Monday, January 25, 2021

WonderFull: Ancient Psalms Ever New

WonderFull, Marty Machowski 


Marty Machowski, author of numerous Christian children’s books, family devotionals, and parenting books has now written WonderFull: Ancient Psalms Ever New with the aim of bringing the Psalms to life to children.

I’ve always been surprised how children’s storybook bibles cling to the narratives of Scripture, not even trying to include Psalms or wisdom literature. Thankfully, Machowski has tried to fill that gap. In WonderFull, he has logically included all 150 Psalms in order, simply yet profoundly displaying to children and parents alike the order of the five books within the Psalms, and the groupings within the actual Psalms themselves. Some Psalms are looked at it more detail, with a page or two of explanation. The majority are included within groups, with just a few sentences about each. 

The details may include the setting of the Psalm, further explanation, how the Psalm may point to Jesus, some encouragement and direction for response and prayer. Parents will definitely need to be reading this with their children (and possibly even young teens), to help them process the information. When only one point is summarised from a Psalm, there’s a fair chance a children will have questions about other parts of it. Yet, if parents (and their kids) were keen to make this book a priority, I could imagine there would be great benefit for both as they read the Psalms together. Many of the suggestions are responsive, such as writing a prayer, so the readers would want to have time without rushing. 

Woven through the reading of the Psalms is story of Oliver and his Grandpa. His Grandpa is sick and Oliver and his parents have come to visit, but Oliver has also had some problems at school. Grandpa and Oliver read the Psalms together, and over the course of the year Oliver is changed by God’s word and Grandpa goes home to be with Jesus. It’s a lovely overarching storyline that shows how God’s word in the Psalms can expose, sustain, encourage and comfort. 

Obviously as it includes every Psalm, and is designed for you to take your time, this is a large book and a long term undertaking. Even daily it would take almost 6 months. I think once or twice a week would be more manageable for many families, meaning it could take a few years to get through.

It is beautifully illustrated by Andy McGuire (like TheOlogy), and matches it in size and feel, making them feel like companion volumes. They are both hardcover, and wonderful to view. (Also adding to the price, in Australia it’s currently $40)

I am overall very positive about this book, but there were a few things that I wondered about:
  • It's a massive undertaking to comment on every Psalm in a way children across multiple ages can comprehend. Sometimes I felt it was excellent, other times I wondered if Machowski has bitten off more than he could chew. Every Psalm could have had more explanation, and some parents may be left wondering how to explain all the bits that are left out. 
  • Linked to this, as I have said, it’s lot of work for parents, and those who are not confident in reading the bible for themselves might be nervous. I’m always keen to encourage parents to read the bible with their kids, try to explain it and work it through together with them, but I wonder if some might find this a bit more than they can manage. 
  • There are very minor questions about some exegesis at points. eg. Ps 3 claims David prayed this prayer, and the next day he won against Absalom, this is not evident in the Psalm. Not major, but I noticed a few. 
  • I was surprised by the occasional switch from ESV to NIV. As this is a book that encourages you to read each Psalm yourself, I would have thought staying with one translation throughout would be better and reduce any confusion. 
  • I do wonder if it would feel repetitive after a while. Many of the applications and suggestions are similar, which is natural response to the Psalms, but it might be noticeable. 
I am encouraged by Machowski’s desire to bring all the bible to life for children. WonderFull helps children to dwell in the Psalms, see God is ever present and caring in their lives, and how they point them to Jesus, their true Saviour and Lord.

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

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Mini fiction reviews

When it drops, Alex Dyson

This is a great debut novel by former triple j presenter, Alex Dyson. Sixteen year old Caleb is a songwriter and nerd, and happy to be left out of the limelight. One of his songs is about the girl he has had a crush on for years, Ella. Of course, that’s just his secret, until his little brother grabs an opportunity to share it online. Is disaster looming? What if Ella finds out? When some in the music industry take notice, is it just possible this could be his big break? This is very fun. There are the usual amusing and awkward scenes in school and with friends, as well as humorous insights into the music industry. What took the cake for me though was the comments on the high school discipline system:

“RUB stands for Rough, Undisciplined Boys, which is one of many categories we utilise here at Riverview for administrative and disciplinary purposes. For example, occasionally we encounter a GIMP at this school, or Girl Initiating Malevolent Practices. Last week we had quite a serious outbreak of HERPES, or Hurtful Event Rendering Pupil Extremely Sad.”

