Category Archives: Literature

Book list from 2014, books planned for 2015

book-love-books-to-read-23017145-619-463While I love to read, 2014 was not a year for lots of books for me. I am lukewarm about several that I read, but other books did impress me–and I am picky about literature. Good literature only whets my appetite for more.

You’ll see what I have read, and then what I plan to read, both in novels and in histories. There’s even a very last, ambitious list at the bottom which I’ve just discovered. What books would you recommend to me?

2014 reads

  • The Children of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek. I’m always intrigued when I learn something new from the tales of history. How surprising to learn of something called the Kindertransport. As Hitler was gaining power and darkness spread through Europe, some Jewish families sought ways to smuggle their most precious possessions–their children–to England. A network of synagogues, charities, and churches formed–the Kindertransport–and found homes for hundreds of Europe’s Jewish children. This book takes the stories of some children placed in a foster home in England and follows them through the war years. Not a brilliantly-written book, this was nevertheless an interesting portrayal of this little-known story from the perspective of one musically-talented young Austrian girl.
  • The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. Much has been written about this book, and thinking about going to the movie, I decided to break down and read it first. (You may not know that I don’t like following contemporary booklists, because I find much to dislike in what passes as popular “literature.”) The point of view of the narrator–death–took me by surprise, and he didn’t make me comfortable at all. I think that’s the point. This book was beautiful and horrifying, and its heartbreaking conclusion wiped me out. Though I considered it a good book, I decided not to subject myself to the movie. I can recommend this book, but only to folks who are not strongly affected by heart-wrenching drama.
  • Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson. This is the second book in his Stormlight Archives, after The Way of Kings. He is masterful at creating a fantasy world, as also seen in his Mistborn series. His characters, the magical world they populate, and the good battling evil drew me in and held me captive all the way through. I’m going to blame this book on my reason for not reading more books this year. This is an incredibly long book! Worth every minute, though.
  • Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson. His two series, mentioned above, made me want more of his fascinating fantasy storytelling. Steelheart did not disappoint. He definitely wrote this book for a YA (Young Adult) audience, but that doesn’t deter me from reading good novels. The main character, a teenage boy who is awkward and geeky, made me smile frequently. Sanderson does a masterful job of creating compelling and believable characters.
  • The Great Pearl Heist by Molly Caldwell Crosby. I thought I was going to read a mystery fiction, but this turned out to be a true story about an infamous crime from the turn of the century. Not a dry history, this story was compelling all the way through.
  • The Princes of Ireland: The Dublin Saga by Edward Rutherfurd. I’ve enjoyed reading his novel of England’s history (Sarum) and Russia’s history (Russka). His method is unique–telling the history by focusing on one geographic area and creating familes whose descendants interact with one another over more than a thousand years. I loved traveling through Ireland a few years ago, so I looked forward to reading Rutherfurd’s creative history. This was well done, as usual, and I recognized some of the landmarks. His related novel, The Rebels of Ireland, is on my list to read next. I also want to read his novel of Paris, because I dream of going back there someday.
  • The Dead in their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley. This is the latest in the Flavia de Luce novels that have delighted me for the past few years. I love this smart, funny eleven-year-old girl who plays with chemicals in her uncle’s laboratory and dreams of concocting poisons, while she solves mysteries. Bradley’s next novel can’t come too soon!
  • The Girl in the Ice by Jason Vail. I hadn’t realized that this was Book 4 of a series, mysteries solved in medieval England. This one wasn’t good enough to capture my imagination and draw me to read the other books in this series. Though I enjoy fictional history, and especially of medieval Europe, this one just didn’t do it for me. The characters aren’t well developed, and the story itself didn’t hold together well.
  • The Midnight Rose by Lucinda Riley. You might classify this as a romance, but I refuse to call it that. It’s a historical novel, well-written, easy reading. I like the author, and I always enjoy the setting she creates, usually in England or France. Not great classical literature, but every once in a while it’s a light divergence from the norm.
  • The Secret Gospel of Ireland by James Behan. This is basically a history of Christendom in Western Europe, beginning with Augustine. The author’s thesis is that Ireland saved Christianity in Europe. The historical detail is excellent, but he didn’t keep his thesis as a thread throughout the book. From what he described I could not reach the conclusion that he draws.
  • Jesus + Nothing = Everything by Tullian Tchividjian. If you know me at all, you know that I don’t often read devotionals or Christian books. I find them to be less theology, more navel-gazing, less law and gospel, more personality-driven. I prefer to study the Bible itself as the source of all biblical wisdom (funny how that works). This one we read with our small group from church. While it focused on Colossians, which I love, I found it to be pretty much personality-driven. Give me a book of the Bible and let’s discuss it instead!
  • The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss. Hungry for more Rothfuss (while we await the next book in his fantastic Kingkiller Chronicles), I decided to read this short book that focuses on one character from the Kingkiller Chronicles, Auri. What a disappointment! This is no more than a very long character sketch. I think the author wanted to remind us that he’s around while we wait for his next book. Seems like he was playing with phrases and adjectives, because there is no dialogue, very little action, and lots of introspection.
  • The Finisher by David Baldacci. I have enjoyed Baldacci’s novels of intrigue and mystery. This is a complete departure from his “usual” genre, a foray into fantasy for him. He writes with an entirely different voice and tone. Utterly delightful, this beautifully written novel drew me in from the very first page. Now I cannot wait for the follow-up novel, because this cries out for a sequel. The characters are fully developed, the story exquisite. Probably the best book I’ve read all year.
  • Jubal Sackett by Louis Lamour. While driving through the mountains of Colorado last summer, our son had us listen to one of Lamour’s Sacket novels. I can’t remember the title, but it was just the right novel for the rugged landscape that passed outside our window. So my husband picked up the entire (very long) Sackett series and exclaimed how much he enjoyed it last year. While driving again, we listened to Jubal Sackett. I will definitely begin this series on my own, because I’m a Western girl who loves the tone and description of these stories.

