Monday, August 26, 2013

Emily Rodda

Today’s author to read aloud is Emily Rodda.  Rodda has written numerous books and series for children and all are fun to read aloud.

The series my son and I started with was Deltora Quest. When he was 7-8 I read the first series to him (which contains 9 books). We both loved them. They were a great adventure story about a boy Leif who has to search the land of Deltora to fill a belt with special jewels in order to find the rightful heir to the throne and overthrow the Shadow Lord. It has great characters (the grumpy minder Barda and a feisty girl Jasmine) and it is full of puzzles and plays on words which are printed in the book and you can look at together to see if you can figure them out. There are fight scenes, evil characters and real problems.

We both loved this series and were both genuinely excited to discover who the true heir to Deltora was at the end. He then went on to read the subsequent two Deltora series himself.

He has then gone on to read the Rowan of Rin series and loved them too. There are also the Three Doors series and the Rondo series (also aimed at 8-12s). Then there is the Fairy Realm books for girls and for very young ones (new readers), the Squeak Street series is quite cute, about a street of mice who each have an individual book.

Don’t you love an author who writes numerous series for numerous age groups!

In researching Rodda, I have realised that this name is actually a pseudonym; she is actually Jennifer Rowe, author and journalist from Sydney.  That is probably why we like her writing so much, there is something about reading Australian authors that feel familiar and natural when you read them. She also has written adult fiction – anyone read any of them?

Friday, August 23, 2013

He'll be OK

He'll be OK: Growing Gorgeous Boys into Good Men, Celia Lashie

I got this recommendation from Jenny’s blog a few years ago and stored it away for me to read at a later date.  I’m so glad I did.  Our son has just turned 10 and while this book focuses on boys in the high school years of 7-12, it gave me some great ideas and things to think about as we approach that stage.

Celia Lashie is a social commentator who has worked for years in the New Zealand prison system. She then undertook this project (the Good Man Project) in single-sex boys’ schools across New Zealand. Her desire was to define what a good man is and then how we help boys to grow into them, both in educational settings and in the home.

It’s a very easy read, detailing the way she went about the project and what she found, including lots of examples of conversations she had with boys, fathers, mothers, male teachers and principals along the way.

Some of the ideas I found helpful were:
  • Boys are crossing a bridge of adolescence in the high-school years. What they need most of all is for a man (primarily their father) to walk with them over that bridge, to show them how to get there and to be alongside them. Concurrently, she claims mothers need to get off that bridge. They need to be present, of course, but they are not the ones to primarily walk that road alongside their sons (of course, she addresses what this will look for single-mothers and those mothers who will refuse to get off the bridge anyway).
  • Her advice to mothers for this stage was: chill out. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Decide what really matters and deal with those things. Don’t expect your sons to include you in their lives at this stage in the way your daughters might. Your sons know you are there no matter what and they know they can come to you, so give them space to do so.
    • I cannot imagine these are easy words for some mothers to hear and not even being at that stage yet, I imagine parts of it I would find hard. But a lot of what she said made sense.
  • Her advice to fathers was to stay involved and to be the active ones in the relationship at this point. Keep interested in what interests your sons and keep being a model of a good man. Of course, other men can fill this role too if needed.
  • She went through the different stages of Yr 7-12 and how we can keep involved with our sons, providing the boundaries they need at points and the increased freedoms they need at others, while being committed to get them through adolescence safely and into manhood.
  • Her experience in the prison system taught her that most young men end up in prison because of stupidity rather than intentionally evil or bad behaviour. (eg. “I wonder what happens if I try run the red light?” “Can I outrun the cops?” etc). Therefore providing strong boundaries and clear messages regarding good decisions can help with this.
What I found most interesting were her comments regarding mothers in regards to both their husbands and their sons. She found overwhelmingly that most women are unwilling to allow their husbands to have an active parenting role, instead correcting and challenging his decisions. Their husbands intuitively knew this and so rarely spoke up.  At the same time, many treated their sons as exceptions for whom school rules need not apply and so did not back up teachers and principals, when they were trying to enforce standards for student behaviour.

It did lead me to ponder that in the Christian families I know, where men take an active role in parenting, this seems to be less the case. Perhaps when we respect God’s model of male leadership in families, we run into less trouble in these areas?

A good book that is worth a read if you have sons approaching or currently in the high school years.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Charlotte's Web

Charlotte's Web, E. B. White

Taking a break from series in the ‘books to read aloud’ series, today I bring you a single volume book: Charlotte’s Web. Many of you will have read this yourselves as children, as may have your parents: it was originally published in 1952.

