Friday, August 30, 2013

Complete Surrender by Julian Wilson

I was looking for a good missionary biography and found this one on Eric Liddell available for Kindle. Anyone who has seen the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire knows the story of the runner who shot to world fame after his amazing performance in the 1924 Olympics. But while the movie majors on his athletic ability and minors on his faith, Julian Wilson’s book, Complete Surrender, does the opposite. He passes lightly over Liddell’s Olympic accomplishments and focuses on his evangelistic work and on his eight years as a missionary in China.

Despite his dazzling success on the running track and meteoric rise to national prominence Eric Liddell remained modest and unaffected. Those who knew him well knew he was more concerned with what God thought about him than what the people around him thought. His one overwhelming concern was to do what was pleasing to God.

Most of the testimonies in the book refer to his kindness and unselfishness, particularly after the Japanese put him in an internment camp (during WWII) where he cared for those who were weak and sick. The overcrowded camp with its horrible food and appalling living conditions caused the majority of its inmates to grumble and quarrel.  Eric, on the other hand, sought to be a peacemaker by sowing seeds of encouragement. He taught math and science, planned sports activities and puppet shows and taught the children how to play chess and checkers.

Julian Wilson shared this anecdote:

Camp policy was to have no games on Sunday, but a group of bored teenagers defied the ruling one Sunday and organized a boys versus girls hockey match. Without a referee, tempers became frayed and the match ended in a brawl. The following Sunday, Liddell was out on the field umpiring. “Eric decided it was far more important that the youngsters played and worked together in harmony than it was to keep his Sabbatarian principles inviolate” according to his close friend Joe Cotterill. So the man who gave up the chance of winning a gold medal in the 100 meters at the Olympic games, because he refused to run on Sundays, was prepared to sacrifice his principles for the sake of fostering a spirit of peace and unity among the young people.

The book contains many more amazing stories. But Wilson is careful to emphasize that Liddell was just an ordinary man who walked in complete obedience to Christ. Eric's favorite theme when he talked to young people was “a God-controlled life” and his last words were, “Annie, it’s complete surrender.” Although he had given up his athletic career to go to China, he won the only race that really matters. At the end of his life he could say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (II Tim 4:7,8)

Friday, August 23, 2013

Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson

Don't ask me why I was expecting this to be a tedious read. It was anything but.

Master of Ballantrae is the story of two brothers, one good and one bad. James, the wicked one, is heir to the family fortune, is daddy's favorite, and can charm the rattle off a snake. The good brother, Henry, is quiet and self-effacing and not much liked by anybody. The narrator of the story is Mr. MacKellar, the steward of the Durrisdeer estate and one of Henry's only true friends.

The novel is set in England in 1745.  James, "the Master", runs off to join Bonnie Prince Charlie who is striving to restore the Stuarts to the throne.  When James does not return after several years, he is presumed dead and Henry marries Allison, his brother's fiancĂ©e, and becomes the new heir. 

But the Master is not dead, nor does he die at several other opportune moments.  He seems to have nine lives and with each one he comes back to haunt and torment his brother. Honestly, to read of his constant villainy juxtaposed with his power to beguile and deceive gave me the shivers. And it made the book very hard to put down. As G.K. Chesterton said in his book on Victorian authors, "In The Master of Ballantrae Stevenson proved with a pen of steel that the Devil is a gentleman, but is nonetheless the Devil."

I kept wondering why I've never heard anyone talk about this book. Maybe its because there is no happy ending.  Hatred destroys everything. Then why would I recommend it? For one thing, it shows how even a good man can be corrupted when he harbors bitterness. Second, the book is beautifully written. I am already a huge Stevenson fan because of his lyrical and enchanting poetry (Child's Garden of Verses), but this is the first time I've dipped into one of his adventure novels.

Apparently there were two awful movies based on this book. (1953 with Errol Flynn as James, and 1984 with Michael York) Better to stick to the book.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

Fans of Wendell Berry know his favorite themes are the importance of community and the disadvantages of runaway progress. His novel Jayber Crow is no exception. In his gentle, inimitable style Berry takes us through the ups and downs of Port William’s bachelor barber.

Born in 1914 and orphaned at a young age, Jayber Crow is now 72 years old and is looking back on his life.  He begins with early memories of the orphanage where he recalls asking hard questions about faith and getting few satisfying answers.  Even though he abandons Christianity for a time, he can’t get away from feeling that he is “blessed” and even “called”.  Biblical language is sprinkled throughout the book. On returning to Port William he writes, “In one breath I was lost and a stranger, and in the next I was found.”(p. 87)

One reason he scorned religion was because it preached against pleasure.

