Tag: biography (page 1 of 3)

10 Living Books About Church History

My father used to read to me from The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. He read it in answer to some question I had about my homework, some question that probably did not involve the Romans, and he read it at length.

I know now that that was an awesome thing to do—take my homework question and place it in context by linking it to the historical moment that preceded it—but as a teenager eager to finish that assignment so I could get back to living life, i.e. watching MTV while I waited for my hair color to set, I didn’t appreciate what my father was trying to do.

I appreciate it now: just as we can’t pull Leviticus out of context and expect to understand its laws and commands, we can’t pull our point in history out of context and expect to understand how we got here, what we must do to change, where we are headed—any of it.

History is our broader context: from the decisions our parents made that shape our lives now, to the decisions some emperor made hundreds of years ago that shape the structure of our cities, we need to have at least a passing familiarity with them in order to understand our own roles and responsibilities now. When we isolate our particular moment in time, it seems absurd—at times even insane (and yes, I’m thinking of the election as I write)—because we do not see the series of events large and small that brought us to this point.

10 Living Books About Church History | Little Book, Big Story

Despite my father’s best efforts, I didn’t even begin to appreciate this fact until a few years ago, when I dipped my toes into the vast and lovely sea of historical narratives. I began to discover many interesting things about our world and about the God who made it, and my way in to each new subject came, in most cases, in the form of a children’s book.

I have compiled a list of some of my favorite books about church history here, and while they’re technically recommendations for your children, I hope you will enjoy them too. And if you find that after reading them, you’re hungry for further study, I have included, wherever possible, recommendations for you.

The Church History ABCs, by Stephen J. Nichols

The Church History ABCs | Little Book, Big Story

What better way to learn the alphabet than by using key figures of church history to illustrate each letter? No, I’m kidding. This isn’t an alphabet primer, but a biography sampler: A is for Augustine, Z for Ulrich Zwingli. This is, and probably always will be, my favorite picture book about church history. (Read the full review.)

The History Lives Series, by Mindy and Brandon Withrow

History Lives Series, by Brandon and Mindy Withrow | Little Book, Big Story

This series offers a great introduction to church history for kids or adults (confession: my husband and I both read these. For ourselves, not for the kids). Spread over five volumes, History Lives tells the story of the church from the first century to today, by introducing a new key figure each chapter and telling a slightly fictionalized story about some moment in their life. I use these in conjunction with our history curriculum and my daughter loves them. They’re a bit like Story of the World, but about church history rather than world history. (Read the full review.)

For Grown-Ups

Church History in Plain Languageby Bruce Shelley

 

Lily, The Girl Who Could See, by Sally Oxley

Lily: The Girl Who Could See, by Sally Oxley | Little Book, Big Story

This simple, lovely biography of missionary Lilias Trotter is a keeper: a great fly-over view of a woman who loved and served God, no matter what the cost. And while many missionaries are wonderful to read about but hard to relate to, Lilias’s story resonates with me. Not many of us here are called to be martyrs, but we’re all called to lay down our lives and desires to serve the Lord whole-heartedly. Lilias Trotter, who set aside an opportunity to become “the greatest artist of her generation” in order to place her gifts in the service of the Lord,  is a beautiful example for child and parent alike. (Read the full review.)

For Grown-Ups

A Passion for the Impossible, by Miriam Huffman Rockness

 

Stories of the Saints, by Joyce Denham

Stories of the Saints, by Joyce Denham | Little Book, Big Story

This collection introduces readers to a handful of saints from the early days of the church. Joyce Denhem’s beautiful language pairs nicely with the illustrations, which suggest stained glass windows, but the most beautiful part of the stories is the way they glorify not the saints themselves but the God they served. (Read the full review.)

The Tinker’s Daughter, by Wendy Lawton

The Tinker's Daughter, or "Why is it so hard to find strong Christian characters in fiction?" | Little Book, Big Story

Lawton’s exploration of the life of Mary Bunyan, John’s daughter, is lovely. This is historical fiction at its best, and it’s one of a series of books about young Christian girls throughout history. (Read the full review.)

