Friday, June 29, 2018

Innocent Blood by P.D. James

How do you rate a book that is highly disturbing and sinister, yet deals honestly with the harsh reality of human depravity? In Innocent Blood, James forces you to think about evil and its horrific consequences, which makes it a very painful read. While listening to the audiobook I had to fast forward several parts that were too gruesome and sordid to bear.

Virtually every character is a product of extreme brokenness. They hopelessly and selfishly navigate through life, unable to give or receive love. The crime doesn't just happen. The underlying hate, fear, and lust had been embedded in each character a long time, working its way into every corner of their hearts. I was nearly knocked over at how expertly James introduced the only true picture of love into her story. Maurice, a staunch atheist, tells how a heavenly Father sent his Son to die for a world lost in the muck and mire of sin. Maurice is incredulous and unbelieving, which only magnifies the effect.

I am in a conundrum. I can't recommend this book because of the yuck factor, but at the same time it treats fallenness truthfully and well. In a world where atheism is a fast growing religion among our young, this book shows where it leads. And it clearly shows that there is no possible redemption for damaged lives just by trying to do better. The only deep change is through faith and belief in God. That this message is imbedded in the story (from such an unlikely source) left me in awe.

Families are becoming more and more broken as we drift away from absolutes in our culture. As I read, I kept wondering what needs to happen to prevent events like those in the book from happening. If this book is any indication of the outcomes we will see in our lifetime, oh, how we need to break the cycle! The message of the cross is the only answer. From the mocking lips of the unbeliever comes the only remedy. Innocent blood was shed for all of us.

(This is a guest post by fellow missionary and book lover - who also happens to be my sister - Grace Ensz.)


Friday, June 22, 2018

Hans Brinker by Mary Mapes Dodge

I usually like a two-for-the-price-of-one bargain, but in the case of Hans Brinker it just didn't work. Mary Mapes Dodge not only wanted to tell the story of the poor, but hardworking protagonist, but she also wanted to weave in many heroes and legends of Dutch history. That would have been okay if this additional information had been skillfully woven into the narrative, but most of it was tacked on, interrupting the story's flow.

So why has this novel, with its burden of extraneous facts, survived for over 150 years? Because it's a wonderful story of family love, honest labor, and hard-won victories. It's much more than a novel about a Dutch boy's desire to win the coveted silver skates.

When the story begins Hans and his sister Gretel are skating on wooden blocks and are the subject of ridicule by some of the more well-to-do young people. Their father has been sick for ten years and they are living in extreme poverty. But that doesn't keep them from dreaming about the big race and the possibility of entering it. As the story moves along many mysteries are uncovered. What happened to make their father lose his memory? Where is the family savings hidden? Will Raff Brinker get well again? Can Hans and Gretel participate in the ice skating competition? But the heart of the story is not found in the answers to these questions. The heart of the story is found in the relationships that are built and strengthened between friends and family members, many of whom give sacrificially so that others might benefit. The family's faith  is an integral and natural part of the novel.

I ended up enjoying it very much in spite of the distracting digressions. An abridged version would be lovely as long as it did not leave out all the Christian bits. (Many abridged versions of Heidi and Robinson Crusoe leave that out, which robs the stories of their richness.)

I listened to a free version of this book at Librivox. The narrator is better than most, but was just okay for this particular book.


Friday, June 15, 2018

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Don't be put off by the fact that Screwtape Letters appears to be a conversation between two demons. It is not so much a dialogue between devils as it is a treatise on human frailties and how easily they can become sins. Every letter left me gob-smacked with its insight into how Satan takes legitimate pleasures and twists them ever so slightly to make them ungodly.

Repeatedly Screwtape warns his apprentice not to let his human experience true pleasures because they are real and we want him to be in touch with all that is false. Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are on the Enemy's ground... All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. (p. 41)

Rather than feeling overwhelmed by Satan's schemes (as I expected to be), I was reminded over and over by Lewis of God's relentless pursuit of fallen man and His love for him in the midst of that fallenness. In this passage Screwtape warns Wormwood that while afflictions might seem like a good thing from a devil's point of view, they can also, unhappily, be used to make men holy.

