran. Marlantes captures the horror of war along with the power of brotherhood and friendship. Not an easy read, but a moving and rewarding one.

13624683Sutton by J.P. Moehringer

Willie ‘The Actor’ Sutton was America’s most prolific (and endearing) bank robber from the late 1920’s to the 1950’s. Witty, a gentleman, a master of disguise, non-violent, he became a folk hero during a time in America when the banks continued to get richer while the public suffered in economic distress. Not much is known about Willie Sutton, so this book is technically fiction. The author, J.P. Moehringer, has collected the available facts and imagined the rest, and the result is quite an enjoyable story! It’s an interesting twist on the genre of historical fiction. In any case, I like stories of criminals with ideals (The Great Train Robbery is one of my all time favorites), and this fits nicely in that category. Sutton is the man who answered, when asked why he robbed banks, “because that’s where the money is.”

10058Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley

A book by the son of a World War 2 veteran who happened to be in the iconic picture of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. The book traces the lives of all six soldiers who were in the picture, and it makes for fascinating and harrowing reading. You really come to know each one individually and root for them. If you have seen the movie, don’t be dissuaded – the two have very little in common and the book is better!

1845403Exit Music by Ian Rankin

This is the 2007 finale of the Inspector Rebus series set in Edinburgh, Scotland (Rankin resurrected the series in 2012). I read the first book and then the last 4 books of the series and I find them a very enjoyable light-hearted read; witty dialogue, imaginary Scottish accents, believable characters, lovable characters, loathable characters, lots of whisky and classic rock. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I’m sure, but if you like witty humor and mystery fiction, you may find yourself picking up the next one and the next one and looking up maps of Edinburgh on Google.

2924318Home by Marilynne Robinson

The polar opposite of light-hearted. Marilynne Robinson writes the way I wish I could. Really, it’s difficult even to describe her writing with any adequacy. What I admire the most is the seamless way she weaves profound spiritual realities into a grounded and earthy narrative. Book reviews tend to overuse superlatives, so forgive my indulgence here: sublime, perceptive, cutting, haunting, beguiling, utterly brilliant — hold on while I get my thesaurus — oh nevermind. I really enjoy her novels, if you can’t tell yet, so pick up her previous (and related) book Gilead as well.

1898Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

I think about this book every time my hands or feet get cold outside. It is the incredible story of the 1996 climbing disaster on mount Everest where a number of people lost their lives, told from the perspective of one of the survivors. I found it nearly impossible to put down, and yet difficult to read at the same time – these are real people, real lives, and terrible deaths. I have never been into thin air at above 20000 feet, but I have been to Nepal, have seen Everest and the Himalayas on the horizon, and can just begin to imagine what would drive people to put themselves through unspeakable pain, discomfort, and peril, to simply climb to the top. The classic answer of course comes from George Mallory, the first man known to attempt to climb it: “Because it’s there.”

13697023In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Reading Sutton got me thinking about the whole idea of mixing non-fiction with fiction. I did a bit of research and discovered that in 1966 a book was written by Truman Capote that is considered to be the first ‘non-fiction novel.’ It is the story of the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in rural Kansas by two criminals who didn’t even know them. It was very well written and certainly interesting, but with little to offer in terms of redemptive value.

17159989Orr: My Story by Bobby Orr

After decades of silence regarding his unparalleled career, Bobby Orr finally wrote his story down. This book had loads of priceless moments, both funny and moving, but Bobby Orr is gracious and polite to a fault. I would have loved to hear him share what he really thinks a bit more often and bit a less sugarcoated. Nevertheless, it familiarized me with an era of hockey that I never got to watch, and I gained a lot of appreciation for those athletes. Orr had lots of good things to say about youth hockey and the NHL, and frankly if you love hockey you should read this.

16240761The Son by Philipp Meyer

My wife got this book out of the library for me, and once again she proved that she has great intuition. Meyer was highlighted in 2010 in the New Yorker’s list of top 20 authors under the age of 40. This book is breathtaking in its scope, spanning five troubled generations of a Texan family, from the settling of an untamed land to the building and collapse of a cattle and oil empire, from cold and empty mansions to eating raw Buffalo liver with Comanche Indians. It’s won a whole slew of awards and with good reason; it paints a powerful critique of the American dream, the pursuit of money and power, and human nature in general. As a follower of Jesus I only wish that the bleakness of the picture could have been set beside the brilliance of the One who showed humanity a better way.

Honorable Mentions:

13131149Evangellyfish by Douglas Wilson

A grim satire about the Evangelical world from a gifted writer. A fun and incisive read for anyone in ministry who has a sense of humor.

