Monday, October 4, 2021

The Unlikely Yarn of the Dragon Lady

The Unlikely Yarn of the Dragon Lady, Sharon J. Mondragón

I was invited to read this book as part of a blog tour, and very much enjoyed it. Sharon Mondrag√≥n has created a likeable tale about four women who meet to knit prayer shawls. 

I’ll be honest, I had no idea knitting prayer shawls was a thing. But I can see how it would naturally develop. Christian women who love to knit, gather together, and create shawls to give to people in situations of need. It seems they pray silently as they knit, and pray at the beginning and end of each shawl project. It seems to be a ministry of creative, thoughtful care.

In this novel, Peter McIlhaney, rector of Hope and Glory community church, has been told that his church is going to be shut down. He devises a last ditch effort to reach out to the community, by sending the Heavenly Hugs Prayer Shawl Ministry off site. To date they have happily met in silent tranquility in the prayer chapel.

Margaret, self appointed head of the group is outraged. How could they possibly go to the busy mall and pray while knitting? The other members of the group are a little more open to the idea. Rose has recently entered aged care, and is struggling to adjust to the changes. Fran’s husband died 18 months earlier, leaving her completely bereft. Jane struggles with a well-kept secret about her son as well as parenting two bickering, teenage daughters.

As they set up in the mall, they slowly become known to the shop staff and regulars who pass by. People start asking for prayer. Some want to learn how to knit. Some end up coming to church on Sundays. As they become more involved in the lives of all these new friends, they each have to face their own hurts of the past.

If I was going to be picky, I would say that the entire model of prayer seems to be supplication; all about things people want God to do for them. No praising God for who he is, what he has done in Christ, or how we receive salvation through him. Yet, it’s not all about passing tests and getting jobs, either. Some relationships are healed and restored, both with people but also with God.

An enjoyable book with a satisfying group of (primarily) mature female characters, who are complex yet long to serve others. I can imagine numerous female readers, especially those who knit or are Christian, enjoying this one.

If you want to enter a competition for a free copy - go here. And if you go to this post, I think you can link to read an excerpt.

Monday, September 20, 2021

The Church as a Culture of Care

The Church as a Culture of Care: Finding Hope in Biblical Community, T. Dale Johnson Jr.

Johnson is an experienced biblical counsellor, and he has written this book for church leaders and elders, seeking to re-establish the church as the central place of soul care. He challenges the perception that secular psychology has outdated the church, but rather proposes than God has equipped people for every function of the care of souls, placing Jesus at the centre of restoration. He states that “this book is intended to be an admission of our failure and an exhortation to arise and reclaim the church as a culture of care” (p. 4).

He starts by expounding that God made the church to care for people, and then outlines a biblical vision for the church to be a culture of care: because God first cared for us, it is for his glory and for our good.
“Every aspect of the work of the such intended to care for souls. Preaching, shepherding, one-anothering, church discipline, missionary proclamation, personal obedience - all are intended to awaken or strengthen the soul to live faithfully and peacefully in a war-torn and sin-cursed world.” (p17)
The third chapter (when the church doesn’t care) was one of the strongest, and one those in church leadership would do well to ponder. Johnson outlines how we have embraced secular psychology, abdicated discipleship, and we hesitate to obey and apply God’s word. He explores the costs that this has had, the one that struck me was our changed view of the church - with an aversion to church discipline, the specialisation of the pastorate, and the lack of discipleship. Another point rang true for me, based on my current study experience - eclecticism is now valued, rather than a over-arching systematic approach:
“What is in vogue at the moment is a smattering of methodologies used at the discretion of the therapist from an ever expanding toolbox” (p. 50).
The following four chapters continue to expand his biblical vision of the church as the centre of soul care:
  • Christ as the head of the church - we must submit to him and glorify him 
  • Christ as our good shepherd - because the rule and authority of Jesus is always “tethered to love and gentleness”. There is a detailed look at what it means for Christ to be our shepherd, and how we are to listen to him and depend on him in response. 
  • The care of under-shepherds - what it means for pastors and elders to minister and care, and to equip the saints for works of ministry. 
  • Equipping the saints - because pastors forget that God has called the whole church to care for each other. 
The final chapter (counselling in the local church) was also very good, with Johnson making the distinction between preventative and intensive soul care. Preventative care should be a normal part of the one-anothering life of the church:
“every believer is to be engaged in the care of souls within the body of Christ, and as such they will provide “counsel” or wisdom for living during the course of their normal conversations. Every member of the body is called to minister the Word to one another” (p. 145).
Intensive care is that which requires immediate attention through formal counselling or intensive discipleship. Formal counselling ministry is not intended to subvert or deter normal care within the body of Christ, rather: 
“it is the overflow of healthy biblical discipling and caring relationships that creates a demand for a more formal counselling ministry” (p. 149).
This is a helpful offering to assist church leaders consider why biblical soul care and counselling is an essential part of the the role of the church. I felt it was more wordy that it needed to be, and yet still didn’t get specifically practical, in terms of how a church or a pastor might go about making change. Some of the discussion questions might help people to get to that place on their own, but I imagine others might be left feeling, “I agree, but what do I actually do now?”

Having said that, he has laid excellent groundwork for churches to think through their own culture of care, what they may be missing, and the reasons for that. Numerous people would benefit if these principles were put in place in more churches.

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

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Windsor Knot

The Windsor Knot, S. J. Bennett 

This lovely fictional book suggests that the Queen solves mysteries. A young Russian musician has been found dead after performing at Windsor Castle. While the head of British Intelligence thinks the Russians are up to something major, and the staff of the royal household are now suspects of a long term plot, the Queen knows it was nothing of the sort. Through her young, new assistant private secretary, Rozie Oshodi, she quietly starts her own investigation. Rozie discovers doors quietly open wherever she goes, as various people long to say what they know and to help Her Majesty. It’s written in a lovely, somewhat whimsical tone, with the Queen’s contemplations often involving “oneself” or “when one has to do something.”
“Of all her residences, if she had to pick a favourite, it would be this one. Not Buckingham Palace, which was like living in a gilded office block on a roundabout. Not Balmoral or Sandringham, though they were in her blood. Windsor was, quite simply, home. It was the seat of her happiest days of childhood… It was where one still came at weekends to recover from the endless formality in town.”
It’s set in April 2016, when the preparations are well under way for her 90th birthday, and the Duke of Edinburgh is still by her side.

I have enjoyed various other fictional books set about the Queen over the years, such as Mrs Queen Takes the Train and The Uncommon Reader (written by another Bennett!)