Enjoyable for teens and adults alike.

Pandemic, A. G. Riddle

A fast paced action book following the events of a pandemic over about 2 weeks. Two young men in Africa present to a local hospital with symptoms suspiciously like Ebola. The CDC despatches their experts to assist with identification and management. But at the same time thousands of people across the globe are developing flu like symptoms. Could they be related? How could it spread so fast?

It might seem too close to home at the moment, but it’s not about what a pandemic does to people and societies. Rather, it’s a chase around the globe, as various characters try to solve this high stakes mystery, where nothing it quite as it seems. There appears to be a mighty shadow organisation managing everything, but to what ultimate end?

Riddle has blended actual history with fiction, and science with fantasy, and it’s a reasonably enjoyable mix. There are times where characters talk about having faith, or hope, but there’s no indication of what that faith or hope should be in - the ingenuity of the human race, the ability to survive, kindness of others? It’s unclear. He does seem to be raising the question of what the larger purpose of mankind is and why we exist, although comes to no answers, beyond perhaps is suggesting that without suffering and pain the world would be better.

Either way, it’s hard to tell because it leaves you hanging and having to read Book 2 - Genome, which I haven’t managed to get to yet.

Stoner, John Wiliams

Written in 1965, Williams tells the story of William Stoner, from when he first went to the University of Missouri as a freshman in 1910, where he stayed as a lecturer in the Department of English until his death in 1956. My understanding is that this is a literary classic. I enjoyed reading it and was at times reminded of the style of Gilead (link). There was a similar continuous storytelling with no particular climax, yet much of interest along the way. You see how his life unfolds, with marriage, a child, various university stoushes and friendships. However, in the end, I found Stoner a sad figure. He had a life of very little joy or purpose, as he himself pondered “He found himself wonderful if his life were worth the living, if it had ever been. It was a question he suspected that came to all men at one time or another; he wondered if it came to them with such impersonal force as it came to him.” Many of those around him were much more extreme characters that he was, I particularly found his wife hard to imagine in reality. Those with a broader understanding of literature may appreciate more of the references within the book itself.

The Evening and the Morning, Ken Follett

Follett has already written three books about Kingsbridge, set in the 1100s (Pillars of the Earth), 1300s (World Without End) and 1500s (Column of Fire). This fourth is a prequel, set around 1000AD and moves around the stories of a young shipbuilder Edgar, a Norman noblewoman Ragna who moves to England to marry, and brother Aldred, a pious monk. As per usual with Follett’s books, it's an epic tale told over hundreds of pages. It also fits his usual style, where the main characters are basically good, kind people who are stymied at almost every turn by the treacherous, violent leaders and churchmen who stand against them. As I noted with Column of Fire, there is a crassness towards women in Follett’s writing although I am still uncertain whether that it reflecting the setting or the author. I do enjoy his tales though, they bring aspects of the past to life. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Dingo's Got My Baby

The Dingo’s Got My Baby, Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton

Probably every Australian over thirty will have heard of the Chamberlains. (I have established my children had not). Michael and Lindy became household names when in 1980 their nine-week old daughter Azaria was taken by a dingo from a tent in a camping ground near Ayers Rock. While the initial inquest upheld the finding of death by dingo, the Northern Territory government later accused Lindy Chamberlain of murder, and she was sentenced to life in prison. After numerous appeals, she was finally remitted and released after about three years of imprisonment. Later followed a Royal Commission and finally an official acknowledgement of baby Azaria’s cause of death.

It was a case that caused strong emotion and opinions, with many believing the media coverage that Lindy had killed Azaria, while others campaigned for justice to a hostile audience. She notes later:
"Many people were not game to stand up and say what they believed. There was no sitting on the fence in our case, and people who had the guts to stand up and make a public stand for the Chamberlains’ innocence certainly needed the guts to live with the flak that came afterwards." 
I never knew much beyond the basic facts, being a child myself at the time. However, the phrase “a dingo’s got my baby” became part of the Australian lexicon and was often used to get a laugh, much to our shame. I remember it being a joke on a Seinfeld episode.

