Tuesday, April 29, 2014
One of my beloved bookshops to visit is a log-cabin style place in the northern part of my state. Most of it is full of New Age stuff, but once you go past that, up a crooked step into the dim-lit back room, you'll find a host of treasures; including a set of Waverley novels that I've drooled over for the last three years. A lot of things are over-priced, some are real gems, worth fetching a higher price tag. Autographed Sam Campbell books. First editions of Chaim Potok's The Chosen and Augusta Evan's St. Elmo (both of which were sadly beyond my budget) and numerous Laura Lee Hope children's books.
The first year I found Scott's Lady of the Lake there. Alas, last year the Dickens book I so longed for was gone, and I am not its happy possessor. But one year I found Cranford, and I spent my hoarded vacation money most happily for this classic amongst Elizabeth Gaskell's works.
It's in awful shape, and in my book-loving heart I probably paid too much for it. But happiness has no price, and this weekend I finally pulled it out to enjoy it again. I loved every moment with the Cranford ladies, and today I would like to share a review of this book with all of you.
In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women....For keeping the trim gardens full of choice flowers without a weed to speck them; for frightening away little boys who look wistfully at the said flowers through the railings; for rushing out at the geese that occasionally venture into the gardens if the gates are left open; for deciding all questions of literature and politics without troubling themselves with unnecessary reasons or arguments; for obtaining clear and correct knowledge of everybody's affairs in the parish; for keeping their neat maid-servants in admirable order; for kindness (somewhat dictatorial) to the poor, and real tender good offices to each other whenever they are in distress, the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient. ~Cranford, Chapter One
And self-sufficient the Cranford ladies really are; incoming railways to bank failures, hilarious robbery scares to the knotty question of how to address Lady Glenmire when she comes to town, in every dire need these ladies are the pattern of gentility and small-town sisterhood. From the strict Miss Jenkyns to her soft-hearted sister Miss Matty, from the practical Miss Pole to the lethargic Mrs. Jamieson, these ladies and their way of dealing with what life throws at them are sure to delight and entertain.
If you're looking for what to read next, I suggest curling up with Cranford. It's a Gaskell classic that you won't want to miss.
What can I say? Full of charm, rambling in and out, and encompassing the large and small of Cranford's life, this book is charming and poignant and relaxing all at the same time. It won't take you to giddying heights of epicness--it's like a soothing cup of tea and a cozy fleece blanket that you can curl up with. And books like that are good to have in anyone's library. If you have an e-reader, you can pick it up for free on Amazon.
Mary Smith (who, I might add, you don't know the name of until almost the end of the book), makes a most charming first-person narrator. She's younger than most of the Cranford ladies, and doesn't speak much of herself, but the respect and love for her elders that breathe through every line make her, too, a good companion--she reminds me a good deal of Esther from Bleak House, in her self-deprecation which serves to heighten, rather than hide, her true worth.
Language is minimal, and almost nonexistent--only a couple of instances at best. This is a clean story, and I can't think of any themes to be aware of before reading. The most graphic elements are old ladies telling stories about how to get lace out of pussy's insides, and flannel drawers for hairless cows. :)
A lot of Gaskell's works were written as serials for magazines, and though I don't know for sure on this one, I rather suspect it was as well. Having experience with once-a-week chapter deadlines myself, I can recognize information cramming when I see it, and a couple of her plots are rather hurriedly concluded at the end. But in Gaskell's instance, she can blessedly get away with it. Cranford, its culture, and its people are above and beyond the normal rules of literature, and can meander along its way or rush forward red-faced and out of breath while still maintaining its dignity. :)
I must say, I think our culture could use some Miss Poles and Misses Jenkyns and Mrs. Fitz Adams today. They may have their faults, and little scrimping habits, and tendency for gossip--but they're the most civil, loyal friends you could ask for, and they have the happy knack of being able to instruct young people in the rules of polite society while still being charming about it.