On my 2015 list

More ambitious at the beginning of each year than toward the end, I’ll list the ones that intrigue me, and we’ll see if I can maintain this level of ambition.

Novels:

  • More of the Sackett series by Lamour, definitely. It’s best to start at the beginning, way back in the 1600s, I’m told.
  • Jeff Shaara’s new Civil War series, beginning with A Blaze of Glory. I have already begin this one. I love all of his books, so I’m excited to pick up these books. (He has two out and intends one more in this series, which takes place earlier than his Gettysburg trilogy.)
  • More Rutherfurd books, as I described above. Probably the next Ireland one, and then Paris. They are long tomes, and I can only do them with lots of other books in between.
  • As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley. It comes out at the end of April, just in time for my birthday. Good planning, Bradley!
  • Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian
  • Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks
  • Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
  • Miss Peregrin’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  • The Home Place Carrie LeSeur
  • The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz
  • Heretic by Bernard Cornwell
  • The Norsemen by Jason Born
  • The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell
  • The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
  • When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kaye Penman
  • The Three Edwards by Thomas B. Costain

Histories (This is where my ambition comes in. I would like to study more histories…)

  • The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez
  • A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester
  • The Wars of the Roses and The Plantagenets by Dan Jones
  • Rebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution by Peter Ackroyd
  • Mysteries of the Middle Ages; How the Irish Saved Civilization; Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter; The Gifts of the Jews; Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus; Heretics and Heroes, all by Thomas Cahill
  • The Venus Fixers by Ilaria Dagnini Brey; The Rape of Europe by Lynn H. Nicholas; Rose Valland: Resistance at the Museum by Corinne Bouchoux; Saving Italy by Robert M. Edsel; The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel (all these books have to do with the stories on which the movie The Monuments Men was based.

But wait! Look at this list that my son just sent! I have already read many on this list, but now I want to read several more and then travel to the English counties in which each was based! Behold The Stars

You can suggest more that might be intriguing. Let’s see how many of these I accomplish, or whether my ADD tendencies (Look! A bookstore!) cause me to wander into other titles through the year.

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Filed under Classical Education, Education, Homeschooling, Literature

Analyzing Media from a Biblical Worldview

LongmireMy husband and I have been watching a contemporary Western TV show taking place in Wyoming, called Longmire. We’ve enjoyed it a great deal, mostly because we consider ourselves to be westerners who love the big sky, the mountains, and the rugged terrain, not to mention the rugged individuals living there. The good guy wins. Even though he has a dark side, he pursues the truth and does what’s right.

In a series of episodes, the sheriff’s grown daughter is critically injured in a hit-and-run accident, and the sheriff decides it is because of some wrongs he has committed. He asks his best friend, a Native American, to help him atone for his wrongdoing. So in the final scene of one episode, they stand on the open range, at sunset, and perform a Native American blood-letting ceremony. There’s dramatic music, and plenty of Native American symbolism, and even a gorgeous rainfall off in the distance, with the sunset casting it in a beautiful glow. Blood is spilled on the earth, and Mother Earth is pleased.

So how would a Christian evaluate these episodes? One method would be to yell that you will never watch such heathen representations and turn off the show forever. Sometimes that kind of reaction is warranted. However, let’s explore another method for analyzing the worldview of that show. And this method of analysis will be vital for you and your family, if you intend to live in this world and interact with the unbelievers who surround you.

First, examine the worldview that undergirds these episodes. This means you need to understand other worldviews. Why? Often you will need to know the mindset of the people you interact with daily, so that you can see their deep need for a savior.

Karma

First is the idea that something the sheriff has done has led to the near-death state his daughter is in. That’s karma. This Hindu belief says “what goes around, comes around”–a person’s wrongful actions will result in bad things happening to him. But this idea is not unique to Hinduism; it pervades all cultures and beliefs. Even some religions that call themselves Christian have this belief embedded in their foundations. (And the health-and-wealth preachers teach the flip side: if you do good things, good things will happen to you.)

But Christ debunked this belief long ago. In Luke 13:1-5, he mentions a couple of instances in which tragedies befell some people. “Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, ‘Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (NASB).

