Book Review: John Knox by Simonetta Carr

Sometimes when I get to review a book, I do a little happy dance like when Captivated arrived in my in-box. This book, however, is the first time that my kids did that dance with me. When Simonetta Carr’s latest biography for childrenindex showed up in the mail, my two oldest children recognized the cover style because of the other two biographies in our library and began to jump up and down, begging to look at it. The toddler, who is not exactly the target audience here, joined in because she doesn’t want to be left out of any celebration if she can help it.

Simonetta Carr excels at introducing young elementary aged children both to great heroes of the faith, and to the beauty of biographies as a genre. She writes in an age appropriate manner, and my children, especially my Mackerdoodle (6.5), are captivated by the stories. Knox is a controversial character, and often both misunderstood and misrepresented, but Carr deals with him kindly. She walks through Knox’s complex life clearly and chronologically, focusing on events and people rather than the ideas and words for which he is most known. One cannot tell the story of Knox without delving deeply into the political mess that was England and Scotland of the time. Carr explains the accompanying history in an age appropriate way, without turning it into a Disney princess tale. There is an over simplification of a few points only because it is a book for children, and there is only so much that be explained. Her attention to historicity is laudable. I was most impressed with phrases like, “We can’t be sure. . . ” and “We just don’t know. . .” sprinkled through out. I also love the fact that she includes direct quotes not only from Knox, but also from his contemporaries, rather than trying to re-interpret their words for children.

I always struggle with children’s history books. History is never cut and dried, yet so many children’s books are written in the “good guy/bad guy” construct. Simonetta Carr does an excellent job of breaking out of that mold. She also avoids the other pitfall of children’s writing in which authors make every historic event equivalent to a playground skirmish. There is no language of sharing, kindness, good helper or the like. Carr does have opinions on the topics covered (as should we all) and does include editorial remarks at times. In most cases I didn’t mind, as she and I share much of the same appreciation for Knox and his legacy; however, their presence did stand out to me. I would prefer my history lessons for the children to be as much fact as possible, leaving me to interpret with them. That is, however, mere preference, rather than criticism.

After completing the book, I asked my Mackerdoodle what she thought. She had enjoyed the book, and had a new appreciation for the trials endured during the Reformation, but she had one question for me. “Why did it seem like most of the men were named John and most of the ladies were named Mary?” It was a valid question, and not one that can be blamed on Simonetta Carr and her writing. I learned several new things as I read the book. I did not know that the Scots confession pre-dated the Westminster confession. I did not know that Knox wrote a book on the Reformation in Scotland (I would love to read that!) Finally, I did not know that Knox and Queen Mary Stuart had cordial conversations on several occasions.

Simonetta Carr’s biography of John Knox is not only an excellent biography for children, it would be a wonderful place for an adult to begin to meet the real John Knox, pastor, husband, father and loyal Scot.

I received no compensation for this post. I was provided an hard-cover edition for the purpose of review. I was not required to provide a positive one. I keep a disclosure statement here.


Book Review: Captivated by Thabiti Anyabwile

captivatedI have been following Thabiti Anyabwile on twitter for quite a while, so when I had the opportunity to review his book, I was delighted. Captivated is a collection of five sermons Anyabwile preached on the crucifixion of Christ, encouraging his congregation (and now his readers) to gaze more deeply into the truth of the cross. Each chapter tackles a question asked in scripture and lays out the biblical response. “Is there no other way?” focuses on Gethsemane and Christ’s prayer to have the cup pass from him. “Why have you forsaken me?” explores the rejection and abandonment Christ faced in the cross. “Where, oh death, is your victory?” is a chapter dealing specifically with the implications of Jesus’ physical death. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” speaks to the way the angels re-directed the women from grief to rejoicing and points to our own need for re-direction. Finally, in “Do you not know these things?” Anyabwile seeks to make the historical reality of the cross a matter of personal truth.

