Monday, June 25, 2018

Girl Wise

Girl Wise, Sharon Witt

I find myself on the lookout for resources for my kids addressing the various stages they are up to, and so discovered the Girl Wise series by Sharon Witt. She’s an Australian author and speaker who regularly addresses the issues of childhood and adolescence. She has four books for girls aged about 7-12:

  • A girl’s guide to friends
  • A guide to being YOU!
  • A girl’s guide to life
  • A guide to taking care of your body

With pretty fonts, illustrations and graphics, they are likely to appeal to numerous girls as they give advice on various topics. They are full of quotes and stories from real girls, and so read very naturally. In fact, the entire look of them means they are more likely to appeal to more ‘girly’ girls, being in pastel colours with twirly fonts. Having read all four, there are two I would prefer to recommend, the one on friends and the one on caring for your body.

It’s worth clarifying that I started these books expecting them to be Christian, as I bought them in a Christian bookstore. They are theistic and mention God at points, there are some bible references, and occasional suggestions to pray to God. But they aren’t really Christian, because Jesus Christ is never mentioned.  In some ways, they echo the mindset of moral therapeutic deism (a term recently used in regard to young adults (see here and here). Once I realised I couldn’t expect them to provide Christian teaching, then I was able to read them in a different frame of mind, with different expectations.

A girl’s guide to friends is a helpful manual for girls navigating the tricky reality of primary school friendships. There is helpful advice on how to make a new friend (smile, make eye contact, ask questions, be yourself). There are definitions of what makes a good friend (friendly, kind, trustworthy, respectful, etc) and tips for keeping friendships healthy. There’s a section on bullying but also about the reality of normal conflict with friends and how to talk through problems with each other. There are tips for things to do together, and ways to care for a friend who is sick, grieving or away for a while. All helpful stuff and it would be very useful for many girls in the Year 2-6 age range.  One thing I would have liked to see was a mention of being friends with boys, and that it’s normal to have boys as friends, and just friends.

A guide to taking care of your body was instructive and informative and probably provides information that they may not have to date. The details about various body systems helps girls to understand the way their bodies work, and why it’s important to keep everything working well. The instructions on eating well, getting enough sleep and taking care of your teeth and hair are all practical, as is the beginning of the discussion on some body changes that will happen. I would have liked to see some encouragement to cleaning your body well (good bathing habits) and perhaps the need to start considering deodorant.

All in all, these books offer helpful advice to younger girls. There is an encouragement to see they are special, and they can be happy to be who they are. Christian parents will want to extend the teaching and point out that yes, it is true that God made you special, you are unique and he loves you; and then temper it with reality that we are also sinful, and our hearts have turned away from God, and we can only live in a way that pleases him because of his grace, not because of who we are or what we do. You are special because you are God's child.

They will suit many girls aged about 7-10, and some older ones as well. Because they are Australian means they read quite naturally for our audience and that is often appealing. They could make good gifts too, particularly if you are looking for a positive message, but one that’s not too faith specific.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Greatest Showman

This is a visual treat, I can fully see why so many people raved about it. Rated PG it’s suitable for almost the whole family, and with foot tapping songs, creative choreography and fabulous costuming, it’s hard to watch it without being entranced and with a constant smile on your face.

It’s based loosely on the life of P.T. Barnum, creator of the circus. Starting with his poverty stricken childhood, Phineas starts a friendship with upper society girl Charity. Here the first of the many hit songs, “A million dreams”, get the story under way. By the end of the song, they are grown up, happily married with two girls and he is still trying to earn enough to give her the life he promised.

Attempting to be a success, he buys a museum of curiosities, but his girls comment that rather than having it full of dead stuff, they need something live, something “sensational”. Phineas (Hugh Jackman) starts searching for people who are oddities in society, and those with particular gifts. Shortly he gather a troupe of performers including a bearded lady, an obese man, a dwarf, some conjoined twins and albinos, as well as trapeze artists and other performers. Nothing is always quite what it seems, as many of the ‘oddities’ aren’t completely real. While acclaim is coming and the building is filling for the fantastic show, a rough groups of locals is starting to protest, not wanting these types of people around. A newspaper critic for the Times challenges him “does it bother you that everything you are selling is fake?”

While success and money are flowing in, what Phinneas really wants is to be accepted by New York society, for they only see him as lowborn and crass. He enlists the help of Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), upper class playwright, and what follows was one of my favourite scenes with he and Jackman in a bar with the snappy song “To the other side”.

Carlyle manages to get them an audience in London with Queen Victoria and they convince opera singer Jenny Lind to come and tour under Barnum’s name. It seems that all of Barnum’s dreams are coming true. Meanwhile Carlyle is falling in love with the trapeze artist, Anne (Zendaya) and we all loved the scene with two of them on the trapeze, “Rewrite the stars”.