I’m pleased to see she has more books in the planning, I’ll be looking out for them.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Remember

Remember, Lisa Genova

Lisa Genova, neuroscientist and author of Still Alice has written this excellent little book Remember: on the science of memory and the art of forgetting.

It’s very readable and understandable, combining the science for those who are interested, in an engaging format, with easily comprehensible and relatable examples to explain and expand what she is saying.

She starts by explaining the breadth of what our memory does:
"Of all the complex and wondrous miracles that your brain executes, memory is king. You need memory to learn anything. Without it, information and experiences can’t be retained. New people would remain strangers. You wouldn’t be able to remember the previous sentence by the end of this one.… You use your memory from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep, and even then, your memory processes are busy at work.

The significant facts and moments of your life strung together create your life’s narrative and identity. Memory allows you to have a sense of who you are and who you’ve been." (p2)
Yet as she will go on to expand, it’s also incredibly faulty. 

The first section considers How we remember.

With some explanation about how making a memory works (encoding, consolidation, storage, retrieval), Genova notes that the main reason we forget things is that we just don’t pay enough attention to them. So, if we paid attention to where we parked our car, we would remember where it was. She gives tips throughout for assisting with making memories stick.

Then she explores the three types of memory:
  • muscle memory - how to do things, eg ride a bike 
  • semantic memory - information eg. George Washington was the first US president 
  • episodic memory - the history of you remembered by you. Here emotion and surprise are important, “the more emotional the event, the more vividly and elaborately detailed the memory”. In fact, something highly unexpected and exceptionally emotional creates a flashbulb memory (eg. September 11 for many people). 
The second part details Why we forget. 

Here Genova tips things on their head, pointing out how our memory of things are often wrong (which any conversation with someone else who experienced the same event quickly shows us). Every time we recall a memory, we change it a little, and resave it as Version 2.0 in our mind.

She explores the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, when you know a fact but can’t recall it; and why it is so hard to remember things you are supposed to do the future. Her tip here is the basic thing most people do - don’t expect to remember, rather use your calendar, to do lists, and pill boxes for regular medication.

She notes time in the biggest factor in forgetting, and much of this is good. We have to forget things, we need to leave the emotion or pain of some memories behind, and we need to create space for new information.

Genova compares the normal impact of aging on memory with the devastating impact of Alzheimer’s. In fact much of this book seems to be designed to help people see the difference, and therefore have more confidence in when you need to be concerned and when you don’t. So, for example: if you can’t remember where you put the car keys, that is fine, however if you forget you have a car, or what the keys are used for, that is a problem.

Part 3 considers what to do: whether you improve or impair.

She notes that unrelenting chronic stress is disastrous for memory. However, she emphasises that the two main things that are essential for memory and preventing Alzheimer’ are adequate sleep (7-9 hours per night) and exercise.


This is a very easy to read book, full of interesting facts and reliable examples and anecdotes. In the end, she wants us to know that "your memory is miraculously powerful, highly fallible, and doing its job." Definitely worth reading.

Monday, August 16, 2021

The Whole Life

The Whole Life: 52 Weeks of Biblical Self-Care, Eliza Huie and Esther Smith 

Biblical counsellors Huie and Smith have combined their skills to create this wise and winsome book that considers what biblical self-care looks like, and ways to approach it. As New Growth Press say:  
“They give Christians a framework for biblical self-care that will help them live for Christ by stewarding the spiritual, emotional, relational, and physical aspects of life.”
Huie and Smith start by identifying their audience:
“This book is for Christians who are committed to loving God and loving others; it is for believers who pour their lives out in sacrificial service” (Introduction)
Then they helpfully define what they consider biblical self-care to be:
“the practice of drawing on divinely given resources to steward our whole lives for personal enrichment, the good of others, and the glory of God. We don’t practice self-care because it’s trendy. We practice self-care because it’s a biblical concept. We embrace self-care as a way to steward our souls, minds, bodies, and relationships. This whole-life stewardship is an act of obedience to God’s call to love others as we love ourselves.” (Week 1)
The 52 weeks are divided into 6 sub-sections:
  • Spiritual life 
  • Physical Life 
  • A Purposeful Life 
  • Community Life 
  • Work Life 
  • A Restful Life 
Each week brings focuses on a specific area, allowing the reader to pause, reflect, consider God’s word, and respond in prayer and thoughtfulness. This includes a gospel spotlight, and a chance for application through consideration of questions covering four areas (spiritual, emotional, physical, and relational), and finishes with a a guided journalling suggestion.

As such, taking a week for each topic doesn’t appear to be too slow. I read this book quickly to get the review done, but I plan to return to it and read it much slower at a pace that enables me to dwell in it further. Yet, even a fast read gave me much to consider and be aware of.

Some things I appreciated:
  • Their starting focus on the gospel, our relationship with God, and our spiritual self care 
“The key is that we prioritize time alone with God to spiritually care for ourselves in the midst of caring for others. We cannot properly pour out to others if we are empty.”
  • The encouragement to see the value of counselling in Week 6. They were honest about the fact that there are time where we may need some extra help. 
  • The recognition that not everything can be solved with self-care: 
“Rest and self-care do not always prevent burnout. Sometimes burnout is a form of suffering that comes from the circumstances of living in a broken world. No matter how faithfully we care for ourselves, we may not be able to experience whole-life thriving. It’s difficult to grapple with the reality that some burnout has no earthly solution. If this describes you, I want to encourage you that even this realization has purpose” (Week 51 - Self Care is not a Savior)
I found this to be a wise, balanced, and helpful guide to biblical self-care. It’s quite short, and each week covers only 2-3 pages. However, the real benefit would be taking the time to work through each week in detail and prayerfully. Highly recommended for all Christians who long to serve the Lord sacrificially and faithfully, yet also with wisdom and awareness of our human limitations.


I received an ecopy of this book from New Growth Press in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, August 9, 2021

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee

After having read this 30 years ago in high school, I recently returned to it (as my daughter is also reading it at school) and was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed it again.

This is not a detailed review, but an encouragement to go back to the books you read at school that you enjoyed. The ones that were good, challenging, and interesting, and try them again, years later, as an adult.

Told through the eyes of young girl Scout and her older brother Jem, we learn of their town of Mayfield. Early on the children’s focus is on the Radley house where the mysterious Boo Radley lives, never seen by anyone. The second half turns to the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man wrongfully accused of the rape of a poor white woman. Atticus Finch, the children’s father, is Tom’s lawyer and while he is convinced of the need to represent Tom faithfully, he knows the challenges that it presents to their family in this racially charged community. Harper Lee’s assessment of a southern US community in the 1930s rings true, and aspects of her analysis are still very relevant today. One of the most insightful and prescient comments was this:
‘As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it — whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.’