The dear ladies of Cranford have enchanted thousands of viewers on BBC's movie adaptation. As a note, BBC chose to combine several of Gaskell's books in the film, so it's not strictly confined to Cranford's tale; you may find elements in the film that are missing in the book, and if so that would be why.Though I've never seen the movie myself, I hear that it is excellently done, and look forward to watching it sometime. But today, if you've never actually read the book Cranford, I do entreat you to check it out. The original story behind the movie is such a treat, and a fast, delightful, easy read. The small town charm and delicate characterizations make for a pleasurable weekend's reading--even if poor Miss Matty does think Richard III murdered the two little princes in the tower.
Friday, April 25, 2014
A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading one of their publications, Demolishing Contradictions. It was a huge encouragement and affirmation of my understanding of the Bible, and today I would like to share it with all of you. :)
What if the Bible isn't trustworthy? Then our faith is futile, and we are still in our sins. And one of the biggest ways critics try to persuade believers that our faith is futile is by searching for contradictions in the Book we base our faith on.
Answers in Genesis called together their team of scholars to discuss some of the most common Bible contradictions in this book, Demolishing Contradictions. They divide the alleged contradictions into five sections ranging from Genesis to the Kings era, the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Letters, and explain confusions that many people have. Issues include why a loving God would order the complete slaughter of Jericho, the differences in the Luke and Matthew chronologies, whether or not Abel ate meat, how God can say he doesn't change his mind when Moses persuaded him not to kill the Israelites; and how God could say all our sins are forgiven, and then state that there is an unforgivable sin. (This last one took me years to understand correctly.)
These contradictions and many more, along with their answers, are put together in a powerful resource that grants clarity, helps Christians understand that the Bible is infallible, and equips creationists to answer critics when the authority of the Word of God is under attack.
The book is worth it simply for Jason Lisle's introduction. I'm glad to have it just for those few pages. Contradictions, Lisle says, are 'a serious allegation against the Christian worldview, and we must be prepared to defend the Bible against such claims.' Before the authors start going through specific contradictions, Lisle explains several logical fallacies that many critics use to create false contradictions, and how to tell the difference between a logical question, and an illogical claim. Going through issues such as proper context, creating false dilemmas, sweeping generalizations, and several other problems, Lisle explains the tactics that some critics use to attack the Christian worldview, and how we can recognize and refute them.
Only after that foundation is laid do the authors proceed to answer specific contradictions.
I've read several different resources that attempt to explain 'alleged' Bible contradictions, and the fault with many of them is that they are simply too long and detailed. When an explanation leaves you more confused than ever, it only serves to reinforce your doubt, and answers on Bible contradictions need to be simple and extra-clear. Fortunately, Answers in Genesis avoided the pitfall of confusion; their answers are short, to the point, and easy to grasp. There were a couple of answers that I still did not understand completely, but interestingly enough, they both had the same author involved, so it could have been more due to the author's way of wording things than the answer itself.
The contradictions they chose to include in this book were relevant, and the answers were honest. If it might be a scribe's error, they said so. If they didn't know for sure, they said that also--but every question had at least a plausible answer or two that would take the contradiction away.
This book answered many of my questions, and I hope to read the second volume soon to answer even more.
My brother and I took many of the principles we learned from AiG's ministry and applied them to other areas of interest we had. I use a lot of apologetics principles in writing articles for this blog, and again and again I find myself referring back to things I learned from their books and dvds. My brother developed and taught his own extensive apologetics series called 3:15 Defenders, based in part off of books purchased at the Creation Museum, though most of it was his own work. We've been greatly blessed by AiG resources, and if you've never checked them out, you can find a host of articles, videos, and books at www.answersingenesis.org
Thanks be to God, His Word has stood the test of time, archaeological discoveries, debate, and countless attacks, just as infallible and relevant today as it was when the canon of Scripture was first put together.
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
So when I heard of Milne's book The Red House Mystery, I put it on hold right away, and gave it a try.
How would the author of Pooh handle a murder mystery?