In the end Barnum has to decide what matters - chasing the acceptance of others, or the friendship of those around him? Does he strive for success or does he choose to look after his family?

Every song in this movie is a hit: strongly performed, crisply choreographed and lavishly costumed. I like every one, and we often now have the album on in the car.

I was very hesitant when I first saw the shorts for this movie. My gut reaction was: they are going to take a story of a man with some very shady actions and turn it into a celebration of humanity and all its diversity. And that is exactly what has happened. 

Having said that, the story they have created is great. So my feeling is: it’s worth seeing and you will enjoy it. Your kids will most likely love the grand show, the songs and the acting. But then make sure you let them know that while it’s based on real people, it’s not real and the circus really did have pretty shady beginnings. Enjoy the movie and the show for what it is, but don’t imagine it’s a history lesson.

And then, just maybe, if they are a bit older and enjoyed seeing Hugh Jackman sing and dance, you might move on to much a deeper, richer story in musical format, Les Miserables.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The After Wife

The After Wife, Cass Hunter 

Imagine you are a brilliant scientist, designing the new robots of the future: incredibly lifelike, humanoids that learn and build on information using data gathered. Hopefully they could be a new type of carer, able to work almost around the clock, tracking the biometrics of their clients and then adapting their responses and speaking with them in conversation. You are also very happily married to the love of your life and have a teenage daughter. And you know you are going to die. What do you do? Dr Rachel Comfort decided to use her technology and coding skills to create a back-up Rachel (iRachel).

Aidan and Chloe find themselves in a sea of grief, reeling after the sudden death of their wife & mother. Luke, Rachel’s grumpy, uncommunicative co-worker, reveals that he & Rachel’s work has come to a complete standstill as her death set off a chain of code in iRachel. She insists she must now live with Aidan and Chloe and assist them, or all her data containing years of work will be deleted.

Both are initially horrified at the thought of having iRachel in the house, who has been designed to look and speak exactly like Rachel. She has been loaded with their memories, photos and instructions for how to look after them. But she has been programmed very, very well. At various points, she retells stories they have forgotten, she gives letters to them pre-written from Rachel, and as time passes, a functional relationship develops between them all.

But time is ticking by, Chloe is aching to tell her friends about the top-secret robot in her home and Aidan’s mother is ill and needs to live with them. It’s getting harder and harder to keep iRachel a secret.

I really enjoyed this book. Hunter has written a compelling tale, which makes you consider the implications of creating such intelligent AI, and what the essence of a person actually is. I thought I could predict where the book was likely to head, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover I couldn’t and I enjoyed what Hunter did with the story. The cover tempted me with the suggestion that if you are a fan of The Lovely Bones and The Time Traveler’s Wife, you are likely to enjoy this, and I agree. In addition, for those who have enjoyed these types of idea in movies such as Simone and Her, there are overlapping ideas here too. An enjoyable read that makes you think a bit.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Made for More

Made for More, Emily Cobb

Do you ever find yourself wondering, "Is there more to this life?" When you talk to your neighbours, family members and colleagues, do you hear the same question in their never-ending search for satisfaction? As the next holiday is booked, or pleasure found in kids’ achievements, or the next recipe is mastered, is there a voice that says, "Surely there is more?"

For those of us with a Christian faith, the answer is yes. For while this life can be wonderful, exciting and interesting, we know this isn’t all there is. In fact, it's this certainty that helps us find joy and purpose in this life, not only in the pleasures and satisfactions, but also in the challenges and sorrows. We want our friends to know this truth too, to understand we are made for more than this life offers: a relationship with the living God.

So it's with great thankfulness that we can welcome Emily Cobb's book Made for More to the marketplace.

She starts by raising the question of longing, and observes that sadly the busyness of life prevents us from really searching for meaning:
“Most of the time I don’t notice it—as life has grown busier, responsibilities greater and I’m immersed in so much noise, my longings often get drowned out. Maybe that’s true for you too; the busyness, the chaos and even the delights of life suppress any deep sense of a longing for more. But if we unplug for a moment, and press pause on the busy, what drives who we are? What deep burdens and desires of our heart bubble to the surface? 
What do you long for?” (p8)
She states her own perspective: that it's a real relationship with God, who can be known, that gives life meaning, and that is what we are all longing for.

