Monday, November 25, 2019

Diary of a Teenage Girl

Diary of a Teenage Girl: Caitlin series, Melody Carlson

I have been challenged again recently to reflect how teenagers learn, in fact how we all learn. While logic has a strong place and reason can appeal, by and large what appeals to most of us is a story. A tale we can get caught up in and relate to, and then ponder how we would react in similar circumstances.

This is one of the best arguments for providing our children with Christian fiction. They could spend their lives reading only secular fiction, and that would stretch their minds, but that also would constantly reinforce some world views that we might want to challenge. Christian fiction can be a way to help reset some of the persistent secular narrative and remind youth that there are other people asking the same questions about what it means to live a life of faith today.

In Becoming Me, Caitlin is 16, and it’s the final 6 months of Year 11. She decides to write a diary from January 1 to the end of the school year. She’s living your average (American) teenage life, with a vague commitment to a church and youth group. What she really cares about is being popular and so is excited to be noticed by Jenny, one of the cool girls, and thrilled to get to know some of the boys they are friends with, particularly Josh. She ends up kissing him a lot on a youth group skiiing weekend (even though he has been dating Jenny), and falling completely head over heels for him. When he proceeds to ignore her after the event, she has to ask some hard questions of herself.

She has an unease about her choices, whether she is a kind friend, how shallow everyone is, and whether she is living in a wise way. At the same time, something is going on with her parents as her Dad, who is really strict with her, is spending more and more time away from home and her mother.

She seeks advice from her Aunt Stephy, who has historically had a bit of a wild side, but to her surprise Stephy challenges her and encourages her to reconsider God and her relationship with him, and to come to the church she now attends.

In time, she comes to a real commitment of faith, but it’s still hard to make wise choices. She gets in the car with a driver who has been drinking, and she nearly gets into major trouble with a boy at an unsupervised party. Realising how much danger she was nearly in makes her reassess everything.

The youth grouper leader Clay is a real encouragement and in time Caitlin makes some hard decisions about how she wants to live, as she responds to faithful biblical teaching.

It’s a wild ride of emotion. In five months she becomes a Christian, has to deal with major family problems, a school shooting, and a friend’s teenage pregnancy. She comes to her own personal convictions about dating and premarital sex, and makes a vow to God to abstain from both. While I haven’t read it, it seemed like there was an overlap with I Kissed Dating Goodbye here. (Each book even has a ‘contract’ to abstain until marriage at the end, so Carlson clearly has this as a high priority agenda).

This is a very honest story about teenage girls. It talks about the desire to be included, the desire to love a boy, and the attractions and temptations that such desires bring. Because it’s a diary format, Caitlin can be really honest, as she records her thoughts, reactions, worries and prayers. I found it quite realistic.

Miss 14 loved it and continued with the others in the series which have similar dramatic events. It’s My Life is that summer, which includes a mission trip to Mexico with youth group friends, in which Caitlin is challenged by the poverty she sees. She starts Year 12 and has a friend struggling with anorexia. Who I Am is placed over the final half Year 12 and making major decisions about college. At the same time there are tensions at school over racial differences, and she continues to wonder about friends’ choices relating to boys. She comes to understand her tendency to be judgemental and faces some of her own prejudices.

On My Own is the first year of college at the state university. The biggest issue here is the relationship with a moody and roommate who rebuffs Caitlin’s offers of friendship. At the same time a close male friendship is tending towards a relationship of commitment, but she isn’t sure about the right way forward, navigating conflicting advice from friends and mentors.

There is a fifth book, named I Do (wonder what happens in that!?), but it’s placed a few years later and I haven’t read it yet.

I had not realised how prolific a writer Melody Carlson is until I started to research her. She has written dozens of books for children, teens and women, all with a strong Christian focus. There are another two series of diaries of teenage girls too, and those characters play minor roles in the Caitlin books.

I think they are a good offering for teen girls, they are honest, open and help them think about what it can mean to live in ways that honour God over these years. Of course, it’s very American, and she is clearly pushing a non-dating prior to marriage agenda, but even that’s something for teens to think about. I could be more picky about them theologically, for example there is a strong sense of morality rather than a high sense of grace, and they are more theocentric than Christocentric, but overall I think they encourage readers to godliness and promote values that many parents would encourage. I suspect these are stories that teenage girls of faith will be interested in and that will also make them consider the wisdom of choices they make.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Why Do We Say Good Night?

