Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Treacle and wizards

If you have read Alice in Wonderland and other books of that era written in England, you have encountered the word treacle. It is not much used this side of the water.

Treacle has a history. It was originally a Greek word meaning an antidote for a poisonous animal bite. It migrated into Latin, then French and then English, carrying the original meaning all the way. Then in English the meaning gradually widened to mean medicine of any kind, then to a sweetener added to medicine to disguise the taste, and finally just the sweet stuff itself: syrup or molasses. From there, it developed the analogous meaning of cloying sentimentality.

Cloying is interesting in itself. Oxford defines it as excessively sweet or sentimental, Cloy originates from the same Lain root that produced clé (key) and clou (nail) in French. The only connection between cloy, clé and clou that comes to my mind is the idea of fastening something. Thus, in my mind, something cloying is syrupy sweet and hard to get rid of.

To illustrate where my line of thought is going, here is a quote from Louisa May Alcott:
“People want to be amused, not preached at, you know. Morals don’t sell nowadays.”

I believe the part that people don’t want to be preached at has always been true. The answer is not to forget about writing anything with a moral message. Good writers, inspired writers, have found ways to demonstrate moral truths without preaching.

There are Christian books, stories and poems for children from the Victorian era that some Christian people think are wonderful. It must be an acquired taste, the result of being exposed to that kind of literature all through one’s childhood. I wasn’t; I can’t stand those books and I suspect most non-Christians would find them as sickeningly sweet and meaningless as I do,

The writers are preaching, they have a message, a spiritual lesson, that they are trying to convey. To avoid anyone finding the message distasteful they slather it with treacle. The better way would have been to leave out the treacle and make the characters and the circumstances more believable. The characters are more like cardboard cutouts than living people. I wonder if those who have been fed a steady diet of such treacle really have much idea how a real person responds to the gospel.

There is not much of a market for morality, but there is a market for a well told story about believable people who face real life problems. Let the writer weave in moral and spiritual truth; that is not at all fatal in the marketplace. Think of the popularity of books like C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, and the books from George MacDonald and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Some Christians don’t want their children to read such books because they are fantasy. I think of them this way – children know the world is a mysterious and dangerous place, that bad things happen for no apparent reason. It’s no good raising children on books that pretend everything is always going to work out for the best, because real life doesn’t work that way.

The value in the books by Lewis, MacDonald and Tolkien is that they acknowledge that evil is very present in the world, but show that there is also a supernatural good present in the world that can triumph for those that trust in it. These books do not explicitly mention God, yet His presence is implicit. Other books about good and evil are popular in our day, but they show the good side triumphing by using the same tactics as the evil side. Lewis, MacDonald and Tolkien never do that, evil behaves in an evil way, good triumphs by trusting in the power of good.

That is a real life lesson that children need to hear and learn. It is not taught by treacle, nor by wizards that rely on the powers of darkness.

Oral history of God’s works

In the beginning, people’s memories were better than they are today. Somebody once asked Albert Einstein for his phone number. He went for the phone book to look it up. Incredulous, his colleague asked “You don’t remember your own phone number?” “No. Why should I memorize something I can look up in a book?”

There were no books, no alphabet, no means of written information sharing at the beginning of time. So people gathered around their campfires in the evening and the storyteller would tell them their history. Storytellers had a prodigious memory, but so did the people who listened. If the story teller didn’t tell the story right, his listeners were sure to notice.

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This type of oral history is still found in non-literate societies, and is considered just as accurate as written history, possible even more so due to its collaborative nature. The book of Genesis was first oral history of this kind.

Various peoples developed pictographic styles of writing that used stylized shapes to depict people, animals, places and happenings. There was a limit to how much information could be conveyed in such a manner.

Historians say that the Sumerians began to develop something approaching a phonetic alphabet which was later adopted and refined by the Hebrews. There is a missing link in this theory. The Sumerians never did go on to develop a phonetic alphabet and there is no evidence the Hebrews ever experiment with earlier forms of symbols that developed into a phonetic alphabet. But we are told that 50 days after leaving Egypt, Moses came down the mountain with tablets of stone in his hands. On these tablets, God Himself had inscribed what we now call the Ten Commandments, in a phonetic alphabet.

There is no evidence of a phonetic alphabet anywhere before this moment that forever altered human history. The second commandment says: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God.” How could this ever have been communicated in pictographic writing that consisted of images of creatures?

