Book Review: Saint George and the Dragon

“Saint George and the Dragon” by Margaret Hodges and Trina Schart Hyman (Illustrator)

Of the many hundreds of children’s books at his disposal, this is one of my son’s most requested. That is just as well, because it’s certainly my favorite book to read to him (besides the Jesus Storybook Bible, of course)!

Based on Edmund Spenser’s classic epic poem The Faerie Queen, this book tells the story of the Red Cross Knight and his battle against a dragon that has been terrorizing the English countryside. While there are no surprises in the plot — boy meets girl, boy travels a long way to take care of girl’s dragon problem, boy slays dragon, boy marries girl and inherits her father’s kingdom — the real fun is in the telling! Oh, and the illustrations, of course.

Hyman’s depictions of people, fairies, dwarves, and landscapes are simply beautiful. Saint George and the Dragon is presented as an illuminated manuscript, with paintings surrounding the text on every page. It’s some of the best fantasy artwork I’ve seen!

Hodges’ adaptation retains enough of Spenser’s writing style to be recognizable, but her prose is easily accessible for modern readers. In reading aloud, I am particularly fond of her generous use of alliteration. This gives the reader lots of opportunities to really “get into the story”… phrases like “fairy folk” and “dreadful dragon” roll off the tongue and help build the drama.

There are several elements that make this much more (but no less) than a book for children. While it is obviously much shorter than Edmund Spenser’s masterpiece, Saint George and the Dragon is about as “epic” as a kids’ book can be. Long sections of narrative are interspersed with short similes reminiscent of Homer, in that they don’t necessarily seem to relate to the surrounding text. Still, they are beautiful, and manage to add a sense of depth to the tale, as if there’s a whole world to be explored in the further adventures of the Red Cross Knight.

One complaint I’ve seen about this book is its length. Many parents seem to think that this is simply too wordy for young children. I couldn’t disagree more!

It’s true that this book is longer than most children’s stories. It typically takes me about 10-12 minutes to read it to my kids, but my little boy — who is not yet 3 — nearly always stays entranced to the very end! A lot probably depends on how the story is read. We tend to have a lot of fun with our story time; inserting dramatic pauses in the reading, pointing out details in the artwork as things are described, using different accents and voices, etc. (Occasionally we do have to interrupt our reading to engage in a quick sword fight, but we always return to finish it!)

I see this book as a tremendous opportunity to teach my children. There is a lot of value in epic poetry and fairy stories, but appreciation of this type of literature must be learned. If investing some extra time now showing my toddlers how to listen to and love a story that takes a while to tell helps prepare them for enjoyment later of things like The Iliad and The Lord of the Rings, then that will be time well spent! I want to cultivate in my kids a love of learning, of reading, and of story-telling… not to mention an attention span longer than what is typical in today’s media-saturated culture. I can’t think of a better time to start than when they are very young, and there are few books better suited to aiding me in this pursuit than Saint George and the Dragon.

I hope you’ll get a copy for your kids (or for yourself!). You can buy it here.

T4G 2012 – Book Giveaways

This will be the last of my T4G posts, and then it will be back to business as usual. I have completed a few more posts in the political series I began in March, and hope to wrap up the entire series soon. I also have some backlogged book reviews to publish… and, as you’ll see from this post, there will probably be a great many more to come!

One of my favorite parts of the T4G conference is the emphasis on equipping attendees for ministry by providing great resources. This year, this was accomplished via a “Zero Dollar Bookstore”, which is just about the best idea I’ve ever heard. Everyone who attended was given a pass to this bookstore… it was like Trick-or-Treating, only instead of cavities we get soul edification.