Likewise, he answers even more directly in John 9:1-7. “As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?’  Jesus answered, ‘It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.  We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.’  When He had said this, He spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and applied the clay to his eyes,  and said to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.’ So he went away and washed, and came back seeing.”

So Christ rejects the idea of “What goes around, comes around” pretty soundly.

Blood Guilt

What about the Native American bloodletting ceremony? This one is quite profound, and from a worldview analysis, pretty amazing. If you do enough reading of history and cultures, you will notice that there exist some pretty similar notions about sin, or whatever that culture might call it. Greeks referred to it as “blood-guilt.” Greek literature is full of such references. But it didn’t begin with the Greeks. Blood guilt has its roots in the earliest people on earth.

The second recorded sin in the Bible is, of course, Cain killing his brother Abel. Interestingly, God tells Cain, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground. Now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand”  (Genesis 4:10-11). And not too long after, God explains why the spilling of blood is so terrible: The life is in the blood. “Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:4-6).  Leviticus 17:11 and Deuteronomy 19:6 also repeat that theme.

Greeks believed that when blood was spilled, that blood-guilt required the blood of the spiller (the sinner) to be spilled. We see the theme revisited in many histories and cultures and literature from then on. And you can see how murder after murder gets committed, because each time blood is spilled, another person must come along and avenge the spilling of blood. What a bloody mess!

Why is this important? Here’s where the richness of biblical worldview analysis comes in. In this one dramatic TV scene, we see the ancient idea of blood-guilt being played out yet again. And though the method is pagan, the idea is very true. There is life in the blood, and only the spilling of blood will save someone from (will atone for) his sins. So here is where you can begin a meaningful conversation with someone who watches a scene like this, or any number of similar scenes in literature and media throughout time.

Yes, the spilling of blood is necessary to atone for sin. Yes, there is life in the blood. And yes, there is only one true Person whose blood, when spilled, saves you and me from our sins, and it only needed to be done once. The same God who required Hebrews to mark their door posts with the blood of a lamb so that death would pass over them, He also provided for a pure, spotless Lamb whose blood was spilled so that eternal death would pass us by.

So when you set out to analyze movies, TV, and other media from a biblical worldview, take time to peel back the layers of what’s going on. Explore the unspoken meanings in what you’re analyzing. Discuss it with your teens, and you are arming them with deep truths they can share with their friends.

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Filed under Apologetics, Biblical Worldview, Literature

Books recommended, books panned for 2013

wisemansfear

Wise Man’s Fear gets my vote for favorite book of the year

This year I read a great deal, since I am still on low energy and need plenty of resting time. I chose many books based on recommendations from friends and family. I also went contrary to my nature and followed the recommendations of Amazon, since I read almost exclusively on a tablet device. Amazon and I have a close, enduring relationship. I pay Amazon lots of money, and it feeds my addiction. There might be something wrong about this relationship, but I can quit anytime I want to.

My taste in novels this year has been quite eclectic, such that you cannot pin me down to any one genre for very long.

This year I returned to some of my favorite contemporary authors, like John Grisham, Jeff Shaara, and David Baldacci. I also picked up a newly discovered novel by the late Pearl S. Buck, who has been a longtime favorite of mine. Loved the Grisham, Shaara, and Baldacci novels; grew very bored with Buck.

John Grisham:  Sycamore Row and The Racketeer. Sycamore Row returns to the same characters as in Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill. Though the new story has nothing to do with the old, I enjoyed revisiting the characters and watching them have a new legal adventure. At times it moved a bit slowly, but the ending was worth it. The Racketeer involves several intriguing characters and weaves a tale that is fun to follow.

David Baldacci: I stopped reading Baldacci a few years ago when he killed nearly everyone I cared about in Last Man Standing. My husband told me that he liked a new series by Baldacci, the King and Maxwell books. We read King and Maxwell on audio during a road trip. The story included many interesting characters and involved a great story of international intrigue.

Jeff Shaara is always good for a wartime history. I have never met a Shaara book I didn’t like, so I read his World War 2 novels and thoroughly enjoyed them. I’ll pick up his newest Civil War books in 2014. His World War 2 series: No Less Than Victory, The Steel Wave, and The Final Storm.

One of my longtime favorite authors has been Pearl S. Buck. In 2013 her heirs announced that a new manuscript of hers had been found and authenticated. Wanting to see if the book would match her earlier excellence, I read Eternal Wonder. I put it back down about half-read. It was boring and did not hold my interest in the least. What a disappointment.

I was eager to finish the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth, so I picked up Allegiant. The novel answered all my questions from the first two books, Divergent and Insurgent, but not well. I was disappointed; it seemed as if the author was in a hurry to finish the novel, and she didn’t wrap things up well.

Patrick Rothfuss has written a fascinating fantasy novel, The Name of the Wind, which I read in 2012 and loved. His next novel, The Wiseman’s Fear, could probably rate as better than the first. The story is brilliant, and its characters are deep and engrossing. With the exception of a strange interlude into a fairy’s lair, the entire story held together extremely well. I can’t wait to read the third, which comes out in 2014.

