He Was One of Us

He Was One of UsHe Was One of Us
Rien Poortvliet & Hans Bouma
Doubleday, 1978

I have a friend – and I hope you are blessed with one of these too – whom I will follow blindly into any book. If she tells me to read something, I will, no matter how far it falls off my radar screen. Over and over, her choices have delighted, challenged, or taught me. I used to be in a book group with her, and read what she told me to for several years, so believe me: she has totally earned her book-choosing street-cred. (And is probably reading this blog right now: Hi, Sarah!)

So of course, when she emailed and asked if I had seen Rien Poortvliet’s He Was One of Us (I hadn’t), there was nothing to do but request it from interlibrary loan. Right away. And of course, she was right.

Sadly out of print, this is nonetheless a volume absolutely worth hunting for. He Was One of Us is a large, gorgeous collection of drawings by Dutch artist Rien Poortvliet depicting the life of Jesus and the reactions he evoked in those around him. Each painting is accompanied by short, evocative text by Hans Bouma that pulls the viewer straight into the world of the drawing. Much of the focus is on those around Jesus, arresting them mid-reaction to his words and deeds. Supplicant hands reach out; features twist in anger and rejection; self-satisfied, comfortable arms are crossed, shutting Jesus out. Paging through this volume, I felt not so much an observer as a participant in the gospel scenes – each page invites us to react, heart and mind, to the events playing out before us.

And honestly – sitting on the sunny porch of the Walt Disney museum in the Presidio, with tourists filing past – I teared up while paging through the book. The drawings radiate real, incarnate human life, almost like a collected family album.  Anna and Simeon gaze at the baby with a look that anyone who has held a newborn will recognize. Spread across two pages, a baby Jesus nurses; toddler Jesus plays and snuggles his father; a young man grins, proudly, holding the tools of his father’s trade. The disciples, standing with Jesus, are captured in a moment, almost as college friends enjoying the afternoon are caught by a camera unaware. The text above is poignant, as they smile out at us: “Do they know what awaits them? They’ll despair, be mocked, hated, threatened, persecuted. Their quiet life is a thing of the past. Either you belong to Jesus or you don’t.”

There’s a sense of reality and wholeness we can get from seeing the disparate moments of someone’s life captured in images and arranged in a narrative. (Why else do we put together slideshows at graduations, weddings, and funerals?) The great gift of He Was One of Us is that it invites us to contemplate Jesus’ life and humanity through these vivid, provocative portraits. Slight enough of text that the smallest lap child can join in, rich and evocative enough to be used devotionally by adults, and gorgeous enough to live on a coffee table and draw in unsuspecting visitors, this is a book to be treasured.

The Bronze Bow

The Bronze Bow
Elizabeth George Speare
Houghton Mifflin, 1961

I don’t know how I missed The Bronze Bow when I was a young reader. I loved Elizabeth George Speare’s debut novel, Calico Captive and the Newbery-winning The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  But somehow The Bronze Bow (also a Newbery medalist) never made it home from the library. And I’m actually kind of glad, because it was such a joy to discover it this summer!

Set in first-century Galilee, the novel tells the story of Daniel bar Jamin, a young blacksmith who has fled to the hills to join a band of robbers and who has dedicated his life to ousting the Romans from Israel. Sworn to vengeance upon the occupiers who killed his father, Daniel nevertheless befriends Joel bar Hezron, the scholarly son of a famous rabbi, and his beautiful sister, Malthace. Together the three pledge themselves to working for the Victory of God, and take for themselves David’s symbol of the bronze bow – from his famous song of praise for deliverance from Saul:

God is my strong refuge,
and has made my way safe.
He made my feet like hinds’ feet,
and set me secure on the heights.
He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
(2 Sam 22:33-35/Psalm 18:33-34)

Yet even as Daniel plans for war and dreams of violent revenge, he and his friends find themselves drawn again and again to hear the teachings of a wandering rabbi in nearby Capernaum. This Jesus of Nazareth draws crowds wherever he goes and seems to possess the power of God – and yet his preaching is so strange! He promises that the Kingdom is at hand, but slips away when the crowds would crown him king; his followers are convinced that he is the one who will deliver Israel, but he refuses to mount armed resistance against the Romans. The novel unfolds as Daniel seeks his revenge while grappling with the challenge Jesus presents.

I had trouble putting this book down: it has adventure, drama, gripping emotional tension, true friendship, and true love. Plus it has Jesus!

Jesus hovers like a shadow at the edges of the story for the first half of the book; as he looms larger and larger in Daniel’s consciousness, he comes more clearly into focus in the narrative. All of the characters are thoroughly, convincingly realized, and Jesus is no exception – which must be tricky for a novelist. I mean, the guy is God and man; the logos of creation, the second Adam, and a tired, humble carpenter. Most creative writing teachers would advise against this combination of traits.

But I loved this portrayal of Jesus. Daniel finds him frustrating, difficult to comprehend, yet utterly compelling. He can’t explain his attraction to this carpenter; he openly rejects him at one point; but he can’t get him out of his head. Much of the book is concerned with the search for a leader who will deliver Israel – what will this leader look like? How will he be recognized? When will he reveal himself? Jesus’ stubborn refusal to be the leader either the Zealots or the Pharisees demand, paired with his insistent call to “follow me” is something every major character in this novel must grapple with.

