Monday, June 26, 2017

Anne of Green Gables

I’m not sure why I didn’t review these books when I read them to Miss 8 & Miss 11. They loved them. We read the first two aloud Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea. Miss 9* went on to read Anne of Windy Poplars herself.

As they are old-fashioned and take some explaining at points, for the girls’ age they were better read aloud and slowly. I was delighted with them, having never read them in detail myself. (I found Anne rather annoying and long-winded when I tried to read them as a child!) I had seen the mini-series but never realised the depth of the books. L.M Montgomery’s writing is beautiful to read aloud, it ebbs and flows with wonderful expression and description. She is also very humorous, with irony and dry wit scattered throughout. I often found myself chuckling as I read them, and if the girls didn’t get it, it was fun to try to explain. There is also a depth to their faith and belief that is hardly alluded to in the mini-series, as well as many biblical references, such as having a ‘Job’ day (a very bad day).

Personally, considering our own life choices, I loved this quote:
“I’m very glad they’ve called Mr Allan. I liked him because his sermon was interesting and he prayed as if he meant it and not just as if he did it because he was in the habit of it. Mrs Lynde says he isn’t perfect, but she says we shouldn’t expect a perfect minister for seven hundred and fifty dollars a year, and anyhow his theology is sound because she questioned him thoroughly on all the points of doctrine. And she knows his wife’s people and they are most respectable and the women are all good housekeepers. Mrs Lynde says that sound doctrine in a man and good housekeeping in a woman make an ideal combination for a minister’s family.” The new minister and his wife were a young, pleasant-faced couple, still in their honeymoon, and full of all good and beautiful enthusiasm for their chosen life’s work.  (Anne of Green Gables)

We then watched the mini-series (by Sullivan Productions), the one I knew as a child, produced in 1985. As recalled, it was lovely, and a pretty good adaption of the books. We moved onto Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel (1987), which extended the story beyond what we had read in the books, and according to various websites, adds extra material different from the books, but it’s still enjoyable to watch, and has the same endearing aspects of Anne in it.

We should have stopped there, but unknowingly pushed on to Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story (1999) where Anne and Gil live in New York for a time, are then married, and details her search for him on the WWI battlefields. It was for a more mature audience, it was rated M, showed a fair amount of battle gore and tension, and Miss 9.5 found it too much. Upon reflection it was clear it wasn’t based on the books, the feel of it was just too different, and my research since shows it was an original production, changing much of the timing and events of the books. I can see why the production house did it, the earlier series were so popular and they managed to have both Megan Follows (Anne) and Jonathan Crombie (Gilbert) return in their roles. The girls may well return to the first two to re-watch them, no-one is interested in seeing the third again.

Miss 9 is much more interested in continuing with the books so we’ll do that instead!


* I realise all these numbers change throughout this post, it reflects the age when they did it, not the age they are now!

Monday, June 19, 2017

More Philippa Gregory

I went on to read Philippa Gregory’s novels of the 16th C covering Tudor & Elizabethan England. One striking observation is that the version of King Henry VIII that I was taught in high school was quite sanitised. If Gregory’s version is even half true – he really was a manic, murdering despot.  

In The King’s Curse, Margaret Pole, Plantagenet heir, is the daughter of George of Clarence, the third son of York who never gained the throne.  As she and any relatives have legitimate claims to the throne, the Tudors always have them under control.  This great book maps Henry’s VIII rise to power, and descent into tyranny. Margaret serves as a faithful companion to Katherine of Aragon (Henry’s first wife) and is charged with raising the heirs to the throne (including Princess Mary). She is persistently faithful to the reign of the monarch, however his rule plays out, ensuring she never says anything against him.

Yet the king is constantly on the lookout for challengers, and is trying to redefine the laws of the church and marriage to suit his needs. With cronies like Thomas Cromwell alongside him, anyone who supports the Roman church is under threat. In fact, the Reformers of the English church come off very badly in this account.  As such, it’s an interesting counter to Wolf Hall

It’s best to read these books after all the Cousins’ War series to fully understand what is going on, even the title is explained more fully in previous books. 

What has struck me most that we can fall into the trap of thinking that this is the first time our world has considered itself ‘post-truth’. Gregory’s novels go a long way to suggesting that Henry VIII was a spoilt child who became a king whom no-one could counsel or control, and who changed laws and facts to suit his agenda without redress. Thousands of people died for suggesting anything he did was wrong, and his wives were abandoned or beheaded, and marriages declared invalid to suit his own purposes.  She goes so far as to suggest that his indulgent childhood, where no-one checked him or allowed him to suffer led to the awful leader he became. 

Something to think about for both parents and society at large there!


***

There are many books in this series, so in brief:
 
Three Sisters, Three Queens charts the interconnected lives of Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England and her two sisters in law – Mary, briefly Queen of France and Margaret, Queen of Scotland.  Told from Margaret’s perspective, as she is sent as a teenage bride to Scotland to marry King James. Widowed with two young heirs to the throne, she proceeds into two later marriages, both for love but causing huge problems for Scotland. Gregory has set this up as three women who are united as family and by position, yet constantly at the mercy of the men who rule the world, and their own ambition.