There were 18 books given away at T4G, along with another 17 at the “Band of Bloggers” lunch. In addition, many of the vendors with booths set up in the exhibit hall were giving away books, and the conference bookstore had GREAT prices on over 1800 books. I set myself a budget this year, and so came home with fewer total books than in 2010, but it was still quite a haul! Here’s the big list, which includes all the books I was given as well as the ones I purchased. As well as I can remember, I’ve listed whether I purchased them, or where they came from if I got them for free. For lack of a better system, they are ordered by subject:

Bible Study

The Church / Missions

The Gospel

Church History

Living as a Christian

Music / Worship

Prayer

Preaching

Theology

And that’s not all! I also received several assorted CD’s, including worship songs from Sovereign Grace Music and sermons from the Martyn Lloyd-Jones Audio Library. I also received several free issues of Tabletalk and Modern Reformation magazines, and the Galatians Study Kit from White Horse Inn. For a conference that costs less than $300, this would be incredible even without all the spectacular preaching I got to hear all week! I hope many more of you will join us for the next Together for the Gospel conference in two years. I’m already looking forward to it!

What Then Shall We Read?

shutterstock_74085415small

After spending much of last week reflecting on The Hunger Games — which ended up producing a trilogy of blog posts (read parts 12, and 3) — I thought today I might direct readers of this blog toward some fiction that I really like!

Of course, there are many GREAT pieces of literature that could go on a list like this, but, outside of the first couple I’ll list, I’m going to try to concentrate on some more recent fiction (though I personally prefer older books most of the time) that are wonderful despite being less familiar. Please do not take this as a list of things you should read in place of classics like Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn. Think of this as more of a summer supplemental reading list for teens and preteens who want to read a good story with a “contemporary” feel.

Also, though most of the authors listed here are Christians, almost none of the content of the books is explicitly Christian, or even allegorically “Christian”. They are simply good stories, which are perfectly able to come from non-Christians as well.

Without further ado, here are some authors I love, and some of their fiction you and your kids will enjoy:

C.S. Lewis

If you don’t know about The Chronicles of Narnia, it’s time to crawl out from the rock you’ve been living under your whole life. But if your kids haven’t read it, get it in their hands immediately! I read the set for the first time in (I think) fourth grade, but have probably read them at least six times since then. They get better each time! This is my favorite illustrated edition, though the first picture displayed is not the correct cover (the “customer images” are correct). Deeper thinkers may also enjoy Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis by Michael Ward, and What I Learned in Narnia by Douglas Wilson.

Less familiar is Lewis’ “Space Trilogy”. They aren’t as “kid-friendly” as the Narnia books, but I still enjoyed them. Check out Out of the Silent Planet (my review), Perelandra(my review), and That Hideous Strength (my review).

Another good piece of fiction by Lewis is Til We Have Faces, his retelling of the story of Cupid and Psyche from classical Greek mythology.

J.R.R. Tolkien

The other series that everyone knows but which I consider an absolute “must read” (which I also tackled for the first time in 4th grade) is The Lord of the Rings (including the prequel, The Hobbit). As with Narnia, there are dozens of books about LOTR, though many are not that good. My favorite (so far) is The Philosophy of Tolkien by Peter Kreeft (my review). Fans of the series should also check out The Silmarillion and Tolkien’s translations of three epic poems including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton was a turn-of-the-century (the 20th, that is) author who wrote a lot of great non-fiction, but what I love best are his mystery books. My personal favorites are The Man Who Was Thursday (my review) and the Father Brown Mysteries.

Andrew Peterson

Peterson has long been one of my favorite songwriters, but now he has also become one of my favorite novelists. His first fiction series is a work-in-progress, with the final book of the “Wingfeather Saga” due out later this year. Until then, get caught up by reading On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness (my review), North! Or Be Eaten (my review), and The Monster in the Hollows (my review).

For a great example of how music can be used to tell a story, check out his Behold the Lamb of God album, which I’ve also reviewed.

N.D. Wilson

Here’s an author whose fiction I’ve only recently discovered (though I’ve been hearing of its greatness for some time). I should have expected nothing less than great writing from the son of Douglas Wilson (whose new satirical novel Evangellyfish is on my to-read list). The younger Wilson has authored the “100 Cupboards” trilogy, which consists of 100 CupboardsDandelion Fire, and The Chestnut King. My review of this trilogy will be coming soon.