Daniel’s own struggle with Jesus’ call leads to a rich, satisfying conclusion – I wished I was reading it alongside some friends, because I wanted to dig into the final pages with someone else. But I’ll spare you the spoiler. Trust me – you want to find out on your own. Instead, I’ll leave you with my favorite passage from the whole book: a conversation between Daniel and his good friend, Simon the Zealot:

Daniel could not leave his friend without some answer. “Are you staying with Jesus, Simon?”
“If he will have me.”
“Is–is he one of us?”
Simon smiled. “A Zealot, you mean?”
“Isn’t that why you came? Have you asked him to join us?
“I had some such idea when I came,” Simon admitted. “But it has not worked out as I expected. No, I have not asked Jesus to join us. All I hope and long for now is that he will ask me to join him.”

This Belongs on Your Bookshelf: A Blank Journal

Here’s a question: how do you read? I remember a professor in college once remarking, off the cuff, that if we weren’t reading with pencils in hand, we weren’t properly reading at all.

Enter the wonderful tradition of the commonplace book!  Like my pre-digital forbearers, I keep a dedicated book in which I (mostly) record passages that strike me and (occasionally) reflect on them in writing. Originally a sort of textual scrapbook, the commonplace book is a compilation of information, quotations, sketches, and whatever else strikes the reader’s fancy. Children used to learn handwriting (and still do, if they are educated in the Charlotte Mason tradition) by doing copywork into them.

Personally, it’s my way of keeping up a conversation with authors, and with myself, over my reading life. Scanning over past books, I see the themes that appear over and over again in my own life. I can track the evolution of my curiosity, with all its forkings and twistings. And most importantly, I get to re-experience the pleasures of books I’ve loved. Keeping a commonplace book helps me keep a sense of continuity across my rather scattered (and sometimes – thanks kids! – distracted) reading life.

So this week, instead of reviewing a particular book, we thought we’d recommend helping your kids start their own commonplace book.  It’s is a great time of year to add a blank journal to your children’s library because you can invite them to fill it as they partake of the deliciousness of summertime pleasure reading.

Encourage them to keep it nearby as they read. They can can copy out passages that move them, or that they find interesting; attempt to copy the illustrations or make up their own; write their own additions or chapters; argue with, critique, or question what they’re reading.

Smaller children who haven’t mastered writing can still journal; my daughter loves to illustrate her ideas about stories, which usually involve placing her whole family (and maybe a monster or two) in them. If she wants to narrate anything, I write it for her – although she also enjoys copying the words she sees in very simple books as a way of practicing her writing.

A few suggestions to help you get started:

  • Choose a high-quality sketchbook or unlined journal that is attractive and will last. They’ll be more likely to treat it well, and want to write in it, if it’s a book that is special and lovely.  No cheap spiral-bound notebooks! A few of my favorites are the Moleskine large sketchbook and the Paperthinks Recycled Leather journal sold at Kate’s Paperie.  Haley tells me that she likes PaperBlanks, which can be found online or at Barnes & Noble.  Of course, any well-made sketchbook (like this one, or this) from an art supply store will serve nicely if you don’t want or need lined pages.
  • Likewise, provide your child with good writing and sketching implements: a Micron pen and artist-caliber colored pencils, perhaps. (For smaller ones, start with just the pencils.) Again, if they have the opportunity to use special materials, they will likely take more care.
  • Try it yourself! Our kids model what we do, and if it’s normal to see a blank book sitting alongside Mom or Dad’s novel… well, it’ll feel more commonplace (do forgive the pun). Read passages you’ve savored over the dinner table, or use something you’ve jotted down to start a family discussion. Kids too small to take part? Even 3 or 4 year olds can sit and listen to conversations about books for short periods during dinner. Our dear daughter very graciously sat through a discussion of Hell, universalism, and Dante last weekend. (Dessert was promised when Mommy and Daddy were done talking…)
  • If you’re reading books with younger children, work on the journal together. Offer to write down their narration. Look together for maps or images they can paste into the book. Keep each child’s journal easy to find and close at hand – and take them along on vacations and picnics.
  • With older kids, be interested! Share your own journaling from a book you’re both reading, or ask them their thoughts about something you’ve read. Be genuinely curious, but don’t pry. Let teenagers, especially, explore and copy and think with freedom – and with the full assurance of your interest and availability.

Granted, keeping a physical commonplace book in today’s increasingly digital world is something of a throwback. Why not just cut and paste passages from my Kindle or iPad? Toss it up on Tumblr or Pinterest (which I do, occasionally)? Because I savor having a physical artifact of my thoughts and interests, a solid memorial of my reading life. And I think it’s good for my kids – as readers, thinkers, and human beings – to learn the same. So go buy a blank journal – and here’s hoping it won’t stay blank for long!