For Grown-Ups

Pilgrim’s Progressby John Bunyan

 

MOSESby Carole Boston Weatherford

Moses, by Carole Weatherford | Little Book, Big Story

Through an imagined conversation between Harriet Tubman and the Lord, Carole Boston Weatherford paints a portrait of a woman who relied upon the Lord for every step of that first journey from slavery to freedom. The illustrations are moving, depicting Tubman’s travel in a way that captures both the beauty and the hardship of that first flight. Knowing how difficult that first trip was makes the knowledge that she went back (many times) to rescue others from bondage even more amazing.

The Light Keepers Series, by Irene Howat

The Light Keepers Series, by Irene Howat | Little Book, Big Story

This series is like a sampler platter of Christian biographies. There’s a set of biographies about men, and a set about women, with five volumes apiece. I’d be willing to bet that your favorite historical figure is in here somewhere. (Read the full review.)

For Grown-Ups

Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God, by Noel Piper

 

MARTIN LUTHERby Paul L. Maier

Martin Luther, by Paul L. Maier | Little Book, Big Story

This is a powerful, detailed biography of Martin Luther. It is a picture book (and a beautifully illustrated one), but the text is weighty and rich: more suited for independent reading than for reading aloud.  Maier writes about not just who Luther was, but about why his work still matters today.

For Grown-Ups

Luther on the Christian Life, by Carl R. Trueman

 

What is the Church?, by Mandy Groce and Bill Bell

What is the Church? | Little Book, Big Story

Through a sweet rhyme and simple illustrations, the authors explain not just what the church is, but who. This book is great for young readers, but it’s also a nice, succinct look at the church itself for older kids and even adults. (Read the full review.)

Saint Valentine, by Robert Sabuda

Saint Valentine | Little Book, Big Story

This beautifully illustrated, moving story about Saint Valentine is my favorite Valentine’s Day read. Yes, we eat chocolate hearts while we read it, but Valentine’s story reminds us why we give each other notes and gifts on the holiday while painting a picture of sacrificial love given at a great cost. (Read the full review.)


Which books about church history would you add to the list?

Lily, The Girl Who Could See | Sally Oxley

I did not grow up on a steady diet of missionary biographies. A steady diet of Goosebumps: yes. But the missionaries that have been childhood friends for many of you are new acquaintances to me. I met Corrie ten Boom, Elisabeth Elliot, Amy Carmichael and more only after reaching adulthood, but in the few years since I first read their works, their stories have challenged me and shaped my faith. And of all the stories I’ve read, either on my own or while curating a collection of biographies for my daughters, few stand out as brightly to me as the story of Lilias Trotter.

Lily, the Girl Who Could See, by Sally Oxley | Little Book, Big Story

Trotter left home and family behind to follow the Lord wherever he sent her, but she sacrificed something else as well: Lilias Trotter was an unusually gifted painter, a woman able to “see” what made a flower a flower or a face a face and capture that essence with her brush. She trained under a renowned instructor who saw in her the makings of a great artist. But when her dedication to art seemed to come in conflict with her work among London’s poor, Lilias Trotter sought the Lord’s counsel and strove to bring everything—her service, her love for him, and her gifts—under his authority. The result was a life lived beautifully, a work of art in its own right.

Lily, the Girl Who Could See, by Sally Oxley | Little Book, Big Story

This is a subject dear to me because I talk to many mothers who are worried that, in laying down a gift that God has given them in order to raise children, they are, perhaps, giving up too much. But I have seen in my own life the way that the Lord often asks us to give up the very gifts that seem to come from him, only to give them back to us later, transformed by his touch. For me, this was music (I wrote at length about this for Deeply Rooted Magazine, Issue 7: Legacy). For some, it is teaching. Or accounting. Or even serving within the church.

The story of Lilias Trotter beautifully captures the struggle of a Christian who is torn between two good gifts, but who chooses instead to serve the Lord who gives the gifts—whatever the cost. The book’s language is simple; Tim Ladwig’s watercolors, gorgeous (he’s quickly becoming one of my favorite illustrators). This picture book is a lovely introduction to the life of Lilias Trotter, and one that gives a powerful example of a Christian laying down their life in the service of the Lord and yet receiving back, in this life, what they lost one hundredfold.