He’s also written a standalone novel called Leepike Ridge, and The Dragon’s Tooth, the first book in a new trilogy (which I’ve decided not to read until all three books are published).

Walter Wangerin

It’s rare that I’ve enjoyed the act of reading as much as I do reading Wangerin’s books. I just love the way he uses words… it’s like the sentences and phrases themselves produce some kind of tangible sensation that is addicting. My favorite is The Book of the Dun Cow (my review), which somehow makes the life of a rooster really exciting… seriously! He’s also done some really interesting novelizations of the Bible, including The Book of GodJesus: A Novel, and Paul: A Novel (my review).

Richard Adams

Another master of the “beast fable”, Adams has written a modern classic called Watership Down (my review). It’s one of my favorites, and I’ve recently converted my wife and her sister to Watership fandom as well. Adams wrote a sequel called Tales From Watership Down, but it’s not nearly as good as the original. The Plague Dogs (review coming) is much better, and often called “the true sequel to Watership Down“.

J.K. Rowling

I thought I’d round out this list by re-affirming my love for the Harry Potter series. I don’t place them on the same level as the books at the top of this list, but I really do think they are great stories. Rather than going into detail about why, I’ll refer you to this article by Andrew Peterson (the same Andrew Peterson mentioned above), whose thoughts mirror my own. For deeper thinking about the HP books, check out John Granger (no relation to Hermione), the Hogwarts Professor. Whether you like the movies or (like me) hate them, I also recommend The Harry Potter Bible Study (my review), which gives a good blueprint for how to watch movies critically.

Your Recommendations?

Obviously, this list could go on and on. These are just some highlights of things I’ve read and enjoyed in the last couple years. What are some of your favorites?

P.S. — If, like me, you enjoy reading about reading, you should definitely get Tony Reinke’s Lit! A Christian’s Guide to Reading Books. I’ve only just gotten it, but already can tell it’s going to be awesome! I’ll have a review published when I finish.

How to Learn to Love Theology

Photo courtesy of Thomas E. Woods Facebook Page

Lots of people, and particularly college students, ask me for reading recommendations. Often these are topical requests related to some certain doctrine or theological issue, but how does one go about learning to like reading books about theology in the first place? With Christmas gifts and New Year’s resolutions just around the corner, here is my suggested reading list for those who know they ought to study, but haven’t got a clue where to start.

For the record, I fall in the camp that believes that one should read more old books than new books (see C.S. Lewis’ short essay “On the Reading of Old Books”), but I also realize that for those who aren’t already in the habit of reading lots of books, newer works may be more accessible. Thus, my list will alternate new (written within the last decade) and “old” (though still staying mainly in the 20th century) books. Books made this list based on their accessibility for inexperienced readers; if you set yourself a goal of reading, say, one book a month in 2012, none of these should present an obstacle!

The ESV Study Bible — Before I get into any other books, let’s get one thing straight: There is no better book on theology than the Bible! The biggest mistake that many Christians make (and of which I have frequently been guilty) is reading lots of books about the Bible, but neglecting to read God’s own Word. Don’t make this mistake! No matter how much reading you do, make sure you are spending time in the Bible every day. That being said, I do think there is much to be gained by having access to a good study Bible. This one is by far my favorite! In addition to the study notes, this Bible contains a lot of very detailed maps and illustrations, and several essays and articles on various topics that are great to have for reference. The $25 you pay for the Hardcover version is worth just based on the “free” access you get to the online version, which I use in my personal study far more than anything else. The Kindle version is also great, and is under $10! You can get this Bible here.

Don’t Waste Your Life, by John Piper

If you need motivation, start here! I can honestly say that this book changed my life. It woke me up to the fact that my life was a waste if I wasn’t living every moment for Christ. It fostered in me a desire to know my Savior better, and started me on a journey of reading and learning from which I hope never to return!

