Tag: church history (page 2 of 3)

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)

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)

Peter’s First Easter | Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Last week, I voiced some rather strong opinions about Bible stories that put peripheral characters in starring roles, but after rereading Petook to my children and preparing to review today’s book, Peter’s First Easter, I realized that I stand rather firmly corrected.

You see, all three of my Easter 2014 reviews feature books that are fantastic examples of how well a simple shift in perspective can refresh a story: in Petook, we saw the event of the Crucifixion through the eyes of a rooster, who stood, in a way, for creation; in The Donkey Who Carried a King, we followed Davey, the donkey; and in Peter’s First Easter, we leave the farm animals behind and read about the last week of Jesus’s life through the first person account of Peter (as envisioned by the author).

Peter's First Easter | Little Book, Big Story

Let me tell you one thing up front: Peter’s First Easter is a deeply moving book. You (if you’re That Sort of Person—I am) will probably cry. You see, Wangerin puts the reader right in Peter’s shoes, describing his love for Jesus, as well as his shock at some of Jesus’s pronouncements—the ones we take for granted, as part of a well known story, but that must have sounded dissonant and strange the first time they were voiced.

This is my body. Take and eat.

Peter's First Easter | Little Book, Big Story

And what must Peter have felt after that third denial of Christ? Wangerin presents a beautiful and believable story that allows us to view the Crucifixion through the eyes of one who is painfully aware of his own brokenness and who fears that nothing will ever be strong enough to restore him—even as he watches the very event that will restore him.

Peter's First Easter | Little Book, Big Story

Despite Wangerin’s use of past tense, there is an urgency to both the language and the illustrations that brings the story near to us, the readers. Tim Ladwig respectfully avoids showing Jesus’s face and uses unusual perspectives—strong diagonal compositions, showing characters in profile or from above—to achieve a sense of inclusion: as the crowd thrust their fists in the air, screaming, “Crucify him!”, the people are depicted at such an angle that we seem to be standing among them with our own fists in the air. And he has a knack with facial expressions: the tears welling up in Peter’s eyes, his expression of wonder at Jesus’s words, the joy and laughter on the disciples’ faces as they meet Jesus, resurrected, for the first time—Ladwig captures them all perfectly.

Peter's First Easter | Little Book, Big Story

This is a lengthy picture book, divided into ten short chapters, so you can read it all at once or in stages—a chapter or two per day throughout Holy Week, perhaps. However you do it, though, don’t rush! This is a book to be savored, one to linger over and explore with little ones.

Peter’s First Easter
Walter Wangerin, Jr., Tim Ladwig (2000)

Saint Patrick | Jonathan Rogers

I found my copy of Saint Patrick  in the vast and vaguely arranged “Religion” section of my favorite used bookstore, and based upon the cover, size and topic of the book, I expected a snappy, action-packed narrative—the man was captured by pirates, after all. What I found instead was a drier, somewhat academic story, with details on the relationship between Ireland, England and the Roman Empire. There were pirates, but not of the swash-buckling sort. High seas, but not a whole lot of adventure upon them.

So why, you ask, do I recommend a book that I just described with words like “dry” and “academic”? For that, I refer you to Charlotte Mason:

It is a great thing to possess a pageant of history in the background of one’s thoughts. We may not be able to recall this or that circumstance, but “the imagination is warmed” . . . The present becomes enriched with the wealth of all that has gone before.

– quoted in When Children Love to Learn, ed. Elaine Cooper

Saint Patrick | Little Book, Big Story

Reading biographies to our children is a great way to color this “pageant of history,” and biographies like Saint Patrick, though not dressed up for quick consumption, contain the depth and detail that make a figure’s story breathe. This book is only half biography, with the last half of  the book dedicated to Saint Patrick’s own writing. That was a treat: I found it quite enjoyable to read his works with the memory of his biography fresh in my mind.

Saint Patrick | Little Book, Big Story

Some of you have kids who will love reading Patrick’s story straight from the pages of this chapter book, while others have children who might benefit more if you read it for yourself and then livened it up by telling the story aloud. Either way, the faithfulness of God runs right through the middle of Patrick’s life, and his obedience sowed seeds that bore a bounty of fruit over the course of generations. His is a story worth remembering, and I’m thankful that a series like “Christian Encounters” puts the biographies of figures like John Bunyan, Jane Austen and Isaac Newton upon our family’s shelves.

Saint Patrick
Jonathan Rogers (2010)

Saint Valentine | Robert Sabuda

It is still winter, right? I thought it was, but my two eldest daughters are playing outside as I write, one of them in naught but a fairy dress.

We were supposed to start our home school lessons an hour ago, but they’ve been out there since breakfast, bounding around the front yard chattering like happy, fluttery birds. At present, they’re sitting side by side under the one tree in our yard—a great, overgrown Christmas tree—holding sticks in front of their knees like fishing rods, heads together, deep in confidence.

Add to that the fact that Phoebe has been sound asleep in her crib for the last hour and you have all the necessary ingredients for an important decision: school can wait.

I’ll let them continue doing whatever it is they’re harmoniously doing and instead of reading Saint Valentine to them, I’ll share it with you. In my inaugural blog post, I sang the praises of the unsung holidays, the ones that we celebrate in sheer fun but whose origins we have collectively almost forgotten. I wrote about Saint Patrick’s Day then, but Valentine’s Day also fits the bill. For those of you dissatisfied with stale candy and heart-shaped doilies, who find yourselves hungry for a bit of history with your holiday—this book is for you!

Saint Valentine | Little Book, Big Story

Robert Sabuda’s telling of the life of Saint Valentine is tender and compelling. It gives children a glimpse of life as a Christian under persecution without overwhelming the sensitive souls (of which I have—and am—one), while telling the beautiful story of Saint Valentine and a little blind girl who came to him for healing.

I’ll warn you: this story doesn’t end happily, but it ends with hope, the sort of stinging hope that makes your throat feel funny. And Sabuda’s illustrations are breathtaking in their complexity: each illustration is a mosaic of (what I’m guessing is) paper, but with such simple tools he conveys rich emotion and movement.

Now, I’ve timed this post perfectly! The little fairy just traipsed in, pink in the cheeks and breathless with cold. That means it’s time to herd my little troop onto the couch and start reading.

Saint Valentine
Robert Sabuda (1999)