It is the story of Wilbur, a runt pig saved from an early death by a young girl Fern and raised on a barn. Even amongst the other animals on the farm, Wilbur is lonely and becomes friends with Charlotte, a large grey spider. When Wilbur discovers than most pigs end up on the dinner table, he is traumatised, until Charlotte promises to save his life by writing messages about him in her web. What ensues is a lovely story of friendship, animals that talk (which Fern can understand), farm life and fun. When Charlotte dies towards the end, our children have been quite moved and yet love to hear of her babies hatching in the final chapter.

We have found about age 8 is perfect for this book, it captures their imagination (animals talking!) and the story keeps moving with interest. There are serious things at stake (Wilbur could still be made into dinner), and I think for many children who often are fearful of spiders, it’s a lovely way of learning about arachnids that opens up their minds to their positive traits.
When finished it provides a great entree into a family movie night with the 2006 movie by Paramount pictures with Dakota Fanning as Fern and the voice of Julia Roberts as Charlotte. It’s a lovely film version, suitable for the whole family.

Friday, August 16, 2013

C.S. Lewis Trilogy

A number of factors have come together which suggests this is going to be a year of reading C.S. Lewis for me. First I read his biography which I reviewed last week. Secondly, I happened across his science fiction trilogy for adults on sale at the library for 50c! I snapped it up not even knowing that Lewis had ever written for adults (not having got to that point in the biography yet!)  I am also reading the Narnia series to my two oldest in the evenings (which we will come to in the ‘books to read aloud’ series soon). I found Pilgrim's Regress by chance in a second hand bookshop and want to reread The Screwtape Letters. So, a few reviews to come I think!

Today’s is the science fiction trilogy Lewis wrote in the 1930s-40s. The books being: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.

I found all three required keen attention as you read them, these are not books that flow over you easily. Perhaps that is because they were written 70 years ago and because they are dealing with issues that are not as prevalent today. Perhaps it is also because I do not read a lot of science fiction. Perhaps it was because they were so alien and odd on many levels that they really did require a lot of thought.

The first two I quite enjoyed. Out of the Silent Planet is the story of Ransom, a man forced by two other men, to travel with them to the planet of Malacandria (Mars). He escapes his captors and discovered the different life forms on Malacandria, makes friends with them and learns of the all powerful entities (eldils and others) who rule the universe. It is an interesting idea of God ruling all things everywhere and what a world would look like that respected all species equally (not just humans at the top).

The second novel Perelandra is the account of Ransom’s next interplanetary visit, this time to Perelandra (Venus). Here he meets the Lady, the woman of the planet, who lives in abundant joy in a verdant environment, enjoying what has been provided by her creator. Into this idyll comes an enemy trying to convince her to disobey the orders of her creator. It is a fascinating analogy to the Garden of Eden and sets up a situation: what would have happened if Eve set up a continued resistance to the temptation of the serpent?  As the lady beings to consider the enemy’s words, Ransom realised he has been sent to stop the enemy succeeding. This was an interesting idea which I found I enjoyed following.

I probably should have stopped there. Book 3 (That Hideous Strength) I found interminably long and confusing. I did plod through it partially out of duty to finish it (why do I feel this way??) and partially because I kept hoping they would end up in space again. In essence, That Hideous Strength is about the final battle between good and evil (in a very simplified way), set in an English university town. Lewis uses fiction to address his concern over the growing feeling in society that science was the answer to everything, along with eugenics of humanity and vivisection of animals. People who like long philosophical discourse and who can admire Lewis’ ability to write at length will be very impressed. He could certainly write well. It just never really grabbed me and got so odd that I struggled.

However, I’m glad to have read them and exposed myself to more of his writing.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A comedy of errors

Yesterday was a day like no other – the day I am calling my ‘comedy of errors’ day. I thought I would share it with you all for three reasons. 1. It’s rather funny. 2. If there are any preconceived ideas about me being organised and in control on this blog, this could help dispel them and 3. God is amazingly kind and generous, even when I am remarkably silly.

