Openness, Unhindered by Rosaria Butterfield (A Book Response)

Dear Reader,
I usually do book reviews but I am going to call this one a “book response.” I recently finsihed reading Rosaria Butterfield’s Openness Unhindered. I don’t really feel qualified to review this book but I do have a lot of (mixed) reactions to it.
Openness Unhindered is Mrs. Butterfield’s second book (at least on this topic; I imagine as a former professor she has published quite a bit). Her first, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, told the story of her conversion from openly lesbian professor of Queer Theory to reformed Christian wife and homeschooling mother (you can see why she called it “unlikely”). That earlier volume was focused mainly on the story of her conversion. It is a very personal account.
In her new book, Mrs. Butterfield again tells her story (in a more abbreviated form this time) and is quite personal but also tries to tackle wider theoretical issues concerning homosexuality and the church. Its subtitle — “Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert – Sexual Identity – Union with Christ” — is an apt one; these are the two big issues she attempts to address.
I found that this book roamed a bit and my reactions to it were varied, so, as I said, I am going to give you my responses, or reactions if you prefer, in no particular order:
This book made me feel humble
 I will start at the end of the book. The feeling this book left me with more than any other was humility and perhaps a bit of shame. The last chapter, entitled “Community,” is a wonderfully written and quite convicting view of what the church community should be and in particular a call for hospitality, I would even say radical hospitality (at least to someone living in cold New England — and I’m not talking about temperatures here). The Butterfields have opened their home and lives to many — church family, neighbors and even foster children. This is a chapter any Christian should read. It will challenge you.
I was encouraged
Specifically, I was encouraged to read more of my Bible more often. Rosaria talks of reading the Bible through again and again in big chunks — quantity time if you will. I think I have thought of Bible reading as something where I should focus on one chapter (or thereabouts) and meditate on it. But then my mind drifts. I hope by taking her approach and reading big chunks but getting through it more often to be able to actually focus better.
I was enlightened
It was interesting to me to read Rosaria’s take on her own homosexuality as well as the contrast with that of her friend Rebecca. I think being removed from those feelings and that world, we don’t have a sense of how things are from the inside. I guess the big take away idea for me was that not all people who do or have identified as homosexual are going to experience that in the same way. Rosaria’s feelings and motivations differ from those of Rebecca. Not surprisingly, this also means that her take on it all now as a Christian also differs (more on that below).
I was a little put out
Before getting to the specifics of the two women’s views, I have to say that there were some aspects of the book that bothered me. One of these was Mrs. Butterfield’s depiction of what she labels “churchy” women (see, for instance, p. 35). I have no doubt I would be one of these women. They are (well-meaning?) church-going  ladies who have said incredibly insensitive things to the author regarding her former life. My initial reaction was a bit of shame knowing that there is a good chance I would have stuck my foot in my mouth as well. But then I thought, you know what? I’m not embarrassed to be ignorant about homosexuality and how it works and how it feels. Yes, I want to understand better for the sake of relating to those around me but I don’t think a degree of ignorance here is a bad thing.
My own experience with various things in my life — mainly homeschooling and my daughter’s type 1 diabetes — is that lots of people say ignorant and insensitive things to me (and to or in front of my daughter; imagine how insensitive one can be to a child with a chronic, life threatening illness and you’ll get the gist). These people are not always strangers; often they are friends and relatives who really should know better, even those whom I know I have told things to multiple times in the past. I have learned that what people say is usually about them and not about me. I also try to take each such instance as an opportunity for education.
I am sure a lot of church-y women are, as I would be, pretty uninformed about homosexuality. Mrs. Butterfield is helping us with our misunderstandings through her books; that is a great thing. But I think the understanding needs to work both ways.
I will also say in response to the feelings she expresses that I don’t think you need to have something this big in your past (or your present) to feel like no one in the church quite gets you; I’d venture to say that is a pretty common human experience and one Satan loves to throw in our paths.
I agreed . . . with some reservations
To return to the meat of the book, the conflict between Rosaria and her friend Rebecca revolves around the latter’s self-identification as a “gay Christian.” The author objects to this terminology saying that “gay” should not qualify “Christian.” I tend to agree with this though as I think about it, there is really not much which should qualify “Christian. Aren’t we told that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free in Christ? Even the God-given, from-creation categories of male and female do not affect our standing before God. Our church has a large African immigrant population; it is incumbent upon us every week to remember what unites us — “Christian” — and not the cultural and national differences which separate us. How much more then should we reject a term like “gay” as a qualifier which defines us by our weaknesses and temptations. Let us remember also that all these categories, whether good (male/female), neutral (African/American) or bad (homosexual) are temporary. “Christian” is one of the few (the only?) designation which will follow us into eternity. That is why I say we limit it and ourselves when we qualify it.
One of the major premises of Openness Unhindered is that sexuality has become overblown since Freud. What used to be one part of life has become how we define ourselves. All feelings of attraction have come to be sexualized so that we can no longer, for example, understand the friendship between David and Jonathan without making it a sexual one.
Another change, according to Mrs. Butterfield, is that we label people; it used to be acts were homosexual, now people are. She argues instead for  a view that sees more of spectrum of attractions, some of which are not sinful. Even sexual feelings for one’s own gender are not seen as inherently sinful if they are not indulged or acted upon. This view makes a lot of sense to me. I was struck by the fact that it does not seem to be fundamentally a different view than that the author held as a practicing lesbian and professor of Queer Theory. She says that:
“And no one in the LGBT community from which I emerged would have ever claimed to have been ‘born this way.’ We believed that sexuality was fluid . . . we situated ourselves — for good or bad, rght or wrong — in the world of free choice.” (pp. 108-9)
Perhaps I am missing something but it seems that Rosaria’s view of sexuality has not changed but only her view of right and wrong. Whereas previously she would have said “people are not gay or straight; they can have all sorts of attractions and homosexual attractions are even good in that they promote equality,” now she would say “people are not gay or straight; they can have all sorts of attractions but God tells us not to act on some of them including homosexual attractions; acting on them (physically or in one’s thoughts through fantasies and lust) is sinful because it is contrary to God’s will for us.” An advantage of this view — though I am sure many would not see it as such — is that for the Christian struggling with homosexual desires it does not stigmatize their feelings or say that they must feel differently in order to be truly Christian but rather makes them one more area which we must submit to the will of God.
I disagreed — or at least would say it differently
Rosaria has a chapter entitled “Repentance” and it is a topic she returns to at various points. My own issues as an ex-Catholic are no doubt in evidence here, but I did not agree with her characterization of the Christian life in this area. Yes, repentance is a necessary and important part of the Christian life, and, yes, we need to repent of new sins as we are made aware of them. But I felt Rosaria went farther than this. She describes recalling an old sin to mind and repenting of it.  For me one of the greatest blessings of the Christian life is that our sins have all already been covered and have been put far from us.  I do not find it healthy or happy to revisit old sins. I am not saying Rosaria’s experience here is wrong or worse than my own, only that we are coming from different places and have different experiences of this aspect of our faith. It would make me hesitant, however, to hand this book to a non-Christian lest they get an erroneous picture of what the Christian life is like.
Who should read this book
Which brings me to my last point — that which no book review should be without– who should read this book? I would recommend Openness Unhindered. I think it is great for people like me — Christians who have not delved deeply into the issue and who may be slightly uncomfortable with it. I would also recommend it to Christians who identify as homosexual, whether they are living that way openly or not. Or to Christians who are not sure what to make of feelings and experiences they have had. I don’t think I would recommend it to non-Christians though. For someone with little knowledge of the Christian life and what Christianity is about, I would be uncomfortable with, as I said above, the (over)emphasis on repentance and I would want to start with a much more basic understanding of what it means to be Christian.
I would recommend this book, to some people