In the introduction, Thabiti Anyabwile invites us to abandon our mothers’ admonition not to stare, and to, instead, look deep into the mystery and awe that is found in the defining moment of our faith. His expressed hope is that the book would cause readers to slow down and remember the wonder of these familiar words. Too often when an author expresses that desire, the overwhelming emphasis is on the physical sufferings of Christ on the cross. Anyabwile steps away from that and focuses on things like the righteousness of God, the significance of atonement and other deep truths of the cross.

Each chapter reads like a sermon, and at times I could almost hear it being preached in my head. Each chapter builds to a crescendo of cascading application that I really enjoyed. It was fascinating for me to read this technique that I have heard and seen in black preachers. It is, interestingly, more effective when read because I was assured that it was the power of the words themselves moving me along, rather than that charisma of the man saying them. Still, I felt, at times, the need to nod and say an “Amen” or two while reading.

My least favorite chapter was “Why have you forsaken me?” as it felt more speculative than the others. There is so much we don’t know about how the Son was forsaken by the Father, and the author acknowledged that to speculate too much would be to invite blasphemy. I don’t believe he crossed that line, but it felt close, at times. On the other hand, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” was my favorite chapter. I loved the way it was written, and the way in which Anyabwile used the question of the angels to question us and re-direct our gaze. It is a chapter I will be re-reading when I am not on a review deadline.

Captivated meets its goal. I was encouraged to slow down and remember the power and significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. If you want to hear some more from Thabiti Anyabwile (including how to pronounce his last name) check out his interview on the confessing Baptist podcast.

I received no compensation for this post. I was provided an electronic edition for the purpose of review. I was not required to provide a positive one. I keep a disclosure statement here.


How Do They Do It?

I have a thousand (give or take 990) drafts sitting, abandoned and lonely, in my blog dashboard. When the children were tiny, I blogged almost every evening after they went to sleep. I came to the end of the day physically exhausted, but mentally hungry after the demands of caring for toddlers and infants. I would sit my weary body in a chair and rest my fingers on the key board and let my mind free.

These days, however, while I mentally compose stirring turns of phrase all day, once the children are asleep my mind just as weary as my feet. Keeping up with a 4.5 year old who is capable of first grade math, and a 6.5 year old who is seemingly never filled with enough knowledge and begs for just one more chapter in history, or lesson in science, or chapter in reading is proving to be more taxing on my mind than when they were 1 and 3 and seemingly inexhaustible in physical exertion alone.

Additionally, despite what I felt at the time, the older the child, the more complicated are the needs that must be met. I have taken up sewing, because the mackerdoodle wants to wear long skirts, and keeps growing out of the ones she has. A four minute board book will no longer satisfy any of the children, so we are reading chapter books, and then discussing them. The questions are harder, the needs no longer limited to food and kisses, and when the day comes to an end I find that the deep thoughts from breakfast have atrophied.

I don’t normally struggle with comparison, but lately I have begun to wonder, how do these other homeschooling women do it? How do they find the time and the mental energy to write so frequently? When do they blog, and when do they educate, and when do they sort out the odd socks?

I don’t know. All I know is that it has taken me three days to write four paragraphs. Maybe that’s how they do it. Maybe They just write what they can, when they can.


Snowshoes, Trail Blazing, and Being Confessional

confessional Well, it has been a snowy winter here in our newly adopted New Brunswick, and to help us enjoy it, my father brought us two pairs of snowshoes. Whenever there is a fresh fall of snow, Jonathan and I strap on the snowshoes and break a new sledding run for the children on the hill out back. We walk up and down the hill, slightly overlapping our tracks and pack down a run for the children.