The Divine Hours

The Divine Hours
Compiled by Phyllis Tickle
Image/Doubleday, 2000-2001

One of my favorite times of day is the close of breakfast, when I open up The Divine Hours and read the morning prayers with my nearly 2-year-old.  While she finishes up her cereal she’s happy to listen to me pray the daily readings out loud.  She is even learning how to join in; if I start reciting “The Lord is…” she knows what comes next: “King!”

The Divine Hours books (there are three main ones) consist of short passages of Scripture and prayers from the Book of Common Prayer arranged in 2-page daily liturgies.  Each set of readings starts with a call to prayer from the Psalms and ends with the weekly collect from the BCP.  In between there are more Psalm selections, a short reading from another part of the Bible, the Lord’s Prayer, and occasionally another historical prayer from Augustine or another source.  In the evening the text of a hymn is also included.

At our house we most consistently use the readings for morning (at the close of breakfast) and noon (at the close of lunch).  Sometimes we use the evening readings as family worship before our daughter’s bedtime, and my husband and I occasionally get into the habit of reading Compline together before we turn off the lights and sleep.  All that to say that even though there are four sets of readings every day, there’s no reason why you can’t just do one or two.  For that matter, there’s no reason that you can’t shorten, lengthen, or add to the readings, either.

If it’s not clear by now, no, The Divine Hours are not children’s books.  So why are we including them in Aslan’s Library?  When Sarah and I talked about what to write about during Lent this year, we decided to include some resources to help families practice some of the traditional Lenten practices: prayer, reflection, confession, and Scripture reading.  I know of no better resource to help families do those four things together than the Divine Hours series, so kidlit or not it made the list!

The sets of readings in these books are short enough for a young child’s attention span and substantive enough for an adult; they’re not targeted to children per se but as the Word of God they are appropriate for ears of all ages.  The youngest children will likely just be soaking it all in, but older children can participate in refrains and the Lord’s Prayer or even take turns reading aloud.  Best of all, these books will help every member of the family learn to come to Scripture in a posture of prayer.  They will help you worship together, pray together, repent together, feed yourselves on the Word together, and humble yourself before the Sovereign God together.

I do have a few quibbles with The Divine Hours.  For one, they use the New Jerusalem Bible and BCP Psalter, which are not my preferred translations.  Secondly, the evening reading typically contains a hymn, but every so often there is a poem in its place that either goes over my head or I find objectionable in some way.  Thirdly, very occasionally (rarely, really) there is a prayer or reading that runs contrary to Protestant theology.  But even considering these things, I truly love these books.  If you’re looking for a way to incorporate prayer into your family’s life in a fresh and meaningful way this Lenten season, I warmly commend them to you!

Below are the links to the three core books in the series.  There are a couple of extra ones in the series (one specifically for Advent/Christmas and one for Lent/Easter, for example), but the material they contain is entirely found in these three volumes:

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Eric Metaxas
Thomas Nelson, 2010

An admission: this new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is not, technically speaking, a children’s book. It is reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, sprinkled with German words, has an extensive bibliography and endnotes, and clocks in at 542 pages. However: Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer is an absolutely riveting read, and I wish someone had given me something like it when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. If you have, or know, a precocious teen reader, this is a book well worth placing in their hands – and reading along with them as well.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who came of age as his country began to emerge from the national disaster of World War I and the Weimar Republic. As Metaxas illustrates so ably, he came from a family of great distinction and prestige in German society. He studied in Berlin and at Union Seminary in New York, and was a man of deep and abiding faith in the transforming, costly grace of God in Jesus Christ. He saw, earlier than most, the threat that National Socialism posed to Christianity in Germany and to civilization itself. He played a major role in the  Confessing Church’s resistance to the Nazi “German Christians”; in the ecumenical movement of the 1930s; and eventually, as a resistance spy within the German Abwehr, in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. For his role in the assassination attempt, Bonhoeffer was arrested and eventually martyred at Flossenburg in 1945.

What makes this book an especially excellent choice for a teen reader? First, Metaxas keeps the story moving with the pace of a novel. There is good historical work done here, but he is first of all a storyteller. Even though I know how the story ends, I was holding my breath through the retelling of Bonhoeffer’s final journey to Flossenburg: “maybe, this time, he’ll get away!” Second, and more importantly, Bonhoeffer’s life is utterly compelling and thoroughly inspiring. That may sound cliché, but it’s true. Metaxas does a fantastic job of making clear the connections between Bonhoeffer’s theology and his life. The resulting portrait is of a man who is completely human but has been gripped unmistakably by the grace of God. His heroism is that of a man who lived his life “by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

It’s true that there is some heady theological stuff in this biography. Most teens won’t have the background to really grasp all of it; however, Metaxas has done a nice job of making Bonhoeffer’s thought accessible to the lay reader. In fact, this ought to whet a reader’s appetite to read Life Together or The Cost of Discipleship. Much of the story is told using first person accounts and letters, which provide good context for understanding Bonhoeffer: he was an eminently practical theologian. And in fact, watching Bonhoeffer follow his convictions to the gallows at Flossenburg; hearing his final recorded words before his execution — “This is the end. For me the beginning of life.” — could there be a better way to learn about the power of the costly grace of God?