This religion that scorned the beauty and goodness of this world was a puzzle to me. To begin with, I didn’t think anybody believed it.  Those world-condemning sermons were preached to people who, on Sunday mornings, would be wearing their prettiest clothes... The people who heard those sermons loved good crops, good gardens, good livestock and work animals and dogs; they loved flowers and the shade of trees, and laughter and music; some of them could make you a fair speech on the pleasures of a good drink of water or a patch of wild raspberries... And when church was over they would go home to heavenly dinners of fried chicken, and creamed new potatoes and creamed new peas and hot biscuits and butter and cherry pie and sweet milk and buttermilk. And the preacher, having foresworn on behalf of everybody the joys of the flesh, would eat with unconsecrated relish. (p. 161)

Mattie Chatham is a key character in the book. Although they never marry, Jayber’s love for her causes a dramatic turning point in his life. Through his selfless love for her he learns to love others more deeply and to accept the mysteries of faith that he had previously rejected.

In a moment of musing he writes, It is not a terrible thing to love the world, knowing that the world is always passing and irrecoverable, to be known only in loss. To love anything good, at any cost, is a bargain. (p. 329)

It was a bold move for to offer this book selection since there is unchristian behavior throughout; readers of traditional Christian novels may be offended by some profanity, drinking and womanizing.  To top it off, the one  “Christian” in the book is the mean-spirited, unhappy Cecelia Overhold. Average reader beware! But if you want to read a well-written, poignant tale of one man’s search for love and for God, you’ll be touched by Jayber Crow.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Five Worst Books for Children

Tim Challies shares this link to an article on the Five Worst Books for Children.  I was not surprised to see The Golden Compass since it was written purposely to turn children's hearts away from God, but the Scott O'Dell title caught me off guard. What do you think?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marryat

Educator Charlotte Mason would have called The Children of the New Forest a “living history book” since it painlessly teaches the basics of the English Civil War. If that event doesn’t ring a bell, the name “Cromwell” might just jiggle your memory.

The “Roundheads,” supported by the Parlimentary army, are determined to snuff out the Royalist sympathizers who support King Charles. In the first chapters of the book soldiers are looking for the fugitive king in the New Forest. They burn down the house of a Royalist, Colonel Beverly, and Beverly’s children are forced to flee. They move into the cottage of the groundskeeper Jacob Armitage who hides them, pretending they are his grandchildren. These children of privilege are taught to work and do chores and they adapt quickly to their new life.

At this point the book takes some implausible turns. Jacob teaches them to work, but suddenly the young people are experts on everything (making butter, taming horses, building fences, etc.). This was one of the first historical novels written for young readers and as such its teenaged protagonists perform heroic feats that are sometimes unbelievable (like when the 14 and 16 year old boys fight off a gang of robbers). On the other hand, fifteen year old children in the 17th century were not the babies they are now.

The book is written from a pro-Royalist, anti-Cromwell view which makes it intriguing. I really liked how the protagonist, Edward Beverly, forms a friendship with Master Heatherstone (a man who should be his enemy) because they are both men of high character who want what is best for England. Both are sorry for the way their political parties have taken advantage of their power.

It’s a sort of “Swiss Family Robinson” in the English forest. There’s some “living science” thrown in as the children learn horticulture and animal husbandry. The children adopt a gypsy boy who is portrayed stereotypically as lazy. His broken English could be offensive to some, especially his unfortunate use of the word “Massah” when he addresses Edward and Humphrey.

In spite of its shortcomings, I enjoyed this book. The presence of God is taken for granted. So are chivalry, honesty, and perseverance. And I appreciated the history lesson too.

Free for Kindle.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Reminiscing about Books

I was adding a few titles to my reading journal and decided to take a peak at what I was reading ten years ago. It turned out to be a Jane Austen knockoff called The Third Sister by Julia Barrett.  (I have since given up all books that try to sound like Austen, but which invariably fail.)

Peeking back a little further, I saw that twenty years ago this month I was reading poetry and books about homeschooling.  And 25 years ago I was devouring all of Michael Phillips re-workings of George MacDonald's romances. I was also reading my first Elizabeth Goudge book, The Scent of Water.

It's fun to think that I've read hundreds of books since then and have discovered many wonderful new authors.

Anybody else keep a reading log? What were you reading a decade ago?