Antony Gillingham is on a bit of a holiday, and on a whim decides to stop to see an old friend, Bill Beverley. Beverley is staying at a place called the Red House, the home of Mark Ablett, whose coveted invitations bring many visitors to enjoy the sports and jolly good times to be found under his hospitality.
But when Antony Gillingham walks up the drive to this popular place, he hears a loud banging, and someone crying "Open the door! Open the door!" And he steps straight into a locked room murder scene.
Mark Ablett, Beverley's host, has disappeared, and a man is lying dead on his study room floor. The man is Mark's disgraced brother from Australia who had come to see him that morning. Caley, Ablett's secretary, said that Mark went in and then a shot was fired, and he never came back out again.
Since Gillingham helped discover the body, he takes rather a proprietary interest in the solution, and when the inspector takes the obvious line of reasoning that Mark Ablett killed his brother, and ran away to flee the consequences of the law, Gillingham isn't so sure. He signs up his friend Beverley to be his trusty Watson, and sets off on an exploration of secret passageways, lakelets, croquet boxes, and libraries in his attempt to pin guilt on the man who he suspects is the real culprit.
As the investigation unwinds, Gillingham fears that there may not have been just one murder, but a second one that no one has any idea about.
What I find fascinating about this mystery is that Milne didn't write it just to get published. His father loved a good old-fashioned whodunnit, and Milne developed this story just to give delight to him. His beginning dedication reads:
My dear Father,
Like all really nice people, you have a weakness for detective stories, and feel that there are not enough of them. So, after all that you have done for me, the least that I can do for you is to write you one. Here it is: with more gratitude and affection than I can well put down here. A.A.M.
That was a very sweet way to start off a murder mystery. :)
I've read a great many mysteries, and Milne did a fantastic job plotting-wise. I could figure it out along with the characters, but there were still a few surprises that Milne pulled which fit in perfectly and rationally--the delightful, head-smacking twists that every mystery worth its salt incorporates into the solution. Gillingham's step-by-step explanations to Beverley were interesting, funny, and logical (In spite of his jabs at Sherlock Holmes. Come on, people, why criticize the greatest detective ever?)
Milne doesn't mess around when he writes a murder mystery. It has all his charm and freshness in the form of his amateur sleuths, but there's a streak of macabre grimness winding throughout it that gives the investigation all the frightening suspense of a proper mystery novel.
In spite of its being Milne, there were a couple of things that I didn't find particularly enjoyable. Beverley was always using profanity in the good-natured, joking sort of way, and he and Gillingham had some rather peppered conversation between them, which spoiled the story just a little for me. There are books that only have a few instances, but this book has more than a few, and there's no escaping it. So be forewarned.
The other thing I found a little unsettling was Milne's creep factor. There are books with more than his, certainly, but there were a few late-night scenes that I read a little too close to bedtime. By the end of the book the murderer was too easily sympathized with. For writing a cliché amateur detective plot, and even a cliché reason for the whole murder, Milne managed to put in--whether purposefully or accidentally--a murderer who was the underdog in the whole thing. That's a bit dangerous, because we always tend to sympathize with the underdogs, and murderers as a general rule should not be sympathized with. Deal breaker? Oh, no, it wasn't that bad. But just something to keep in mind as you read.
In this story you won't find situational ethics, so that's wonderful. It's a good, clean story, barring language, and the cast of characters is well put together. From the good-natured Beverley to the pert housemaid Ella to the perspicacious Antony Gillingham, they're all well done. The characters were real and funny; just as well personalized as Tigger and Rabbit and Eeyore in Milne's other stories.
Altogether, unless I could procure my own copy and white-out some of Beverley's penchant for spicing up the moment with a profanity, I probably won't read this book again. I find it much pleasanter to read when I don't have that kind of stuff to wade through. But the mystery was well-written, and gives good credit to Milne's prowess as a writer. It was an intriguing little jaunt into one of his adult books, and had a mix of funny parts that sounded just like what I knew of him, and elements that I would not have expected from the author of well known children's literature.