Brandon Sanderson writes good fantasy novels, such as his Mistborn series. I thoroughly enjoyed Mistborn (book 1) and Well of Ascension (book 2). I thoroughly recommend these to any fantasy fan.

Alan Bradley continues to write an excellent series on the character Flavia De Luce, an 11-year-old prodigy in post-WW2 England. She is delightful, curious, bright, and humorous, and I love how he weaves an excellent mystery into this young girl’s life. His newest novel, Speaking From Among the Bones, did not disappoint.

The novel Sarum by Edward Rutherford has long been on my reading list, but it always looked too long and boring. This was the year to read lots of books, though, and I piled them on. Sarum is the novel of England, from ancient times to the present. Since Rutherford has to leap from one age to the next in his novel, he can understandably only focus on a few characters for a brief time. Just as I got to enjoy a character, Rutherford leaped ahead a couple of centuries and I lost the character. However, the book was well-written enough that I wanted to read more of his books. I picked up Russka, the novel of Russia. I will read his novel of Ireland next year.

My favorite genre is historical fiction, so I tend to gravitate in that direction when I don’t know where else to go. I launched into my continued love of the Plantagenet and Tudor rulers of England, and some of the books were well-written. Please keep in mind that some of these novels contain some salacious moments and may not be appropriate for teens. (Some may not be appropriate for me either!)

Worth reading:

  • The Forgotten Queen by DL Bogdan
  • The White Princess by Philippa Gregory
  • The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir
  • The Kingmaker’s Daughter by Philippa Gregory
  • Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir
  • A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir
  • Stolen Crown by Susan Higginbotham
  • Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Not worth reading:

  • A Daughter of Warwick by Julie May Ruddock

Some miscellaneous novels were recommended simply due to my past reading choices:

  • She Wore Only White by Dorthe Binkert (not worth reading)
  • War Brides by Helen Bryan (slow-moving and disjointed)
  • The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley
  • The Girl on the Cliff by Lucinda Riley
  • The Lavender Garden by Lucinda Riley
  • Blood and Beauty: The Borgias by Sarah Dunant (horrid)
  • Murder on the Eiffel Tower by Claude Izner (boring and predictable)
  • The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro
  • Bristol House by Beverly Swerling
  • The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin (predictable)
  • The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett (great book!)

Finally, a friend challenged me to read something not on any of my lists, namely I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. Though it was never anything like the movie, the book was interesting. Asimov’s science fiction peered into the distant future but used low technology that was available to him at the time, like slide rules and television tubes and paper books.

Our small group Bible study met regularly to discuss the book The Hole in Our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung. I am not, have never been, will never be a fan of the self-help Bible study book or even any topical study book meant for Christians. So getting me to read this book took a lot of effort and coercion on the part of my husband. This book turned out to be pretty good, elaborating on the Reformed view of holiness–sanctification–of the believer.

In all, that looks like 37 books. For a person low on energy, that sounds just about right! Can’t wait to see what I will be reading in 2014! Let me know what you recommend.

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Filed under Literature

Everyone needs a superhero

If you had told me thirty years ago that I would be following the heroic antics of Marvel superheros in movie form, I would have laughed and walked away. The closest I ever got to comic books while growing up was a stack of Archie and Richie Rich back issues left behind in the mountain cabin we bought when I was little. I read them again and again until I was bored with them, and I never sought out any more comic books.

Superman_by_iGamerBut having raised geeky kids, and lived with a geeky husband, the superhero and his super deeds have become regulars in our lives.  Sitting through the latest Marvel super movie, the literary critic in me noticed once again that these stories usually run along a similar theme, and the characters in these movies (and perhaps in the comic books, though I haven’t opened one) follow similar archetypical patterns. The beauty of these patterns is that they reflect the deepest cries of the human heart. A biblical worldview perspective shows how universally appealing the superhero tale can be.

The story of the superhero follows a similar pattern, even though there are large variations from time to time.

The struggle between good and evil. The moral tale becomes very clear. Good and evil are clearly depicted. Even the colors, the setting, and sometimes the music that accompanies the good and the evil get treated very differently. Evil is dark and brooding; the lair of the evil ones is sinister, ugly, sometimes cold. Evil is depicted in such a way that the audience hates it, rejects it, finds it vile and wants it to lose. Evil, in short, is not pretty.

We identify with that theme, the great struggle of good over evil. It is one of the most universal, and one of the oldest, stories of all time. We want good to win. We recognize that good MUST win in order for us to survive. So good, as depicted in most superhero comics, does ultimately win. Our hearts are satisfied with that kind of an ending. It’s how we were wired.

Genesis lays out the ancient struggle between good and evil–the serpent and the human. Yet not too far into Genesis we learn the promise: evil will be trampled in the end (Gen 3:15). That promise was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, who dealt the blow to Satan by defeating death itself.  And the promise carries forward to the Second Coming of Jesus and the end of the age, when Satan will be thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20). This moral victory, etched deeply on the human heart, is satisfying to experience over and over again in the superhero tale.