Lily, the Girl Who Could See, by Sally Oxley | Little Book, Big Story


If you would like to learn more about Lilias Trotter, you can find her story in Noel Piper’s excellent book, Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God (that’s where I first met her). And I just started reading the biography that Lily, The Girl Who Could See is based on: A Passion for the Impossible, by Miriam Huffman Rockness. So far, it’s lovely.

Which missionary should I meet next?

Lily: The Girl Who Could See
Sally Oxley, Tim Ladwig (2015)

The History Lives Series | Mindy and Brandon Withrow

I learned long ago that one of the best ways to tackle a new topic is to read a children’s book about it. Books written for adults are, of course, more comprehensive, but a good children’s book will stick to the point, keep the story lively, and will allow the exciting parts of the story to be exciting. So when my husband expressed an interest in church history, I started with these books: true, living stories about key figures in church history, all underpinned by a chronological sense of history as a story with many chapters.

Peril and Peace, by Brandon and Mindy Withrow | Little Book, Big Story

The History Lives series walks through church history in five volumes, chronicling the Ancient (Peril and Peace), Medieval (Monks and Mystics), Reformation (Courage and Conviction), Awakening (Hearts and Hands) and Modern church (Rescue and Redeem). Most chapters depict small scenes in the life of a significant figure in church history, immersing the reader in the details of the figure’s life at one particular time and place in a compelling and vivid way. They read more like stories than like biographies, which makes them fun to read aloud.

Brandon and Mindy Withrow obviously chose their subjects carefully: there are figures in here that we all know, but there are many that are more obscure and whose stories I’m grateful to them for recovering. Tucked between the stories are a few topical chapters that flesh out what was happening in the church at the time and why it was significant.

History Lives Series, by Brandon and Mindy Withrow | Little Book, Big Story

The Withrows bring a balanced perspective to complex issues like the Crusades, resisting the urge to distill the lives of these very real, sinful people down into cautionary tales or glorified epic adventures. Of the medieval church, they write,

“It is often hard for modern Christians to remember that the people who developed these ideas were studying the Bible in the medieval world—a world very different from today. . . . Like Christians of all eras, they made both positive and negative contributions to the church.”

I appreciated this perspective.

I was less impressed, though, by the way the writers updated the dialogue of the characters to make it feel not consistent with their own time but consistent with ours. Perhaps this makes them appear more relevant or readable, but the moments when the characters quoted their own works within conversation felt refreshing, as though they’d been allowed to breath through the story rather than have to keep in step with the writer’s tone. Those, for me, were the moments when history truly lived as I read.

Heart and Hands, by Brandon and Mindy Withrow | Little Book, Big Story

But that’s a small complaint, and on the whole, I loved these books. They provide a great flyover view of church history from its early days to the present, and are easy to read start-to-finish or in tandem with a more detailed history curriculum (we’re currently reading Monks & Mystics with the Veritas Press history cards, if you’re interested). In fact, they remind me more than a little of Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World series, but with an emphasis on church (rather than world) history. They whetted my appetite for history as well as my husband’s, and will, I hope, open up the world of church history for our daughters.

History Lives Series, by Brandon and Mindy Withrow | Little Book, Big Story


The History Lives Series
Brandon and Mindy Withrow (2012)

The Light Keepers Series | Irene Howat

I did not grow up reading missionary biographies. I have no old favorites to pull out for my daughters, no women who inspired me to do great things for God—only books I’d rather they never read. Christopher Pike. That sort of thing.

So I’m thankful for collections like Light Keepers that curate biographies for me, bundling them ten at a time under compelling titles like Ten Girls Who Made History or Ten Boys Who Changed the World. Each chapter in Irene Howat’s series tells a short story about one of ten figures in Christian history. She writes in a simple, narrative style, usually focusing on the subject’s youth (hence the title Ten Girls not Ten Women) and following the story with a brief collection of thoughts on the person’s historical context or on their major contributions to history.

