Summer Summaries – 2017 Reading Project

Playing catch up again with reviews of books I’ve read for the 2017 Reading Challenge. Summer has been great for providing reading time but not so much with writing time. But here’s where I’ve had my nose buried lately!

“Onward” by Russell Moore

Book 25: A book about Christian living

Dr. Moore is a truly prophetic voice in our generation, and this is among his best work. As usual, his writing both challenges and convicts as he calls Christians to engage the culture winsomely but effectively. To do this, we must “keep Christianity strange,” avoiding the temptation to become conformed to a world that is increasingly antagonistic toward our faith. But we must also avoid the opposite error of conflating the gospel with either social justice or political action. For many, the first introduction to the leader of our denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission was his outspoken criticism of then-candidate Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. His rhetoric is often biting, and certainly a departure from that of the “Moral Majority” that defined conservative evangelical political activism for a generation. Yet every word he said during the campaign is consistent with what he had written in this book about the importance of character, integrity, and gospel clarity trumping (no pun intended) whatever social/political goals we may have. I, for one, believe that the trail Moore is blazing for the future of evangelical cultural engagement is exactly what we need to succeed in post-Christian America, despite the toes which may be stepped on along the way, and I highly recommend this book for all believers. Pick up your copy here.

“Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand

Book 26: A book about the second world war

The first time I encountered the name Louis Zamperini was several years ago while reading George Beverly Shea’s 1968 autobiography Then Sings My Soul, in a list of notable converts from early Billy Graham crusades. This biography of the former Olympic athlete and Army Air Force veteran is one of the greatest stories I’ve ever read. Zamperini’s life contained more than enough tragedy and suffering to break nearly anyone. He truly endured some of the worst depths of depravity of which mankind is capable, and yet emerged “unbroken” though not unscathed. While his sufferings took him to the brink of sanity, his encounter with the Gospel bought his redemption, and led to a long life, lived well. I understand the movie based on this book is excellent, though I’ve heard it downplays the religious elements of his story. I’ll be checking that out soon, I hope. And I hope you’ll check out this former #1 New York Times Bestseller here.

c10832“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

Book 27: A book for children or teens

Nate and I are continuing to work our way through the Chronicles of Narnia this summer. It’s such a joy to watch him learn to love these books that I’ve enjoyed so much over the years. Thus far, this has been his favorite book of the series, as it remains mine.

By the way, though the edition we’re reading together (we LOVE this complete collection illustrated by Pauline Baynes) has the stories in chronological order (with The Magician’s Nephew first), we’re reading them in the order of publication, which I still stubbornly insist is the proper way to read them.

“13 Hours” by Mitchell Zuckoff

Book 28: A book based on a true story

This “inside account of what really happened in Benghazi” is a fascinating and excellently written retelling of the events of September 11, 2012, at the U.S. diplomatic consulate and CIA Annex in northeastern Libya. While the CIA, the Obama administration, and the Hillary Clinton campaign have vehemently denied the veracity of this book, it definitely seems to have the ring of truth. Zuckoff cites many sources, nearly all of whom are decorated heroes who have gone on record stating their name and reputation on the testimony contained in this book, as well as in Congressional hearings. Their detractors don’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to telling the truth, either… Regardless, it was an enjoyable read. I watched the movie as well, after finishing the book. As usual, I greatly preferred the book (get it here), though I did appreciate the visual reference of the appearance and layout of the compounds.

“Watchmen” by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons

Book 29: A graphic novel

Chalk this up as a book I definitely would have never read had it not been for my goal of reading more broadly by using the categories provided by Tim Challies in this year’s reading challenge. Having never read (or even though about reading) a graphic novel, I didn’t even know where to begin. When I googled “best graphic novels of all time”, this one was near the top of every list I saw. I also learned it was the only graphic novel to have been included in TIME’s 100 best novels of all time. When the blurb/endorsement on the cover from a prominent reviewer read “if you’ve never read a graphic novel, start here” I figured that was me, so I did. And while I can see why this book is so well regarded—Moore’s character development is truly brilliant, and the story is very unique and well told—I can’t say that I really enjoyed it. Not to take anything away from the enjoyment of others… it’s just not my cup of tea. If this is the “best” the genre has to offer, I probably won’t be spending much more time in the Graphic Novels section at McKay’s.