You can read my review of this book here. Buy this book here.

The Pursuit of God, by A.W. Tozer

Aiden Wilson Tozer had no formal theological training, but his books are so wonderfully steeped in the deep things of God that he has become one of the most influential pastors of the 20th century. His passion for chasing after God is palpable and contagious. It’s only 80 brilliant pages long, so it’s one to keep handy for reading again and again.

Read my review here. Purchase this book here, or download a free PDF here.

Dug Down Deep: Unearthing What I Believe and Why It Matters, by Joshua Harris

It’s always helpful to have examples to follow, and that’s why I love this book so much (and why I’ve bought so many copies to give away). Joshua Harris writes about his own experience in learning to love theology, and puts a lot of really deep concepts in easy-to-understand language. It serves as a great first introduction to big theological words like “expiation” and “soteriology” without sounding overly academic.

Read my full review here. Buy it here.

The Pursuit of Holiness, by Jerry Bridges

My favorite part of Dug Down Deep is the final chapter, called “Humble Orthodoxy”, which connects a proper understanding of theology with holy living. This book by Jerry Bridges is a perfect way to follow that up, as it shows us the practical side of living out this faith that grows as we learn more about God. Our church’s worship ministry just finished a study of this book, so there are lots of folks in our congregation who can now attest to how wonderful this book is!

Read my review here. Buy this book here.

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, by Timothy Keller

This is another book that I tend to buy in bulk and give away. It’s so good! In fact, I’m going through it with a group of SSBC college students right now. Keller patiently and graciously walks through a list of common objections which skeptics raise about Christianity. He then lays a foundation for a reasonable, intellectual faith in the God of the Bible.

Buy this book here.

Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, by J.I. Packer

While Keller addresses skeptics’ questions, Packer addresses what is probably the biggest “in-house” debate among Christians: Is God sovereign, or does man have free will? This book shows better than any other I’ve read that this is a false dilemma, and explains how God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom work together. Far from making evangelism pointless, faith in God’s total control and perfect grace is the only thing that sustains true evangelism!

Read my review here. Buy this book here.

What Is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert

This is a tiny book (it weighs just six ounces!) but gives a great summary of the answer to one of the most important questions a person can ask. We Christians talk all the time about sharing “the gospel”, but how many of us can quickly and easily explain what “the gospel” is? Too often I think we take the gospel for granted. This book will help solve that problem.

Read my review here. Buy this book here.

The Attributes of God, by Arthur W. Pink

One of the most important parts of a study of theology is learning about the God we serve. What is He like? What does He do? How does He relate to man? There are many books about God’s attributes, but few state them as succinctly and clearly as A.W. Pink did in 1930. You can read it for free online here. I refer to it frequently, so it’s one of the few Kindle books that I bought (for less than a buck) for the Kindle app on my phone.

If (like me) you prefer to have a “real” book in your hands, you can buy this one here. You might also like to check out Shai Linne’s recent music album by the same name, which I’ve reviewed here.

Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe, by Mark Driscoll

By now you’re ready to start digging deeper into particular doctrines of the faith. Of the books on this list, this one is by far the longest (well over 400 pages), but it’s remarkably easy to read. It’s not as in-depth as a systematic theology textbook, but Driscoll does thoroughly cover the basic and essential doctrines which all Christians should believe. I also highly recommend checking out the sermon series on which this book is based, which you can watch or listen to for free online here.

Buy this book here.

Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis

I would be remiss if I failed to mention this book on this list! Based on a series of radio broadcasts from the 1940’s, Lewis’ classic defense of orthodoxy is as close to a must-read book as anything else  on this list (besides the Bible, of course). He was one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, and had a way of phrasing things that makes his books a veritable gold mine of pithy quotes! I often find myself quoting Lewis without even thinking about it, simply because so much of my understanding of things comes from Lewis’ ability to make stuff stick in my brain.

Buy this book here.