Bystanders are innocent and get caught up in the moral struggle. We laughed until we hurt when we saw the crowds of people in Superman 1 and 2 (1978 and 1980) get in the way of the epic battle between Superman and General Zod (or whatever villain got in the way). The cheesy bystanders  got tossed around; they cried for help in typical “woe is me” melodramatic fashion.

However, even this is part of the moral tale of good versus evil. The innocents need protecting by a powerful hero, and he does protect them, as promised! He keeps the bus from crashing to the ground; he prevents the mother’s baby carriage from getting crushed, and more. Again and again through superhero literature, we live out the need for someone powerful to save us because we are not strong enough to save ourselves.

The Superhero has incredible powers. He has huge muscles that seem barely contained by the clothes he wears. (In the case of the Incredible Hulk, his clothes cannot contain his overgrown muscles.) He is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, spin a web to snare an enemy, throw his massive hammer over long distances to defeat a foe, to name a few superhuman skills.

He is a protector. He saves even those cheesy bystanders from the evil plans of the enemy.superheros

The earliest superheroes were found in the Bible, in people like Samson, whose long hair gave him the power to pull an entire building down on his enemies. Some have argued that the gods and goddesses of Greek and Roman tales were also early types of superheroes. Sometimes that works, although those gods and goddesses were pretty petulant and self-serving most of the time. They only saved someone if it made themselves look good, or perhaps ticked off a rival god.

Loki-Thor-2-loki-thor-2011-35584736-500-800The Villain is dark and brooding and pure evil. His world is dark; his demeanor is just as dark and brooding as his lair. Loki, from the Thor movies, is the antithesis of Thor. To Thor’s strapping muscles and long golden locks, Loki has black hair, wears all black, is of normal height and build (scrawny in comparison). Loki is all bad, all the time, even if he pretends to help Thor. In short, you can depend on the stereotypes most of the time: evil is evil, and good is good, all the time.

Batman seems to break the stereotype in several ways, since he is dark and brooding and often skulks in the darkness to hunt down the evil. As we saw in The Dark Knight, however, no matter how dark Batman is, his foe is always darker and more sinister.

Though some of you may find fault with my overt generalizations, you will have to admit that the human longing for good to vanquish evil is nearly universal. We work out our own longing by cheering for the good, urging them on to fight the good fight.

Why do we create a superhero, and why does it appeal to us so much?

We recognize the truth about ourselves–that we are weak and vulnerable, and we need someone greater than us to win on our behalf. Or perhaps we even place ourselves in the position of the superhero and live out that epic battle in our minds. We are still longing for evil to be conquered.

We desperately need to feel as if there is a remedy. We realize, somewhere deep in our hearts, that we are not the superhero. We live in a sick world, and we long for a cure. In fact, if we were to take a careful look inside, we would realize our desperate need for a superhero because we are trapped by our own evil, not strong enough to save ourselves.

We recognize that in our desperate need, mere man cannot overcome the evil out there. On our own we are weaker than the evil one, and like the innocent bystander, we need an advocate, a hero–someone stronger than ourselves. That superhero–that savior–is the only one strong enough to save us.

We need someone with powers that exceed our own meager abilities. The cry for help comes from deep within our hearts, at the mercy of an overwhelming evil.

Human imagination draws upon the universal archetypes of the superhero and villain, and of the war between good and evil, in order to work out the battle that rages inside. The story is as old as time and as universal as all humankind (and the fables of gods and superheros from many cultures around the world speaks to that universal theme). The human imagination replays, again and again, in its vast creativity, the epic struggle and the eventual victory of the superhero. The characters may shift and change, but their types remain essentially the same.

Though the authors may not have intended it to happen, I rejoice when I see these archetypes and themes. I see the universal story that the human heart depicts again and again, and it is overwhelming evidence of the human cry for a savior.

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The importance of Fantasy Literature

once upon a timeOne popular television show, entering its third season in 2013, is Once Upon a Time. Its episodes feature many of the familiar fairy tale characters we’ve grown up with. Chock-full of lots of magic and romance, deception and adventure, the show’s popularity proves that the genre of fantasy still captures the imaginations of young and old alike.

The Christian world sometimes (or perhaps often) frowns upon fantasy literature. Shouldn’t we just stay in the world that we see before us? Why do we have to delve into the contrived worlds of someone’s mind? Why elevate and even celebrate magical, mythical creatures–and magic itself? Why present evil in any form in literature or entertainment media?

Fantasy literature has thrived from earliest times, in works such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Those stories, as much of fantasy literature, sport mythical creatures and magical beings. A fantasy is told even in the Bible. In Judges 9, Jotham tells a fantastical story of trees that ask other trees to be their king (Judges 9:8-15). Just like the story in the Bible, these tales prove useful in telling a greater truth, or in helping us mere mortals to think through the mysteries of life.