Atticus was speaking so quietly his last word crashed on our ears. I looked up, and his face was vehement. ‘There's nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who'll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance. Don't fool yourselves—it's all adding up and one of these days we're going to pay the bill for it. I hope it's not in you children's time.’ (Chapter 23)
Other books that I read in high school that I have enjoyed returning to are:
Some I still plan to get back to one day include: 1984, Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm. I’m pretty sure these are on our kids’ reading lists in future years, so I may get to them soon!

Monday, August 2, 2021

Consider Your Counsel

Consider Your Counsel, Bob Kellemen

Kellemen has decades of experience in biblical counselling, and is the founder of the Biblical Counseling Coalition. He brings that knowledge and wisdom to bear in this succinct book which addresses what he considers to be the ten main mistakes in biblical counselling. He investigates the growth areas that are needed in counsellors, and seeks to answer the question:
“What patterns, themes, and threads of blind spots do I detect in rookie and veteran biblical counselors—myself included—from which we could learn and grow?”
It’s worth going through the mistakes he lists, including some comments. For some, this will prompt you to read the book, others might just appreciate the brief summary below.

Mistake #1: we elevate data collection above soul correction. This was all about empathy, and being relationally present with a counsellee.

Mistake #2: we share God’s eternal story before listening to people’s earthly story. Rather, we need to be ‘lingering listeners’, avoiding the ‘shallow concordance approach’:
“With one foot, we enter deeply and personally into our counselee’s story, situation, and soul. With the other foot, we pivot into and journey together to Christ’s story of redemptive hope. Our calling is to step into and move between two worlds, between two stories as we help our counselees see how Christ’s redemptive story intersects and invades our counselee’s troubling story.”
Mistake #3 - we talk at counselees rather than exploring scriptures with counselees. Instead, we want to be collaborative.

Mistake #4 - we target sin but diminish suffering. “Instead, let’s be comprehensive, compassionate biblical counselors who address the gravity of grinding affliction.”

Mistake #5 - we fail to follow the Trinity’s model of comforting care. There were helpful insights here into the care, compassion and comfort of the Father, Son and Spirit.

Mistake #6: we view people one dimensionally instead of comprehensively. We need to consider the whole person - physical, relational, spiritual, etc.

Mistake #7- we devalue emotions instead of seeing emotions as God’s idea. Rather, emotions are of great value:
“In summary, the key to our emotional reaction is our belief or perception about the meaning behind the event. Events impact whether our emotions are pleasant or painful. Our longings, beliefs, and goals impact whether our emotional reaction is holy or sinful.”
Mistake #8 - we minimise the complexity of the body-soul interconnection. We are complex body-souls, yet broken by sin and also redeemed, awaiting glorification.

Mistake #9 - we maximise sin while minimising grace. Rather, we want to be grace maximisers, grace magnifiers and grace dispensers.

Mistake #10 - we confuse the sufficiency of scripture with the competency of the Counselor. I must say, this is not something I feel, but do understand the issue. He says, rather that we need ongoing equipping, we are not self-sufficiently competent to counsel, we are incompetent to counsel in our own strength, and we are not independently competent to counsel without support and community.

He goes on to expand this idea, stating we need to be aware of our competency to counsel, and a way to do this is by asking:
  • What’s my level of overall growth and maturity in character, content, competency, and community (4C)? 
  • What my level of 4C equipping related to the particular issues I’m being asked to address? 
Five guidelines are suggested to ensure competent help is provided: 
  • Consistently involve a comprehensive body of Christ team approach 
  • Prayerfully ponder whether the wider resources of the body of Christ may be needed 
  • Prayerfully ponder whether resources outside he church may be needed 
  • Have a candid conversation to mutually determine your next steps, potentially refer to others in the body of Christ, remain part of a team approach 
  • Potentially decide to be the primary caregiver but become further equipped and be supervised 
I appreciated his conclusion that with counselling, “at the the of the day, it’s all about humility”.

This is a very helpful book for those that seek to pastorally care for or counsel believers. It’s a quick and easy read, yet very insightful. In essence, it is not about the content of counselling, but rather on “the process, the journey, the relationship between the counselor and the counselee, and the mindset embedded behind the art of counseling.” I found much of value within.


(Please forgive the switching between counsellor/counselor - I spell the Australian way, unless I am quoting directly)

An ecopy of this book was provided in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Dee Henderson books

I continue my meandering through various Christian fiction writers, and have quite enjoyed the discovery of Dee Henderson. Henderson combines honourable characters, the crime & mystery genre, romance, and Christian themes together to make an appealing mix.

Her O’Malley series has 8 books: 6 main ones and 2 prequels. The entire series covers only one or two years, and each focuses on a different sibling in the O’Malley family. In an appealing twist, the seven siblings are not related by blood, but decided to form their own family, legally changing their names after their formative adolescent years were spent together at an orphanage. All now in their thirties, they have been a unified team for 20 years.

All have a strong sense of law and order, honour, and service, which is shown in their character and choice of professions. This is a tight knit family of caring men and women who love each other and would do anything to support one another. Obviously, since all ended up in an orphanage, there is a considerable backstory for each.

The two prequels - which are definitely worth reading first are:
  • Danger in the Shadows - tells the story of FBI agent Dave Richman and his sister Sara. Sara is under constant witness protection due to an incident in her past. When she meets famous pro-footballer Adam Black everything is thrown up in the air. 
  • Jennifer - gives some background to Jennifer O’Malley, paediatrician, as she meets Tom. 

The 6 main books cover the remaining siblings:
  • The Negotiator - Kate is a hostage negotiator, who ends up in an incident with Dave Richman. 
  • The Guardian - Marcus, a US Marshall, is on duty when a federal judge is shot. 
  • The Truth Seeker - Lisa, a forensic pathologist, is searching for links among previous cold cases. 
  • The Protector - Jack is a firefighter, in the midst of an outbreak of targeted arson. 
  • The Healer - Rachel, a trauma psychologist, cares for children, and caught up in the midst of a school shooting. 
  • The Rescuer - Stephen, a paramedic, is taking a break from the hard work of being a first responder in a city, but gets caught up in an old stolen jewel investigation in a small town. 
The books all follow on from each other, and all the family members appear in each. In fact, they often work the same cases together and assist each other along the way.