The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions

If you really want to see me get excited about reading, give me something from the Puritans! I love the way they thought and wrote, and even love the quaint writing style of centuries gone by. Still, I understand that many people are intimidated by 17th and 18th century writings. This book of short prayers and devotions is a great way to introduce yourself to the Puritans, because you can take it in smaller chunks. Plus, it is an invaluable way to learn how to pray! I read through this book in its entirety for the first time this year, and it has been revolutionizing my prayer life. I only wish I’d read it years ago!

Buy this book here. I also love this album from Sovereign Grace Music, with songs based on the prayers found in this book.

The People Who Know Their God Shall Be Strong (Daniel 11:32)

I hope that this list has been helpful to you! Obviously there are many other great books that could easily have made this list, but as a starting point, I think anyone could read these books in this order and be tremendously blessed… and have a hunger to learn more and more about our great God!

So now, tolle lege! Take up and read!

Calling All Lord of the Rings Fans!

Well, the inevitable has happened. My paperback editions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have finally worn out their usefulness. The Return of the King is missing (ironic, I know). The Fellowship of the Ring is falling apart, and the others aren’t far behind.

Which brings me to this dilemma: Which edition should I purchase as a replacement? I think I have it narrowed down to the following options:

  • Boxed Set, illustrated by Alan Lee in 2002 — Of the boxed sets, this one looks like the best. I like Lee’s illustrations, and the reviews seem to indicate that, unlike many other gift sets, this one is a high quality printing that should hold up for many, MANY readings. The downside is that I haven’t (yet) found an edition of The Hobbit which matches it, and it’s pricier than most other editions.
  • 50th Anniversary Edition (Hardcover) — As far as bells & whistles, this one seems to have it all. Fold out maps, the “Book of Mazarbul”, great looks… the edition was overseen by Christopher Tolkien, and is apparently the book his father wanted to publish, and would have if he’d had the capability 50 years ago. The downside here is that I often prefer to have multi-volume works like this broken down into individual books, as opposed to all-in-one.
  • The Annotated Hobbit — I’ve heard from many that this is the very best edition of The Hobbit, and since neither of the above options include the LOTR prequel, I suppose I’m in the market…
  • The last option is just to get another cheap set of paperbacks, with the assumption that my children (who am I kidding… I’ll be as guilty as anyone!) will wear them out like I did mine.

Forgive my nitpickiness, but this is an important decision! In many ways it’s like shopping for a Bible. There are so many options, but in the end, you really can’t go too wrong.

Speaking of comparisons with the Bible… I’m not sure how I feel about the official “Amazon.com Review” of The Lord of the Rings:

A Christian can almost be forgiven for not reading the Bible, but there’s no salvation for a fantasy fan who hasn’t read the gospel of the genre, J.R.R. Tolkien’s definitive three-book epic, the Lord of the Rings …

What say you, Tolkien fans? Have you read any of these editions? Which should I get?

Saying Best What’s to Be Said

Growing up, I was a big fan of novels. I read them all the time. From the time I learned to read, I was fascinated with stories, and I consumed whatever I could get my hands on.

Somewhere along the line — either during or right after college — I lost my love for literature. I still read a lot, but tended more toward non-fiction. Last year this was seen in the extreme:  I set (and met) a goal of reading 100 books in 2010. Of those, only eight were novels, with one more being a non-fiction book about novels. (Part of this was due to the fact that of the nearly 40 books I received free at last year’s Together for the Gospel conference, exactly zero were works of fiction!)

Don’t get me wrong. I really do enjoy reading non-fiction, and think it has great benefit, but since the start of 2011 I have rediscovered my love of literature. I feel like I’ve been reunited with an old friend!

In addition to reading much more fiction this year, I have come to more fully appreciate the importance of Story for helping make sense of life. Ironically, I was aided in this understanding by reading several non-fiction pieces, most notably essays by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (both available free online) called, respectively, Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said and On Fairy Stories. I’ve also benefited from articles like this one from the fine folks at the Rabbit Room, as well as recent books such as Culture Making by Andy Crouch, and Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey.