“Life on the Mississippi” by Mark Twain

Book 30: A memoir or autobiography

I’ve always been a lover of Twain’s writing. Years ago I gobbled up all his novels I could get my hands on, and later learned to love his satirical writing as well. But I’d never before read this account of his early life spent as a steamboat pilot navigating up and down the Mississippi River, which became the source material for a lot of what he wrote in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While the writing is perhaps not as polished as his later work, it was still a thoroughly enjoyable read on a hot summer’s day.

“131 Christians Everyone Should Know” ed. by Mark Galli

Book 31: A book about church history

There is a lot to like about this book. The short (2-3 pages each) biographies of so many different people makes each entry a quick easy read… pretty much an ideal “bathroom book”. The timeline in the front of the book helps to place each historical figure in context. I learned a lot of interesting facts about some of the more obscure figures, and even a few new things about some men and women about whom I’ve read and studied much before. But that also leads to the book’s weaknesses. It sometimes makes me nervous to “learn” new things about people I’ve studied before, particularly when nothing in the book has citations which would allow me to verify and learn more about those things which most interested me. Still, despite some shortcomings, this book will be a good reference book and introduction to history, and will come in handy in the homeschooling of our children, particularly as the Classical Conversations method which we use is so heavily dependent on timelines. It’s no substitute for more scholarly and detailed works of Christian history, but is a great introductory book. Grab yours here.

Book Review: A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War

23647114“A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918” by Joseph Leconte

2017 Reading Challenge —Book 21: A biography of a Christian

As I’ve been reading The Chronicles of Narnia with my oldest son, I thought it was the right time to pick up a book that, to my shame, has been languishing on my to-read pile for far too long. The last several times I’ve read through either the Chronicles or The Lord of the Rings, I’ve tried to also read a book about the author to help provide familiar stories with new depth. Each time, I’ve gained greater insight and a greater love for these books.

This time was no different. Or rather, it was different, but in the sense that Leconte’s approach comes from a very different direction than other materials I’ve read about either author, providing a perspective that has made an even greater impact on my enjoyment than I’ve encountered in the past.

From previous biographical material, I already knew that both Lewis and Tolkien had served in the trenches of the Great War. But Leconte, a descendant of a World War I combatant himself, does a masterful job of showing the great impact that their wartime experiences—in which each saw brutal combat, lost close friends, and spent time in military hospitals recuperating from serious illness (which killed far more people than weapons during the War)—had on their writing as well as on their friendship, which has been described by many as arguably the most important friendship of the 20th century.

The literature produced following the war was largely cynical, which was perhaps understandable given the fact that, astoundingly, about 5% of the world’s population had died, thanks in large part to the 1918 outbreak of Spanish flu, which spread rapidly in the trenches and crossed oceans on troop ships. The Great War was seen not as a product of the philosophical and political climate—it was the age of progressive optimism in which eugenics and socialism were in; religion and social mores were out—which led to its inception and its mind-numbing disregard for the value of human life, but as one of the final nails in the coffin of Christianity, which claimed that a Good and Just God reigned over all Creation. After all, who could believe that there could be a loving Father in heaven after the carnage of those years?

Yet these two great friends and Oxford professors encouraged one another to counter this trend by writing stories of virtue and heroism, and of the ultimate triumph of good over evil, though it come at great—and often ultimate—cost. Because, remarkably, where nearly everyone else saw only violence and despair, these men saw exemples of integrity and courage, revealing a “deeper magic from before the dawn of time” that pointed to One far greater than the conflict in which they had found themselves.

Many of the characters in their stories are drawn from attributes they saw in the common British soldier during the Great War, and in some instances are based on specific men they had encountered (Sam Gamgee, for instance, was based on a particularly faithful batman Tolkien had met in the trenches). But the greatest influence that their battle experiences had on their writing was in the “big picture” themes present in their works: the corruption of world systems and powers; the failures of even the most noble characters, and the reliance of those characters on a Power outside themselves to overcome their own weaknesses; the idea that greatest real strength lies in the least likely, whether it be children, Hobbits, or hard-working, faithful, lower-class peasants fighting in the trenches in a truly senseless conflict.

Lewis once wrote that “any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance,” and I know he was right. Literature, and particularly the fantasy genre in which both he and Tolkien excelled, provides a great vehicle for understanding the deep things of God which cannot be grasped from mere academic study. After all, God is the greatest storyteller of all, and has revealed Himself to us in a Story!