We are storytellers. We love to listen to other people’s stories. We grow up reading fantastical tales–they fuel our imagination and satisfy our desire for adventure. Fantasy, in particular, speaks to our dreams and deepest desires. We cheer for the hero, and we thrill to see the evil Queen vanquished. Fantasy literature contains many universal elements. Not all will have every one of these features, but the universality of these themes points to a deeper message in the stories themselves that Christian readers can appreciate.

Fantasy Literature uses magic. CS Lewis introduces magic in his Narnia series when we first see Uncle Andrew’s magical rings in The Magician’s Nephew. Those rings transport Digory and Polly into other magical worlds, including one called Narnia, where a lion is singing the world into existence. Some of fantasy literature doesn’t necessarily contain magic, but perhaps characters have super-human powers and abilities. Magic might not be used for evil purposes; magic or magical powers might rescue someone, remedy a situation, or change overcome  evil with good.

Is the use of magic wrong? Of course, as the Bible explicitly tells us. However, we are talking about fantasy literature. It is not real, and we understand that from the outset (the talking mice, walking trees or wise mirror might give us the first clue). It is not meant to be taken as real. Grownups can tell the difference between what’s real and what is fantasy; very young children cannot. It is part of human development to begin to distinguish between what’s real from what is not–the concrete from the abstract. That’s why children clap their hands to revive Tinkerbell!

Just like Cinderella, there is something deep inside ourselves that longs for some magical cure to our problems. We are unhappy; we daydream our way out of our unhappiness. Cinderella gets a fairy godmother–someone supernatural–the “hero” who wipes away all her woes. Don’t we long for a time and a place where every tear will be dried? Don’t we ache for someone who will one day bring us a new heaven and a new earth? (Revelation 21:1-2) This does not equate magic to God’s kingdom and to our Savior. Rather, it points out the longing in our hearts for that ultimate act, that eventual and long-awaited triumph, whether or not we know it as such.

Fantasy Literature contains a hero. Fairy tales and other fantasy legends are rich with the depiction of the hero or heroine. As in Sleeping Beauty, the hero is the one who rides in on the beautiful horse and saves the day. Or the unlikely small hobbit who risks everything to carry the ring to the fires of Mount Doom (or, as some may argue, the faithful Sam who carries Frodo part of the last leg of their journey and vows to never leave him).

The archetype of the hero makes for fascinating study. He may or may not be perfect, yet he uses his skills and his passions to rescue the one who needs saving. Despite the odds, he ventures on a quest to find his foe in order to fight him, and he usually finds out important things about himself while on his long quest.

Joseph Campbell authored what is considered to be the seminal work on the archetype of the hero in world literature, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. George Lucas credits Campbell’s work as one inspiration for his epic Star Wars heroes. In an often-quoted passage, Campbell says, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Again, the archetype of the hero–the one who rescues, who rises above other mere mortals, who restores hope or makes everything better–speaks loudly of the yearning of mankind. That desire, buried deep in our hearts, is our longing for a savior. Heroes universally  resonate with us because we have this built-in hunger for a savior who will rescue us from the evil around us, who will make everything whole again. And that universal longing was planted in our hearts, and promised to us, as long ago as Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:15).

Fantasy Literature contains mythical/magical creatures. Some of them talk, like Aslan the lion or Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. Some display magical powers, like the genie in Aladdin’s tale. Some are purely other-worldly, like unicorns, wraiths, elves, or chimeras. These spring out of the imagination of the writer or rely on old myths to tell new stories. The genie, for example, is another version of the Djinn, or Jinn, which are referred to in the Qur’an as spirit beings. Of course, we know the genie from the bottle in the Aladdin story, and even CS Lewis refers to Jinns in his Narnia series while describing the origin of the evil witch from Charn, who turns out to be the White Queen.dobby (1)

Christian readers might ask, does the existence of mythical, magical creatures make the story evil, to be avoided? Again, the answer remains the same for all of fantasy literature. The make-believe world springs from the author’s imagination, which knows no bounds, and speaks of the creativity of the human mind. That there are mythical, magical creatures does not mean the story is evil. Their existence simply points out that this is fantasy, meant to entertain and perhaps inspire. And these creatures undoubtedly play a role in that story. They may frighten us, or they might foil the hero’s quest, or they might simply be entertaining for a brief moment in the story.

Fantasy Literature pits good against evil. Jeff Baldwin, in his essay “Twelve Trademarks of Literature,” says about this battle of good versus evil, “the dogma is the drama.” Since the beginning of time our stories have been filled with this epic battle. We want good to triumph over evil. We struggle with the downtrodden good guy who is beset with problems stemming from the evil that dogs him. We need to replay that epic struggle again and again. We cheer for those good guys who win, and we get a thrill when evil is finally defeated.evil queen

Why is the battle of good versus evil so universal? It is in our nature to want good to triumph, just as we want the hero to rescue the fair maiden or the vengeful bad guy to be beaten. We cheer when Gaston is defeated so that the Beast can turn into the prince we all know him to be, and so that he can marry Belle and be happy ever after.

