Back Soon!

This is just a quick note to say that Sarah and I are taking a couple of weeks off from blogging so we can focus on observing the last week of Advent and then celebrating the birth of our Savior.  We hope that you all have wonderful Christmas celebrations planned and that you’ll join us back here in the new year.  We already have several great books lined up to share with you in 2012!

Songs for Advent

We Americans tend to jump straight to the celebration of Christmas without spending time waiting and preparing during Advent.  Here’s the drawback: just as observing Lent helps us understand Easter, inhabiting Advent is incredibly helpful for gaining a fuller understanding of the meaning of Christmas.

This season is a time to remember that the people of Israel waited for a savior for centuries, that Jesus didn’t just show up the first time someone asked for The Messiah.  We should learn from their persistent longing and faithful prayers, especially because Advent is also a time to focus on longing for Christ’s second coming.  As we think of the saints of old who waited with hope and of God’s faithfulness to keep his promise of a Savior, we will be encouraged to wait with hope for that Savior’s return in glory.

There are many good ways to observe Advent, but this year my family is making a concerted effort to listen to uniquely Advent songs until December 24th.  We’ll switch to Christmas songs for 12 days and then switch again to Epiphany songs on January 6th.  The list below reflects my effort (with the help of old church bulletins and posts at Cardiphonia and This Classical Life) to find songs for Advent that focus on the waiting and longing that preceded the first Christmas and the waiting and longing that are currently preceding Christ’s second coming.  Let me know what I’ve left out!

Songs for Advent

The Nativity

The Nativity
Julie Vivas
Gulliver Books, 1988

I’ve been thumbing through a handful of nativity story books for the past few weeks, agonizing over which one to review first.  It’s a tough decision (they really are all quite good), but I finally decided on Julie Vivas’ excellent book, The Nativity.

Many nativity books seem to use excerpts of Scripture (usually KJV) as their text, so what sets them apart (or not) is their illustrations.  The Nativity is no exception – Passages from Matthew and Luke form the text and Vivas’ artwork is wonderful!  There are so many different ways to visually represent the Christmas story that I don’t mind having quite a few of them in our collection, but this version is one of my very favorites.

One of the things I love most about this book is how the characters seem so real.  They’re down-to-earth human beings, not people who come across as so entirely different from you and me that we end up having a hard time relating to them.  For instance, Mary looks very large and uncomfortable when she’s 9 months pregnant, and right after she’s given birth she looks like she really needs a nap.

Am I just appreciating those aspects of the book because I happen to be with child at the moment?  Well, maybe.  But even my non-pregnant self would love how Vivas captures the fact that the miracle of the nativity story took place among men and women just like us.  Books like this (as opposed to, say, books where Mary is oddly serene and the shepherds are quintessentially quaint) make me enter into and wonder about the story in a new way.  It points us back to the glory of Emmanuel, God with us.  Us, ordinary people that we are.

Alrighty, now for a few cautions.  First, I do feel the need to mention that baby Jesus is depicted in his full birthday suit on one page, should that bother any potential readers.  I’m also not thrilled with Mary being called Joseph’s wife instead of his betrothed or espoused wife.  And have I mentioned before that I tend to have issues with how angels are illustrated?  I do.  It may just be my own idiosyncrasies coming through, but as much as I like Mary and Joseph being depicted as down-to-earth I’d prefer that angels look a bit more, I don’t know, majestic or something.  No book is perfect, though!  What I love about The Nativity definitely outweighs these few issues, so if you’re looking for a new nativity story to share with your children this is a great one to consider.

Bookish Gifts for Grown-Ups

You’ve probably figured it out by now: Haley and I are both inveterate listmakers. And one of my favorite things about Christmas is the excuse to make lots and lots of lists. Gifts I want to give. Gifts I’m going to give. Gifts that I would give if I could afford them. Gifts that would be perfect for teachers, friends, and my kids in a few years. And for you: some bookish gifts for grownups!

This isn’t a “best books” list; it’s much more idiosyncratic. Whenever I finish a book I’ve loved, I immediately begin casting about for someone to give it to. Think of this as an odd collection of notes that either or Haley and I have jotted down, over the year, when we’ve read something and enjoyed it. Maybe one of these would bring some joy to someone you love, too.