The Light Keepers Series, by Irene Howat | Little Book, Big Story

These books are not meant to be a comprehensive biography of any one person, but serve as a sort of sampler platter that will, I hope, whet my daughters’ appetites for stories of women who were great not by the standards of this world but by the standards of the next. I hope that having met Corrie ten Boom as a child, they will recognize her name when, as women, they come across The Hiding Place. Or that having learned about Elisabeth Elliot as a child in these books, they will go on to read even a few of her many, wonderful books.

The Light Keepers Series, by Irene Howat | Little Book, Big Story

While the world around us tells my daughters to emulate Elsa or some rich, pretty actress, I want to lean heavily on the other side of the scales and fill their childhood with stories of women who loved even when that love came at a great cost, who gave more than they thought they had to give, and who trusted in the One who made them to supply their strength when they felt it failing.

At seven, a princess in a gorgeous dress will probably always have more appeal than a nurse tending the wounded on a battlefield—I don’t expect Florence Nightingale to win out over Elsa now. But I am sowing seeds: when they grow old enough to consider what sort of life they want to live, what they hope their own contributions toward history will be, I hope my daughters look toward Edith Schaeffer, Susannah Spurgeon, or Amy Carmichael. And I hope they have these books handy when they do.

Ten Girls Who Changed the World, by Irene Howat | Little Book, Big Story


Ten Girls Who Made History
Irene Howat (2003)

Ten Girls Who Changed the World
Irene Howat (2004)

Ten Boys Who Made a Difference
Irene Howat (2004)

Stories of the Saints | Joyce Denham

I grew up with a piecemeal view of history, with some knowledge about Vikings and some about American pioneers and some about the major players in WWII, but without an overarching sense of history’s continuing narrative to pin those pieces into place.

I want our daughters to know that narrative, so they have a strong sense of where they fit in the story of our world and find comfort in the fact that our time is not an island around which the past and future flow but a part of a whole that is shaped by the past and is now shaping the future. That desire has largely informed our decision to educate our kids the way we do, and it influences our decision to bring home books like Stories of the Saints.

Stories of the Saints, by Joyce Denham | Little Book, Big Story

Stories of the Saints is a collection of short stories about figures in church history who lived and died for God’s glory. Joyce Denham does not glorify the saints themselves or dwell on what were probably gruesome deaths, but instead points their stories back toward the Lord they served despite opposition. She writes beautifully, presenting imaginative scenes that focus on the history of the saints’ lives rather than on miracles and legends, and Judy Stevens’s illustrations cloak each story in a visible, reverent joy. (I love them.)

Stories of the Saints, by Joyce Denham | Little Book, Big Story

Books like this help place our own time within its context and remind us that others came before us and withstood trials, persecution, and hardship, and God wrought something beautiful out of their obedience. I think it will be increasingly important to help our children understand this, for we do not want our children to be surprised by hardship when it comes (and it is coming, for us as much as for Christians all over the world); we do not want them to feel alone in it, either, as though something strange were happening to them (1 Pet. 4:12)

And so we hold up the lives of the saints for them to study and know, and hope that they take away this when they close the book: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:13).

Stories of the Saints, by Joyce Denham | Little Book, Big Story

Christ’s glory will be revealed; he will return. And we long for them to recognize him when he does.


Stories of the Saints
Joyce Denham, Judy Stevens (2007)

The Tinker’s Daughter | Wendy Lawton

Twice in one week, I found myself deep in conversations with friends about one question: Why is it so difficult to write about Christian characters?

The question surfaced after I narrowly resisted the urge to throw a certain children’s book across the room when the heroine—a Christian girl who held fast to her faith during adversity and yet to whom I remained thoroughly unsympathetic—”sobbed violently” one too many times. This offended both the reader and the editor in me, but also flummoxed the Christian in me, because shouldn’t a character’s relationship with the Lord form a compelling thread within a story? It’s something so beautiful, so rich. Shouldn’t authors be able to capture that well?

Some do. John Bunyan comes to mind, and so does C.S. Lewis. And Marilynne Robinson. But when the work is intended for children, somehow the Christian element emerges either in an understated theme or in allegory—both of which are fine—or else the Christian threads become so overt that they seem superimposed upon the story’s plot, lending the book an unwelcome awkwardness. A preachiness. And I don’t think anybody likes preachiness.