She is clear from the beginning this is her story, not Michael’s and his story is for him to tell. It’s very detailed, the ebook I read was 900+ pages. There are detailed sections on the camping trip itself and the first inquest, the second investigation and trial, the prison years, and then once she was released and the ongoing fight for justice. So it’s very long, and probably would have benefited from a stronger edit. However, I can see why it was kept as is - this is her opportunity to say everything she wants to say. She was denied justice, falsely accused, treated dreadfully by the Northern Territory government and police, and was talked about in virtually every household in Australia (and many overseas). This is one opportunity to put everything in one place and make it her record. She has no hesitation with fully naming and including photographs of everyone on both sides - lawyers, police, forensic scientists. She wasn’t nasty, but didn’t hesitate to name incompetence, unkindness and mismanagement. She is open about prison, both the kindness of some guards and the sheer unpleasantness of others, as well as the variety of prisoners she lived with.

Even with the length, it is an engrossing read. I read it solidly for a week on holidays and struggled to put it down.

Lindy is a Christian, a seventh-day Adventist, and that shines through clearly. There are numerous times she refers to her faith, or her reliance on God. She has confidence that God has been with her through this time, and how crucial that has been.
“It is only when your faith is tested that you know whether you have any or not. It is only when your temper is teased and provoked to the limit and you manage to control it, that you know you have succeeded. It is no use saying, ‘I have got self control’ when there is nothing to provoke it."
“I thought of Job, who suffered horribly without knowing why, only remaining faithful to God, his Lord and Master. God rewarded him in the end, but still he did not know why. Maybe we will never find out in this world either. I'm sure Job has many questions to ask God when he sees him. I have a few to ask Him, too. Maybe we can queue up together. But suffering is not God's will. He will help us to bear what we must, and to hang on until the end, but it's not something he delights in."
Reflecting on prison:
“When the doors clang shut behind you, locking you in, and you have nothing to rely on except your own strength of body and mind, it can be terrifying if you let it. At a time like this, if you thought God was a figment of your imagination, He now either becomes a very real and personal friend, or is totally disregarded as a mirage only relevant to a distant Biblical past. Like others before me, I came to that knowledge while in prison. There is no way that one can put this into words, it is simply something that slowly but surely happens. Time and time when there was no one else to turn to, nowhere else to go, I could turn to God and say, ‘Lord you've got to help me here. I can't manage on my own’.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that if it hadn't been for God's help and strength, plus grit and determination, I would have landed up in a mental asylum. At times I felt myself so low I knew I was losing my grip, not only on life but on reality. I knew I had to find it again in a hurry; only God could give me the strength and courage I needed for that and calm me down." 
There are strong words throughout about the problems with the justice system, and the pointlessness of much incarceration: “I believe the only thing ever taught in prisons is the perfecting of old and the learning of new criminal skills."

Throughout is woven the story of the family and how they were affected: the two older boys, baby Kahlia born while she was in custody, her and Michael’s divorce and then her marriage to Rick, about whom she fondly says:
“To have a supportive man who is both gentle and strong behind you who loves you for who you are without a desire to change you is the most empowering thing I know. To know you are loved and supported even when you make mistakes and are no longer young or glamorous lets you become a whole person."
The book was first published in 1990, but it’s had later additions and the version I read was published in 2015, as more things have happened in the case and to this family. Azaria would have been 40 this year, and this case is still fresh in many people’s minds and part of public life. Yet, as Lindy says:
“People forget that my family has a private life. We have gone through a private hell as well as a private happiness in our battle to survive the last twenty-four years and most of our biggest battles have been fought in private."
No matter what you think of the Chamberlains or the case, this is a book well worth reading. This is part of our nation’s history, and not a proud one, and these are real people who have gone through immense suffering, yet have come out of it stronger and completely reliant on God.

Monday, January 4, 2021

I Still Do

I Still Do, Dave Harvey 

As far as I can tell, there aren’t many marriage books that focus on later life. For that reason, I was very excited to read this book and see how Harvey addressed the challenges that marriages face over the long haul.