Cobb proceeds to logically and clearly present the gospel in concise, pithy chapters. She starts with creation, acknowledges sin and what went wrong, and then clarifies how God has always had a plan to deal with our longing. I appreciated how she faces head on our rebellion at being told we are sinners:
“You may feel like a pretty good person, and on the whole I think a lot of people on earth seem like fairly decent people. You may love others, you may care for the sick and downtrodden, you may work hard, you might even take that extra change back to the checkout if they give you too much. So this whole thing of you and me being sinners doesn’t sit well with you. Surely sinners are murderers and people like that, people who do really terrible things—not ordinary people like you and me. 
But the Bible defines sin differently. It says that every single person (apart from one) who has ever walked the earth is a sinner. Sin isn’t a specific action. It’s an attitude of the heart that de-thrones God and puts ourselves centre-stage.” (p29-30)
From this we move to four different emphases on Jesus: he is the son, the life giver, the saviour and the King. In doing so, Scripture is used to explain and expand. Included is how Jesus was obedient even though he was tempted (Matthew 4), and that he gives life using the example of the bleeding woman (Luke 8:43-48) and the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42). The account of Mary leads into a clear explanation of Jesus’ death, why it had to happen and what it accomplished. These finish with a discussion of the realities of heaven and hell, under the banner of explaining why Jesus hasn’t returned yet: God is giving more people more time to come to him. Very helpfully, she openly acknowledges that we would prefer not to talk about hell, but we need to face its reality.

After laying this groundwork with explanations, engaging examples, and many Bible references, Cobb calls on the reader for a response. With a somewhat risky but helpful illustration, she likens what she’s presented to something a salesman at your door might offer and your various responses: usually disregard, but sometimes interest because you can see that what’s on offer is something you might actually need. She gives a fair summary of people’s reactions to the message of the gospel: avoidance, shutting down discussion, unwillingness to change, or a real desire to know more. Winsomely, she is respectful of all four options. She then guides the reader who wants to respond through the process of repentance, putting faith in Christ and notes the costs of following Jesus, all the while encouraging that it’s worth it.

In the final chapter, the reader is guided through the results of living the life you were made for including: you aren't alone (you have the Spirit), you’re a new person, you’re forgiven, and you no longer need to fear death. Life changes for you as you get to know God more (through the Bible), he hears you (through prayer) and you have a new family (through church). Now you can live your life with purpose.

At just on 100 pages this book is an easy read. The chapters are succinct, but without skimping, so that anyone who is searching can find answers to their main questions.

It’s aimed at women. The biblical examples often use women, and the formatting and publishing look have a softer feminine feel. So, while the content is entirely suitable for men, and I’m not always convinced about the need to separate readers, this will be a book that women will probably give to other women. I can think of several women in ministry who will use it as a resource. Cobb has a chatty, open writing style and her illustrations will connect with various ages and stages, from teens right through to mature readers. In addition, her stories about herself have an honest humility that resonates.

This is a great primer book about the gospel to have on hand to give to your enquiring friends. When they start to wonder “Is there more to this life?”, you can, with conversation and this book in hand, answer convincingly, “yes”.

This review was also published on TGCA. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

Letters to a Romantic: On Dating

Letters to a Romantic: on dating, Sean Perron and Spencer Harmon

As we prepare couples for marriage and run marriage enrichment, we’re often asked if we know any good resources for couples who are dating or pre-engagement. To this point there has been little I have been able to recommend. 101 Questions to Ask Before You Get Engaged is a good option for couples who are getting serious and want some prompts to ensure they have talked through most important topics prior to marriage.

However, I been stumped for resources for people considering a godly approach to dating. Thankfully that is no longer the case, for friends Perron and Harmon (with their wives) have teamed together to create a resource for those who are in the dating stage of life. They openly state that “the point of this book is to start a conversation, not to have the whole conversation for you” (p15). As such each chapter is pretty short, raising each issue clearly and with biblical support, and leaving questions at the end for you to think though for your own situation.

It covers 20 different topics including:

  • Marriage and singleness and considerations of both
  • Practicalities of dating - the purpose of dating, how to decline a date and considering whether to be in a relationship
  • Warning flags to consider in a dating relationship including use of pornography, and signs of obsession or abuse 
  • How to break up well and analyse an ended relationship
  • Considerations of a physical relationship including past sexual sin, dealing with sinning sexually in the current relationship, and how to think about physical affection 

I liked its gospel and biblical focus, it keeps drawing the reader back to the grace of God for salvation and reminds that in all stages of life, serving and worshipping God is our priority, whatever stage of relationship we are in.

One of the most helpful chapters was the one on preparing for romance, which encourages the reader to consider the following:

  1. What is my foundation?  Am I operating out of fear (eg fear of loneliness or of commitment) or am I operating in faith that God provides all we need in every situation?
  2. What is my vision?  Do I value man’s world or God’s word?  Do I value outward appearance or the inner heart? Do I care about pleasing them vs pleasing God?
  3. What are my expectations? Am I always comparing against other relationships or situations, or I am seeking contentment in my own situation and who God made each of us to be?