Here is how it went:
  • I had the day free so I headed out for a long run (11kms, which was rather a stretch)
  • When I got home I realised that I had been planning to get up on the roof for some time to check on some cracks, etc. So I got out on the roof via the balcony door.
  • Having taken my iPhone up there I proceeded to take photos of the things which I needed to ask the experts at the hardware store about.
  • After a few photos, my phone battery ran out (here is where things started to go wrong…)
  • I returned to the balcony after a complete roof inspection, rather pleased with my work and having enjoyed the view.
  • I went to re-enter the house via the balcony door to find that it was locked.
  • There is no safe way down from the balcony.
  • I toured around the roof trying to find a safe way down and could not find one that did not require me to stand on rotting wood or jump a potential ankle-breaking height.
  • It appears we have a remarkably quiet street.
  • However, we did have tradesmen in that day (God’s incredible kindness #1) and I knew they were to return to the house within the hour, so I sat down in the sun and waited.
  • Upon their return, they accessed the ladder via the garage and I was able to get down safely. (God’s incredible kindness #2)
  • However, I was still locked out of the house (the usual spare key stored outside was removed only 2 hours before because of said tradesmen!) with no phone, wallet, car keys, etc.
  • I borrowed the phone of the tradie and left a message for my husband, saying I was on my way in to get his keys.
  • I hopped on my bike and rode into town to meet him at uni.
  • I found another staffworker at uni (God’s incredible kindness #3) to call & locate my husband.
  • He met me, kindly fed me, provided me with said key and I returned home (God’s incredible kindness #4), taking the time to try and enjoy the 12km return bike ride.
  • Saga started at 11am, sorted by 1:30pm. But it felt like so much longer!
  • I was very tired last night and a little sore all over!
What I realised throughout was how much worse the whole thing could have been: there could have been no-one to help me down, I could have hurt myself doing so, my husband could have been away or unfindable, we could live much further away from his work, it could have been pouring with rain, it could have happened when I was due to pick up the kids, etc, etc.

So, even in the midst of it all (and I must say the reality of being locked out of your house and stuck on the roof at the same time was a little sobering) I realised how God was so kind in the whole situation.  I am very thankful for the reminder of his goodness on such a day.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Ranger's Apprentice

This week’s books to read aloud are the Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan. Now I have to be strictly honest here and admit we did not read them aloud. Our son (10) discovered them before we did, devoured them, decided he wanted to re-read them so often he wanted to own them and has since been buying them at second-hand bookshops or with birthday money. An online article reminded me that I want to know what my kids are reading and why it captures their attention, so I started reading them. Then my husband started. We have all enjoyed them.

It is the story of Will, an orphan raised as a ward of Redmont Castle in the country of Araluen. Having reached 15 he is to be apprenticed to learn a trade. He is chosen by the Rangers – a secretive group of men, who loyally serve the King by protecting the country. As Will comes to know and love his trainer, Halt, he is trained in archery, battle, horseriding and any skills a Ranger may need.

Reasons these books are good:

1. The author, John Flanagan, is Australian. Therefore we appreciate the humour in them. It is a dry wit and the characters don’t take themselves too seriously, most of which (I was pleased to note) my son understood and enjoyed.

2. While the entire setting is fictional, it is clearly an adaptation of England and Europe with Gallican knights over the sea, Skandian raiders over the sea to the north and Scotti raiders which come down across the land. In later books we meet nations who bear marked similarities to the Middle-East and Far East. For readers who understand the links there is humour here also. I would have loved to have read the Gallican knights voices in Book 2 with a Monty-python-esque French accent.

3. There are 11 in the series! You’ve got to love a good series for children. It has taken me weeks of solid reading to work my through them and I have really enjoyed them. Then there are three Brotherband novels set in Skandia when you finish.

4. They are very appropriate. Even though by half way through the series, the main characters are all adults and beginning to date and marry, their courtship is modest and gentle. It is also not the main part of the story, so boys stay very interested because there are lots of battles and problems to solve. I suspect this series would also appeal to girls who like some adventure, but who appreciate a little romance along the way.

5. There are strong themes of friendship, loyalty, honesty, courage and bravery. The Rangers are people you would be happy to have your children model themselves upon.

6. It seems that Flanagan first starting writing these books to encourage his son to read. There aren’t many better reasons I can think of to write children’s books.

A fun series – either to read with your children or read alongside your children.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Preaching & Apologetics

It was a great privilege to be able to go to the SA Preaching School at our local bible college this week. This year was on ‘helping Christians become good everyday apologists’ and it was a great treat to have William Lane Craig come as part of his tour around Australia.

I always appreciate the chance to be challenged intellectually and this was definitely the way to do it.

There were three sessions on the day, all led by Dr Craig.

