Monday, April 30, 2018

World Without End

World Without End, Ken Follett

This is the second book by Ken Follett based around the town of Kingsbridge and its priory, and it’s just as interesting and gripping as The Pillars of the Earth. Now there are nuns as well, with the Prioress also making a valuable contribution to the town. The monks tend to hold back progress, set in their ways of old physicians training and leaving all to God's will. More forward thinking citizens are at risk of crossing them with new ideas, and the balance of power is often under threat. Combined with the events of the times which includes wars in France and the plague, it is a fascinating account of the early 1300s. Many were at the mercy of their feudal lord and all lived in fear and awe of what the church said about anything. I love learning history (or a version of it!) through historical fiction.

It starts with four children gathered in the woods one festival day: merchant’s daughter Caris; Ralph and Merthin, brothers very different in character; and young thief Gwenda, born into poverty. As the book unfolds, their lives go varied ways but remain interwoven. The story spans about 30 years and covers changes in poverty and wealth, station and status, work and unemployment, love and conflict. For those who love a long read, it certainly meets that criteria at about 1200+ pages.

As with The Pillars of the Earth, I'd wait till teens were older to suggest this one, it's interesting on many levels with a depth of many characters, but there is still a lot of actual and implied sexual violence. For adults though, it’s a good detailed read, and keeps you occupied for hours.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle

We had a very enjoyable family movie night watching Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle. Full of laughs and adventure, everyone enjoyed it, as evidenced by Miss 10.5 and Miss 13 watching it two more times in consecutive days.

Four teens end up in detention: Spencer (nerdy, over-cautious geek) has been caught submitting papers for Fridge, his old childhood friend who needs to keep up his grades to keep his place on the football team. Martha (intellectual but socially awkward) and Bethany (self-obsessed and always connected to her phone) have both managed to insult teachers. I felt there were echoes of The Breakfast Club at this point, especially with the teacher’s comment that they need to “Think about who you are and want to be. You get one life, decide how you spend it. There is no better place for self-reflection than detention.”

They find an old video game and end up dragged into the game as the players they selected. Now Spencer is strong, muscly and perfects the smouldering look as Dr Smoulder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Spencer is in a constant state of amazement at what his strong body can now do, especially as the game informs him he has no weaknesses. Fringe is his side-kick Moose Finbar, delegated to carrying Bravestone’s bag. Martha has become Ruby Roundhouse, action fighter and all round cool girl. Bethany has transformed into Prof Shelley (Sheldon) Oberon, played by Jack Black

Like all good quest type video games, they have a job to finish before they can leave the game. They each have three lives, and no-one is quite certain what will happen when their lives in the game are used up. As they work their way through the increasingly harder game levels, they come up against various enemies trying to prevent them succeeding. They also discover another player, who it appears has been in the game for some time. It reflects the reality of some video games well – there are NPC (non-player characters) who explain things and how to do them, and everything is a little unrealistic. Our kids connected well to these elements having played numerous quest video games themselves.

Much of the humour is found in the characters having vastly different bodies than in real life. Bravestone can do anything and does it well. One of Ruby Roundhouse’s strengths is dance fighting, providing some very funny scenes of her trying to flirt her way out of a problem, with no knowledge how, but ending up beating all the men up. Oberon of course is an older larger man, and much of the crasser toilet level humour is about Bethany having a man’s body and figuring out what to do with it. There is some low-level swearing, a little bit of alcohol and some action level violence.

There is also a bit of self-reflection (as promised by the teacher handing out the detention). The characters think about who they are, and how they present themselves. They are challenged to see each can cope with things very differently from their reality, and they learn from it. Bethany comments after a while in the game “since I lost my phone, all my other senses are heightened”. When confronted with having only one life left, Spencer says “It’s easy to brave when you have lives to spare, not when you only have one life”, to which one of them echoes the teacher’s words: “We all have only one life, it depends show you live it. Who do you want to be?”

A fun, enjoyable movie that also just might make older kids think about who they think they are, and what they could be.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Radical Book for Kids

The Radical Book for Kids, Champ Thornton

Your child has a birthday coming up and you want to give them a Christian book. But what? They’ve got all the good kid’s bibles, or have grown out of them. They’ve read (or aren’t interested in) biographies for their age group. They’ve exhausted the kids’ fiction section (or the ones you think are ok). They’ve dabbled in some church history, and tried some apologetics for kids. What next?

This new offering by Champ Thornton, may just be what you are looking for. The Radical Book for Kids: Exploring the Roots and Shoots of Faith doesn’t fit any clear category – and as such, it hits a whole lot of them. Overall subject themes include:

  • knowing God
  • history
  • faith questions
  • living like Jesus
  • understanding the bible
  • fun facts, info and skills to learn.