Another Example of a Written Narration

Dear Reader,

Since the last one was short, I thought I’d give you another example of a written narration from my 10th grader. What I liked in this one is that he refers to a character from a read-aloud we are doing (that’s the “Lady Ashton”). I also like that he adds a personal tone by giving his own conclusions and opinions. What I don’t like is that he says “had went.” I hope he knows better than that; I know he doesn’t talk that way. I’ll try to give samples from my other kids in the near future too so you can compare how narrations look at different ages. One last note before I give you the narration: this child mentioned recently that he reads differently when he knows he has to narrate. I am not sure quite what that means but I think it is what we are looking for here. I will say that even accounting for age he is by far my best narrator. It is amazing to me what he can remember even from long passages. Though this narration is long, his oral ones can be even longer and more detailed.

Here then is the narration:

     John Brown’s friends who helped him at Harper’s Ferry were rounded up and brought on trial.  Four of them were tried together.  Two of them had no clue what was going to happen after they got the guns.  All four were sentenced to death.  Another man who had taken serious injuries had to wait before he was tried.  He was also hanged.  There was another man who managed to get away from the police for a while, but he was arrested and tried and he was hanged on the same day as the sick man.  But if my numbers are correct, two managed to run away and somehow make it to safety.
John Brown has some rich friends who had helped him get guns back in Massachusetts and were mentioned in a lot of John Brown’s letters.  When they realized Brown had left their letters to him lying around, most of them desired to run.  One went crazy, but he was fine in the end.  Another one gave his full support to John Brown’s ideas, from the safety of Italy.  He had went there on medical vacation, similar to the vacation Lady Ashton wants to go on.  He decided he would give Brown his full support, but he wanted to stay in Italy.  Three of them ran into Canada, but they were informed that they would not be prosecuted they decided they could go home.  One of them hung out in Canada for a little bit longer than the other ones, just to be safe.  Another one went to England and stayed there for two years before he thought it was safe.  And then there was the man who went about his normal business and thought all the other guys were wimps for leaving.
Many legends have come about because of John Brown’s death.  A bunch of southerners did not want Brown to be killed because of what it would do to the press.  Some northerners want John Brown to be killed because they realized John Brown knew how to work the press.  So, the southerners shouldn’t have killed him and they obviously couldn’t have let him go, so they should have put him in some absurdly remote dungeon for the rest of his life where he couldn’t write books or anything.
Many people became fired up by Brown’s death.  He did not end slavery like he wanted to but he cut away some of the roots of the tree of slavery.

Until next time



Dear Reader,

I am working on some longer posts but since I can’t seem to get them out in a timely fashion I thought I’d share with you one of my 10th grader’s written narrations. Feel free to size up your own kids in relation — I know I appreciate that sort of thing; it’s so hard as homeschoolers to know how we are doing. For a bit of perspective, he is narrating from a fairly un-living book and on a fairly short section. Oh, and he emailed it to me which makes it easy to share (I think because he was too lazy to go to a printer).

There are two branches of congress.  The first one we are looking at is the House of Representatives.
The House is the larger of the two branches and it is meant to be directly effected by the common people.  Until the seventeenth amendment it was the only part of the government directly elected by the people.  With two year terms the Representatives cycle in and out very quickly.  It is common to have many terms, few of which are consecutive.  This gives the Representatives time to pay attention their state.
With 435 people in the house it would be rather confusing if no one actually lead it.  Because of that the founding fathers made the Speaker of the House.  The Speaker of the House is elected by the majority party in the house.  Like everything else in the house, majority controls everything.  We will get into the job of the speaker next time.

Brief, I know. He is capable of longer ones. His oral narrations are super long.


Keeping Kids in Church: Why?

Dear Reader,
A little while back I did a post on how to keep kids quiet in church and to train them to participate in worship. In that post, I promised that I would come back and talk about the why of keeping kids in worship. This is my attempt at doing so.