He can knock up a pretty decent mystery. But Winnie the Pooh is where he really shines.
Friday, April 18, 2014
But lately it's sure hard to admit that anyone but Jesus can finish the race victoriously. There are so many stories of compromise that are reaching the headlines, it's easy to focus on the people who stumbled in their race instead of so many stories of faithfulness that nobody ever hears about.
That being said, even though Christ won the victory, he's still given us a battle to fight. Because Satan hasn't acknowledged Jesus as victor yet, and he is attacking Christ's glory by seeking to crumble his Church.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
2. Hard Shouldn't Stop Us from Evangelism
So if no one likes the way most conversion plots are written, we're all clear to leave them out, right?
Writing the gospel is almost as humbling for the writer as for the character going through it. It requires constant prayer, and all the time there is the anguish of what if I write it wrong and so damage the cause of the Gospel without wanting to? Words have great power to damage or help, and that's a huge weight for authors to carry. But just because we know we can't write conversion plots perfectly doesn't mean we don't write them at all.
So for readers--let the author keep it simple. If you find books with gospel stories that keep it real and keep it clear, recommend those books, let the authors know you appreciated them, and encourage them to keep on writing the good news of Jesus Christ.
Friday, April 11, 2014
What makes a book endure? Why are the stories we love so lasting, so universally beloved and delighted in?
I've been kicking around this title idea for a long time, but I had no answer for my question. Was it seeing the Christ figures again and again in each story? Was it the love of a man for a woman, such a universal milestone on life? Or perhaps it was friendship, two people in a close bond that stick together through all difficulties. But I knew that all those elements, though they are certainly recurring in the greatest literature, didn't strike at the heart of the matter. They were just off-shoots--branches on the tree, when I wanted to get at the root.
Any Christian who loves history can't go long without seeing God's hand in it. He controls everything from the rise and fall of empires to the election of city officials. It's like a giant puzzle made of up kingdoms and time where there are no missing pieces, and everything that is done has purpose and usefulness. Nothing is outside of his control.
In the best of tales, you see the intrinsic concept that everyone's life and actions fit together to make sense. Take Dickens, for example--he'll throw around 30 characters at you with plots for each character, and in the end it all fits. I get so excited in the confusion of keeping track of everything, because I know that at the great revelation, I'll see the whole picture, and it will be beautifully complete.
That's what makes a story last--whether it's a ring travelling through a wonderful land on its way to final destruction or a mystery in which you have a myriad of clues that somehow all fit together to reveal the culprit. Every detail matters, the stories are rich with meaning, and in that fictional tale, the author imitates his or her Creator and the Providence that we see ruling the whole world.
2. The Journey of the Soul
One time I asked myself, "If you could boil down your writing into one reason why you write, what would it be?"
And I thought--it is because through it I explore God's working in the human soul. God breathed life into it; God redeemed it. And that is why fiction is so important to me: a thousand mirrors of ourselves, our real life, all placed into a masterful plot arc that shows us the big picture of how God entwines our souls with the lives of the dozens of people we meet for our good and His glory. I love studying characters. Emotions. Events. What makes them smile, what makes them cry. Throwing hard choices at them, and seeing what in the end they'll choose to stand by the longest and treasure the most. Watching characters meet people, and seeing who helps them and who hurts them, and why.
We like stories with struggles and triumphs that we can connect to. And perhaps that's why the most enduring tales come out of this second point. It is when we read books that trace human journeys that something in our soul reaches out in kindred fellowship with the soul of the character, and we embrace it. That is why stories are immortal. Because souls are immortal, and God's working in human lives is eternal, and each book--each enduring classic--takes the two themes of Eternal God and Finite Human and weaves them together into fellowship between Him and us.
Sometimes a soul journey can be as simple as a girl trying to accept her red hair. Sometimes it's something much more complex. But either way--it's something that we recognize.