But after reading A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War, I have found that there are even greater riches to be found in these authors’ fictional stories when those stories are placed within the context of the real story in which Lewis and Tolkien themselves took part, which is in turn a part of the great Story of God’s redemption of the world, which is being written even now, and in which each of us plays a part. For truly, “all the world’s a stage…”

I highly recommend this book, particularly for those who, like me, love to plumb the depths of Middle Earth and Narnia on a regular basis. You can get it here.

What Then Shall We Read?

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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.

Comedy and Tragedy in The Hunger Games

Building on what I wrote Sunday, I want to take a closer look at “endings” in general, and the ending of The Hunger Games specifically. I want to qualify my statement that “The Hunger Games is a tragedy disguised as a comedy“, and will then compare the endings of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy to the ending of another trilogy: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Some Historical Background

“Poets not only lie, but lie in an ugly fashion.” ~ Plato

One of the most valuable parts of the heritage of Western Civilization is “The Great Conversation”; the dialogue from generation to generation about the greatest ideas that have influenced the culture and narrative of the Western world for thousands of years. When we debate the value of cultural artifacts today, we benefit from the fact that these discussions have been going on for a long time. There really is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

So when we talk about the “worth” of a fictional story, we are engaging in a conversation held among such great philosophers as Plato and Aristotle. Plato, for instance, in his Republic, contends that poetry is incapable of conveying truth, because it relies on imitation (mimesis) of reality rather than something tangible. He thought that poets, artists, and actors were dangerous (and thus banned from his ideal Republic), because they were able to persuade audiences through rhetoric and appeals to emotion rather than by presenting something “real”. We can assume he’d think the same about novels, though that particular form of artistic expression originated a thousand years after Plato died.

Plato’s most famous student, however, could hardly disagree more strongly! In Poetics, Aristotle agrees that art is imitation, but argues that this is a benefit, rather than a danger, to society. And whereas Plato thought that tragedies were especially bad — because audiences become empathetic toward characters and thus might want to imitate the poor decisions made by the tragic hero — Aristotle argued that good tragedies were among the best ways to instruct an audience and provide moral insight. In order for a tragedy to be “good”, though, it had to meet certain criteria.

In a “good” tragedy, we are supposed to empathize with the hero. The protagonist should be a likable character who is basically good. That way, when he/she falls, it produces a sense of pity and fear that helps to purify the audience (catharsis). We see the consequences of the hero’s flaw or poor decision (hamartia, which is also the word for “sin” in Biblical Greek) and learn to avoid it.

In case you hadn’t figured it out yet, I side with Aristotle in this particular debate!

Comedy & Tragedy: The Basics

“For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” ~ Escalus, Prince of Verona

Today, the word “comedy” has come to be associated with things that are funny, but that wasn’t the original meaning. At its most basic, a comedy is a story where a likable character ends up better than he started. It has a predictable set of plot conventions and expectations, including, of course, a happy ending. A tragedy is the opposite: the central character (who we also like and empathize with) has a fall from grace due to a character flaw or a poor decision.

Typically, a comedy involves a common, ordinary central character with whom we can relate, who faces and overcomes a set of challenges and winds up improved in some way. Take, for instance, the Pevensie children from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. They are ordinary kids, who are bored after being displaced from the city to the country during WWII. (Who can’t relate to being bored at the home of a distant relative?) After exploring the house, they find the wardrobe portal to another world, become Kings & Queens, and defeat the White Queen, restoring peace to Narnia. Upon their return to the “real” world, they are once again “ordinary”, but they have been changed for the better by their experiences in Narnia. It’s a great example of comedy.

A tragedy, on the other hand, typically involves a central character occupying a lofty position – the better from which to fall! See some of Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes: Hamlet (Prince of Denmark), MacBeth (King of Scotland), and Romeo & Juliet (children of prominent upper class families). Audiences quickly and easily empathize with these characters, so we feel their demise more acutely. The closing lines of each of those plays reminds audiences of the circumstances that led to the fall, thus satisfying Aristotle’s criteria for a “good” tragedy.

Is Hunger Games Comedy or Tragedy?

“It is better to suffer wrong than to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust.” ~ Samuel Johnson

So is The Hunger Games a comedy or a tragedy… or something else? Let’s take a look.

In the beginning, the story is certainly set up like a comedy. Katniss is an ordinary girl from the backward coal mining district. Readers begin to empathize with her and identify with her struggles from the very first pages. When her little sister is selected to participate in the games and Katniss volunteers to serve as tribute in her place, all the pieces are in place for a comic story.