All of them are mixed up throughout 67 chapters, so you might read about how to understand the Bible, then details about some names of God, accounts of men or women who gave their lives for Christ, and then how to make your own sling.

I think the fact that there is no clear order will appeal to numerous children. It will keep them interested as to what’s coming next and they can easily flip around to find things that appeal.

  • For the historian, there are details about ancient weapons, what church was like for the early Christians, and details of men and women who have faithfully served the Lord.
  • For the numbers fan, there are explanations of money in the bible and the length of the journeys in Acts (with a table to figure out how long it took to walk places)
  • For the letters fan, there is an explanation of how the epistles travelled, and details of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets and key words in Latin.
  • For those asking questions about the bible, and the truth of its claims – there is information about the historicity of the bible, the differences between the gospels, and how to understand different writing in the bible. There are chapters about what God is like, and general & special revelation.
  • For those wanting to know how to live for Jesus, chapters address how to make good decisions, how to apply wisdom, what it means to obey your parents as well as acknowledging parents aren’t perfect, and how to read the bible daily and how to pray.
  • And then there are random things like information about jewels and animals in the bible, the meaning of the Jewish holidays, how to memorise things, and how to make a catapult.

You can see how the appeal could be very broad. It’s marketed at children aged 8-14 and I think many in these age brackets will enjoy it and keep returning to re-read sections. The colourful illustrations, diagrams, maps and charts are all engaging and assist the reader in their understanding. It’s also beautifully produced, with highly quality printing and a great embossed cover.

With all the variety on offer, there are bound to be a few things though you disagree with. Mine included:

  • While the explanations of faith, the bible and living for Jesus chapters were mostly excellent, it was the ‘extra’ type stuff that I had most issue with. For example, I could not understand why there was a chapter on how to clean your room. And chapters on things like manners could have been much better applied, rather than reading like a list of rules, it could have been more about how God wants you to live.
  • There were times where the bible verses linked were a real stretch. In particular, the chapter on fun and games in bible times was unwisely referenced, including chariot races in Phil 3:13-14, running races in 1 Cor 9:24, and going on walks in Psalm 23. A stretch at best, and inaccurate hermeneutics at worst.
  • I would have liked to see some suggestions for responsive prayer in numerous chapters, to help the reader learn how to come to God in praise, thanksgiving, confession or request based on the material covered.

What are its particular strengths?

As you can see from the descriptions above, Thornton presents biblical material and matters of faith in a fun, different and digestible way for kids. The approach is based around topics and questions, so it will helpful both for children who know their bibles well, but may not have linked it together thematically; and it will also appeal to those who want more facts and details about the bible accounts, enabling further explanation and a different angle of understanding.

The explanations of faith and the bible are very good. Kids will be drawn in with language that is appropriate to their lives, but doesn’t dumb things down. The challenges of life are recognised. The questions that we all ask are openly acknowledged. Simplistic answers aren’t given, but the reader is given the truth from the words of God.

Add The Radical Books for Kids to your gift list and the kids in your life will likely learn a lot about the bible, find an explanations for questions they didn’t even know they had, and they might just surprise you with some fun facts along the way too.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Ready Player One

We had a very enjoyable trip to the movies to see Spielberg’s new offering Ready Player One. Set in 2045, most of the world is hooked on virtual reality world Oasis, designed by brilliant recluse James Halliday. People spend their life immersed in Oasis because “you can be all the things you want to be”, and with the exception of sleeping, eating and toileting, it's all there and usually better than real life. Halliday has since died, but having no heirs, he left his game to the person who first completes the mystery hidden inside Oasis, to be solved by finding 3 hidden keys which lead to the final Easter egg prize.

After years of searching with no luck, many have given up, but those still looking are the Gunters (the egg hunters). Wade Watts, in his avatar form Parzival, along with the friends he has met in the game spend their days trying to find the keys. Their main competition is IOI (Innovative Online Industries), headed by Nolan Sorrento, who once was an intern with Halliday. IOI put all their money and resources into researching every aspect of Halliday’s life with the aim to win the game and therefore entirely control it, including its revenue and income streams. They give an insight into a world where one company monopolises the digital space, for as people get further and further into debt paying real money for power-ups and new lives, they are imprisoned in debt collection agencies. Parzival meets Art3mis and is immediately attracted to her. After winning the first key, he breaks all the rules of Oasis, and reveals his true name to Art3mis, shocking her because the whole point is that: “you know what I want you to know and you see what I want you to see”. This enables IOI to track him down in real life and so the virtual and real lives of all players begin to intersect.