More than just a happy ending, we are gratified by the struggle, that long fight, that rise and fall of every good story. In watching and reading those stories, we work out our own struggle of good versus evil. We can identify with that drama–that fight to overcome the evil power. If the story is not told well, we probably will not have enjoyed the ending. We are aware of our own nature that does evil, and that often distresses us (some of us less than others). So we like to see evil vanquished and for good to come out on top, because we want that to happen in our own lives (see Romans 7). The working-out of this epic struggle reminds us of the worthiness of good and the perversion of evil.

Yes, many evil stories spring from man’s mind and should be avoided, so I caution parents–and adults in general–to beware of stories that glorify evil and perversion, that take long periods of time to dwell on the macabre. We should not dwell on those stories; we are cautioned to run away from evil (Proverbs 2:9-15). Similarly, stories with a message that leads the reader to conclude that the evil in the story is actually good–those too are a perversion of the “dogma is the drama” theme. Run in the other direction!

The universality of themes found in fantasy literature, including fairy tales and epics from long past even up to today, is a reason to celebrate. It teaches us that in our hearts we long for the triumph of good over evil. It shows us that deep down we have a similar longing: we ache for a savior, that hero who will defeat death and rescue us from this world of sin and shame. Stamped upon our hearts is the universal, moral tale we all long to see resolved, even if some of us don’t realize it.

Some well-told fantasy tales (not in order of importance):

  • One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (including the Aladdin story)
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales
  • Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (which I always found a little creepy)
  • Grimm’s fairy tales
  • Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey
  • Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book
  • CS Lewis’ Narnia series
  • George MacDonald’s Princess and the Goblin
  • Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur
  • Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind series
  • JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series
  • Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy
  • Spencer’s The Fairie Queen
  • Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Legend series
  • JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy

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The Pitfalls of Classical Homeschooling

You’ve done your homework, made your preparations, and purchased all the Great Books you plan to read during this year of Classical Homeschooling. What could possibly go wrong?

In previous blogs I lauded the merits of Classical schooling. I have worked in the Classical realm for 20 years and have watched many, many children move through their high school careers. I maintain that this is a marvelous method for educating young minds. And yet there are still some reservations to keep in mind as you go along.

glasses kidFirst, this method is not for everyone. It entails a huge amount of reading, and not every child has a natural bent toward reading. For some, reading takes a lot of work, whether from a mild to moderate learning disability, or because his mind is always on some activity he would rather be undertaking, or simply because he hates it. If the reading is just taking too much out of your child, then consider 1) testing him for a learning problem and/or 2) finding another path of learning for this one child.

Second, some in the Classical model have a tendency to overemphasize one area at the expense of others. For example, Classical is more heavy on the humanities; that’s just its nature. However, do not think that since you are “doing Classical” you can just put off math and science for another time, or minimize its importance. No, remember that all things are connected, and that we do not just separate out the subjects. All of this is part of one well-rounded, well-educated child. In fact, learning math and science helps a child to think more logically. That can help him to make connections during his Dialectic and Rhetoric stages. This is important in higher level thinking.

Third, some in Classical figure that this kind of program is only for the humanities kid, and not for the math/science student. That too is wrong. It’s not just the English major who needs to think well, to write well, and to learn history. Science and math students–yes, and engineers–need to know how to write reports and studies. All of them also need to make logical, compelling, and beautiful defenses for their faith. Don’t let your math and science kid convince you that he doesn’t need to go very far in his humanities. That’s just not correct. In fact, when Rhetoric is taught well, the math guy will like learning how to write for Rhetoric just as well as the humanities kid. (As the author of Biblical Worldview Rhetoric and the teacher of that class for many years, I can attest to the number of engineering guys who passed through my classes with flying colors. There’s something about the formulaic method in Rhetoric that they seem to love just as much as the potential English major!)

Fourth, the Classical method is not necessarily THE only way to educate. It is, in my opinion, superior in many ways. But it does not give a parent or teacher license to brag, boast, or snobbishly declare that all other ways are rubbish. That’s just irritating, unkind, and wrong. I urge all parents to educate their children WELL. Use what methods you can afford and what you have the time and inclination for. However, Classical schooling does not give you license to rub other people’s faces in it. Don’t let me catch you doing it.

In fact, in some places I have witnessed overemphasis on the METHOD of Classical and Christian education, rather than on the HEART. Once Christ has been abandoned as the center of all things, it will all fall apart quickly. Keep perspective, knowing that Christ is at the center, holding all things together. Never make Classical THE THING in your lives more than Christ is.

Fifth, some people will try to sell you on Classical models that 1) might not truly be fully Classical or 2) may be wrongly administered or 3) might just be low quality. Inspect the material well. Does it include answer keys, supply links and lists of extra reading? Does it cover enough material for 9 months of deep study? By high school, your child should be able to spend one to two hours per day on each subject. Is the curriculum providing enough rich materials for that kind of study? Or does it skip around from here to there, not focusing for very long? Does it offer opportunities for students to reflect on what they read and make connections to their studies?