As the trilogy progresses, Collins makes use of the same type of plot conventions and expectations that we are used to encountering in comedies. We are privy to Katniss’ inner struggle and ethical dilemmas, and find ourselves hoping for – and emotionally invested in – her success. By the end of the series, Katniss has overcome the odds, risen to a position of influence, and helped to overthrow a corrupt government. Again, in many ways, this feels like a comedy.

But on closer inspection, has Katniss really risen above the hopelessness of the world in which she grew up?

As I read the books, I was struck almost from the outset by Katniss’ inability to trust or love others (with the exception of her sister). For the sake of argument, let’s call this her hamartia; her tragic flaw. We see this in the forest outside District 12 in the opening of the first book as she considers her relationship with Gale (one primarily of pragmatic convenience, though she does consider him a friend), and refers to Prim as “the only person I’m certain I love” (Hunger Gamesp. 10). This inability to trust becomes the driving plot element throughout the entire trilogy.

When she first enters the Game, we see that this flaw leads her to trust no one, and to be willing to kill anyone. Despite her “conflicting emotions” (HG, p. 157) about Peeta — which are still primarily about what is best for her — her defense mechanism of distrust quickly appears as we read her thoughts toward her would-be ally: “I will eagerly watch the night skies for signs of his death, if I don’t kill him first myself” (HG, p. 162). While it could be argued that to some level she does overcome this and trust (and even love) Peeta, I think the end of the trilogy leaves questions about whether she is ever able to love and trust him fully. Meanwhile, she’s also lost trust in her best friend Gale.

We see the manifestation of this tragic flaw most acutely in two instances near the climax of the third book. In the first, Katniss breaks into the home of a civilian in the Capitol, and encounters its unarmed resident. “Without hesitation, I shoot her through the heart,” our heroin says (Mockingjay, p. 314). Later, after the Capitol is successfully overthrown, Katniss casts the deciding vote that will subject the children of the former oppressors to compete in their own Hunger Games (MJ, p. 370); the districts get their revenge. Katniss, despite her many real virtues, has been turned into a ruthless and effective killing machine by her tragic flaw.

She’s a survivor: no doubt about that. In a world totally devoid of religion (such as Panem), survival is the only thing that really matters. That’s naturalism in a nutshell. But when we impose the ethical standards of the Author of Creation, we see that Katniss has failed morally. Despite this, her survival is trumpeted as a virtue in itself, which was the point I was trying to get at in my original review.

A Lesson in Contrast

“Evil labours with vast power and perpetual success — in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

Let’s end by comparing the ending of The Hunger Games with the ending of a truly great comedic trilogy: The Lord of the Rings.

Frodo, like Katniss, rises from a humble beginning to become the figurehead of a war against an evil oppressor. He also has many moral failings along his journey, and nearly succumbs to the power of the Ring in the heart of Mount Doom. In fact, were it not for Gollum (alive only because earlier in his journey Frodo had shown mercy), Frodo may well have fallen just as Isildur fell.

As a few readers have pointed out in comments on my earlier posts, there are many similarities in the endings. Frodo, like Katniss, returns to his home after completing his mission, only to find it ravaged by evil despite his efforts. His journey has left him damaged, and he is unable to truly enjoy life in the Shire anymore.

So what makes one story a comedy while the other is a tragedy? The answer lies in the sense of hope (or lack thereof) found in the final pages.

The root of Frodo’s discontent is the realization that the Shire is not his real home. Though he is able to rejoice with his friends and neighbors in their happiness, he can no longer be at peace in what C.S. Lewis might have called the “Shadowlands” of Middle Earth. In the end, he is able to set sail from the Grey Havens to enter the eternal rest of Valinor; a picture of the eternal rest that awaits faithful Christians at the end of a life marred by sin in a world that is not our true home.

Katniss, on the other hand, is eventually able to get on with life, and return to a sense of normalcy. In fact, she even seems to be able to love at last. But the fact that “the promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses; that it can be good again” (MJ, p. 388) is symbolized by a dandelion does not leave one with the sense that this is a hope that springs eternal.

We also see a marked difference in the way the future is portrayed by other characters. When Sam sees Gandalf for the first time after he and Frodo have destroyed the ring, watch his reaction:

At last he gasped: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

“A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land…

[And Sam] laughed aloud with sheer delight, and he stood up and cried, “O great glory and splendor! And all my wishes have come true!”