Why Do We Say Good Night? Champ Thornton

In simple, rhyming verse, Thornton uses this story with a little girl and her mum to acknowledge the fears young children have about darkness and going to bed. It’s bedtime, but she isn’t sure night time is good, and so asks “why do we say goodnight?”

Her mum points out that the monsters and scary things she imagines in the dark aren’t real, but more than that, there are three promises about God that the little girl can cling to:

  • God made the night “so even dark is good and right”
  • God sees everything, so “dark is like bright light to him”, and when it is dark, “God is watching through the night”
  • God is near, “Just like a shepherd guards his sheep, the Lord protects while we’re asleep”

It’s aimed at pre-schoolers, with very simple language. Rommel Ruiz is the illustrator, and there is a cartoony, art-deco sort of quality to them, and since it’s night-time, lots of dark colour with blues and purples throughout. The scenes start with her simple normal bedroom, but then various shapes and toys come alive to be bigger and scarier in the little girl’s imagination.

For little ones with worries about bedtime, this could be a lovely way to remind them that God is with them always, protecting, caring and in control.

I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  

Friday, November 15, 2019

Good News for Little Hearts - part 2

Last year I reviewed the first three releases the Good News for Little Hearts series by New Growth Press. Now there are three more to add to the collection.

Aimed at children aged 3-8, the story creation for all is attributed to Jocelyn Flenders, with David Powlison, Edward T. Welch or Jayne V. Clark named as an editor for each book. Just as with the first series, the illustrations are by Joe Hox, who brings animals engagingly to life in situations we all can identify. Children will enjoy spotting the captivating touches that Hox has woven in: stacks of books for chairs, textas for bedposts, and trees growing through homes.

Gus Loses His Grip (When you want something too much) tells the story of little Gus, the racoon, who loves sweets. He sneaks them up to his bedroom, he thinks about them when Papa is reading about the Easter story, and when his mum takes him to the post-easter sales, he stuffs his pockets with the candy samples from the shop. His dad spots them and he is taken back to apologise to the storeowner, who forgives him. After this though, dad’s eyes light up with the shopping sales himself and he buys things at the fishing store.

Papa realises he, like little Gus, also wants many things:
Papa agreed. “Yes! You’re not alone, Gus. Mama and I struggle too. I’m beginning to see all the areas where God might want me to lose my grip! You know that’s why we need Jesus. We can’t stop eating too many sweets, buying too many trinkets at the market, or buying too many fishing lures and poles without help from him. What we think we need grips us, but our sin is not too strong for Jesus!”
Together the two of them consider all the good things God has given them: the singing birds, the lovely breeze, the fish in the stream and tasty strawberries in the field.
And once we lose our grip on what we want, we can notice all the wonderful, sweet things God has given us to enjoy. The Great Book says, ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good.’ Look around at all the things you can see that the Lord has given us.”
Like Jax’s Tail Twitches, a great thing about this book is that parents also acknowledge they struggle with wanting lots of things and have to be careful as well.

In Henry Says Good-bye (When you are sad), hedgehog Henry’s precious ladybug pet Lila has died and he is struggling without her.
That night, Henry didn’t want dinner. When Mama and Papa said goodnight and closed his bedroom door, he rolled into a prickly ball and cried. He didn’t understand why this had to happen—why to Lila, and why to him. He felt so alone. He couldn’t imagine facing tomorrow and telling his friends— let alone seeing them with their pets.
After a hard day at school, Papa tells him that God knows about his sorrows and that he counts his tears (Psalm 56:8). Together the decide to invite Henry’s friends over to remember Lila. After they all spend some time together sharing stories, Papa talks to them all about the day when they will go to heaven to be with Jesus and there will be no more tears.

It’s a genuine and honest book acknowledging the pain of grief, that people stand by us in our sorrows, and that God knows and cares about them. It would be suitable for any little one faces the sadness of losing a pet or maybe even a loved person in their life. (The Moon Is Always Round would also be a good choice for this)

In Tori Comes Out of Her Shell (When you are lonely), little turtle Tori’s family has moved and so Tori is starting a new school. Tori is shy and struggling, she doesn’t want to stick out, and so puts her head into her shell and stays out of the way. A lovely teacher tries to coax her out, sharing her own story of embarrassment when she was a young skunk at school and she got a fright and sprayed everywhere.
“What did you do?” asked Tori.
“I didn’t know what to do, so I just put my head down and jammed my hands into my pockets. But I found a card in one of them that my papa had given me. It was a verse from the Great Book that said, ‘There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.’ It reminded me that Jesus would always be my friend no matter what.”
“I thought I would never have any friends after that, but I’ll always remember how Sally Salamander came right up to me and said, ‘Don’t worry. Everyone is afraid of being embarrassed. I’m afraid of sliming my chair.’

