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.