The Tinker's Daughter, or "Why is it so hard to find strong Christian characters in fiction?" | Little Book, Big Story

I have read a few children’s books that not only weave threads of Christian belief into a plot gracefully but also make them a key point of the story, and here they are:

Heidi. Treasures of the Snow. What Katy Did. That’s it. I have read a lot of children’s books and those are the only three that come to mind.

So, why is it so difficult to write believably Christian characters and to capture their walk with Christ in a way that is both genuine and appealing?

Here is my theory: Writing about something as intimate as a person’s relationship with an unseen God must fall into the same territory as writing about one’s own marriage without resorting to cliche or sentimentality. To succeed in communicating something so intimate about a subject to which you are so close, you must strike all the notes just right or the chord fails and turns from pure music to dissonance, and the reader finds herself (for example) tempted to chuck a book across a room in frustration, because the thing the writer attempted to do should have been beautiful but wasn’t.

Daughters of the Faith Series | Little Book, Big Story

For a writer to capture something as personal as a character’s spiritual growth, they have to be willing to allow the character’s doubt onto the page at times, and to accept the fact that faith is complex—it is neither simple or moralistic. They have to be willing to step back from their own relationship with the Lord a little and observe how it works, and to lend their characters just enough of their own experience that the characters successfully cross that gap from stereotype to genuine, likeable person.

I say this as a reader, mind you. I haven’t even dared tackle this subject in my own writing. But I have seen novels make the ambitious attempt to scale the twin peaks of faith and fiction only to tumble into a crevasse somewhere between the two and land in my “used bookstore” pile. Which brings me back to that book that I did not finish.

That story should have been at least interesting, if not absorbing. But it wasn’t. And after I abandoned that particular ship, I found my desire for good, Christian literature hardening into a resolve to find good, Christian literature for our daughters, as well as for the kids at school. I took to roaming the e-aisles of Amazon, looking for potential gems.

The Tinker's Daughter, by Wendy Lawton | Little Book, Big Story

And that is how I found The Tinker’s Daughter. More to the point, I suppose, is the fact that I found Wendy Lawton, an author capable of writing a compelling story that neither cheapens her characters’ Christian faith nor makes them unpleasantly trite. The Tinker’s Daughter is a well-crafted, fictional account of Mary Bunyan, John Bunyan’s eldest daughter, during the time when her father was newly imprisoned for “unsanctioned” preaching. His faith throughout the story is abundant and beautiful to behold. Mary’s faith is that of a fledgling, taking off timidly by the end of the book.

Another point in Lawton’s favor: Mary is blind, and for an author who can make me feel and smell and listen to the world of a girl without sight, I have nothing but admiration.

Daughters of the Faith Series | Little Book, Big Story

I have read a handful of books in this series so far, and I must warn you that Lawton does not tackle easy material: Shadow of His Hand relates Anita Dittman’s experience in the concentration camps of Germany; Freedom’s Pen tells the story of Phillis Wheatley, who was captured in Africa as a young girl and endured the horror of the slave ships before being sold to a wealthy New England family.

Lawton handles this material well, including just enough detail for the reader to grasp how truly terrible these historical events were without making the stories too heavy to bear. She allows her characters to ask hard questions through it all, and includes answers that satisfy the reader without oversimplifying the truth. So, I like the fact that these books tackle content like the Holocaust and slavery. But I don’t recommend handing them over to your children without reading through them for yourself.

That said, some of them I did allow Lydia to read on her own (after reading them myself)—The Tinker’s Daughter was one of those. We’ll wait on Shadow of His Hand and Freedom’s Pen for now. I believe there are nine books in the series, so I have more to read, but for now I’m savoring each new volume and rejoicing in the existence of an author like Wendy Lawton. These books allow me to hope that there are other authors out there like her.

And it occurs to me that you might know about them: Do you know of any chapter books that center around characters whose Christian faith is a central part of the story? Please let me know in the comments!