Up to this moment, the people had always wanted to see God as being like some creature that they were familiar with. Now God was telling them He was not anything like that, nor anything else they had ever seen. The Almighty, invisible God wanted His people to stop trying to imagine what He looked like and rather think of Him as the embodiment of qualities like righteousness, mercy and love.
This was the beginning of abstract thinking, the ability to grasp that the invisible God was always near to His children and to consider the consequences of their actions and the actions of others.

The Hebrew alphabet consisted of 22 letters, all consonants. It was written from right to left and had no punctuation. The fast letters were Alef, Bet, Gimel, Dalet. Many years later diacritical marks were added to indicate vowel sounds.

The Greeks took this alphabet and added vowels. The first letters in the Greek alphabet are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta. The Romans adopted the Greek alphabet and provided the letter shapes we use today. The word alphabet comes from the first two letters: Alef-Bet in Hebrew, or Alpha-Beta in Greek.

Moses now had the tools to provide God’s people with a written history, beginning with the creation and following the lineage of those who were faithful to God, from Adam to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He continued to write the history of the exodus and the giving of the law. The first five books of the Bible were written by Moses and are called the Law.

There is one book in the Bible that seems to be outside the history of God’s chosen people. This is the book of Job. It is quite possible that this was oral history that Moses heard told and retold during the years he was shepherd for his Midianite father-in-law.

Job is from the land of Uz, an area in the kingdom of Edom, the possession of the descendents of Esau, the brother of Jacob and Abraham’s grandson. Eliphaz is from Teman, also in Edom. Bildad the Shuhite would be a descendant of Schua, Abraham’s son by Keturah. He would have been from an area close to Edom. Zophar was a Naamathite, indicating descent from Naamah, a son of Esau. Elihu, son of Barachel the Buzite appears later. Buz was a son of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law was a Midianite. Median was another son of Abraham and Keturah.

All the people mentioned are descendents of Abraham or his brother and inhabited an area east and south of the Dead Sea. Moses would have led his flocks in this area, often meeting the people of this heritage at oases. I am surmising that the story of Job became familiar to him and God told him to put it in writing for the instruction of His people. I don’t know this, but this seems the most logical route for it to have become part of our Bible. Except for the first two chapters and the last ten verses, the book of Job is a poem. An epic poem that stuck in the mind and taught eternal truths.

The virtue of vulnerability

Last Saturday, Chris and I attended a Christian writers’ wordshop (a workshop about words). All the presenters were ladies; the attendees were also mostly ladies, plus four men and one boy.

This is cause for much pondering; why are there so few men at this level? Yes.there are many books by male authors on the bookstore shelves and they are popular. But the ladies are by far the majority among writers of self-published Christian books and in Christian writers’ groups.

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the ladies are more willing to expose their vulnerability. On the masculine side, we have been taught to suck it up and keep a stiff upper lip. That puts a barrier between us and our readers.

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One of the presenters on Saturday described how she gave a talk a few years ago on her struggle with depression and how God had sustained her and helped her through it. Afterwards a young lady from the audience had came up to her in tears and had been unable to speak for several minutes, sobbing uncontrollably on the presenter’s shoulder. She had thought she was the only person that had ever experienced such depression. The presenter’s vulnerability had made a connection and offered hope.

The great truth that we all need to learn is that it is the things that we don’t want to write about, the things that we are afraid to expose, that will be the greatest help to a reader. After all, we are not writing to tell the world what great people we are, we want to tell people about the great God we serve.

Books I didn’t like

Among the thousands of books that I’ve read in my lifetime there have been books that were useful and informative, books that conveyed truths that have inspired me, books that were merely interesting, books that were so uninteresting that I never finished reading them and books that were well written but quite deceptive. Here are four books from that last category that stand out in my mind.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand: I was young and impressionalbe when I read this book. Still, the idea of a better world that would be built by pure unbridled selfishness didn’t impress me as being a world where I would want to live. I didn’t find John Galt a very sympathetic hero, either.

In His Steps by Charles Sheldon: I have read this book four times, trying to figure out how anybody could consider this a Christian book. What I found was people who read the Bible but never got any direction from it; people who prayed but never got any direction through answers to prayer; people who sang hymns but never got any direction from the words of the hymns. The only way they got any direction was to ask themselves  “What would Jesus do?” Then they found the answers within themselves.

Well, actually the answers came from Charles Sheldon. The whole sin problem in the world is the fault of privately owned business and the solution is for ordinary people to band together to counteract the nefarious influence of big business. The newspaper owner is the epitome of Sheldon’s solution when he plans to turn the newspaper into an employee owned cooperative.