I also appreciated the more ‘realistic’ chapters, the ones that frankly dealt with how to say no graciously to a date request, how to break up (with charity and clarity) and how to talk through sexual sins of the past and present.  There was an acceptance of the reality of differences between two people and also the reality of sin, and both were dealt with well. There was a strong message to avoid pornography and to seek help if you struggle with it.

The chapter on whether to date a non-Christian was direct and honest, with the clear answer being no. Their reasoning brings a helpful corrective to the issue: if you date a non-Christian, even if you are hoping to bring them to Christ the act of dating them says “I value you more than I value what Christ says” and so you undermine your own message.

There was an encouragement to see that dating should have a purpose, for too often these days it’s “an escapade aimed at nothing”. It should actually be a way to find out more about their character and Christian growth, and keep open the possibility of knowing more. But if you know you could not or would not marry them, do not keep dating.

There were a couple of areas that weren’t as strong. Unfortunately, the first chapter was one of the weakest, particularly the discussion of the gift of marriage and singleness. It seems simplistic to me that if you are content being single, you have the gift of singleness.  While this is true, what about people who are not content with singleness? It doesn’t mean they have the gift of marriage either. I think it’s more helpful to see that the current life stage you are in is what you currently have the gift of, so if you are single you currently have that gift but perhaps in time (if you marry) you are given the gift of marriage. It irked me that they encouraged people who hope to be married to do cooking courses or learn a trade so they can manage a household in the future. Those are skills all people need whether married or single.

Having said that, they later addressed well the sorrow and joy of singleness, acknowledging that it’s not sinful to feel the sting of unwanted singleness, but it is sinful to let that become a heart that grumbles against the Lord and others.  Also timely was the warning that if you are discontent as a single, marriage won’t change that for “discontent singles become discontent marrieds”. We are to seek contentment in all circumstances as we follow Christ.

The chapter on declining a date was aimed at women, and I’m OK with that, although I don’t think all Christian relationships have started with the guy making the first move. What I would have liked to see was a matching chapter to the men of how to ask a woman on a date. There was one comment to the women “if a guy doesn’t have the courage to ask you out in person, he’s not worth your time”. Boy is that true, but I’m not sure in this era of texting that all young men have got that message. I do often point out dating couples to my kids - the ones that are sitting together at a food court but both on their own phones - and suggest to them that’s not how a relationship is supposed to work. If they don’t put down their phone and talk to you, they are not worth it!

The chapter of gauging parents’ reactions to a relationship was helpful, but dealt mainly with when parents have concerns. There is wisdom in advising people to listen to their parents’ concerns, but to also find ways to evaluate what they are saying. I would have liked to see an encouragement to the dating couple to take time to get to know both sets of parents well.

There was a strong emphasis throughout the book to have wise older mentors/ couples that you can talk to about things. They even suggest having a mentor present for discussions about past sexual sin. I wasn’t sure about that; these difficult conversations are the things that couples need to learn how to manage together and on their own. Having said that it does give the couple permission to seek help if needed.

The advice most likely to challenge dating couples is the suggestion to consider not kissing prior to marriage. They present a strong case for their opinion and are clear it’s not a rule. These are good conversations for couples to have and to make wise decisions about, rather than just assuming you do what everyone else seems to be doing. I would have liked to know what they thought about holding hands or hugging; it wasn’t clear.

It’s worth mentioning this book is clearly aimed at younger people. While much of the advice is wise and applicable for couples dating into their thirties and perhaps forties, the inclusion of a chapter on ‘are we too young to get married?’ makes it clear who their intended audience are. Also, it doesn’t deal at all with dating after a failed marriage (which can still happen for people in their 20s and 30s), or even a failed long term relationship prior. Even the discussion about breaking up suggested a relationship of months not years. 

While I’ve written quite a detailed review outlining lots of things I wanted to think about more, overall this book is very, very good.  It fills a much-needed gap and provides solidly biblical, Christian advice which doesn’t skimp on saying hard truths when needed. I would happily recommend it to anyone in the ‘dating’ phase of life. Many couples fall into relationships without really considering what they are there for and why.  As the forward by Heath Lambert says “Dating relationships are complicated because they come at the intersection of four realities: sin, inexperience, high stakes and a lack of familiarity.” The conversations this book raises would help many people who want to serve Christ as they date, and help them to make wise decisions as they proceed through this tricky stage.

As a side note, I didn't love the title either.  However, considering the quality of this book, I may in time move on to their next similarly titled one - Letters to a Romantic: On Engagement.