The Tinker’s Daughter
Wendy Lawton (2002)

Featured Author: CS Lewis

When I choose books to review on this blog, I find that there are some authors who have won my heart so thoroughly that I can’t decide which of their books to review first. These are the authors that I love for themselves, not for any single book, and whose name on the spine of an otherwise unknown volume is enough insurance for me to buy a copy without even peeking at the blurb on the back of the book. Introducing you to them is my way of saying, “Yes, we’ll get to the specific titles. But for now, just skip to the part where you read any book they have ever written.”

Today’s featured author is one who looms large in the recent history of Christian thought. He is one that you’ve doubtless encountered and may already love, but the thought that you may not have gone further into his work than The Chronicles of Narnia finally motivated me to put pen to paper and draft this post. Perhaps I’m reminding you of an old friend. Perhaps. But I hope that, for some of you, this post serves as a welcome introduction to a new author, one whose work will earn a well-dogeared place in your own library: CS Lewis.


To be perfectly honest, I labored through the first chapters of Mere Christianity when I first encountered it at 19. I made a few false starts before I pushed on through those introductory chapters and into the heart of the book, but once there I realized that I was in the hands of an author adept at explaining complex concepts, and I began to see that the very questions I wrestled with as a new Christian could not only be answered, but could be answered in a logical way. (I have read the whole book many times since.)

C.S. Lewis fought in one world war but lived through them both, and he was a writer that spoke specifically to his time. But his voice carries, and his answers to the big questions about God and Christianity still satisfy readers today, when we, like the British soldiers and civilians of his original audience, struggle to understand why we should bother with Christianity–or any religion–at all.

Yet while he reasoned clearly on complex issues, he was not above telling stories that still appeal to children as well as adults, Christians as well as non-Christians, bookworms and those who are only caught by a good, old-fashioned adventure. His works span every genre and range in level of difficulty from those written for children (The Chronicles of Narniato works for adults; they cover everything from the afterlife (The Great Divorce) to prayer (Letters to Malcolm) to the question of pain and suffering (The Problem of Pain), all from a layman’s perspective, but with a scholar’s depth and a pitch-perfect ear for language (and humor).

Mere Christianity | Little Book, Big Story

C.S. Lewis seemed always to have the perfect metaphor for the most abstract ideas, and that is, I suppose, why his illustrations turn up in sermon after sermon: if C.S. Lewis has written about the issue in question, then I doubt if anyone else has written about it better.

” . . . it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy has been offered to us. We are far too easily pleased, like an ignorant child who goes on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.” (The Weight of Glory)

Fiction for Children

– The Chronicles of Narniathese are the books that earned Lewis a place on this blog, after all.

Fiction for Adults

– The Space Trilogythese are all worth reading, but I bet you’ll be particularly taken with the second book, Perelandra.

The Science Fiction Trilogy | Little Book, Big Story

– The Screwtape Lettersletters from a senior devil to a junior devil, on how to tempt and enslave a man.

– The Great Divorcean exploration of the afterlife, in narrative form. Utterly unforgettable.

– Til We Have Facesa retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, told by Psyche’s older sister. Unique and absorbing.

Why Should You Read C.S. Lewis? | Little Book, Big Story

Nonfiction for Adults

– Mere Christianityan examination of what Christians believe and how they live in the light of those beliefs. A classic, and for good reason.

– The Weight of Glorya collection of talks and sermons given at various points in his career. One of my favorites, it contains a number of his best-known illustrations, and is a good introduction to his nonfiction.

– The Four LovesLewis writes about the four different types of love.

Why Should You Read C.S. Lewis? | Little Book, Big Story

– Surprised by JoyLewis’s “autobiography of faith,” in which he examines his own conversion from atheism to Christianity.

– Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayerone side of a correspondence about prayer.

– Reflections on the Psalmsa concise meditation on the psalms, from the perspective of Lewis as a layman. He answers some of the common issues in the Psalms (the vindictive violence, for example) in satisfying ways.

– Letters to Childrensweet and charming responses from Lewis to the children who wrote to him about his Narnia books. This book is lesser known, but it’s a treasure.