The first got us thinking about how we communicate and challenge people’s worldviews. This was really a challenge to pastors and church leaders to make sure we continue to value intellectual thought and academic rigour as a part of faith. As pastors are often the brokers of truth between scholars and congregations, they must be willing and able to interact with scholarly debate about the existence of God and other theological issues. He raised the challenge that much of the evangelical church has plunged into theological illiteracy, where many minds (of both pastors and laypeople) are in intellectual neutral. Then he went into some specifics of how to introduce apologetics into a ministry. These included:

  • Being an example. Model intellectual engagement yourself. Introduce historical backgrounds and details of the setting in bible passages. Use maps, details that make it real, not a story. There are many people in our churches who need these concrete evidences to continue to convince them their faith is based in fact, and this particularly includes our youth and uni students. This also includes refusing to apologise for challenging people intellectually – don’t dumb down theological terms, rather teach them well and clearly.
  • Have sermon series on the intellectual challenges to faith
  • Teach adult classes about the bible, faith and issues related to them. He said this will get men interested in learning in a way that often does not happen on a Sunday.
  • Set up scholarships for those training in ministry, but also those training in high-academia, the post-grads, etc who will shape thinking in the future and from a Christian perspective
  • Hold special apologetics events which answer certain questions or raise certain issues.

The second session was a sample talk that Dr Craig gave on how he would introduce the evidence for Christianity. This was a helpful session which pointed out that faith is rational, that there is accepted evidence for the Christian beliefs and yet only those who seek God will find him. I felt the best part of this talk was his claim that we do not live in a post-modern society and in fact it is one of the biggest lies we have been sold. No-one thinks the knowledge obtained by science and medicine are subjective. Rather, we live in a solidly modernist society, which is only relative in regards to religion and ethics. He said the claim that we are now post-modern and truth is relative is a ruse to get us to lay down our logic and reason and only ‘share stories’. As Christians, we should never give up traditional appeals to logic and reason.

The final session was pretty tough going! It was a seminar of equipping Christian to give better answers and basically ran through a number of those positive arguments for God (arguing from contingency, morals, existence, etc) and the negative arguments (answering objections to God) such as evil and suffering in the world and religious diversity. This was a very intellectual, philosophical session which reminded me why I struggled so much in Philosophy 2 at bible college!

In the end I walked away with the following thoughts:
  • I am thrilled that a man of his intellectual calibre is willing to stand up publicly for Jesus. He conducts debates around the world with leading atheists and is confident intellectually and academically that Christianity holds up to scrutiny and it has deepened and strengthened his own faith. I thank God for that.
  • It seems that the tide is turning in the US and UK and that now many of the leading philosophers of our day are professing Christians. No longer do the statements of the 1960s that ‘God is dead’ hold any weight amongst academics. I also thank God for that.
  • I think he issues an excellent challenge to those in ministry to ‘brain up’ as it were and become educated in apologetics, both for ourselves and for laypeople. We should certainly be doing that and I will be looking out for some of his books.
  • Yet I cannot imagine any conversation where I would use the ontological argument for God or the logical version to the problem of evil in speaking with an unbeliever. I just don’t know people who talk like that or who are asking those philosophical questions. Most people questions about God are strongly rooted in pastoral issues – their pain and suffering, or not wanting to believe in God because they may have to account for their lives. In our desire to be intellectually rigorous and philosophical capable, let us not forget that many people’s issues with God are pastoral. (Dr Craig never suggested such a thing, I am just drawing conclusions for myself).
A good day with lots to think about.

Dr Craig is touring the Eastern states this month and debating with Professor Lawrence Krauss at a number of events hosted by City Bible Forum – you might want to go if you are nearby.

Friday, August 9, 2013

C.S. Lewis: A Life

C.S. Lewis: A Life, Alister McGrath

A recent trip to a Christian bookstore convinced me I wanted to read a few more biographies. So I grabbed this one eagerly to read about C.S. Lewis - a man whose books I have read, who is regularly quoted in Christian books and is widely regarded amongst many believers, yet about whom I knew very little.

This is a biography that covers all aspects of Lewis’s life, from his childhood and early academic years, his coming to faith and writing, his friendships and relationships. McGrath has spent a lot of time reading Lewis’s published books as well as much personal correspondence to bring together a complete picture of the man. He has analysed many primary sources and is willing to draw conclusions about Lewis that seem at odds with previous biographies. At this level I am unable to comment, knowing nothing about Lewis myself other than what I have now read in this book.