2964456Playing the Enemy by John Carlin

The book behind the movie Invictus, which tells the story of Nelson Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup. It was well written, flowed seamlessly from start to finish, and captured a truly remarkable moment in history.

9781408468241The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin

I haven’t read the Sherlock Holmes books yet (I just got them for Christmas: Thanks Dad!) but I picked this one up as an audiobook and really got into it. It’s an imaginative take on Watson and Holmes’ final years, with a twist. I didn’t actually care for the twist all that much, but loved the ride. I’m sure hearing it in ge-nu-ine British accents helped the experience as well.

If you are still reading this lengthy post, you are surely a fellow reader! So thanks for reading, first of all, and please leave a comment sharing your favorite reads this year – I’m always looking for a good book to add to the reading pile.

Remembrance Day and Three Good Books

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It’s Remembrance Day.

Which is both good and bad. Good because in and of itself, Remembrance Day is a good thing. Bad because some people just have a knack for taking a good thing and kind of ruining it.

While there will always be some who use it as a platform to further some political agenda, and others who wear a poppy out of nothing more than peer pressure, one thing is clear: Remembrance Day as experienced by many is often pretty far removed from the original intent of the whole thing.

But before I say another word, I do need to stop and realize that I am free to sit here and wax eloquent about this or that because a lot of people have made incredible sacrifices over the years, men and women to whom we all should be profoundly grateful. And I am.

I’ve always been fascinated by combat and war. Over the years, this fascination has matured from a kind of juvenile interest in guns and military hardware to a sombre and heavy-hearted appreciation for the incredible reality which is war. It is a place where the best and worst of humanity is seen in stark relief; and I don’t mean that one side is good and one side is bad.

The truth is that on the ground, despite the noble or evil actions and intentions of those far-removed leaders, courage and atrocity are not relegated to one side or the other. Moral and ethical ambiguity seems to overwhelm the idealistic black-and-white notions of many who enter these conflicts. And I don’t really know what to do with that.

At the end of the day, Hitler was still a tyrant and Churchill still did the right thing sending in the boys, even if that kind of moral clarity seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Nevertheless, one of the ways to really cut through the fluff and empty sentimentality that surrounds Remembrance Day is to take the time to read good books about war and combat. Allow me to recommend three books that I’ve read this year which deal with war and conflict in a deeply human and thought-provoking way.

1. Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley and Ron Powers

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I picked up a used copy of this classic for a dollar in a sleepy little town called Winter Harbour, Maine, while vacationing there this summer. It is the story of the six men who raised the American flag in the iconic picture seen here. It is written by the son of one of these men. It was engrossing, horrifying (literally nauseating at times), and a catalyst causing me to reflect on mortality and the brevity of life, on the nature of courage and bravery, and many other things. I highly recommend it.

2. Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes

matterhornThis is a novel of the Vietnam war. It is written by Karl Marlantes, who is a Marine veteran. It really is a masterpiece as far as war fiction is concerned. It is about as different from a Tom Clancy-type thriller as you can imagine. It is gritty, real, and deeply human. Widely touted as a modern classic, I couldn’t agree more.

 

 

 

 

3. The Translator, by Daoud Hari

The-Translator-Hari-Daoud-9780812979176

It’s a bit of a stretch to include this book on Remembrance Day, since as far as I know neither Canada nor the US is actively involved in the Darfur region, but one of the dangers when considering the wars of the past is to forget how many wars are going on right now. This gripping book is the incredible personal story of Daoud Hari, a young man from Darfur who became a translator and guide for various foreigners during the genocide in Darfur. While emotionally devastating at times, this sombre tale is peppered with humour and glimpses of the beauty of the human spirit – that outpouring of common grace.

 

What about you? What are some books that have changed the way you see war and conflict?

Thoughts on Typical Churches from Richard Lovelace, Part 3

Continuing from the last two posts…

“Their religious lives, however, do not satisfy their consciences at the deepest level, and so there is a powerful underlying insecurity in their lives. Consciously they defend themselves as dedicated Christians who are as good as anybody else, but underneath the conscious level there is a deep despair and self-rejection. Above the surface this often manifests itself in a compulsive floating hostility which focuses upon others in critical judgment. Thus a congregation of Christians who are insecure in their relationship to Christ can be a thorn bush of criticism, rejection, estrangement, and party spirit. Unsure in the depth of their hearts what God thinks of them, church members will fanatically affirm their own gifts and take fierce offense when anyone slights them, or else they will fuss endlessly with a self-centered inventory of their own inferiority in an inverted pride.”

Richard Lovelace, in Dynamics of Spiritual Life