One popular Classical set of studies, selling from Ancient to Modern syllabi, piles the reading on to the students but does not supply any kind of teacher guide so that the parent or tutor can help the student make connections throughout. That’s unfortunate. Some programs I have seen will provide classes for 8 weeks and then encourage parents to give their students full credit. I beg to differ; no 8-week course can give the kind of breadth and scope necessary for a full high school credit (hardly even for a half-credit). Nor should you, for example, award an English credit for some curriculum that has you read a few books and write one or two essays. Be reasonable. That’s cheating your child of valuable and necessary learning.

Sixth, and this is very important, the student in Classical all the way through high school may tend toward arrogance if not carefully balanced. existentialismAgain, some of this has to do with the exclusivity that one might feel about having done this wonderful thing called Classical. But much of it comes from knowing that you are reading and studying some very difficult material at a very high level of thinking and writing, and that just makes you superior to your peers. Arrogance has no place in Classical and Christian education. This kind of learning may cause you to think deeply, write beautifully, stand up and speak well for yourself, and you may be able to hold a conversation about existentialism with the best of them, but that does not make you even one small step better than others. Parents, do not let your teenager take that unwise step. May your child grow into a humble, patient, wise, and caring young man or woman, groomed by Classical education.

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Classical Homeschooling at the upper levels

In my last blog I touched on the parroting aspect of the grammar level of classical schooling. If you were to continue schooling your child this way all the way through high school, you will have failed miserably. Education runs aground if it ends in parroting. Without the growth and expansion of the dialectical and rhetoric stages of education, a student will not know how to handle the information he has learned all along, and he turns out no better than his public-schooled peers.

Dorothy Sayers, in her 1947 essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” asked her readers if they were not disturbed by certain signs of modern education:Dorothy Sayers

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?

 Sayers, in her post-World-War-II thinking, is asking how an educated people could have succumbed to the propaganda of such madmen as Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin. What would she say today about our political-correctness run amok? Where people spout empty philosophies that sound so great but are completely meaningless? Or where people spew forth ideas full of the failings of philosophies past (i.e. socialism)?

You will be easily led down the wrong path if all you can do is parrot back what you have learned. If you cannot plumb the depths of what you study, if you cannot separate emotion from fact, and analyze the information that is coming at you, if you cannot then articulate your beliefs, you run the risk of falling into the trap of whoever holds power. This is why we teach our students how to think, analyze, process, make connections, read for themselves the ideas of the past. This is why we educate classically.

Thus we begin a discussion of Classical Schooling at the upper level. The standards suddenly just got higher, didn’t they? When you look for curriculum for your teenager, you need to discern what is being taught. Is it more rote learning? Is it empty of meaning? Then discard it. Does it teach a student to make connections between disciplines? In other words, does it encourage the reader to study the philosopher and the age in which he lived, and then look at the impact of that philosophy on the age that followed? Does the curriculum walk a student through history to make a point? Does it bring in the writings of great thinkers (both good and bad) in their own words?

One very impactful part of high school Classical schooling comes when students make connections that startle them and get them thinking. I have my students read “The Communist Manifesto” and then Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address. They are stunned to see ideas put forth in FDR that they had just read in Marx. It’s those kinds of connections we want to see.

Some Classical curricula just piles on the work, pumping students full of learning but never encouraging them to pause and contemplate the connections they need to make during these crucial teenage years. If there is no directed learning, just a lot of reading, discard it. Does that mean there needs to be a teacher at the other end? Maybe. If there is no teacher material that helps you, the parent, to direct your child’s thinking and make significant conclusions about the material, then perhaps this isn’t the curriculum for you.

Over the years I have encountered six or seven key brands of curriculum that consider themselves classical, and perhaps a handful more of classical schooling brands that tout an online form of some sort. Evaluate them carefully. Ask questions.

If this is an online or face-to-face learning experience, ask lots of questions. Hold them to a high level of accountability, because they are probably asking for a lot of money. Will there be someone to direct my student’s thinking, to help my student break down the information he is consuming? Will someone give my student directed feedback at regular intervals so that his learning/writing will improve and grow? Is this taught from a biblical or secular worldview? Is it learning just for the sake of learning, or is this learning in order to produce a thoughtful young man or woman? What will they be reading? Will there be plenty of primary resources to read?

Focus on writing. Be sure that you begin their writing in their earlier years, and be sure to continue at a high level throughout the Dialectic and Rhetoric level. They should be done with grammar by (or including) 9th grade or so, and they should be able to focus on writing well from then on. Ensure that the student gets directed feedback on his writing from someone who can hold his feet to the flames, so that he can grow as a writer. Do not ignore his writing! A purposeful Rhetoric curriculum will improve his writing as well. By the end of his high school career he should have learned how to express his thoughts beautifully, both written and orally.

A thoughtful, purposeful Classical educator will look at the young child and envision him as a high school senior, and the parent/teacher will begin to pour into him those things that will form him into the thoughtful human being God has created him to become. Isn’t that the goal of parenting anyway?

In my next blog I will talk about the hazards of Classical schooling.

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