When they go to their new church on the weekend, the preacher says the same thing, that Jesus is with us always. Tori begins to believe it and ends up befriending little Gertie Gecko, who also admits to being lonely. When she shares what she has learnt about Jesus, Gertie seems interested and so Tori invites her to church. It’s lovely to see the modelling of sharing Christ with friends in this book.

Just like the first three in this series, each book contains notes and biblical guidance to help parents as they teach children about loneliness, grief and wanting more, which many parents will appreciate and hopefully realise to apply to themselves as well. There are also tear out bible verses for kids to keep in their pocket to remember God’s truths.

And as before, a great feature of these books is the strong parental figures. They guide their children in the truth, acknowledge their own faults and listen well. They bring their children back to God’s word as they guide and instruct, and are corrected by it themselves.

I was given ecopies of these books in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, November 11, 2019

Grace in Deep Waters

Readers with good memories will recall how much our family enjoyed Christine Dillon’s fiction books: Grace in Strange Disguise and Grace in the Shadows, so we were lining up to get our hands on the final in the series: Grace in Deep Waters.

Again, this starts just where Book 2 left off. Because I don’t want to ruin the storyline for new readers, I will be vague with the description!

Naomi, Rachel and Blanche are coming to terms with the loss of a dear sister in Christ. Blanche is also estranged from her husband William, having come to realise just how much he clings to reputation and status, rather than Jesus. Having avoided numerous issues for years, Blanche has finally stood up to him, and has had to leave the home as a result, for William is incapable of having people around him who disagree with him.

The story shifts focus in this book, so those who are keen to hear more of Rachel’s story may be disappointed. It is William and Blanche that are on view here, and it switches between their perspectives. Blanche is working through her grief, yet also finding more of herself, with a job and a realisation she has skills that are of value to others. William, on the other hand, has lost his way and his once steady confidence has taken a hit. To avoid dealing with the problems he sees brewing, he takes a two month posting on Lord Howe Island, where he becomes friends with Reg, a key lay leaders of the local church. In time both come to question if and how God is at work in their lives.

I’ll leave the description there for those who want to read it themselves.

Dillon has again captured the key issues of our hearts in this book. What is our idea of success built on? How do we react when our carefully created lives start crumbling down around us? Can we forgive ourselves when we have done things that seem unforgivable? Will we come before God dressed up in our own achievements, or open, honest and facing our sin?

The storytelling focus is not as strong in this book, there is more of an emphasis on prayer, particularly long-term faithful prayer.

Some Christian fiction books make you uncomfortable with their message – the platitudes, the neatness, the idealized romance. I have found Dillon’s books make me uncomfortable too – but in a good and very different way. They challenge me to consider how I would react in similar circumstances. They challenge me to consider my faithfulness, my prayerfulness and how I speak of Christ to others. That’s an uncomfortable I need to feel, and I am thankful for her skills as a storyteller.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Last Christmas

I’ve found it hard to know how to review this movie.

In the beginning, it’s a funny and heartfelt story about a girl who has lost her way. Katarina, or rather Kate, as she insists (played by Emilia Clarke) lives with no regard for her health or wellbeing; she drinks, sleeps around, and keeps trying out for unlikely singing parts, while working as an elf in a all-year round Christmas shop. As her sister comments, “you are the furthest thing from an adult I know”. Even though she regularly manages to sabotage her friendships, everyone continues to give her leeway because last year Kate was sick, really sick, and in many ways she is still recovering.

Her boss at the store, aptly named Santa, is played wonderfully by Michelle Yeoh, she is both funny and acidic.The store is gorgeous, full of both charming and awful Christmas decorations and knickknacks. As Kate says, “Santa loves Christmas more than taste or sanity”.

Kate’s family emigrated from Yugoslavia and her overbearing and protective mother, Petra (cleverly acted by Emma Thompson) guilts and harangues her adult children, yet thrives to be needed. Kate describes her family: “anger, shame, resentment, embarrassment, and that’s just my mum”.