None are believers, but in each book a special someone who is a Christian comes along their path who causes them to reconsider Jesus and what they believe. If I was cynical I would say there is a borderline ‘flirt to convert’ thing going on in every book. But it’s not quite like that. Each love interest of an O’Malley chooses not to get involved with them because they are not (yet) Christians. These are crime fighting romances though, so while the stressful situation is figured out and resolved, each main character is also being challenged to consider their beliefs, in due course comes to faith and then the romantic tension is resolved. Henderson tries to bring out a different aspect of faith, and potential objections to it, in each book. So, for example, one focuses on the truth of the resurrection, another on being in a personal relationship with God.

If I were to nit-pick, I’d suggest that recognising personal sin or a need for God’s grace isn’t a strong aspect of turning to God in any of them. These are all decent, impressive people who are already pretty ‘together’. However, they are pondering to the truths of God, they come to know him by reading his word, and they are willing to talk about their hesitations and concerns as they work through what it means to believe. Like Kingsbury’s romantic Christian fiction, she treads a fine line between the romance (hugging, kissing, expressed desire between people not in a relationship) with the balance of aiming for self-control and purity. However, the Christian message here is more subtle, gentle, and may be more appealing for inquirers.

I’ve enjoyed them and will happily try her other books as well.

***

I have now also read her "Uncommon Heroes" Military Romance series - and enjoyed them. 

True Devotion - about Kelly, SEAL widow and surf lifesaver, and good friend Joe, her past husband's close friend. 

True Valor - Grace is a Navy pilot and Bruce is Air Force Pararescue. This was my favourite, I liked how their relationship developed through letters over several deployments.

True Honor - CIA officer Dacy is chasing a man who profited from 9/11, and SEAL Sam is deployed in areas of strife as their paths keep crossing. 

Henderson writes strong, principled characters. The women are as capable, brave and heroic as the men. They aren't damsels in distress waiting for a man to save them, but true partners in work and life. From recollection, each of the main characters in these is already a Christian, so no 'flirt to convert' happening here! 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Blog subscribers

Dear Musings readers, 

I know some of you subscribe to Musings via Feedburner (delivered by Google). I think if you ever signed up for this blog delivery, it's delivered that way. 

Google/Feedburner are shutting down their mail delivery of new blog posts on July 1. 

After some investigation, I am experimenting with MailChimp as a delivery service instead. 

If you would like to continue to receive email updates when I publish blog posts, please go to Musings, and fill in your details under the 'Subscribe' section on the right.  You should then receive a welcome email, and hopefully an email every time I post. (If there are some early teething problems with this - please forgive me, it's not as easy to set up as I thought it would be)

Long term readers may notice I am not posting as often I have in the past. However, I am still reading and will continue to post (mainly) book reviews, as I read good books that are worth sharing. 

Thanks to those readers out there who have continued to follow me over the years. 

Wendy

Monday, June 28, 2021

Karen Kingsbury - Baxter Family books




Recent Christian fiction reading has led me to discover Karen Kingsbury, a prolific author who has created a large series of books which centre around the extended Baxter family. The first series (coauthored with Gary Smalley) introduce us to John & Elizabeth Baxter, and their five adult children and partners. Over these five books (Redemption, Remember, Return, Rejoice, Reunion) storylines include both great highs and deep lows. High points include character’s strong relationships with the Lord, or returning to the Lord, love stories, pregnancies, children, healing, aging well, and a deep love between family members. Lows include turning from the Lord, betrayal, adultery, death, illness, and addiction. 

While the first series centres around the Baxter family, the second turns its attention to some single characters, and puts the spotlight on the damaging world of Hollywood fame (Fame, Forgiven, Found, Family, Forever). The third series adds another large family into the mix - The Flanigans (Sunrise, Summer, Someday, Sunset).

I have mixed reactions to these books, and admit I am more analytical of Christian fiction - partially because the authors have a greater responsibility as they try to bring truth to light, rather that just tell a good story. 

Positives include:
  • Kingsbury is a gifted storyteller. She draws you in to her characters’ lives and you care about them. Numerous books have moved me to tears at some point, most notably Remember, which wove New York on September 11 into the storyline. 
  • God’s word is clearly present. She uses it most often in almost audible answers to prayer, but also in the mouths of characters. 
  • She clearly explains the gospel at various points and doesn’t shy away from it. 
  • Characters face real sin and suffering, and are changed by God through it. 
  • While some people are miraculously healed, others are not - this adds more depth as the series continue. 

However, some aspects sit a little uneasily, many about the experience of the Christian life (note many of these can be positives, they just raise some issues)
  • The almost audible voice of God in response to many prayers is one. Many people do not have this experience, and could be left longing for it. 
  • There is an over-reliance on Jeremiah 29:11: “I know the plans I have for you ... plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope a a future”. That has to be of the most used verses out of context. 
  • Possibly seconded only by “Remember your first love” which strangely is applied to God, but more immediately to your first love (eg husband) 
  • Sanctification seems almost immediate. Those who are believers are amazingly loving, gentle, kind, well rounded, prayerful people, and fully in touch with themselves and those around them. Those who become believers are changed into this very quickly. There is not a lot of struggle with ongoing sin and temptation, like the everyday anger, impatience, and frustration that plague us in real life. (I note that this becomes a bit more nuanced in later books) 
  • Most Christian marriages & families in these books are perfect, hard to fault anything in them, and therefore not super realistic. Again, she develops more variance with this later. 
  • There is a push that marriage is the right goal and desire for all, and that single people aren’t yet fulfilled. The narrative seems to be ‘waiting for the right Christian man to come along’. 
  • The predominant sin people seem to have to deal with is related to sexual purity, whether for single people staying chaste or for temptations outside of marriage. There isn’t as much focus on the other more ‘mundane’ sins that plague us all. Yet, at the same time, there’s an awful lot of close hugging and even kissing with couples who aren’t dating yet. Herein lies the friction between trying to write both romance and Christian. 
  • There is a strong focus on the power of intercessory prayer. This is not a bad thing at all, but is a limited view of the extensive power & purpose of prayer, especially in glorifying God, confessing sin and praying for issues much more expansive that those within your immediate context. 

Even with my hesitations, the occasional judgey tone, and the schmalzy romance (sometimes between teenagers) in many of them, I’ve kept reading them (yes, there are many more). There are encouragements along the way and God’s word is found within. They are easy reads, with enjoyable characters and engaging storylines. Kingsbury is openly trying to show what it means to love and honour God as you live, and there is much to be thankful for in that.