Over the last few days, I’ve stumbled upon four articles which, in different ways, help point out our society’s need for more (and better) stories. These articles cover a large cross-section of our culture, from politics to art to pop culture, and I hope that you will check them out (and leave your feedback as well)!

First was the report of Barack Obama’s summer reading list. This list has been widely reported, and — as has become the tradition for Presidential reading lists — critiqued. What disappointed me was the fact that many articles (such as this one from the Daily Beast) seemed to criticize our nation’s leader simply for choosing novels over presumably more presidential works of non-fiction. The implication is that novels are for relaxation alone, while non-fiction is for learning and self-improvement. I couldn’t disagree more! If one wanted to criticize which novels Obama has chosen, that’s one thing, but to say that someone as important as POTUS shouldn’t “stoop” to reading fiction shows just how low our view of literature has become.

One potential reason for this societal antipathy toward fiction? September 11.

A recent article from the Philadelphia Inquirer examined the effects of 9/11 on the arts. While there was increased interest in books and movies in the fantasy and apocalyptic genres (Twilight, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Cloverfield, etc), the vast majority of books written in the last decade of our terror-struck nation were nonfiction.

“But the 2000s were a time of nonfiction that put fiction to shame… Perhaps the trauma of 9/11 drove writers and readers to reexamine great lives and events, to reevaluate the truth.”

Did the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, leave us with the choice of running from reality or analyzing it documentary-style? I don’t know, but those events do roughly coincide with when I began heavily reading non-fiction to the exclusion of literature…

Russell Moore has written a great cover story about how we face the reality of horror. (If you only read one article linked to from this blog, make it this one!) He points to the story of Christ’s crucifixion, and how the biblical narrative forces readers to come to terms with “the unvarnished horror of ourselves — damned and cursed and exiled.” Scripture doesn’t shy away from unpleasant realities, but neither does it present the reality of sin, death, and Hell simply as cold, hard facts. Instead, God’s Word immerses us in a drama in which death is an enemy to be destroyed, and Christ is a conquering hero who sympathizes with our weaknesses even as he trandscends them and gives us the power to overcome them.

Moore points out that from our childhood we know intuitively that there is something “wild” out there, and that a Day of Judgment is coming. Stories help people (and especially children) “make sense of a chaotic world and of [our] often chaotic selves.” This is reminiscent of one of my favorite G.K. Chesterton quotes:

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Unfortunately, I worry that as Christians, we have largely forgotten what makes a story great. We have lost the ability to discern the elements of truth, beauty, and goodness, which, thanks to God’s common grace, have been evident in great stories from every era, and have pointed to the Creator even in stories written by non-Christians (a topic Tony Reinke explores in his soon-to-be-released book Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books). Instead, we tend to simply see things in black-and-white, or, more precisely, “Christian” and “non-Christian”.

This often leads us to call second- or third-rate books and movies “good” simply because they are produced by Christians, even if they have little or no artistic merit and terrible theology. Meanwhile, we reject truly good stories with themes of hope, forgiveness, and redemption if they have non-Christian origins.

Case-in-point: Last week Justin Taylor recommended two war movies with these themes. In the comments section, many were concerned because one of these movies, Saints and Soldiers, was produced by Mormons. This is a shame, because it really is a great movie! I’ve seen it a couple times, and while there are some specifically Mormon ideas implicit in the story, the overall theme is one which Christians ought to embrace.

We shouldn’t be surprised when non-Christians write good stories. After all, God has written Truth on their hearts and consciences. Paul encouraged the Philippians to fill their minds with whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy, regardless of its source. Anything that inspires us to worship God and serve others is worthy of our time and consideration. This is what great stories do!

May we all develop a better understanding of what is true, beautiful, and good through the stories we read and watch, even as we pray for a renaissance in Christian literature, music, art, and movies.