Of course it all starts with our view of children. In our church we baptize babies (now there’s a big topic!) because we believe that they are part of God’s covenant community. As such, they are expected and required to participate in worship just as their elders are. As an old pastor of mine used to say, “When the flood comes, you don’t leave your kids outside the ark; you bring them in!”
Nor is it enough to have kids attend some sort of Sunday school or children’s worship. Worship is family time — the church family — and that means all ages. Growth in Christ is through discipleship; the older members are to train the younger. This can only happen if they are together. Nor are carefully prepared Sunday school lessons enough. I would venture to say they are not the best training for young covenant members. The most valuable experience my kids ever had was when they were quite little and we could attend our church’s weekly prayer meeting and they could hear how other adult believers read and discussed the Bible, how they shared prayer requests and prayed for one another. Much of the discipleship that will go on in the church will not be explicit or intended; it will be what is absorbed from just seeing and hearing how other, more mature believers interact with one another and with their God.
And do not too quickly assume that what happens in service will go over your children’s heads. They likely get more out of it than you imagine. At any rate, they will not be better prepared to pay attention and to worship with the body by being excluded from it. My observation of friends’ children who have been segregated in children’s ministries till age 12 (or thereabouts) is that when they reach that age they are still not able to sit and pay attention as required. Whereas children who are required to do so from an early age are perfectly fine in worship quite early on.
Lastly, I want to quote one of my absolute favorite writers, Frank Boreham. Boreham was a minister in Australia and, I believe, New Zealand, some years ago. He was also a prolific writer. His tone is always pastoral and I find his works very comforting. As a pastor, he laments that some churches separate out the children, noting that their presence is not just for their own benefit but for that of the whole body. Here is what he has to say:
“I am told that, away beyond the Never-Never ranges, there is a church from which children are excluded before the sermon begins. I wish my informant had not told me of its existence. I am not often troubled with nightmare, my supper being quite a frugal affair. But just occasionally I find myself a victim of the terror by night. Ans when I am mercifully awakened, and asked why I am gasping so horribly and perspiring so freely, I have to confess that I was dreaming that I had somehow become the minister of that childless congregation . . . An appointment to such a charge would be to me a most fearsome and terrifying prospect. I could not trust myself. In a way, I envy the man who can hold his own under such circumstances. His transcendant powers enable him to preserve his sturdy humanness of character, his charming simplicity of diction, his graphic picturesqueness of phrase, and his exquisite winsomeness of behaviour without the extraneous assistance which the children render to some of us. But I could not do it. I should go all to pieces. And so, when I dream that I have entered a pulpit from which I can survey no roguish young faces and mischievous wide-open eyes, I fancy I am ruined and undone. I watch with consternation as the little people file out during the hymn before the sermon, and I know that the sermon is doomed. The children in the congregation are my salvation.
“I fancy that the custom to which I have referred was in vogue in the church to which the Rev. Bruno Leathwaite Chilvers ministered. Everybody knows Mr. Chilvers; at least everybody who loves George Gissing knows that very excellent gentleman. Mr. Chilvers loved to adorn his dainty discourses with certain words of strangely grandiloquent sound. “Nullifidian,” “morbific,” “renascent” — these were among his favourites. Once or twice he spoke of “psychogenesis” with an emphatic enunciation which seemed to invite respectful wonder. In using Latin words which have become fixed in the English language, he generally corrected the common errors of quantity and pronounced words as nobody else did . . . Ans so on. Poor Mr. Chilvers! I am sure that the little children filed out during the hymn before the sermon. No man with a scrap of imagination could look into the dimpled face of a little girl I know and hurl ‘nullifidian’ at her. No man could look down into a certain pair of sparkling eyes that are wonderfully familiar to me and talk about things as ‘morbific’ or ‘renascent.’ If only the little tots had kept their seats for the sermon, it would have saved poor Mr. Chilvers from committing such atrocities. Can anybody imagine John Wesley talking to his summer evening crowd at Dublin about ‘nullifidian,’ or quoting German? I will say nothing of the Galilean preacher. The common people heard Him gladly.” (Mushrooms on the Moor, Kindle loc. 1191)