While IOI are clearly out to rule the world and completely control the population through Oasis, it’s not a depressing movie. It’s upbeat, very easy to follow, the good characters are really likeable, both in real life and in their avatars; and while the bad guys are bad, it's mainly because they are greedy and controlling, but not perhaps inherently evil.

The graphics are fantastic, Oasis is real enough to be visually amazing yet digital enough to be clearly created. It’s clear why Oasis is addictive. Especially if like Wade, if your real world is a load of trailers stacked on top of each other, with both parents dead, and living with a grumpy aunt.

There is a fair amount of digital action violence, some real world violence, some romance and kissing but no sex, and minimal swearing.  Husband and I both really enjoyed it and are very happy for Mr 15 to see it too. At one level it’s an enjoyable action movie with some fun cultural references to the past, particularly the 80s music and video games.

At another level, it will make you think about the impact of the digital world on real lives and whether the costs are worth it. It will make you consider where we are headed as a society with a dependence on alternative reality. There’s an inherit warning about spending your life lost in a virtual world and the highly selective representation of ourselves that we choose there. And there’s a challenge to think about what is actually important, as Parzival says “the thing about reality is that it’s real. People need to spend time in the real world”. A good movie, well worth watching.

The movie is apparently based on a book of the same name by Ernest Cline (2011).

Monday, April 16, 2018

5 things to pray for your church

5 things to pray for your church, Rachel Jones

I recently discovered this excellent prayer resource by the Good Book Company. It’s one in a series which guide you in biblical, specific prayer for various things, this one obviously being for your church. It’s a little book (smaller than A5) and just under 100 pages, but it packs a punch and is chock full of ideas for prayer.

Reading the title, I thought that there would only be five main things to pray for your church, but it is so much more than that. It is actually five things to pray under each of four main categories and with extensive sub-categories under them, so you might pray for:

1. Praying that my church would:
  • Remember what we are
  • Be a body growing in maturity 
  • Love and serve one another
  • Make known God’s glory
  • Give generously
2. Praying that I would:
  • Use my gifts well 
  • Persevere when I get weary
3. Praying for people in my church:
  • For my church leader 
  • My small group
  • Children and young people
  • Not-yet Christians
  • The elderly
4.  Praying for the wider church:
  • Another church near us
  • Our mission partners
  • Churches far away
  • The unreached. 
All in all, there are 21 things to pray for, each supported by different bible verses and then five prayer points drawn from that scripture. Each prayer point is explained slightly, so you have actual specific ideas to bring to God, drawn from his word. So, there are ideas for praying for your church to keep you going over a month and then you could start all over again. Because of the way the prayer suggestions and who to pray for are worded, you could use it a little differently each time you use it. I've been praying for my church for years including people, leaders and ministry families, but this is more extensive and biblical than anything I have used before. Having said that I did notice that when praying for ministry leaders, their families were not included, which I would have liked to see. In addition, while young people, children and the elderly were prayed for – there was nothing about marrieds, singles, families, etc; and nothing about the sick, the unemployed or the marginalised. If the other books in this series as good: 5 things to pray for people you love, …for your heart, and …for your city (this last one by different authors), they would be well worth investigating. They would be a great set of resources to encourage you to biblical prayer that is wide ranging yet specific. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Last Jedi

Not surprisingly, the eighth episode of the 40-year-old franchise was highly anticipated by three generations of this family. It was with a sense of adventure that 2 grandparents, 2 adult daughters and 2 children saw this together. As we emerged blinking into the light 2.5 hours later, it was clear that all were satisfied.

We are fans, but not overly critical ones. So we are willing to overlook re-used plot ideas, repeated lines of dialogue, about 30 minutes too much movie, and a time sequence that further thought suggests is impossible. We overlook it because the overall idea is still captivating. Light vs darkness. Good vs evil. The strength of family bonds and a desire to understand who you are and where you come from. A fantastic music score that still grabs and haunts or excites. The familiar faces we’ve come to know and love. And always the impressive space and battle scenes on the big screen.

We pick up where we left off in Episode 7: The Force Awakens – Rey having found Luke Skywalker. Leia leads the rebellion forces, including renegade pilot Poe with BB8 as his sidekick, and Finn is wondering where Rey has gone. I was pleasantly surprised how much of the movie contained Leia (Carrie Fisher) as she died over a year prior to it's release.

It is really one very long extended chase scene as the First Order try to extinguish the Rebels for good. Will they succeed? Well, there has to be a ninth movie – so you know some good and some bad have to survive to battle it out in that one. All in all, a good addition to the collection, but probably unlikely to capture that attention of those who aren’t already fans.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Wise Up

Wise Up, Marty Machowski

This devotional by Marty Machowski adds another resource to the list for those looking for biblical material to study together as a family.