The last time we embarked on this endeavor, I decided that I wanted to wander through the virgin snow on my own and try to photograph the trees on the border of the property we are renting. I set out across “country” on my snowshoes by myself and became aware immediately that this was a completely different adventure than walking side by side with my husband. With every step I sank down an inch or so and the snow would cover the frame and webbing of the snowshoes and my boot, causing a strange loping dance of step, lift, shake, step, lift, shake. I became so engrossed in just keeping track of my artificially elongated feet in the snow that I ended up no where near the sheltered curve of the meadow that had looked so picturesque from a distance. Instead, after what felt like a mile or so, I raised my head and found myself half way across and completely surrounded by, the sheet of snow that had looked like such a simple stroll ten minutes before.

Interestingly, as I stood there, trying to decide if I wanted to press on, or retrace my steps (the far easier route) back to my happily sledding children, it occurred to me that this difficulty in breaking my own trail across the snow was a picture of why Jonathan and I adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith as a part of the expression and direction of our Christianity.

106I spent a lot of years believing that my Christian faith was about blazing my own personal trail through sometimes deep theological terrain. It created a strange Christian walk that was a lot of losing my way and asking the wrong questions and shaking that off and getting “back on track.” Sometimes I got so distracted by the depth of the theology I lost track of where I was headed.

At some point in the last ten years, I began to appreciate that these trails had already been blazed for me. Now all metaphors break down, and this one will too, but let me use it for a moment, if you will. If the questions of Christian truth are like a snowy landscape, then men and women of the faith have been walking that landscape for two thousand years, asking the same questions and seeking the same answers. Throughout history, the Church has blazed those deep trails together using scripture as their guide and asked the important questions that always begin with truth and move to action. That trail of orthodoxy has been trod down well for us, step by step, over the millenia. We are confessional not because we are enamored of a particular moment in British history. Instead we see the confession as the ongoing tracks over a well blazed trail. It is the way we can keep our eyes up, and fixed on the Author and Perfecter instead of getting our feet tangled in questions that have already been asked, and answered. Why break a new trail when a good, solid road is laid out before us?

I walked back to the children after snapping a few pictures, and eventually they were cold, and tired, and wanted to head back inside. Jonathan had gone in before us (the duty of study outweighing the laughter of snow play) and I trod my snowshoes in his tracks and encouraged the children to follow behind me, thanking the Lord for well worn trails.

 


Book Review: Prophet on the Run by Baruch Maoz

prophetontherun Jonah. One of the most baffling books of the Bible, it begins with a prophet running away from God and ends with an unanswered question. It wasn’t until Jonathan wrote an exegetical paper, and then preached five sermons on Jonah that I began to appreciate this strange minor prophet. I was pleased to have the opportunity to review a commentary on Jonah having gained a fresher perspective. My enthusiasm was replaced with caution when I read Maoz’s introduction in which he explained that he had done his own translation of the book. I have some negative experience with people’s “personal, private, better” translations.

But I pressed on, because I said I would review the book. Boy am I glad I did. The personal translation of Jonah in Prophet on the Run was so much like the annotated translation that Jonathan included in his exegetical paper that I re-read Baruch Maoz’s biography to see if he, too, had studied Hebrew under Jay Sklar. He didn’t, but it would appear that when men who love the Lord and the Hebrew language come to the text of Jonah they think alike.

Prophet on the Run is first, and foremost, a devotional look at one of the seemingly least devotional books in scripture. Each section begins with the text of Jonah. I found this to be particularly helpful. When reviewing other commentaries and studies I find it difficult to go back and forth between the biblical text and the study. Here, the integrated text was very helpful to keep the reading flow. Following the biblical text is direct commentary on the passage. Words and phrases of note are pointed out. Context is given and the passage is explained. This is followed with application, and the entire chapter is wrapped up with several summary points highlighting the personal application of the passage. After a prayer on the subject matter, Maoz includes several discussion questions which make this very pastoral devotional book into an excellent small group study tool.