While non-Christians don't always include both concepts, the Christian author needs both these points to make an enduring book. You can have the journey of the soul without reference to God's hand, but in the end that just leaves you with man's efforts to achieve life satisfaction. You can see the hand of God without the soul journey, but then you'll struggle to make the personal connection. But when you have both--just as God, the greatest author, has both themes in His Word--then you have the stuff that stands the test of time. Because it links us with Him, and that's what all good stories are supposed to do.
The stories that endure are when the author takes the eternal and the human, God and man, and mixes them together to enchant readers for endless generations.
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Conquered literally. That book is hard.
Every time we went to our local library, they had all of four Tolkien books on the shelf--the three LOTRs, and a beautiful, hard-backed The Children of Hurin with Alan Lee illustrations. I would pull out the latter book, and hold it, and imagine the perfect time when I could finally check it out and bring it home with me. Last Friday, I realized that the perfect moment would never come, so I picked it up for an enjoyable Sunday read.
Maybe enjoyable was a bit of a stretch, but I was spot-on-right that there is no perfect time to read The Children of Hurin. It's just one of those legends that you'll never really be ready for.
In a time of Middle Earth long before Hobbits, there lived the three people groups of Eru Iluvatar (God)--Elves, Men, and Dwarves. And of one of the houses of Men came Hurin.
Hurin was a great warrior, and married a proud woman, Morwen, who bore him three children. Turin, their only son, a daughter Lalaith who died as a young girl, and a daughter Nienor. Hurin never saw his third child, for when the forces of Elves and Men gathered for one great strike against the evil Morgoth (Satan-figure), Hurin set out with them and fought in the legendary battle Nirnaeth Arnoediad. Heaps of Elves and Men were stuck down, until Hurin and his men held the retreat of the last troop of elves. Hurin's guard was killed around him, but Hurin himself was captured and taken alive to Morgoth's stronghold. There, because he scorned Morgoth and mocked him to his face, Morgoth set Hurin upon a great chair overlooking the land of his people, and bade him sit there to watch its destruction. Morgoth also threatened Hurin that because of his scorn, his whole house and descendants would be brought low. And Morgoth cursed Hurin and all of his descendants.
When Hurin does not return, Morwen sends her only son far away from his homeland to the forest kingdom of Thingol, king of the Elves. There Thingol adopts Turin as his foster-son, and Turin grows up stern and proud, and brooding over the time when he will be able to avenge his father's supposed death. Brilliant with the sword, with a powerful ability to lead men, Turin helps the Elves hold Orcs out of the forest of Thingol until a tragic duel forces him away from Thingol's kingdom and brands him as an outlaw.
Or rather, Turin does not trust himself to Thingol's grace and brands himself as an outlaw, which is even worse.
In the wilds he takes up with a group of rough men; they raid and kill tomake a living for themselves. Turin can't stay with any one group for long, though; Morgoth pursues him relentlessly, and wherever he goes, darkness and death seem to follow. Morgoth's servant, the dragon Glaurung, seeks him and his sister Nienor throughout Middle Earth to kill them, and as the years pass, Turin goes into hiding, so that neither Morgoth nor Glaurung can find him.
Just as Turin thinks that he has overcome his fate, when he is married and his first child is on its way, he betrays himself in an act of pride and ill-judgement, and Glaurung knows exactly where to find him.
Turin does not quail at the news that the dragon approaches. For he has determined that he will face his final doom and conquer it, or die in the attempt.
|Turin Turambar |
artwork copyright by Jenny Dolfen
My Thoughts (contains general spoilers)
I couldn't even cry when I finished. Just sort of shivered with the sadness of it and went to bed and told Junior B that I had just finished reading something heartbreaking.
Junior B sighed in a poor-Sister-will-never-learn kind of way, and then made sure I was okay. She's nice like that. :)
The Children of Hurin is not a book I would recommend to everyone. I'll laud Lord of the Rings to the skies, and passionately recommend the Silmarillion to everyone I meet--but with The Children of Hurin, I will probably put some pretty careful thought into the type of person I recommended it to before I bring it out. If you're struggling with some depression, or are going on a happy and relaxing vacation, this may not be the book for you. You can be a Tolkien fan and not read the Children of Hurin. Don't be in a hurry to pick it up; it's tragic, and dark, and just as you read "This is the end of the story of the children of Hurin" you turn the page to find one last tragic post-script like a sock in the gut.