Sheldon called himself a Christian socialist. Notice that socialist is the noun and Christian is an adjective, mere camouflage for the real message Sheldon wants to convey. He uses Christian words all the way through, but they are eviscerated of all meaning. It is very skilfully done, but this book is actually a primer on socialism.

A Theology for the Social Gospel by Walter Rauschenbusch: Rauschenbusch follwed in Sheldon’s steps and coined the term “social gospel” in the early 1900’s. This book reveals the full scope of his thinking. There is no such thing as a sin against God. God appears to be a philosphical construction to provide a framework for ethical teaching, not a divine person who actually exists. Sin and redemption are not matters of personal concern, but involve all of society. The sins for which Jesus died are: religious bigotry; the combination of graft and political power; the corruption of justice; the mob spirit and mob action; militarism; and class contempt.

Rauschenbusch taught that there were two kinds of business organizations: the saved and the unsaved. Unsaved business are those that are privately owned, saved businesses are socially owned, such as cooperatives and goverment owned businesses.

One hundred years have passed since this book was published. I see the results all around me: churches, political parties, cooperatives and government owned businesses built on social gospel principles. I don’t see any evidence that they have succeeded in ushering in Rauschenbusch’s vision of the kingdom of God.

The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life by Hannah Whittal Smith: This is another pseudo-Christian book which I have read several times. All I could find was pop psychology couched in Christian language. If people are unhappy and unfulfilled, they might want to ask if there is some sin hindering them, or are they not hearing and following the voice of the Holy Spirit. There is no mention of any of that in this book. It is do-it-yourself Christianity. I would recommend the Bible and genuine Christianity.

Now in paperback

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It seems a lot of people want a book they can hold in their hands rather than an e-book.  If you are one of those, we are happy to announce that my wife’s latest book is now available in paperback on Amazon.com for $10.99 US.

It is also available on amazon.co.uk and amazon.fr, but for some reason it does not show up on amazon.ca.  She is trying to find out why. I guess it’s not that big a deal, Canadians can order it from the US site; but if they go looking for it on the Canadian site they will only find the e-book version.

Chris is the pioneer in our home for self publishing; she did it all herself and now should be able to coach me through the process when I want to publish.

What shall our children read?

What books are safe for children to read? Some Christian parents provide only  books about nice people who do nice things and everything turns out nicely for them. How realistic is that? Children know that there is evil in the world. There are scary things out there, things happen that they do not understand.

Other Christian parents believe that any book that turns out well in the end is sound reading material for their children. Even books where sorcery and witchcraft are used to attain that happy ending. The end justifies the means – or does it?

The Bible only promises a happy ending for people who use Christian means. Evil can only be overcome by good; in that sense the means are the end. We cannot live an overcoming Christian life by using the tools and methods of the enemy. Books that underline that principle can help to develop spiritual understanding.

In 17th century France, Jean de La Fontaine took ancient fables, many of them from Aesop, and rendered them into charming verses with a touch of humour and a clear moral teaching woven in. The fables of La Fontaine were once part of the school curriculum in all French-speaking countries. I’m afraid their moral teaching is now considered old fashioned.

In the same era, Charles Perrault collected and rewrote old folk tales and created others, all having a clear moral teaching. Almost 120 years later the brothers Grimm included some of these tales in their books of fairy tales, leaving out the moral teachings.

Perrault’s tale, La Belle au Bois Dormant, is much more gruesome than the Sleeping Beauty that I read as a child. In the end the innocent children are rescued by the return of their father and the evil woman who wanted to consume them comes to a horrible end. There is nothing here to lull children to overlook evil with the idea that the poor woman was just misunderstood. She was out and out evil and their father was pure and good.

One of Perrault’s stories does not have a happy ending. In Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, when the young lady gets into bed with the wolf that is the end of her. Perrault wrote: “There is one kind [of wolf] with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!” That lesson is lost when Little Red Riding Hood is allowed to escape unharmed from the wolf. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find a copy of Perrault’s tales that has not been Disneyfied, even in French. Don’t expect clear moral teachings from that source.

In the 20th Century British writers created several series of Christian fantasy novels.  I am thinking specifically of the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald’s Princess and Curdie books and The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

I know Christian parents who will not let their children read such books because they describe fantasy worlds, fantastic creatures and fantastic events. Yet in these books evil is always evil and the good people do not use evil means to accomplish good. I am of the opinion that it is better for children to read books where evil exists and is overcome by good than to read books where evil does not appear to exist at all. Isn’t that a more dangerous fantasy?