The Constant Princess is Katherine of Aragon, mainly in the younger days of her life, first married to Arthur (Prince of Wales) and then in the early years to his brother Henry VIII.

The Other Boleyn Girl -  Mary, sister to Anne, was the first Boleyn to fall under the spell of Henry VIII.  Producing two bastard children by him, she must later watch as her sister ascends the throne.

The Boleyn Inheritance charts the lives of three women – Jane Boleyn (Anne’s sister in law), Anne of Cleves (wife #4) and Katherine (wife #5).   Truly the lives of these women were miserable – each a pawn in the game of trying to please Henry VIII.

One of my favourite’s was The Taming of the Queen, about Kateryn Parr, Henry’s 6th wife.   She seems to have been truly converted to the Christian faith and instrumental in the development of the translation of parts of the bible, and the prayer book. She was the first women in England to have her work published under her own name. Yet she still lived under the rule of a truly murderous, controlling and self-absorbed man.  The only reason I could read it with some semblance of peace was I knew the rhyme regarding the fate of Henry’s wives: “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived”.

Then to The Queen’s Fool, with the interesting character of Hannah Green, Queen Mary’s Fool, who is a secret Jew yet lives as a faithful Catholic or Protestant, whichever way the law of England currently requires. Through her eyes you see the life of Queen Mary, with all its ups and downs in love, ruling and the murderous way she tried to force the Catholic faith back on the people of England.

The Virgin’s Lover is the story of Elizabeth I and her lover Sir Robert Dudley. In the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, she falls madly and hopelessly in love with the married Dudley. He is willing to risk everything for her, including considering putting his wife aside; or is he really just pursuing his own ambition to be on the throne?

And finishing with The Other Queen, about Mary Queen of Scots and her long ‘imprisonment’ by the English at the ongoing order of her cousin Elizabeth I; and the couple who had to ‘host’ her.  


Throughout I have been impressed by Gregory’s ability to write from many different perspectives.  In one book, she can rigidly portray the Catholic point of view, and yet in another champion the Protestant. You can also read a fair amount of ‘tongue-in-cheek’ comments in both, noting both sides were often in clear error and sin.  While it’s clearly fiction, the basis in solid history leaves the impression that monarchs often acted on a whim, were very persuaded by influential counsel, and that there were far-reaching effects of their decisions on the common people and their own practice of faith. I am certainly even more thankful now to be in a democracy, whatever its faults!  I have enjoyed my time in these books.   

Monday, June 12, 2017

Getting Jesus Wrong

Getting Jesus Wrong, Matt Johnson

When grace is missing from the Christian message, we are so quickly led to false views of Jesus. Matt Johnson admits his struggles over 20 years of following false Jesus’s, some who set an impossibly high standard and some who were just there to help him fulfil his own dreams.

This book reads as though for the first time in long life of faith, he has truly grasped the gospel of grace. It is almost a recovery story. It’s personal and records a process still in progress.

Johnson identifies four false views of Jesus:

  • Life Coach Jesus – it’s all about you, Jesus helps you achieve your goals. Society’s view of “moral therapeutic deism” was more clearly explained in Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood and the same ideas were here. When this is our tendency, we must remember is that Christianity is about Jesus, not us and our live dreams. As Johnson says “You’ve got you own problems, and you need a bigger story too. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need a life coach; I need a Savior.” (p30).
  • Checklist Jesus – where we are always looking for the one thing that will fix our lives and make us truly right with God. It could be mastering ‘the quiet time’, or having a spiritual experience. But what we need to realise is there is nothing we lack when we are in Christ, we are already loved unconditionally.
  • Movement Leader Jesus – here Johnson shares some of his experiences in a mega-church. The cool place where thousands flocked and people all looked to the pastor and his family as their role model. People keep looking for the perfect church, yet there is no perfect church. He concludes that all we need is faithful preaching (and he also adds communion and baptism). No fancy lightshows, no rock band. We need Jesus to be present in his word and that is enough.
  • Visionary Jesus – again through the mega-church experience, Johnson highlights the problems with following the visionary leader. A leader must be a shepherd, not a narcissist who expects everyone to meet their desire for church growth. God loves us as we are and where we are. Our ministries are a gift and service to him, not a way of proving our worth in his kingdom.

Not surprisingly, these false views of Jesus don’t need lead us to a saviour – instead they lead in two directions – pride and despair. We hold ourselves up thinking we are worthy and we did it on our own, or we despair that we never meet the standard that we think Jesus wants.

Johnson then leads us through the despair of a life lived under the law compared to the saving, refreshing, redeeming truth of God’s grace. Finishing with some vulnerable, personal observations about his life, Johnson leads the reader to see that when we turn to grace alone, fleeing the false views of Jesus that are all about performance, we are brought both to humility and to hope.

He writes in a very casual, conversational style, with numerous stories and illustrations. His language and phrasing is (dare I say it?) ‘young’. I suspect people who are older than me or a bit more traditional in their reading might find the style a bit grating.