It’s a close collaboration with the music of George Michael and Wham! and much of the storyline hangs on the opening lines of ‘Last Christmas’. Hit song ‘Faith’ is also used, as is the Five Young Cannibals line 'She Drives me Crazy', being the ringtone Kate uses to alert that that her mother is calling.

Then there is Tom (played by Henry Golding). He appears outside the shop and hangs around to get to know her. As they spend time together, he encourages her to ‘look up’ and she begins to see all the decorations above eye level spread around London. He takes her to his own secret garden, a charming nook hidden in the city. He doesn’t have a phone, because he got sick of looking at his palm and left it in the cupboard. A friendship and then romantic relationship develops between them, but something is a bit off. He disappears for days at a time, and warns her at one point “you can’t depend on me”. Throughout the first half of the movie, I kept thinking, there is something not right about this guy, he seems both an empty character and too good to be true.

But one thing he says really does get her thinking “every action of a common day makes or breaks your character”. Slowly she starts to change, she helps others, she offers time at the local homeless shelter and she works to repair damaged family and friend relationships.

All of this makes for a story that has real potential - it was realisitic, funny, quite well-crafted and very prettily filmed.

Then comes a twist that requires you to completely suspend reality. And it’s how you feel about that that will determine how you feel when you exit the cinema.

Personally, I don’t mind silly, I don’t mind soppy romance, but what I want is something believable. I thought it might finish well, but once the story changed you had to reinterpret the whole movie. And I still can’t figure it out in a way that made any sense looking back. In the end, it was emptier than it needed to be. As my friend and I analysed it after, we thought it had great potential and could have been a great message about people growing and changing as a result of living through hard times, but in the end it was quite unsatisfying.

I was guest of Universal Pictures.

Monday, November 4, 2019

God, You and Sex

God, You and Sex, David White

This thorough book by David White considers God’s views on sexuality and what that means for believers living today. Because this is an area highly relevant for the marriage ministries we are involved in, as well as for today’s culture, this a detailed review (and also refers to some specific sexual practices).

White begins by introducing why a book like this is needed, noting four trends in the church: the rise and normalisation of pornography, the increased sexual activity amongst Christian dating couples, the confused Christian teaching about sex, and the shift in views on same-sex intimacy.
“I want Christians to have a thorough biblical understanding of why God’s design for sex is a lifelong union between a man and a woman. And I want you to be able to connect Christian sexual ethics to a broader Christian worldview.”
He states the book is for everyone, while noting,
“These pages will be easiest to read for those who are happily married and who experience a passionate and fulfilling sex life. Your experience of this good gift naturally leads to worship of the Giver. But that’s a small percentage of people who will pick up this book.”
So he acknowledges those in hard marriages, who are single, who live with same sex attraction and survivors of sexual abuse. There is a wise, gentle and understanding tone here, and he also shares his own story of sexual brokenness and redemption.

There are helpful warning words at the end of the introduction:
“Sexual experience will always be more like a piece of chocolate cake than a source of life. It is a gift to be received with thanksgiving that should lead to a heart of increasing gratitude, but it will not change your life. Only living in relationship with the Lover of your soul will do that.”
Starting with God’s work in creation, White points out how God made sex as a good gift to be enjoyed that reflects the unity within the godhead and that because of God’s trinitarian nature, love predates creation.
“From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is unashamedly positive about marital sexuality. As we will see, a robust understanding of God’s design for human sexuality is a beautiful proclamation of the gospel promise that God will be our God and we will be his people.”
Sex in marriage is a ‘reunion’ of God’s image bearers designed to bring forth life as well as oneness and intimacy to the couple, to really be known.
“It is the coming together emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically, that makes human sexuality a reflection of our Creator.”
Chapter 2 expands what it means for God to be our lover: “God created marriage and sexuality for us to know his heart toward us”. He considers the extensive use of adultery imagery to explain Israel’s turning from God. He tells of his experience of his first wife’s death, coming to understand God’s extensive love for him which is more than any spouse, and then moving towards remarriage as he fell in love again. He asks the reader to consider:
“How would your relationship with God change if you pictured him as a lover, rather than a judge? Even if you feel more comfortable with God as your Father or Redeemer, how does it alter things to see him as your husband? What do you think is missing from your understanding if you do not have this crucial piece?”
Chapter 3 expands the idea of union with Christ and what that means for sexual union.
“Our union with Christ is the adoption into the extended family of the Godhead. Because union with Christ is at the center, marriage as a “one flesh” relationship provides a poignant metaphor to describe the wonder of our relationship with Jesus.”
It is the covenant bonds of promise and faithfulness that make sexual union a delight and a treasure:
“The issue is whether this couple is willing to make public promises committing their entire self and future to one another. Only this is good enough to merit the glory of godly sexuality because only this mirrors the radical commitment of our God who is zealous for us and longs for our sexual union to reflect his commitment of love made by promise and oath, ratified by his own blood.”
He then extends this to consider that sexual pleasures reveal a God of delight.