Now it may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favorites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else. The reason is this. To us a human is primarily food; our aim is absorption of it will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy demands is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome replicas of Himself - not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. (p. 37)

I could go on quoting indefinitely, but will spare you my over-enthusiastic rambling. I loved Chapter on 14 on false humility. And Chapter 18 on how gluttony can be exemplified not just in an excessive desire for food, but also in an excessive desire to control one's food intake. I loved Chapter 18 on marriage and the idolatry of romantic feelings. What didn't I love? Not much. The only reason I was happy for the book to end was because my brain was on big-idea-overload.

I am glad my C.S. Lewis reading group decided to read just 5 letters per week. One or two letters is the perfect daily dose in order to assimilate these important concepts. I did not expect to love this book so much, but know it will definitely be in my top 5 titles for 2018. If you haven't read this title, I strongly encourage you to get your hands on it. It's one of Lewis' most accessible apologetic works.

A few more quotes:

It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one. (p. 56)

He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. (p. 38)

All extremes except extreme devotion to the Enemy are to be encouraged. (p. 33)


Friday, June 8, 2018

Friends at Thrush Green

Now that I'm in the tenth book in the Thrush Green series, the townspeople are old friends and I often enjoy sipping a cup of tea while sitting down to "chat" with them. In fact, tea time is so much a part of each book that in this one it is referred to as a "never failing help in times of trouble," a reference to Psalm 46:1 that I didn't find sacrilegious in the least. The ladies of Thrush Green frequently render comfort to one another over a hot drink and a slice of sponge cake.

Although Friends at Thrush Green purports to be about the two retired school teachers (from book nine) returning for a visit, many other townspeople have moments when they take center stage. Violet's struggles with her increasingly senile sister and the new headmaster's ill wife are just two examples.

This was not your run-of-the-mill, nothing-much-happens Thrush Green novel. I enjoyed the many mysteries. Will the persistent Percy Hodges finally find a new wife? Who is the mysterious Teddy and will he win the heart of one of the spinsters? What is Mrs. Lester's baffling illness? Is Bertha just eccentric or is she a certified lunatic?

I loved finding the answers to these questions. And, as always, I loved the gracious way that the folks at Thrush Green dealt with them, especially when the answers were difficult. This is cozy fiction by modern standards even though there are occasional lapses in morality (Nelly Pigott left her husband for another man in an earlier book and there have been a few babies born out of wedlock).

As always, there's the lovely writing: There was something about running water which healed the spirit as surely as sleep did... He sat by its side on a grassy bank, watching the secret life of the water creatures. Flies studded the glistening mud at the edge of the bank and a trio of butterflies played among a patch of nettles. An ancient willow tree stretched a gnarled arm over the water. Purple loosestrife and wild mint stirred in a light breeze, setting free the river smell unforgettable, unforgotten, which brought back to the watcher on the bank a hundred memories of other loved rivers. Charles sat there for almost half an hour, letting the magic work its spell and then he rose to return home. (p. 186)

P.S. These e-books are expensive so see if you can download them from your public library like I do.


Friday, June 1, 2018

Quote on Divine Humility by C.S. Lewis

I've seen the theme of divine humility mentioned in several of C.S. Lewis' works, but never spelled out so clearly as in The Problem of Pain:

It is a poor thing to strike our colors to God when the ship is going down under us; a poor thing to come to Him as a last resort, to offer up "our own" when it is no longer worth keeping. If God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is "nothing better" now to be had. The same humility is shown by all those divine appeals to our fears which trouble high-minded readers of scripture. It is hardly complimentary to God that we should choose Him as an alternative to Hell: yet even this He accepts. (p. 97)

Astonishing, to say the least!