 

 

Chapter 2 – Alphabet blocks

I found the wooden alphabet block with the letter N and added it to the row that was beginning to spell my name — R O B E R T G O O D N . . . Now I needed one more O. I carefully rotated each of the blocks I had not used, but could not find another O. This was a familiar problem; there are just too many O’s in my name. Now I had to take the blocks I had already used, rotate them one by one to find another O, then find a block with the letter I had taken away. Finally it is done: R O B E R T G O O D N O U G H.

I was four years old and this set of blocks was my favourite toy. With it I could build fences, walls, barns, houses, towers. When night came, I gathered them all into the wooden box with wooden wheels and put them away for another day.

One day, I don’t remember when, my mother began to explain the meaning of the mysterious symbols on the blocks. She showed me how to spell words like M O M, D A D, C A T, D O G and then how to spell my name. Soon I began to sound out words I saw in other places and found that there was no end of things to read. My cousin Julia, 18 years older than me, had once been a teacher. She noted my love for words and began bringing me little books each time she and her husband made a trip to Moose Jaw.

The day that I began school, my mother went with me and informed the teacher, “Robert can read.” The teacher was sceptical; she stuck a newspaper in front of me and said: “Read.” I read it aloud, smoothly, pronouncing the words correctly, though I may not have understood all that the news story was about. Thus I began Grade 1, and was introduced to the mindless Dick and Jane books: “SEE SPOT. SEE SPOT RUN.” Not very interesting to someone who was way beyond that at home. After Christmas, I was in Grade 2.

How did it happen that I was already a fluent reader the day I started school? It never seemed like my mother was trying to teach me to read. Outdoors, I had a trike, a wagon and a whole big yard to explore. Indoors, my set of blocks was my multipurpose toy kit, useful for most anything my fertile imagination could dream up. The incident in the first paragraph is one of my earliest memories and it was oft repeated as I learned the sounds of letters. My mother did just enough to pique my curiosity, then forever after had to answer my questions.

My mother was my first and best teacher. Yet she had known only Plautdietsch until the day she started school. For six years she attended a one-room school run by the Sommerfelder Mennonite Church, spending equal time learning German and English. In 1920 the Saskatchewan government decided that all private schools would be closed. When Mom went to enroll in the public school that fall, they told her she would have to begin the sixth grade again. Her father decided that if that was the case, she didn’t need to go to school anymore. Despite having only six years of formal education, my mother was in many ways better educated than my father, who had considerably more schooling and whose mother tongue was English.

The explanation for my mother’s learning achievements lies in her physical handicap, her father’s disability and the special relationship between them. My grandfather was blind. Glaucoma had robbed him of much of his vision in his youth and he later became almost totally blind. He still ran a farm and raised fourteen healthy children.
My mother was number six and she was born with congenital hip dysplasia. Nowadays, this condition can be corrected in newborns without surgery. A hundred years ago, doctors didn’t know what her problem was. They thought she had a back problem, as that was where she had pain, but had no idea how to treat it. One day, long after I was grown up, she told me that she had never walked without pain. I thought back to the times that she would play ball with me, even run foot races with me and wondered if a mother’s love had eased the pain.

Because of his blindness, my grandfather needed help, and who was more able and ready to help him than this daughter who didn’t get around as easily or as fast as his other children? She read to him, letters, farm papers, books, whatever he needed or whatever interested him. She helped him with managing the business side of the farm, helping with correspondence and learning how to manage money. If her parents went away for a Sunday dinner and she stayed home, as soon as her parents came home her father would want to know what she had been reading. He would ask her to retell the whole story that she had read.

A large, well-used English dictionary was one of her prized possessions. She studied it assiduously, looking up every new word she found, learning its meaning and how to use it. Her brothers and sisters would tell her that she had swallowed the dictionary. She spoke clear, unaccented, grammatically correct English.

My parents’ home contained hundreds of books, the legacy of my father’s parents and of his brother who had abandoned the prairies for British Columbia. With a mother like this, and a house full of old, well-written books, how could I help but become a serious reader and a lover of good books?

Robins and skunks on O’Malley Road

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The songbirds are back: robins, meadowlarks and others – spring has come to Saskatchewan. Sometimes we can even tell it by the weather. Last Saturday was a beautiful sunny day with a high of 22° Celsius. That would be 72° in Americanese. This morning the ground was white again for several hours and the high for the day was 2°.

This is also tax season. The personal income tax deadline is April 30, but that falls on a Saturday which makes Monday May 2 the actual deadline. I am busy getting last years books in order for my business bookkeeping clients to take to their tax accountants. I only do a few personal tax returns, mostly for seniors. Last week that led to meeting two delightful ladies, both of them 90 years old and still going strong.