It is a comprehensive work. I did find the first half a bit slow and will admit to putting it down with disinterest a few times. However once it got to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity, his later writings and apologetics work I found it much more interesting. McGrath has spent some time looking at the Narnia series as well as his other writings and it has inspired me to return to Lewis’ writing myself.

If you are like me and know little about the man, this book would definitely give you a wealth of information and analysis covering his life. If you are already a keen follower of C.S. Lewis and are familiar with his life and writings, you may be interested in McGrath’s take and interpretation of some of the events of his life, such as proposing a different date of his conversion from even the one Lewis himself suggested.

All in all a good book about a man worth knowing about.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Harry Potter

Today’s books to read aloud are J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In the past two years I have started reading these to my son. He was 9 when we started the first: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

He wanted to start reading them as many of his friends already were, so I went back and re-read them all again to decide whether I was happy for him to do so. I know people have varied opinions of the Harry Potter books. My personal decision was that I was happy for him to read some of them for now. The earlier ones are shorter, less dark and less evil, and the children are younger. By the end when the kids are 17 they are dating one another and the evil & magic they are facing is quite unpleasant.

So last year I started reading them to him, partly because I enjoy the books and so was happy to read them again, but also to slow down his rate of consumption! He would have sat down and read the whole book in 2 days, whereas with me reading a chapter at a time stretched it out over about a month. So last year we read the first 2 and this year we have read the 3rd. We have stopped for now. I now need to decide whether to continue reading them aloud (they do get very long from here on, so it would be a few months of reading at night for each book), to let him continue on his own, or to continue to wait a bit longer. At the moment we are tied up in other books, so we have ended up waiting. We will probably return to the fourth towards the end of the year.

Anyway, that’s a long explanation! Back to the point - they are great books to read aloud. They are exciting, fun and interesting. My son loved the quidditch matches and was always on the edge of his seat to know what happened, he loved the magic & humour and all the interactions between the students. He loved the fantasy and imaginary world that Rowling has created, yet how it still seems realistic to a boy of his age. I enjoyed reading them aloud, they are easy to do so and I loved watching his reactions and excitement.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Note to Self

Note to Self, Joe Thorn

This little book is a selection of ‘notes to yourself’ or ‘exhortations to remind yourself of’, or as the subtitle says ‘the discipline of preaching to yourself’.

Each ‘note to self’ is only 2 pages long so it can be thought through and digested in some detail. I have been reading one each day for the past 6 weeks. Some of them drive me to prayers of confession, others to praise of God and others were reminders of truths that I needed to hear again.

As his introduction says:
To preach to yourself is to challenge yourself, push yourself and point yourself to the truth. It is not so much uncovering new truth as much as it is reminding yourself of the truth you tend to forget.
To give you an idea of some of the topic areas, I have included some headings and a few quotes so you can get an idea:

The Gospel and God
  • Remember your sins
  • Jesus is big
  • Jesus is enough
  • God does not answer to you
  • Be humble in your theology: “it’s possible to be technically accurate in your theology and yet miss the mark of humility. Be passionate for God, fight for truth, contend for the faith, but be humble. Your knowledge is a cause to be humble, not a reason to boast in your insight or tradition” (p55)
The Gospel and others
  • Stop judging
  • Forgive
  • Welcome
  • Listen to others “You think of yourself as open and willing to heed God’s wisdom… What you fail to realise is that one of the primary ways in which God will answer your prayer for wisdom is by speaking to you through other people” (p83)
The Gospel and you
  • Kill your sin: “You seem to think that your sins will somehow die of old age. It’s as if you believe you can wait them out, and they will eventually grow weak and fail. But the truth is your sin ages like an oak tree. If you aren’t chopping it down, its roots are growing deeper and its branches are growing stronger.” (p103)
  • Stop complaining “You complain because you misunderstand (or just miss altogether) the grace you have received by not recognising it and receiving it with gratitude. Life, breath, and all of God’s provisions for your life are acts of his kindness and are truly wonderful, and they all seem to disappear when the smallest inconveniences of life appear.” (p109)
  • Know your idols
  • Be careful in your theology
  • Don’t be a fan boy (I did rather like this one considering it seems to be a regular current tendency)
I could have included something from every note, each was helpful.

This is a book worth having and reading through regularly to keep you sharp about your areas of potential growth or weakness. I have just gone back to the beginning and started again!