***
After this post I continued reading her others in the series - The Hollywood series and the Bailey Flanigan series. I'll just make a few extra comments about the Bailey series (Leaving, Learning, Longing, Loving) which I enjoyed a bit less:
  • The application of scripture was quite simplified. There is no sense of a biblical theology, and parts of the Old Testament are used to suggest that if it happened then, it can be applied now.  
  • This particularly series was very soppy and overly romantic, especially as the key characters were about 18-21 years old.  
  • Prayer was used for everything to ask for what they want, and very rarely to praise God or ask for deep character change. 
  • Because it’s clear (and she is open about this) that Kingsbury modelled the Flanigan family on her own, and Bailey on her daughter, it’s like one extended ode to themselves. They are presented as the perfect family. 
  • The extended details of Bailey’s wedding in the final book seem to be her own way of processing her own daughter’s wedding. It's super detailed and over the top.
The final in the chronological series of these families - Coming Home - which returned more to the Baxter side of things - was a good way to end the series. Very serious things happened, it was very emotional and heart-wrenching, yet gospel focussed as well.  

Monday, June 21, 2021

Books by Ariel Lawhon


I have recently discovered Ariel Lawhon, a skilled historical fiction writer who chooses a past mystery or story and weaves in her own interpretation of what might have happened.



Code Name Helene

This is an excellent historical fiction about Nancy Wake, a spy for the UK government in WWII. Wake was an Australian who moved to France as a journalist in the 1930s. She saw firsthand some of the horrors of Hitler’s early years, giving her motivation to fight against the Nazis. It tells the story in two arcs: one starting in the mid-30s, giving background to Wake and telling of her romance with Henry Fiocca, a French industrialist. The second is from February 1944 as she is airdropped into France to assist with the resistance.

It’s an engaging storytelling method, as you learn her history and present at the same time, and try to merge the two together. Obviously as the first storyline draws closer to the second, the clues given throughout become clearer, building the tension for the reader as to how situations will resolve.

It’s also a good mix, as the realities and brutalities of war are combined with the evocative and powerful building romance between Henry and Nancy.

Highly recommended reading, especially, if like me, you had never heard about this countrywoman of ours who gave so much for the war effort. Lawhon details at the end how much was sourced from historical record and what she changed. I also found it an extra encouragement to deduce from the acknowledgements that Lawhon is a Christian.


Flight of Dreams 

Another historical fiction, this is told aboard the Hindenberg airship on its final voyage from Germany to New Jersey. This covers another aspect of history I knew nothing about, beyond the fact the Hindenberg exploded in 1937, essentially ending the era of airships, for not surprisingly the public lost confidence in them. Lawhon has used the names of crew and passengers who were on the actual flight and created stories around them, either with known facts as triggers for ideas, or using her own imagination.

It’s a great read, as we get to know Emilie (the only stewardess ever appointed on an airship), navigator Max who is in love with her, a journalist and author couple on the brink of discovering a story, and an American who is clearly up to something but we don’t know quite what. There are families aboard, a young steward, Nazi commanders and a spinster heiress.

The only thing I found difficult was keeping track of all the characters, for me taking notes was essential.

Obviously you know where it’s all headed, but for this book, it really is the journey that’s important, rather than the destination.


The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress

This centres around the unsolved disappearance of Justice Carter in the 1930s in New York. It was a time when gangsters held power, political ambitions could be made with money in the right pockets, and numerous people were used and abused along the way. This story is told though the eyes of three women around Carter: his wife Stella, their maid Maria Simon, and his mistress Ritzi. The investigating police officer is Jude Simon (Maria’s husband) who is being pushed on by his boss; it seems every man in this town has some secret and some way of pressuring others to keep it.

It’s a clever retelling of a story, again based in a factual event I knew nothing about, but it wasn’t my favourite. It was a nasty time with nasty people and the women were treated pretty badly.

**

Overall though, I am now a fan of Lawhon’s writing and look forward to seeing what historical event she explores in the future.

Monday, June 7, 2021

In The Heights

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This lavish new production by Warner Brothers has transformed the In The Heights stage show into a movie. With music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) and directed by John Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) there is much to enjoy.

It is set mainly over three days building up to a heatwave and blackout in the largely Latino area of Washington Heights, in New York City. First we meet Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) running his small corner store (bodega) with his younger cousin Sonny. He longs to  return to the Dominican Republic, to follow his ‘sueno’ (dreams).

He is keen on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works in Daniela’s local salon, but dreams of becoming a designer. Abuela Claudia is the matriarch of the community and has raised Usnavi.

The local car dispatchers, Rosario’s, is owned by Kevin (Jimmy Smits), whose daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) has made it all the way to Stanford College, to the pride and joy of the local community. On the first day, Nina returns from college, downhearted with the weight of expectations on her shoulders and she reconnects with Benny (Usnavi’s friend and Kevin’s employee, Corey Hawkins) - they both clearly like each other.

It was enjoyable to see Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn 99) as an elaborately made-up hairdresser, and for those who like Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda has a minor role, and Christoper Jackson (George Washington) has a cameo (possibly also a nod to his role as Benny in the stage production). 

I have no knowledge of the stage show, or this part of New York, so I can’t comment on the adaptation, or the accuracy of any portrayals.   

However, I can say that this is a fun, enjoyable movie. The cast are excellent with strong voices and the songs are clever, many complete with extravagant, colourful dance scenes. The big scenes I particularly enjoyed were the opening “In the Heights”, the pool scene “$96,000” where everyone is dreaming what they would do if they won the lottery, the club dancing scene and the Carnaval scene.

Similarly, some of the more emotional, quieter songs were lovely: “Breathe” when Nina returns from college, and again “Everything I know” (I think it was) when she leaves for college. This was a very clever scene where the perspective changed, it looked so real.

It’s a movie that celebrates immigrant communities and notes the challenges they face, but doesn’t dwell on them. It’s people that matter here and the ones who love you, whether they stay near or far. And often your dreams come true in ways you don’t expect.


I was a guest of Universal Pictures.

Please note: to get the song names and some story details, I have used the Musical Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_the_Heights) as a source.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Spirit Untamed

This new offering from DreamWorks Animation is a simple, yet enjoyable and moving story about Lucky and a wild horse she names Spirit. 

In the opening scene we meet Lucky as a baby and her loving parents: Milagro, a famous horse riding stunt performer and Jim Prescott (Jake Gyllenhaal), a train engineer in small town Miradero. Her mother dies in a riding accident (unseen to the viewer), and the story quickly moves forward ten years, to the home where she has been raised by her Aunt Cora (Julianne Moore) and grandfather.