Contrast this vision of joy (in the midst of hardship) and hope for the future with the words of Plutarch, the former Gamemaster now promoted to Secretary of Communitations, as he looks to the future of Panem under the new regime (MJ, p. 379):

“Now we’re in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated,” he says. “But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction. Although who knows? Maybe this will be it, Katniss.”

“What?” I ask.

“The time it sticks. Maybe we are witnessing the evolution of the human race. Think about that.” And then he asks me if I’d like to perform on a new singing program he’s launching in a few weeks.

Whereas Tolkien gives us a picture of a world still suffering the effects of sin, but with the promise of restoration, Collins shows us a world in which sin continues unchecked. The free peoples of Middle Earth continue in their fight against evil with the possibility of real victory and a foretaste of the ultimate triumph of good. The only hope for humanity in Panem is that perhaps it will evolve into something different and better.

Closing Remarks

To come back to where we started today, let us consider one more reason why Aristotle was right to teach that we can learn much from both comedy and tragedy. The standard by which we “discern… what is good, acceptable, and perfect” (Romans 12:2) is the glory of God. Only that which glorifies God is truly good.

In the real world, God always gets his glory. It is manifested in the lives of all who are created in his image, though in different ways. In the case of redeemed sinners, God gets glory in the mercy and grace of salvation. In the case of those who reject the Gospel, God gets glory in the righteous judgment of sin.

In a good story, there is always a clear contrast between good and evil. In a comedy, good triumphs. In a tragedy, sin has consequences. Both are pictures of ways that God is glorified.

Any time evil wins, it’s a bad story. And while other readers of The Hunger Games may walk away with more optimism than I have about the love and hope at the end of the story (the necessary final ingredients of a comedy), the fact remains that many of the “virtues” lauded throughout the book are not really virtues at all. Sin is not dealt with, and the lesson is not learned.

And that is tragic.

Literature Links

The last few days have included several great reminders of why I love literature so much! In addition to completing a “modern classic” last week (Watership Down by Richard Adams; see my review), I’ve come across several other articles and books about the importance of good literature. Here are a few:

Harry Potter, Jesus, and Me — Besides being a fantastic singer/songwriter and author, Andrew Peterson is a fellow book-lover. I heartily affirm everything he writes in this article (right down to the unapologetic love for the Harry Potter series), but especially would call your attention to the second half, where he speaks of the power of storytelling to point to Christ by reminding us of the existence of Real beauty, truth, and goodness. “Because I believe that all truth is God’s truth, that the resurrection is at the heart of the Christian story, and the main character of the Christian story is Christ, because I believe in God the Father, almighty maker of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ his only begotten son—and because I believe that he inhabits my heart and has adopted me as his son, into his family, his kingdom, his church—I have the freedom to rejoice in the Harry Potter story, because even there, Christ is King. Wherever we see beauty, light, truth, goodness, we see Christ.”

Wrecking Books to Bring Them to Life — This article offers great suggestions for teachers and parents for encouraging students to read more, read better, and read critically. The Mortimer Adler book quoted in the article (How to Read a Book) is also a worthwhile investment! “Marking up a book is not an act of mutilation, but of love.”

Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books — This is a book due out at the end of September. It looks like it will be fantastic, and I can’t wait to get a copy! You can read a little more about the book, along with some endorsements, here.

Live Like a Narnian — This is an ongoing series that I’ve really enjoyed, exploring the world of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and their relevance to our lives (for a longer look at the same topic, check out Douglas Wilson’s book What I Learned in Narnia). Here are the four posts that have been published so far:

  1. Learning to Breathe Narnian Air
  2. Are Fairy Tales Just for Children?
  3. Three Objections to Fairy Tales and C.S. Lewis’ Response
  4. Narnia Helps Us Live Better Here

Book Review: On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

“On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness: The Wingfeather Saga, Book One” by Andrew Peterson

Andrew Peterson has long been one of my very favorite singer/songwriters. His lyrics possess both depth and whimsy, a combination that is rare among Christian artists. He has also shown a proclivity for conveying rich spiritual truths in his music using familiar language from popular fantasy novels by Christian artists such as the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings (particularly in his album “The Far Country”). So when I found out he was writing a series of fantasy novels himself, my interest was piqued.

What I encountered in this first entry to the “Wingfeather Saga” was a fun-filled yarn that was a pure pleasure to read. Peterson is a first-rate storyteller, and this is sure to be a book that will be enjoyed by many a young reader (and a few old ones, too).