Maoz’s style is accessible, and pastoral but not soft. For instance, one of his summary points in chapter one is: “Sin makes us stupid.” This is true, and scriptural, but it isn’t warm and fuzzy. In the summary of chapter three, we find the quote: “. . .the scriptures are not designed to move us with wonderful stories of spiritual adventure. They are designed to teach us to think rightly about God. . .” and Maoz teaches Jonah in exactly that way.  The hero in this study is not Jonah, and it is not a big fish; instead every section points solidly to the one true God who is the true hero of all of scripture. The application points are pointed, but worded with grace, and are all rooted in the things the text has taught us about God. The study is not academic in tone or vocabulary, and would be useable by a broad audience in most churches.

If you have found Jonah to be a baffling book, Prophet on the Run would be a great way to discover the hope of redemption and promise of a sovereign God  in the story we all think of being about a large fish.

I received no compensation for this post. I was provided an electronic edition for the purpose of review. I was not required to provide a positive one. I keep a disclosure statement here.


Writing By Subtraction

In my ongoing goal to set aside some time each week for developing my writing, I took last Wednesday evening to experiment with something about which I have just learned. My high school English teacher often told us that words are like light, the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn. Poetry is, ideally, words condensed to their most potent form and being a wordy, wordy, gal, I have thus been a very poor poet. I discovered NewsPaper Blackout poetry on Pinterest (of course) and when my well loved copy of the Chronicles of Narnia (bound in a single volume) literally fell apart on my mackerdoodle’s head, I thought maybe I would give it a go.

The first few attempts were pretty bad. It is difficult to look at words individually instead of the context in which they are found on the page. So I don’t really know what this one is supposed to mean, but it sounds poetical . . . sort of.

around one heart a jagged path turned the beating into excitement

around one heart a jagged path turned the beating into excitement

This one is strange, and a little creepy, but better from a technical perspective.

when you disappeared the stranger popped its head out We're not safe We're afraid

when you disappeared the stranger popped its head out We’re not safe We’re afraid

I think this one was my best, but it made me so very sad that I just couldn’t let it be the last one I did:

there was a girl a boy and a girl like us the girl the boy I can't remember Trying to remember

there was a girl a boy and a girl like us the girl the boy I can’t remember Trying to remember

So this was the last of my effort, and it is far better than the first attempt:

the wind sank into silence and tickled a dream a lovely lovely dream and a sensation of music under the open sky

the wind sank into silence and tickled a dream a lovely lovely dream and a sensation of music under the open sky

It was an interesting challenge, and I think I will go back to it periodically as a reminder of the power of condensed words. If you give it a shot, I would love to see what you come up with, and hear how you felt about it.

 


Book Review: Romans 1-7 For You by Timothy Keller

It has been awhile, but I am back in the reviewing game, and I get to start out with another winner from the Good Book company. I have had the pleasure of reviewing Galatians for You and Judges for You by the same author, so saying yes to Romans 1-7 For You, another in the series, was a no-brainer.

As I have noted in each of the reviews, these books are not commentaries for serious academic study, they are, however, all excellent bible studies, and this volume on Romans 1-7 is no exception. Keller excels at unambiguously presenting the gospel, and this format showcases him at his best. From the challenge of Romans 1:26-27  through the much debated Romans 7, Keller manages to present difficult truth clearly and gently without compromising the truth itself. Despite his reputation in some reformed circles, Keller does a very strong study of Romans 6 and the balance of law and grace. In fact, the study of that chapter is some of the most balanced language I have ever read on the subject, walking the razor thin line between legalism and antinomianism in a faithful and biblical way.

Both this study and the study on Galatians would be excellent for small group studies with new believers or one-on-one discipleship. Keller’s gentle and engaging style is the “honey” that makes the sometimes difficult truths in these books a little easier to swallow. The studies are firmly rooted in the actual words of the text, and I think most believers would find them to be very worthwhile.

Keller will wrap up Romans for the Goodbook company, and then other authors will explore other biblical books for the remainder of the series. I hope that the addition of different voices and perspectives will still retain the excellent quality that these first three volumes have exhibited.

I received no compensation for this post. I was provided a hard cover edition for the purpose of review. I was not required to provide a positive one. I keep a disclosure statement here.


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