Based on the book of Proverbs, Machowski has designed a 12 week (5 days per week) set of readings, each designed to be 10 minutes long. As such, it’s very manageable. My biggest issue with family devotionals is how long they are, so something that’s planned to be used for 3 months is achievable in my opinion. It maintains interest for that time, but by the end everyone is ready to try something different. I should also add a disclaimer here - it took us over a year to get through Wise Up, by the time we had the natural breaks common to all when life is busy, as well as breaks for Easter and Christmas readings. So, we never really got a good run straight through it. Having said that, it was easy to pick up where we left off, remind ourselves what we were up to, and keep going.

While anchored in the book of Proverbs, the 12 weeks are thematic, covering topics like:

  • The Real Wise Man (Jesus)
  • Our hearts
  • God’s word – the greatest treasure
  • Listening to wisdom
  • Learning to follow your parents’ instruction
  • Welcoming correction
  • Learning diligence
  • Learning to give (generosity)
  • True friendship

Each day’s reading has a short bible passage with some comments and observations, often with illustrations that children easily connect with. There are a few questions to talk about, and an idea for prayer. The questions include indications of where you want the conversation to go, so a parent who is less confident with handling God’s word will find ample help to ensure the family stays on a gospel-centred track. Each week also has an activity suggestion and a song to listen to or sing connected with a Sovereign Grace album, Walking with the Wise). [We skipped those optional extras].

Machowski has woven the truths of Proverbs with the Jesus’ fulfilment of true wisdom and so the gospel is brought to bear through the discussion and application. As such, the family is taken through a gospel-centred guide to wise living. He suggests in the forward for parents:
“Enjoy all of the practical direction in Proverbs, but remember, don’t try this without turning to Jesus for forgiveness, help, and direction. Jesus lives in the hearts of his people, empowering them to become like him, the wisest King of all.”
This was a helpful corrective and it is clear Machowski was trying very hard to apply the wisdom and practical living of Proverbs without it becoming a book of “you should / you shouldn’t”. He kept trying to bring grace to each topic. I particularly noticed this tension in the week on diligence, when it seemed to keep building up how we should work faithfully to honour God, but gave a breath of freeing grace on the final day reminding us we cannot pay for our sin by how hard we work, it is through Jesus’ work that we are saved.

Some nights we headed into longer, deeper discussions. One reading on friendship focussed on a marriage partner being a faithful friend who shares your love of Jesus. These are conversations we need to have early and regularly with our children. Extended discussions about honesty, generosity and what it means to be obedient also came up.

We read it with Mr 14, Miss 12 and Miss 10. It was a bit old for Mr 14, by his admission and our acknowledgement; and Miss 12 was borderline. Partly this was because the some of the discussion questions were a bit repetitive, requiring only comprehension skills of the previous comments. However, there was usually one question for discussion that made us all reflect a little more on the application of wisdom in that context. So, this is a very helpful, biblical and applicable devotional resource for families, and would be of particular benefit for those with children in the primary school years.

Monday, April 2, 2018

White Fang

White Fang, Jack London

I must have read this at least once when I was young because I recalled it was good. It was very enjoyable to return to.

It tells the life of White Fang, a pup born to a runaway sled dog, and fathered by a wolf. His early days know the life of a burrow, famine and exploration into the world. A chance encounter with an Indian group reveals to White Fang that people are gods: they rule everything and even his feisty, protective mother gives her obedience to the owners she once lost.

His character is strongly affected by those around him: bullying pups, a harsh master and cruel children. In time he becomes the property of Beauty Smith, who uses his vindictive streak to turn him into a dog fighting champion.

One day Weedon Scott, a compassionate engineer breaks up a dog fight and buys White Fang outright. In the same way that cruelty and meanness shaped White Fang, now the patience, tenderness and care shown by Scott begin to change him. An incredibly close bond develops between them.

It's a very insightful book by someone who knew and understood the nature of canines, humans and the various bonds that develop between them. White Fang is never personified, although his actions are explained and detailed. This is a highly intelligent animal who has instincts as well as learned behaviours and responses.

This is definitely worth reading for adults and older children alike. Originally published in 1906, it still is very readable and understandable. There's a depth to it that children and teens may miss and it does require a certain level of vocabulary and intuition, but adults will appreciate the insights and comments throughout. I suspect it will resonate with dog lovers for it will describe things they already know and understand about canines, and those who aren't may appreciate them a little more.