Lucky (Isabela Merced) and Aunt Cora travel to Miradero to visit for the summer, and on the train ride out she is enamoured with a herd of wild horses running alongside the train led by a yellow stallion. She reconnects with her father, and meets two girls who quickly become friends - Abigail and Prue, and their horses.

A local hustler has managed to catch the stallion putting him in a corral. Over some days, Lucky befriends him, slowly and carefully with the help of apples, and some hints from her horse-loving friends. Various adventures follow with the horses, culminating in the entire herd being captured by the hustler and loaded onto a train to take out the country. The girls set out on horseback to intercept the train.

The animation of the horses is lovely and very realistic. Anyone who has spent time with horses will recognise numerous elements of their behaviour: skittishness, blowing air through the nose, love of various foods, and their body movements. The only thing that I realised half way through that was missing was the obvious indications of gender which in stallions are clearly present in real life.

It’s not clear which country or timeframe we are in, but to hazard a guess, I’d suggest the turn of the 19th/20th century (for the long skirts and dresses worn by the women, and the ‘old west’ feel of the town). It’s probably meant to be the southern US or Mexico, considering the clothing style and Spanish language elements.

There are some lovely scenes, including a clever Tango style dance between Lucky and Spirit as they get to know each other, and some funny interactions between the girls when they camp out. The music soundtrack was enjoyable throughout, and the animations were mostly excellent - the scenery, people and horses very believable and realistic.

The exception to the great animation however, is the persistence by studios to portray girls and women disproportionately. While Abigail has a realistically proportioned body (and eyes), as did Aunt Cora, they can’t resist making Lucky impossibly thin, with stick legs but a huge head, enormous eyes and a mane of hair - she almost looks lopsided. The father looks like a normally structured man, but some of the other men are impossibly large chested. I wish animation studios would have main characters less stylised and ‘perfect’, embracing realistic body variations, not impossible ones.

It’s suitable for pretty much all ages. The story is simple - no overblown dramatics here, the family has disagreements but sorts them out pretty fast, the friends are kind to each other, the baddies are mean but not too scary, and even the dramatic scenes probably wouldn’t worry many younger children. Our viewing was full of kids aged about 4-10 and they all seemed to enjoy it. Because of the story - young girl meets horse, there are no romantic scenes at all, and I suspect the ending will be satisfying to all.

I don’t think it will become a classic, but it’s a good, solid and enjoyable story for younger kids (and my teenagers quite liked it too!)

I was a guest of Universal Pictures. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Old Testament fiction by Tessa Afshar

Continuing from my previous post about Tessa Afshar’s books grounded in New Testament characters, we now turn to some based on Old Testament figures. It’s clear Afshar does a lot of research into the times that she writes about and tries to create a sense of what life would have been like for different women. 

In the Field of Grace is the story of Ruth and Boaz. I quite liked this one. Obviously she has provided 
much more fictional details than the biblical books gives us, but it’s woven in well with the biblical account containing elements that make a lot of sense. I had not really considered before that Ruth would likely have been considered infertile prior to marrying Boaz, as she never conceived with her first husband, Mahlon. There is no reason to suggest either that the first marriage wasn’t one of love and mutual affection, resulting in significant loss when he died. It is also fair to assume that as Boaz was an older man, that he may also have lost a first wife prior to meeting Ruth. So, Afshar weaves in their own stories of grief and loss. In addition, it’s fair to assume that Ruth, as a Moabitess returning with Naomi, may not have been greatly welcomed or included by the Jews, and so we have a glimpse of what it may have been like to be a foreigner amongst God’s people. 

 
Pearl in the Sand charts the life of Rahab, who Afshar sets up as being pushed into prostitution by her destitute parents as a teenager to save the rest of the family. Even with that choice, she rejects the temple prostitution and sets up her own private business. However, she is intrigued by the approaching invading Israelites and their God and privately turns to him herself, before aiding the spies and saving her family in the fall of Jericho. Then begins her interactions with Salmone, prominent leader of the tribe of Judah, and if you’ve read your genealogy in Matthew 1, you know where this inevitably ends.

Of course, Afshar has used extensive literacy licence here, but much makes sense and gets the reader thinking. What would it have been like for the people of Jericho as the Israelites got closer and closer? How did Rahab and her family assimilate into the people of Isreal, what did they have to give up and change to be included into the people of God? How did a women who had been a prostitute become wife to an Israelite leader and included in the genealogy of Christ?

As Rahab confronts her past, her guilt, her shame and her feelings of unworthiness and abandonment, Salmone is working through his own issues of judging her, and thinking she is not worthy of him or of God. Both experience real change and healing, and Afshar gives insight into the forgiveness, mercy and grace of God in all of our lives, whether they be outwardly upright or less so. 

Harvest of Rubies and Harvest of Gold are more loosely connected with the biblical narrative. Sarah, a Jewish scribe, has risen to high service in the Persian court of Artaxerxes. The King’s cousin Darius, is used to the pomp and circumstance of aristocratic life. But what happens when their lives intertwine? 

Sarah also just happens to be Nehemiah’s cousin, who is serving as cupbearer to the king. Readers are given a taste of the Persian life, rituals and court in the first book, and then follow the return of some exiles with Nehemiah to rebuild the Jerusalem in the second book.  

It’s fair to say that each book is centred around a love story. Yet at the same time, readers are encouraged by God’s grace at work in the complexity of different people’s lives and circumstances.


Monday, April 12, 2021

New Testament fiction by Tessa Afshar


 I have recently discovered some Christian fiction by Tessa Afshar and have found them very readable and interesting, though they continue to raise wider issues for me. 

I read four that adapt a New Testament character and create a detailed backstory.

Land of Silence provides a name, history and drama to the woman mentioned in the gospels suffering bleeding for 12 years who touches Jesus’ robe and is healed. Elianna’s childhood is marred by the sudden death of her younger brother while under her care. Her parents turn away from her, and she holds herself personally responsible for his loss. She is betrothed to Ethan, who cares for her deeply, but there are constant challenges to overcome with parents, a failing business, intrusive Romans and her own self doubt. Then her bleeding starts, with a whole additional range of problems exacerbated by Jewish cleanliness laws. It certainly gives some perspective on what the challenges and struggles were for women in these times. 