Fiction

  • The Brothers K: Baseball. Family. Religion. A shout out to Dostoevsky. Baseball. What more could a novel-lover want? (And if you don’t think baseball is novelistic – please, please, reconsider this position.)
  • Excellent Women, Barbara Pym. “I was so astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion.”
  • Peace Like a River, Leif Enger. If you haven’t read it yourself, put it on your list. If you know anyone who loves a good story, put it on theirs.
  • Sense and Sensibility - pair it with this amazing movie version. Because, really – Jane Austen is always, always appropriate.
  • That Distant Land, Wendell Berry. Introduce someone you love to Port William. Only, watch out: they may not want to come back.
  • Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset. Fourteenth century Norway. But a universal story. For some of us, this has been a life-changing trilogy.
  • Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West. If you have a travel or history buff on your list, this book is the best of both. And actually, it’s a classic of English letters. History, politics, culture, theology, music, art – it’s all there. In an intelligent, penetrating voice.

Non-Fiction

Non-Book Gifts

  • Christian Seasons Calendar Haley and I both have one. The art is gorgeous. And I love being reminded what time it is, not as the world measures time, but as God’s people do.
  • Book Embosser For anyone who needs to channel that inner librarian. Plus it gives the reader in your life a good excuse to buy more paper books!
  • Framed Literary Quotation I want one! ASAP! Also, one of these. And some Shakespeare hairpins in my stocking wouldn’t go amiss, either.
  • eBook Cover For the loved one who has made the digital leap.
  • Books & Culture subscription Anyone who loves books, loves ideas, and is interested in an intelligent Christian literary review. I have about 8 years’ worth of past issues sitting in my attic.
  • Image Journal subscription A beautiful journal of the arts. Literature, visual arts, essays, and interviews. Again, boxes of past issues are weighing down my attic. They’re so beautifully produced, I can’t part with them.
  • Moleskine journals. For starting a commonplace book!
  • Donation to International Justice Mission. It’s not bookish. But it is an amazing organization, and a cause close to the Lord’s heart.

Song of the Stars

Song of the Stars: A Christmas Story
Sally Lloyd-Jones and Alison Jay
Zonderkidz, 2011

Last weekend, I had the treat of actually getting to visit with Haley in person, over the Thanksgiving holiday, at our lake place. The kids were with their grandmothers, and we got to have a long conversation. And of course, on the table, was a huge stack of books!

As we paged through a number of Christmas books and Nativity re-tellings, we lamented the fact that so few of them connect with the larger story of Jesus. There’s a huge demand for Christmas books this time of year, of course, and shelves full of lavishly illustrated stables and shepherds. But few if any bother to place the familiar story within the amazing, cosmic context that the Gospel writers do. (Christian writers and artists: that’s a hint and a plea!)

Then I came home, and found Sally Lloyd-Jones’ newest book, Song of the Stars, waiting for me at the library. And it is a beautiful example of what we were looking for. Hooray!

The book opens far from Bethlehem, as woodland creatures and snow-bound landscapes prick their ears and announce, “It’s time! It’s time!” All of nature, across the entire planet, knows that something enormous is about to happen, and each part of creation joyfully celebrates: “Wild stallions drummed it to the ground…’Get ready! Get ready! Be glad! Be glad!’”  The lion announces the Prince of Peace; the stars sing of the Bright and Morning Star; the sheep joyfully whisper to their lambs that the Good Shepherd is come.

I so love the deeply biblical recognition of exactly who this baby is, and the acknowledgment of his lordship over all creation by creation itself. My husband and I have been studying Isaiah during Advent, and I’ve been particularly struck by the prophet’s contrast of “dumb” nature – which knows its Creator – and Judah, which thinks it can thrive apart from God.  In Song of the Stars, the animals are shown streaming up to the stable in a scene that immediately brought to my mind both Isaiah 1:3 and 2:2-3. And then:

The animals stood around his bed. And the whole earth and all the stars and sky held its breath…”The One who made us has come to live with us!”

I absolutely love this book: the text itself, the art, the deeply biblical and rich depiction of Incarnation. It’s simple enough to read to a three year old, and beautiful enough to make a grownup want to read it again and again. Possibly tearfully, if you’re like me. If you’re looking for a Christmas book that takes the Incarnation seriously and joyfully, this is it. It will be showing up under our tree, and probably under the trees of our family and friends, too!*

*sorry to those loved ones for whom I just blew the surprise!