I found myself wanting one more chapter at the end. What now? So, you have thrown down all these false views, but what does that mean for how I live today? When I read Titus 2:11-14, I see:
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope–the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
How do I do that, while I still grasp firmly to grace and not to performance? I felt he left the reader wanting more guidance at the end.

Yet this is a book that has made me think. Many of his false views of Jesus are not obviously apparent in circles I move in, but I know they exist. Anyone who is in the megachurch movement might be challenged to analyse the message of Jesus they are given. Yet we all tend to a legalistic view of the Christian life. Am I doing enough? Is God pleased with me? Can I affect my salvation at all? This is a refreshing balm to the soul in the reminder that God is all we need; he does not need us at all, but he calls us to come to him, broken and despairing, knowing he alone can save.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Interview with TGCA

The Gospel Coalition Australia website currently has a series on the ups and downs of studying theology. I was privileged to be able to contribute to it.
TGCA: What were the high-points and low-points of studying theology? 
The main highpoint was studying together. Being able to study in the same areas at the same time meant we grew together significantly in our understanding of God, His word and His world, and it was formative for our first five years of marriage. Aligned with that was that we both invested in friendships in our year group, especially as we lived on campus for the whole four years. The fellowship opportunities through bible study groups and women’s fellowships, and the connection with lecturers and their wives, were also foundational as we thought through what being a ‘ministry’ wife’ might look like for me.

Overall we loved it and there were very few low-points. It was learning curve to realise my husband didn’t want to sit next to me every day in lectures (why not?!), and we had to negotiate space for both of us to study effectively in a small house. It did knock my competitive spirit a bit, realising just how much more academically skilled my husband was than me, but that wasn’t a surprise!
You can read the rest here.

Monday, June 5, 2017

12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You

12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, Tony Reinke

I was excited to spot this book in the week I was giving a seminar on digital technology. It’s a helpful addition to a growing number of books on the topic (such as Challies, Alter, Heitner and the Boswells). I loved Reinke’s last book, Lit! and so quickly devoured this offering.

Reinke asks the question “Why is the best use of my smartphone in the flourishing of my life?”, asserting he is not looking to guilt people, and that the book succeeds if you love Christ more, and fails if you hate yourself more.

He rightly asserts that our phones divulge what our hearts really want:
“The glowing screen on my phone projects into my eyes the desires and loves that live in the most abstract corners of my heart and soul, finding visible expression in pixels of images, video, and text for me to see and consume and type and share. This means that whatever happens on my smartphone, especially under the guise of anonymity, is the true expose of my heart, reflected in full colour pixels back into my eyes.” (p27)
He then moves into his 12 ways phones are changing us which include: addiction to distraction, ignoring people around us, craving approval, lost literacy, loneliness of people, becoming comfortable with secret vices, and fearing missing out. Each of these was a valid helpful point. I did struggle to see the logic of the order that he chose, and some seemed quite similar. In the conclusion, the order was explained further as a chiastic structure, which seemed an odd choice and one which would have been worth explaining up front (and would have met some of his own suggestions in Lit!, enabling the reader to see a clear structure as they dived in).

Some of his insightful comments included the reality that our technology is actually weeding out diversity:
“Our phones buffer us from diversity… [from] not only our elders, but also the impoverished, the cognitively disabled, children, the less educated, the less literate, the less cosmopolitan, and non-Westerners. In effect, our online communities render invisible the majority of the human race.” (p71)
Our desire to be affirmed:
“The sad truth is that many of us are addicted to our phones because we crave immediate approval and affirmation. The fear we feel in our hearts when we are engaged online is the impulse that drives our “highly selective self-representation.” We want to be loved and accepted by others, so we wash away our scars and defects.” (p75)
Our misled view of time and the waste of it:
“Am I entitled to feed on the fragmented trivialities online? In other words, am I entitled to spend hours every month simply browsing odd curiosities? I get the distinct impression in Scripture that the answer is no. I am not my own. I am owned by the Lord. I have been bought with a price, which means I must glorify Christ with my thumbs, my ears, my eyes and my time. And that leads me to my point: I do not have “time to kill” – I have time to redeem.” (p179-80)
I appreciated his warning about putting good works online for others to see, noting that “you have already received your reward in full” (“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Matthew 6:1). It’s an interesting question to consider – do we show our good works online for others to approve (eg. changing our profile picture, posting a photo of the good deed); or do we just get on and do the actual service or give actual money to the cause?

Reinke has done a lot of research in this area and quotes other authors quite extensively. As such, I was surprised to find no references to Challies’ book, as many of their points are similar. I think I prefer Challies’ treatment, it is broader and his order appeals to me more. Yet, Reinke has many valuable observations and it’s a book worth reading for anyone in possession of a smartphone. He finishes with some helpful suggestions for wise smartphone usage, and the encouragement to keep thinking about the issues critically.

Which is something we should all be doing - thinking clearly, honestly and biblically about our smartphone usage, what it is doing to us and what it is doing to society at large.