Bread of Angels gives Lydia, the Philippian dealer in purple cloth of Acts 16 a detailed history starting with her childhood, and following the drama of her younger life. There is some overlap of characters here with Land of Silence, which is obviously also imagined. 

Thief of Corinth tells of Ariadne, who becomes a thief alongside her father, robbing those who exploit others and exposing them. They themselves are then at risk when their secret threatens to be exposed. They meet a Jewish rabbi named Paul, who offers a message of hope and redemption. 

Daughter of Rome gives a backstory to both Priscilla and Aquila: their childhoods, times of trial and suffering, coming to know the Lord and falling in love with each other. It covers their expulsion from Rome, their resettling in Corinth and meeting and working alongside Paul. Some characters also overlap here with the other books. 
 

Each time I enjoyed the narrative. Afshar has a clear storytelling gift. She has tried to immerse the reader into the biblical age and help us imagine life at that time. There’s benefit to this, as we gain further understanding into the culture and people of long ago. Her characters face real trials and struggles, and their living faith become crucial. The challenges and joys of living the Christian life are present and real, and cross the centuries to be also applicable to readers today.

As with most Christian fiction, they are certainly encouraging and edifying stories. People come to know Christ, face their real sins and struggles, and are changed by the mercy of God.

Yet stories that use biblical characters as their springboard always leave me feeling a little uneasy (which I have also noted in the past - here and here). A high view of the inspiration and sufficiency of scripture makes me nervous when authors add to the biblical narrative, even in an obviously fictional way. I am even more nervous when that person’s life is dramatised for the sake of a compelling story, with betrayal, love, revenge, and great ups and down of romance and life. This was why I so liked Phoebe because Gooder restrained the story more.

Perhaps one concern is that the (often mostly female) readers of this type of Christian fiction will stay with the overdramatised and satisfying climaxes of the romantic story, and spend less time in the actual biblical accounts. However, to counter that, I do note what Afshar herself says at the end of Daughter of Rome (with similar comments at the end of other books): 
“As always, no novel can begin to capture the sheer depth of the Word of God. The best way to study the Scriptures is not though a work of fiction, but simply by reading the original. This story can in no way replace the transformative power that the reader will encounter in the Bible.”

Monday, April 5, 2021

Children's books

New Growth Press have released four new children's books in the last few months.

The first three are additions to their God Made Me series, and will have a similar appeal to readers around 4-8 years.

God Made Me in His Image by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb (authors of God Made All of Me) aims to help children appreciate their bodies, and accept them the way they are. The book anchors in Genesis and the creation of humankind in the image of God, and highlights that everyone has value and honour, even with their differences. The is done skilfully in a way little ones can grasp, by looking at various animals on a zoo trip and seeing the variety of traits God gave to animals.  


As body image issues continue to emerge in younger children, this is a timely reminder to kids and parents that we are all valuable and wonderful in God's sight. 



God Cares For Me by paediatrician Scott James, teaches children how to trust God when they are sick, as well as following wise health advice.  

Lucas wakes up with a fever and sore throat. While not keen to go to the doctor, his dad encourages him that God gives us doctors to help keep us safe.  Lucas, dad and the doctor all wear masks, and later in the day when his grandparents come to visit, they wave from the door but don't come in and Lucas can't hug them. 



It's clear this has been written for Covid times, even though that is never mentioned. Probably there are a whole new swathe of children's books on health now picturing people wearing masks, and having to distance from each other. Much of this is framed around the idea of loving others by caring for them when we are sick, which is a very different message from previous books where everyone gathered around to care for people in their illness* (although the parents do a great job of caring for Lucas here). As such, this book helps explain the realities for many children living with Covid restrictions and requirements. I also think considerable care needs to be given about implying young children are responsible for whether their grandparents get sick.*   

*[I suspect a larger discussion of whether these messages are actually that good could be worthwhile, although I realise that requires a much broader discussion that the scope of this review]. 

This transmissible disease focus also means this is not the book you would turn to if a young child is diagnosed with cancer, needs an appendectomy, or has a broken leg. It just does not cover the other options of illness and injury. That's fine, but parents should be aware its application is a little limited.


God Made Me for Heaven by Marty Machowski is a great addition to the series, dealing with an issue that parents often struggle to explain to their kids with clarity: what heaven is like and how we get there. 

Leo is celebrating the end of the school year with his friends, and enjoying being outside playing together. He and his grandmother start talking about his grandfather who died three years prior. She explains how his spirit went to be with Jesus in heaven and his body will be resurrected when Jesus returns. She talks about how good heaven will be and how it won’t be boring at all. When Leo asks how good you have to be to get into heaven, she explains that “No one is good enough” and that’s why we need Jesus. Kids are encouraged to see that heaven will be great, like a summer vacation that never ends, with no one ever getting tired, or sad and praising Jesus together. 




It’s suitable for 5-9 year olds, giving a clear gospel explanation and the joyful promises of heaven and eternal life using images and concepts familiar to children.




Like all the others in this series, all three books have been clearly and skilfully illustrated by Trish Mahoney. 


The third book is Jesus Saves: The Gospel for Toddlers by Sarah Reju and illustrated by Phil Schorr.  

This is a lovely addition to the many great Christian books for toddlers these days. Jesus Saves outlines the simple basics of the gospel in a repetitive cadence that will appeal to young ones, covering God as creator, our own sin, and Jesus as saviour:

"God made you.
Made who?
Made you!
God made you, little one."



Sometimes the simplest expressions of the gospel are the most powerful. 



I was given ebooks of these in exchange for a honest review. 

Monday, March 22, 2021

Saints, Sufferers and Sinners

Saints, sufferers and sinners, Michael R. Emlet

Michael Emlet has brought his biblical wisdom and counselling skills together to create this fantastic resource for those who want to pastorally care in a balanced and nuanced way (which hopefully means all of us).

Whether we to minister to others in our personal circles, our ministry, or in a more formal counselling space, Emlet provides a short yet comprehensive way to consider our approach to people and the complexity of their lives.

His first book CrossTalk introduced the idea of people as saints, sufferers and sinners, and this develops that concept in more depth.

He proposes that all people are fundamentally dealing with two main issues:
  • They struggle with identity and are asking ‘what is my purpose?’
  • They struggle with evil - both from without (suffering) and that from within (sin). 
God comes to his people recognising all three:
“Scripture reveals that God ministers to his people as:
  • Saints who need confirmation of their identity as children of God,
  • Sufferers who need comfort in the midst of their affliction, and
  • Sinners who need challenge to their sin in light of God’s redemptive mercies”

And indeed Jesus is the ultimate saint, sufferer and ‘sinner’ (in that he took our place for sin).