Chapter 5 considers sex in relationship and the damage of sexual sin, noting
“Simply put, sexual sin violates the fundamental reflection of the most glorious union—our connection to our Lord through his Spirit—which is implicit in God’s good design of marital love. That’s why God cares so much about sexuality and why sexual sin is so profoundly damaging.”
Yet sexual sin is also universal, and therefore needs to brought into the light,
“It is because sexuality is so glorious, not that sexual sinners are so despicable, that sex requires such care.”
Chapter 6 starts to examine sex as service to the other. “Sexual pleasuring in marriage is a wonderful obligation that spouses are blessed to repay each other.” I appreciated his analysis and explanation of 1 Corinthians 7, addressing the issues it can raise, especially the expectation of sex on demand. He takes the time to deal with this pastorally from a number of angles, concluding,
“God gave us 1 Corinthians 7:1–5 because spouses need to be taught that selflessness must govern the marriage bed and serving each other is the path to deep joy and fulfillment. This conforms us further to the image of our ultimate Bridegroom.”
He considers the need to talk openly about sex in a marriage. He includes oral sex and differences in desire amongst a discussion of what mutual giving would look like. He also turns to consider areas he thinks are problematic.

Chapter 8 addresses single sexuality, both the opportunities, but also the grief and loneliness that may also be present. He encourages the reader to see that singleness has a place in the kingdom of God, proclaiming to the world that the idols of companionship and sexual expression in this world can be truly found in Christ:
“Your commitment to live chastely as a single Christian proclaims to a watching world that there is another King, whose own willingness to embrace a different kind of life disarmed the lies of the enemy (see Colossians 2:15). You testify to the truth that sex is not necessary to have a rich, powerful life.”
Next he focuses on the worldview behind fallen sexuality, and then various sexual practices that he believes do not fit God’s design, including masturbation, pornography, sex outside marriage, and gay marriage, but finishes with the reminder that:
“The real problem is that broken sexuality is universal, affecting every person and community on the globe.”
All of us have a sexuality affected by the fall. He consider some of the norms of our culture today and the lies behind them, most notably the overarching view that sex is all about me and what I/we want. In the end, he encourages the reader to:
“focus on your own sexual redemption. Like me, that will keep you plenty busy. And if you have already made great strides there, ask God what new ethical issues he’d like to tackle in your life”
He turns to the challenges of parenting today and encourages all parents to be willing and ready to discuss these things often with their children. Some topics covered include masturbation, technology use, LGBTQ+ issues, and the hook up culture.
“Given the cultural messages and mounting hormonal pressure, our kids need compelling reasons to obey God in their sexuality, especially as they approach their teen years and beyond. When it comes to talking to your kids about sex, getting out of your comfort zone means being willing to have multiple conversations with your kids.”
He then considers biblical sexuality in public, “the last few decades have marked a dramatic shift toward a sexuality that wildly diverges from Christian orthodoxy.” So that “The sexual ethic once taken for granted is seen as oppressive and harmful to society, and people who uphold biblical morality are going against the flow, often ridiculed as quaint and progressive.”

“The only way we can show perfect courtesy and have gracious, salty words is if we are daily aware of our own need for God’s grace.” We should invite friendships with those with whom we disagree over their sexual ethic, and we are called to love everyone.

The final chapter raises the vision for everyone, and points us towards the end times when we will glory in our complete and satisfying relationships with Christ.

We recommend numerous books on sexual intimacy for married couples. The advantage of this is the biblical basis and detail of the theological considerations and perspectives. Many focus on how to have sex in marriage, this offering adds much more, giving a reason why to have a high view of sexual expression in marriage. From there, one can consider the challenges presented for people and couples with their own issues, as they face the challenges of an ever changing sexually expressive and permissive culture.

I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.