Saturday I attended a Christian writers’ “wordshop” in Saskatoon. This is an opportunity to get together with other writers for mutual encouragement and to hear talks that hopefully inform and inspire us to persevere, write and publish. It is also an opportunity to buy books from our fellow writers – I came home with five.

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For years we have been having problems with creatures resembling the cute little guy above getting under our mobile home. Most of the time they are quiet, inoffensive neighbours. There have been a couple of times when some other creature troubled them and we had to leave home for a few hours to let the resulting aroma dissipate.

I think we are dealing with one persistent pair. We have tried various means to let them know they are not welcome and/or to evict them. We try to limit ourselves to methods that will not cause unpleasant olfactory results for ourselves. Saturday we set up an ultrasonic sound generator that is supposed to drive them bonkers and make them want to escape.

Today one of them ventured out of the hole under the skirting of the trailer and into  the awaiting cage trap. They are not supposed to be able to spray when confined in this small cage, but our son-in-law had to step lively to avoid a direct hit when he came to take our guest away. One down, one more to go. At least I hope that is all there is.

 

Book Review: Dictionary of Biblical Imagery

At the ripe old age of 17 I believed I had outgrown any need for the Bible. It was almost ten years before I opened the book again. I was sceptical, but I thought there might be something worthwhile somewhere in this collection of writings. I guess I was looking for answers, but didn’t really expect to find any.

After a few months the connectedness of this “collection of writings” became harder and harder to ignore. There was no way I could pick and choose what I wanted to believe of its content, every part of it was connected to all the other parts. This was one book and I ether had to reject the whole thing, or believe the whole thing. This conviction was a major step leading up to my conversion a year later.

It is difficult for me to understand why so many Christians don’t seem to have caught on to this fact. Perhaps it is because they read here and there without ever reading through a whole book of the Bible. Perhaps it is because of outside helps that purport to explain the Bible. Reference books can be helpful, but one should never put too much confidence in them.

The Bible explains itself. There are symbols that have the same meaning whenever they appear. The more you read, the clearer the meaning becomes. There are threads of meaning that can be followed through the whole Bible. Many Bible stories are impressive and meaningful to a small child, yet there are depths to those stories that can never be fully plumbed in a lifetime of Bible study.

One of the workshop leaders at the Inscribe Christian Writers Conference recommended the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. The editors of this book attempt to trace the continuity of images and themes throughout the Bible. I like the approach of this book, yet I’m not going to say that they got everything just right – none of us ever do. This is a good book for the serious student of the Bible, and for those who have never caught on to the idea of how the themes and images of the book are woven together so tightly from beginning to end.

This is a big book, over 1,000 pages. Beware of shipping costs if you try to buy it online. I ordered mine from Kennedy’s Parable in Saskatoon. The price was higher than buying it online, but there were no shipping costs.

Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, General Editors: Leland Ryken, James C Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III.  © 1998 InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

Learning the craft of writing

The child that was myself was born with a little talent, and I have worked hard, hard, hard to shape it. Yet even this could not have made me a writer, for there is no book can tell anything worth saying unless life itself has first said it to the person who conceived that book. A philosophy has to be hammered out, a mind shaped, a spirit tempered. This is true for all of the craft. It is the basic process which must happen before literature can be created.

Talent is Not Enough, Mollie Hunter on writing for children, © 1976 Mollie Hunter, published by Harper & Row

I’ve always been writing – school assignments, letters, business reports, historical articles. I’ve always aspired to become a serious writer. I’m 73 now, I don’t suppose I have that many years left to attain that level. I’ve belonged to a writing group, attended writers’ conferences, read all kinds of books for writers. When do I stop learning and start doing? The reality is that they are not mutually exclusive, one learns more  by doing than by studying.

I’ve always known what I want to write, but it’s taken me a long time to see how to write in a way that will capture the interest of other people and not be combative or abrasive. I think I am finding my way to do that.  Part of that is what Mollie Hunter describes as hammering our a philosophy, shaping the mind and tempering the spirit.

Still, for the last while I’ve been in kind of a fog, perhaps afraid to step out and take the risk. Or perhaps confused because there are so many things I want to write. I have come to a conclusion now – I want to concentrate on two projects, one a book for children and the other a book that could be classed as Biblical apologetics. You will be seeing parts of that book in this blog in coming weeks and months.

I will do a review of Mollie Hunter’s book in the next few days, too.

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