While Emlet mainly applies this book to believers, he notes its relevance to unbelievers as well, requiring thought and skill on behalf of the counsellor to adapt it appropriately:
“So, while the fundamental experiences of wrestling with one’s identity, enduring bodily, relational, and situational suffering, and struggling with sin are universal problems, the specific contours of ministry will differ between believers and unbelievers as we employ the biblical categories of saint, sufferer, and sinner.”
Then he turns to each category - saint, sinner, sufferer - in detail, with the same chapter format for all three:
  • Scripture speaks to saints / sufferers / sinners (s…)
  • How God loves s... - a biblical example 
  • Ministry priorities for loving s...
  • How we love s... - everyday examples
  • How we love s... - counselling examples
  • Barriers to loving others as s...
In almost every case, Emlet encourages us to start with people as saints. Consider the good; consider how God is at work in them. Our identity is shaped by our relationship with God, and so our designation as saint is more foundational than sufferer or sinner:
“Ongoing struggle with suffering or with sin must be understood in this basic context of our new identity as children of the living God. We are saints who suffer. We are saints who sin. But we are saints nonetheless at our core.”
He notes,
“It’s an issue of ministry priority—what does this person most need to hear right now? I find that many people, particularly those who are discouraged, anxious, and depressed, have trouble noting the good that God has been up to in their lives. In that sense, I am acting as a signpost for them that points out, “You are a beloved saint and I see God’s grace here!””
“Counseling is hard work. It involves a deep dive into the particulars of suffering and sin in the context of a trusting relationship. In the midst of talking about all that is not right, it’s important to surface for air and gain fresh gospel perspective. Sometimes all the person (and the counselor!) can see are the problems at hand. Because of this, I make it a priority in every session to highlight some evidence of God’s grace I see in my counselees’ lives. They need that encouragement just as much as you and I need that regular encouragement.”
With regard to sufferers, he directs us to our Saviour “with whom we are united, both in his suffering and his comfort”. So we do not shy away from the reality of suffering, nor do we minimise it.
““Groaning until glory” is actually a biblical description of the Christian life. The suffering of God’s people is front and center throughout Scripture. But also highlighted is God’s comfort to his people in the particular moments of their suffering, as well as his promise to bring an end to all suffering, ultimately through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
“Ministry to those who are suffering is difficult. It often taxes our own faith and emotional strength to listen to stories of great affliction and misery, particularly in the midst of our own trials. How can we console others when we are so often in need of consolation ourselves? We do share in the sufferings of Christ, but the apostle Paul makes it clear that we also share in Christ’s comfort.”
Moving to the category of sinners, he acknowledges that we are saints who struggle with the ongoing presence of sin:
“Even though the power of sin has been broken and the penalty for sin has been paid for us in Jesus Christ, continued wrestling with sin—war between flesh and Spirit—characterizes our lives in the time between Jesus’s resurrection and his return.”
We encourage sinners to see they are loved by a Holy God, who can enable change and growth:
“In both the Old and New Testament, a clarion call for God’s people to live holy lives is always undergirded and motivated by the relational bond of love that exists between God and his people.”
“Celebrating the good you see in someone’s life and being honest about problems you observe are both essential because they keep God in the picture. But as you minister to believers, never forget that their baseline identity in Christ means that you expect to see the fruit of the Spirit in their lives.”
All of these chapters were biblical, wise, logically structured, and easy to read and digest. The list of barriers to loving others was particularly insightful in each category, considering why we might find it hard to encourage saints, recognise suffering, or challenge sin. My only issue was that I wanted more detail in some areas.

Emlet finishes with exploring what balance looks like as we hold the triad of saint, sufferer and sinner together. He explore the risks when we overemphasise one over the other. These were multi-faceted, including how we may minimise wrongdoing and responsibility, view ourselves primarily as victims and live without hope, or focus on rules and following laws rather than our relationship with God.
“Ministering wisely means that we hold all three aspects of human experience together even if at a given point in time, we focus on one because that is most needful for the person in front of us.”
He leaves the reader with the hope and promise of the day to come when we will only be saints, no longer sufferers or sinners.

This is an excellent book for anyone wanting to love and counsel others in a well-rounded, biblically grounded, caring way that desires growth and change in the context of a living relationship with our saviour God. 


This post first appeared on TGCA.
An ecopy of this book was provided in exchange for an honest review.   

If you would like to listen to podcasts of how Emlet looks at these categories by interviewing people, go to the CCEF podcasts.  

Monday, March 15, 2021

Even Better Than Eden

Even Better than Eden, Nancy Guthrie 

I have spent a few months in this excellent book of Nancy Guthrie’s, which follows different themes through the bible, exploring each from creation to new creation, seeing how they are fulfilled in Christ.

Having previously enjoyed many of Guthrie’s devotional materials (for parents, Easter and Christmas) and her book on grief, I was keen to turn to this thematic biblical theology. She is a skilled biblical exegete and writer, and excels at applying the bible to our lives today.

The nine themes explored are:
  • wilderness 
  • the tree 
  • His image 
  • clothing 
  • the Bridegroom 
  • Sabbath 
  • offspring 
  • a dwelling place 
  • the city 
If you haven’t spent much time exploring these themes in the bible, there is much to discover. Many will find Guthrie’s links from creation through exodus and exile, to Jesus, culminating in the new creation, to be eye-opening and insightful. I think that even those who are quite familiar with the bible and how these themes grow, adapt and are fulfilled will be encouraged and see links they not have before. That was certainly my experience. If the whole idea of exploring the bible through a theme is unfamiliar to you and you would like to explore how to do it yourself, CrossTalk by Michael Emlet would be a good place to start.

I realised quickly that using her Personal Bible Study notes to go along with it would be worthwhile, so paid $3 on her website to access a copy. I worked through each study over a few days and found that when I then read the relevant chapter it gave it even more clarity.

Because I was using this in my own personal devotion, I didn’t note many quotes, just these from the first chapter on wilderness:
"God sees the emptiness in your life as his greatest opportunity, because God does his best work with empty as he fills it with himself."
"Do you think, perhaps, that God has let you hunger for whatever it is you are so hungry for so that you might become more desperate for him, more convinced that he is the source of what will fill you up? Might want to retrain your appetites, redirecting them away from this world, this life, even this age, so that your anticipation of the age to come might begin to shape your perspective on whatever it is you lack?"
If you want a taste, have a look at her website, where you can download the introduction and first chapter.