Though it got off to a bit of a slow start (then again, so did The Fellowship of the Ring…), I quickly found myself completely wrapped up in the story and, more importantly, in the characters. The action focuses on the adventures of the Igiby children: Janner, Tink, and Leeli. Through his engaging writing style, Peterson quickly allows the reader to become invested in these children. Their personalities are very well-developed, as are those of the secondary characters; no two-dimensional caricatures here!

While the story itself is engaging (I won’t spoil it for you by revealing too much of the plot, but the teaser on the cover will perhaps whet your appetite: “Adventure. Peril. Lost Jewels. And the Fearsome Toothy Cows of Skree.”), the real strength of this book is the way it incorporates a lot of teachable moments that touch on some serious real-life issues. This book was written for children, but especially to be read to children by adults (The language of the book lends itself particularly well to out-loud reading).

In addition to the more serious themes such as trust, forgiveness, and the providence of God (or “The Maker”, in the book), there were a few things I especially enjoyed in Peterson’s writing. One of these is the way he makes books themselves so fun. Peterson, like me, is an avid bookworm, and this love of books is instilled in nearly every chapter of this novel. “Books and Crannies”, the bookstore frequented by the Igiby boys, is a place filled with deep mystery and a sense of adventure. Salvaging (and reading) old books is portrayed as one of the noblest deeds a hero can do. I was also fond of the “boyness” of the boys in the story. This novel doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is not afraid to be irreverent (though never crass), the way little boys often are. Face it: Sometimes boogers are hilarious!

The only thing that keeps this from being a 5-star story is the sometimes awkward use of language, especially in the names of characters and places. One of the things that made LOTR so great is the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien was such a great linguist. He didn’t just invent and name characters; he invented entire languages! When he named characters and places, there was a sense of history in the consistency of fantastic names. This is one of the great weaknesses in many books in the fantasy genre, as such linguistic genius is exceptionally rare.

However, Peterson does an admirable job of lending depth to his fantasy world in many other unique ways, most prominently in his use of footnotes. Throughout the novel, he has incorporated notes that provide historical commentary on many of the locations, creatures, and people mentioned. While these notes usually have little to no relevance to the main plot line, the many citations of “scholarly” works set in this fictional world are an interesting way to create a sense of antiquity for “Aerwiar”, much in the way of the languages of Middle Earth or the ruins of Narnia. These footnotes are also dripping with the tongue-in-cheek sarcasm characteristic of the way Peterson tells stories in his live concerts.

I am looking forward very much to the sequel, “North! Or Be Eaten!”, which I’ll probably read this week. Even more, I am looking forward to the day I can read this book to my own son in a few years! Buy it here.

Why There Is No Jewish Narnia

I came across a pretty interesting article this morning, investigating why no Jewish authors have taken advantage of the allegorical fantasy fiction genre the way that several Christian authors have done. It’s a long read, but anyone who has an interest in fantasy novels will find it pretty interesting. In case you haven’t got time to read the whole thing, here’s a highlight:

“When he wrote the Narnia books, Lewis drew deeply from his Christian beliefs. In this, he and the many Christian fantasy writers have an advantage over not only the few, largely assimilated Jewish fantasy writers, but even over a deeply knowledgeable and religiously committed Jewish writer who might seek to create a work of fantasy dramatizing Judaism in the way that the various Narnia books dramatize Christianity. The Jewish difficulty with fantasy is not only historical and sociological. It is theological as well, and this has to do with the degree to which Judaism has banished the magical and mythological elements necessary for fantasy.

To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly. Judaism’s divine drama is connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history. Its core is not, I think, convincingly represented in fantasy allegory. In its rabbinic elaboration, even the messianic idea is shorn of its mythic and apocalyptic potential. Whereas fantasy grows naturally out of Christian soil, Judaism’s more adamant separation from myth and magic render classic elements of the fantasy genre undeveloped or suspect in the Jewish imaginative tradition.”

Read the rest of the article here.

It is pretty interesting to think on this. Jews have essentially rejected Christ because they see the Christian understanding of Christ’s fulfillment of God’s promises to be fantasy. The miracles He performed — culminating in His resurrection from the dead — are truly fantastic! May our imaginations ever be stirred when we consider God’s wondrous works (Psalm 106:7)! May we declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among the nations (Psalm 96:3)!

(HT: Trevin Wax)