For those of you who have never read Tolkien, it's best to start with the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Then read the Silmarillion. The Children of Hurin doesn't stop to explain regions, rulers, or history, and the Sil's background is essential for understanding the tale. Christopher Tolkien includes a map in the back of the 2007 edition that is somewhat helpful to find out where all the characters are going, but there were a few places that the map didn't mark, which made a few portions especially difficult.
Another reason to wait is that, while Tolkien is appropriate with the amount of detail he gives, The Children of Hurin contains adult thematic elements and should not be given to a young Tolkien reader.
When I finished this book, it begged the question, is there a place in literature for a story that has not one shred of happiness to it? Is the darkness really useful? In considering the question, it's easy to say "Oh, it's Tolkien! Of course it's good!" But Tolkien is prone to human error just like the rest of us, and if I ever got to the point where I took him with the same confidence I took Holy Writ, I would be seriously concerned.
I thought quite a bit on the usefulness of it. When I finished this book last night I thought it really wasn't up to par with Tolkien's other works, along with being pretty dark. I still think it's dark. But in writing this article, I no longer see it as sub-par. Oh, no, its themes run to the deepest conflict between man and God, and between God and Satan.
Word has it that Tolkien adapted this tale from a Finnish folktale, giving his own twist to the story. While I know nothing about the original folktale, this story has a strong sense of both predestination and man's freewill. Turin faces his 'fate', his 'doom', again and again. But in the end, it's not the ambiguous 'doom' that ultimately destructs things he holds dear. It's his own rashness, his own pride, and his own choice.
I used the term predestination loosely. This is not meant to be the Reformed terminology of God predestining someone's eternal fate. In Tolkien's work, Morgoth (probably a correlation for Satan, if Tolkein's work was an allegory) curses Hurin's family and children to doom. That's the predestination/doom we're talking about here.
So let's take it a step further (though this section might make better sense to people who are Tolkien-literate). If Morgoth cursed, or doomed, Hurin's house to destruction, where was Eru, the God-figure, in all this sadness?
At first in writing this article, I was at a loss where to find him. But then, it came to me. Eru may seem nonexistent in the pages of The Children of Hurin, but he's there. And though the tale itself is tragic, the glimpses of Eru's offered grace are beautiful to search out. Time and again Turin is offered the choice of blessing, even of happiness, through friends like Thingol, Mablung, Beleg, Gwindor, and Brandir. They warn him like the verse in Proverbs that says "faithful are the wounds of a friend", and they tell him that if he will humble himself and accept advice, he can find grace and redemption, and conquer the destruction that Morgoth wants to bring upon him.
Time and again, like the Israelites with the prophets, Turin rejects them in pride and goes his own way. And this is where Tolkien strikes a brilliant balance between predestination and man's freewill.
Man does not have to self-destruct. Man does not have to take the choice of sin and death. Eru's (God's) grace is there for him to choose if he will only believe it and humble himself.
Useful lesson? Surely. Is there a better way you can learn it than reading this book? Perhaps.
Here's what, in my humble opinion, would have made this book better. I like to see books with parallel characters that have parallel lives who make opposite choices. Here we have Turin, a man who is cursed, who is offered grace time and time again, and each time rejects it. I think this story would have been more triumphant, more redemptive, and more grand in its scale if Tolkien had had a parallel character to Turin that chose to humble himself and accept the offered grace, and overcome the curse of Morgoth.
That's just my opinion. Take it for what it's worth.
The Final Battle (heavy spoilers below)
Believe it or not, in spite of The Children of Hurin's darkness, the ultimate healing and redemption comes long after Turin's death, when the land of Middle-Earth meets its final end: