Thin Places, by Tracy Balzer

Thin PlacesMany centuries ago, Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, and the faith thrived on this isolated green island with little outside influence. As Europe fell to the barbarians and entered the Dark Ages, monks from Celtic lands preserved manuscripts and spread learning back across the continent. How did such a small population have such a great impact on history? What were the spiritual practices they followed that kept the flame of faith alive?

The subtitle of this slender volume is An Evangelical Journey into Celtic Christianity. Ms. Balzer is an evangelical American who researches and teaches at John Brown University about this early age of Christianity in a country just emerging from paganism. Balzer leads groups to the island of Iona, where Columba founded a monastery just out of sight of his beloved Ireland so that his heart would not long for returning. Iona is considered a “thin place,” where the veil is thin between the physical world that we see and the spiritual world that is just beyond our vision and perception. Spiritual experiences are more frequent in thin places than in our usual workaday world, and Balzer wanted to find out why. She has made the pilgrimage to Iona and similar Celtic sites many times and has kept a journal of her observations and conclusions.

The book is divided into chapters by the several spiritual practices Balzer considers essential to Celtic spirituality, with appropriate passages from her journal, followed by historical research and ways to fold these practices into our own lives in the twenty-first century. She ends each chapter with a Celtic prayer and questions for reflection. In one chapter, she discusses how Celtic monks had spiritual mentors or anamchara who were transformational in their lives. Balzer describes the way that the monks’ prayers differed from ours and the paramount importance of silence for hearing from God. Celts went on pilgrimages that were not as goal-oriented as those of continental Europeans, and, as we know from their educational institutions all over the world, they were not afraid to love the Lord their God with all of their minds. These are some of the issues she explores winsomely and intimately in these pages.

As American evangelicals, we sometimes feel the accretion of centuries of manmade traditions and practices weighing down our understanding of transcendent reality, and we look for ways to scrape off the layers and find the living faith again. The New Testament tells us of the very first churches planted by the apostles, but I wanted to see how a group of gentiles, freshly introduced to the gospel, carried on the faith before Rome took hold of them firmly. The ancient Celts were much more aware of God’s omnipresence and his activity in every moment of life. I was surprised by the monks’ emphasis on the Trinity, and their prayers are poetic praises to the Three in One. And, as always, I was reminded of the importance of intentional silence in our noisy lives.

Readers who wish to step outside of time for a while will find some wisdom here. Balzer’s layout is organized and clear, and her discussions are a good introduction to Celtic thought, particularly for non-Catholic Christians. Her notes and bibliography are rich with material for further exploration.

Recommended.

Disclaimer: I own of copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Book of Boy, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Book of BoyBoy is out climbing an apple tree, talking with the goats, when the pilgrim buys him from his master and takes him on a voyage to Rome. Along the way, they need to “rescue” seven relics in various cities. Boy is forced to wear the pack of stolen goods because they burn the pilgrim’s hands, but he doesn’t mind, since it hides the hump on his back. He is not happy about stealing, but the pilgrim always seems to have an alternate explanation that soothes Boy’s conscience. He suspects that the pilgrim is not who he appears to be, but then, neither is Boy.

This fascinating and mysterious trek through the landscape and religion of the Middle Ages unlocks pieces of a puzzle while wrestling with questions of appearance and reality. Villages are dirty and devastated by plague, but there are still poor people willing to share their last meals. The institutional church could be riddled with vice and deceit, but there are still believing priests who are kind and loving. The grasping and powerful may confuse and abuse Boy, but he manages to maintain his innocent goodness.

Who doesn’t love an adventurous road trip? It’s one of my favorite kinds of stories. There is usually a main character and a sidekick, but in this case, the main character is the sidekick. A quest, a series of interesting settings and characters, dangers, mishaps and rescues, and all the while the interior journey as our hero learns along the way. Boy is a joyful and glorious creation.

Very highly recommended for upper elementary through middle school, The Book of Boy would also make an exciting family read-aloud. Some historical and theological explanations may be necessary for younger children.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Becoming Mrs. Lewis, by Patti Callahan

Becoming Mrs. LewisRivers of ink have been spilled by and about C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don who wrote 20th century classics for children and adults, such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Through the years since his death, biographers have given us hints of his late-in-life marriage to Joy Davidman, and the book and movie Shadowlands have introduced her to the public. Rarely, though, have we seen their relationship through her eyes, but now Patti Callahan has written a novel that moves this misunderstood woman to the forefront.

Joy Davidman was born into a scholarly Jewish family and later converted to Christianity as an adult. When the novel opens, she is a young mother of two boys, married to an alcoholic and adulterous husband. Both of them are writers, and because of the times, Joy is expected to put up with her husband’s behavior and concentrate on improving her homemaking and motherly skills, pushing her own writing aside until her boys are grown. When a friend gives her a couple of books by C.S. Lewis, she takes a risk and writes to him for advice on a theological question. They continue to exchange letters for several years, increasingly confiding in one another and becoming close friends.

When several health issues and her difficult marriage have both reached crisis level, Joy travels to England to consult with doctors there and to do research for her writing projects. Here she finally meets Jack, as Lewis was called, and his brother, Warnie. She soaks in the history and beauty at Oxford and at The Kilns, Lewis’ home. While she is there, she receives a letter from her husband informing her that he is in love with her cousin and is living with her, along with their young sons. Joy’s life is at a crossroads.

The story takes place over years, but nothing goes smoothly for Joy, her sons, or her overwhelming love for Jack, fifteen years her senior and seemingly oblivious to her devotion. She is an acclaimed poet, but no one sees the series of sonnets that she writes to him. She longs to tell him of her feelings, but he is cheerfully friendly and perhaps purposely obtuse. All the while, he arranges to see her every day, asks for her help with his work, and considers her a member of his family. Warnie is devoted to her, and Jack acts as a father to her children, but romantic love is completely absent. It takes a catastrophe to open his eyes, and then it is almost too late.

Using all of the Lewis scholarship available, plus Joy’s prolific papers, poems, and the letters between them, Callahan has filled in the gaps with imagined conversations and Joy’s intimate thoughts on her frustrating, fulfilling, and quietly spectacular life. There are many famous individuals among their acquaintance, and they weave in and out of the narrative. Tolkien, in particular, disapproved of Joy intensely, even though he was a happily married man himself. Callahan is not on a feminist rant here at all, but she does include gentle reminders that even nice men did not respect women’s work just fifty or sixty years ago (or ten or five or yesterday). Callahan has also interviewed Douglas Gresham, Joy’s son and one of Lewis’ most authoritative biographers. As a matter of fact, I own a Lewis biography by Gresham and had forgotten that Gresham was Joy’s married name.

Lewis lived most of his life before he met Joy, and his earlier romantic relationships have been—and remain—an interesting and perhaps unseemly mystery, but his evolving and complex relationship with Joy Davidman affected him so deeply as to change him in foundational ways. Not only did he rethink his opinions on serious issues, but he also seemed to open doors in his soul that he had kept locked all of his life. Joy was his muse for the book he declared to be his favorite, Till We Have Faces, and, of course, she is the subject of A Grief Observed. However, Joy Davidman met her great love after having lived a full life, as well, and together they played a tragic, but magnificent, final act.

I highly recommend this book to all those who are fellow Lewis nerds, historical fiction fans, and to anyone who relishes a great story with literary characters.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

Assassination of Brangwain SpurgeThe kingdoms of the elves and the goblins are ostensibly working to maintain a fragile peace by catapulting the elfin scholar, Brangwain Spurge, into the goblin kingdom in order to bring the goblin king a gift. Little does he know that the beautiful gem that he carries is actually a powerful bomb. His host, the goblin archivist Werfel, is also unaware of the danger as he proudly escorts Brangwain around his home and city for a few days before his meeting with the king.

Brangwain is thoroughly disgusted with goblin culture, with its inedible food and their custom of keeping as mementos the skins that they shed every few years. The archivist, for his part, is less than impressed with the elfin scholar, who rudely rebuffs all of his obsequious attempts to share the most refined aspects of goblin life. Furthermore, Werfel has discovered that his guest goes into a trance in his room each evening, and he suspects that he is somehow transmitting information back to the elf government.

This wildly original story is told in both text and illustration, in much the same manner as Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck. Anderson has written the prose chapters, and the story is deepened and continued in Yelchin’s black and white drawings across a succession of two-page spreads. The illustrations carry the key to the changing thoughts and attitudes of the two main characters as they begin to understand that reality may not be what they had been taught, and that good and evil exist in both of their kingdoms and in many of the people whom they thought they knew. But will they figure all of this out before disaster strikes?

What appears to be an almost comic fairy story holds deep relevance to our own lives as we seek to respect other cultures, but those who trust in governments may be disturbed. Reluctant readers will enjoy the fast pace and abundant illustrations. Despite being over 500 pages, it is a relatively quick read. Parents and teachers will find endless timely discussion points here. Brangwain is on everybody’s “Best of 2018” list, and you won’t read anything else remotely like it.

Recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Sea Queen, by Linnea Hartsuyker

Sea QueenRagnvald, hero of The Half-Drowned King, returns home after his battles in King Harald’s name, only to find that a distant relative has moved into his house with a contingent of soldiers. Atli claims that Sogn belonged to his grandfather. Hilda tells her husband that Atli is a pretty nice guy, especially since he killed the soldier who assaulted her, and Ragnvald can see that Atli is winning the affections of his sons.

In the meantime, his sister, Svanhild, has married Ragnvald’s archenemy, Solvi Hunthiofsson, and is fighting for the life of their fragile son. She wants to claim a farm in Iceland, but Solvi’s home is a dragon ship on the sea. Svanhild was always tough, but living with Solvi has made her stronger than ever. She will need all of her resources and intelligence to handle the challenges that could change this farm girl into the Sea Queen.

Frozen landscapes, royal courts, and stormy seas are the changing backdrops in this action-packed sequel. Readers may think that this is a fantasy story, but it is solid historical fiction in pre-Christian Scandinavia.  Hartsuyker returns to her fascinating cast of characters, weaving battle scenes into the ongoing drama of betrayals, love affairs, political schemes, births, deaths, joys and sorrows. Great storytelling for those of us who love the Norse.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this title. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Finding God in the Waves, by Mike McHargue

Finding God in the WavesMike McHargue, or “Science Mike,” as he is known online, was a happy member of his evangelical church, teaching Sunday School, eating lunch with the church leaders, and leading his daughters to Christ. As a scientist, though, he eventually had to admit that he didn’t believe any of it. He was an atheist.

After Mike admitted his disbelief to his stunned wife, he was invited to a gathering in California with Rob Bell, during which he had what can only be described as a supernatural experience. He wasn’t looking for it, but it was a turning point in his life. From that day on, he began the work of examining every aspect of faith from a scientific and logical perspective and reconstructing the parts of his faith that he could accept. In this volume, he scrutinizes the existence of God, the origins of the universe, the humanity and deity of Jesus, the validity of the Bible, the practice of prayer, the church, and other basic Christian beliefs chapter by chapter. For each concept, he has written an axiomatic statement, saying what he can believe at the very least about each one. His beliefs are still far from what anyone would call orthodox Christianity, but his research is fascinating.

Mike has two websites, Ask Science Mike and The Liturgists, which he co-hosts with the musician, Michael Gungor. My niece, Hannah, had mentioned The Liturgists to me a couple of years ago, and I’ve listened to several of their podcasts. They examine issues of faith and doubt, science, culture, and art from a wide-open viewpoint that could speak to believers of any religion, spiritual seekers, and non-believers alike. When I read the book The New Copernicans (reviewed here), David Seel also talked about Mike McHargue and The Liturgists. When he said that Mike had written a book, I had to check it out.

Science Mike’s experience is different from most former Christians in that he loves the church. The vast majority of books written by the deconstruction/ reconstruction crowd recount intensely painful episodes that estranged them from the church and caused them to doubt God’s goodness or the truth of Christianity. In Mike’s case, he stopped teaching Sunday School out of respect for his church, but he continued to attend. After his podcast, Ask Science Mike, became popular, though, people started coming from far and wide to attend his church and talk to him. Services got weird. Eventually, his pastors came to him and basically said, “Dude, we love you, but do you mind?” He got it. His family left their conservative church and finally found one where he could ask hard questions and not always find answers.

If you or someone you know has doubts about God or spiritual experiences that need scientific answers, Finding God in the Waves could be a great starting point. Mike describes what happens in the brain when we pray, looks into scientific explanations of the origins of everything, and even describes his own evolution on several topics. The book is not an apologetic work in the religious sense of that word. Mike does not attempt to lead anyone to Christ and may even lead a weak person further away. However, this is a very friendly and readable account of one man’s pilgrimage toward truth.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book, obtained through interlibrary loan, after which I purchased a copy to share. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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My Plain Jane, by Cynthia Hand, &c.

My Plain Jane audioJane Eyre and Charlotte Brontë are students at Lowood School, where they are, naturally, cold and starving. Charlotte, who is continually scribbling in her notebook, thinks that Jane is somewhat odd, since she talks to herself at times. In actuality, Jane is talking to her friend, Helen Burns, who died a short while ago. When Jane hears that the Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits is coming to a local pub, she runs in to observe, and the star agent— the handsome Alexander Blackwood— realizes that Jane can see ghosts, just as the Society members can. It turns out that Jane is a “beacon,” one of the few people in each generation who can draw ghosts to themselves. Most people think that Jane is quite plain, but to the ghosts, she is incredibly lovely.

Once the head of the Society finds out that Jane is a beacon, he orders Blackwood to bring her to London to work with them—spare no expense, whatever it takes. But Jane has never had a normal life, and so she decides to take a nice, quiet governess position at Thornfield Hall, in the employ of one Mr. Rochester. While her boss is tall, dark, and brooding—everything a young woman could desire—Mr. Blackwood will not give up on wooing her to a position with the Society, and Miss Brontë has agreed to help him. Meanwhile, Helen sticks with Jane and continually offers stubbornly sensible but hilarious advice that is generally ignored.

If all this sounds familiar, but just a little off, that’s because Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows have taken the classic Jane Eyre and tossed it in a blender with a ghost story, a spy thriller, a dash of romance, and a cup or two of humor. This is a rollicking tale of wild goose chases, mistaken identities, and brilliant satire. For those who missed the first book in this series, My Lady Jane, it is not necessary to read them in order. Let’s hope that the authors have many more Janes in store.

I listened to the downloadable audio version of this book, which was fantastic. Fiona Hardingham brought all of her comedic talent to bear on this story. My favorite voice was that of Helen Burns, a petulant ghost who sounded very much like Shirley Henderson’s role as the weepy friend with a high voice in Bridget Jones’ Diary who lisped, “Bwidget.”

Teens and adults will be completely entertained by this fast-paced and fun mash-up. During the very worst part of Hurricane Florence, when I thought that trees were going to fall on the house any minute, I sat on a kitchen chair in our pantry under the stairs with my phone balanced on the spice mixes and listened for a couple of hours. I barely heard the storm. I can’t think of a higher recommendation than that!

Disclaimer: I listened to our library’s downloadable audio version of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. (Although I have talked to several colleagues and they completely agree. But don’t tell anyone.)

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