While it is good and helpful, it isn’t as strong a treatment as I was hoping for. Harvey has also written When sinners say "I do", and this appears to be partially a corrective, noting that yes, two sinners are living together but that not all struggles in a marriage can be narrowed down to sin. 
"I want to help you identify profound factors that shape your marriage – influences that can’t so easily be traced back to sinful desires. We often encounter weaknesses or personality differences in marriage and instantly try to moralise them. We assign motives and then ascribe sin to spouse’s actions and omissions. But cultivating a durable marriage involves recognising that our brokenness is broader than sin."
"To thrive in marriage over the long haul we need to care for our spouse as a whole person. That means seeing how God’s good news speaks not only to their sin but also to their suffering, weakness, family history, disappointed dreams, physical limitations, and changes in sexual appetite."
He breaks the books into three sections: starting together, sticking together and ending together. He has structured chapters around the idea of ‘defining moments’, when you realise something crucial about your marriage, yourself or your partner.

Early chapters consider the realisation that our brokenness (and our spouse’s) is broader than sin and how we need to see our spouse as a whole person:
“The need to see our spouse as a whole person – a person full of sin and grace, weakness and strength; a person with a broken and beautiful human body wrapped around an eternal soul.”
He then looks at how we manage and accept blame and weakness in marriage, as he says: “Marriage is the union of two people on a journey to discover their weakness.”

The central section considers the moment when you realise family can’t replace church, which was helpful but focussed on the nuclear family (how you manage your children etc). It would have been interesting to see this extended to parents, in-laws and extended family and what it means to for us to prioritise the family of God.

I found this section the most helpful including how you face your spouse’s suffering, what it means for sex to change with age, and what it means to really understand mercy,
"Marriage, particularly an ageing one, becomes an awakening to the mercy of God. A place of safety where we see each other as God sees us (as we are, without any masks) and where we learn to respond to the way he does (with kindness and compassion). In this way, marriage becomes a sanctuary. For two people growing older together, it’s a reprieve from the world, a place of refuge – a home where two sinners can dwell peaceably in the comfort of mercy."
The final section considers when dreams disappoint as well as when the children leave. It was a shame that the focus in this chapter was on children who leave to marry, it could have been written in a way that made it broader, rather than just passing references to single children also moving out. Many couples have children leave home long before they are married, if they ever do, and it seemed a missed opportunity to consider that it more depth.
"Letting go of a son or daughter is a significant test. It reveals how much we trust God’s sovereignty in our kids’ lives; it reveals where our own emotional security is rooted; and it reveals, in a significant way, what we truly understand about leadership."

He finishes with the idea that closure is overrated.
“What does a married couple do when hard things continue, when the problems seem hopelessly open-ended? How do we make sense of situations where resolution would appear to bring so much glory to God? How do we go on when that experience remains elusive and unreachable, taunting our hopes? How should we respond when a lack of resolution becomes so oppressive and burdensome that a marriage risks collapsing under the strain?”
There is an honesty here about the struggles that some face over the course of a marriage, and an encouragement to realise some things never get tied up neatly in a bow.

In the end, there are good things covered here and these are certainly issues long term couples need to consider, but I felt the way it was written at times hindered rather than helped.

Firstly, while there are good principles, I felt the whole book stays one step away from hard practical application. The tables at the end of each chapter help to consider the content of each chapter, but there could have been more questions or things for couples to work through together. For example I think many readers would want more detail about the implications of their sex life changing, what it might look like and what continuing to love and serve each other with grace could look like in later years.

Secondly, while the topics he covers are good, I’m not convinced the wording used is the most helpful. I wonder if some Christians looking at the chapter headings might not immediately see the relevance for themselves.

Thirdly, there is an over-reliance on illustrations, and they often muddy the application rather than clarifying it. At one point over about five pages, he references King Tut’s beard, a hurricane, Star Wars, Hillbilly Elegy, CS Lewis, King Lear and John Owen. The final chapter is an extended retelling of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which seemed a convoluted way to finish. It might be readily applicable if you have read it and appreciated it but otherwise you have to do the work to understand that story and then figure out why it is being used. It would have been much more powerful and helpful if numerous illustrations and stories were dropped and instead direct use of God’s word and then application to marriage was prioritised.

This is a helpful treatment on marriage into later life, and one I will probably return to again in future years. Harvey has certainly emphasised the gospel of grace and mercy and how that can affect all aspects of marriage and life together. Taking time to identify and work though some of the defining moments of a marriage will have benefit for every couple, whether they have been married five years or fifty.