Reading the Bible as Literature (A Book Review)

Dear Reader,

I recently finished reading How to Read the Bible as Literature . . .and get more out of it by Leland Ryken. I approached this book with mixed feelings. On one hand, I loved Ryken’s book on Puritans and had high hopes for him as an author. And I would really like to have found a book on biblical interpretation or reading the Bible that I could just hand to my older kids.

On the other hand, someone in an online forum had told me this book was great if you want to use the Bible to study literary concepts and then be able to apply them to other literature. This made me very suspicious, because I didn’t see how it could be true. I know I have said it before, but, in case you are new here, let me explain where I am coming from. I studied biblical Hebrew as an undergrad and in grad school. I have a Master’s Degree in it and was All But Dissertation (ABD) in a PhD program. So I have opinions about how we should approach the Bible. I tend to be pretty opinionated and critical anyway ;) So my initial thought was that I didn’t see how studying the Bible as literature could transfer to English (by “English” in this post, I will mean English language, whatever its country of origin) or western literature. Poetry was the first thing that popped into my head. Hebrew poetry works differently than English poetry. It uses parallelism and not rhyme and really doesn’t use rhythm either, at least not in any coherent, widely agreed upon way (no iambic pentameter here). So how would studying biblical poetry help one when studying English poetry?

After reading Ryken’s book, my mind hasn’t really been changed. I still have a lot of concerns and I still have some mixed feelings. There are some things Ryken says to which I found myself giving an enthusiastic “Hear! hear!” But if anything, his book just raised more questions in my mind, even about the very nature of this enterprise. There is a lot I could say and I have struggled to write this post in a coherent way. So that you are not as befuddled as I feel, let me lay out the issues I want to address from the outset. They are:

  • Can we/should we use terminology and concepts from western literature to analyze biblical texts? This could also be asked the other way: Can we take literary terms from our study of the Bible and apply them to other works we might study?
  • What does it mean to study a biblical story or passage in its “context”?
  • Should we even be studying the Bible as literature? Is this a valid way to study it or does it erode the truth value of the Scriptures?

Literary Terminology and the Bible

To a certain extent, the reservations I had before reading Ryken’s book were unfounded. The concepts he discusses are indeed applicable to other literature one might study. This is because he does not approach the biblical text as I expected. Ryken starts with a western lit mindset and western literary terms. He takes these and applies them to the biblical text. The problem is not that these terms don’t apply to western literature but that the biblical text is not western. (I will speak mainly of the Old Testament because that is what I know best. His categories and terms may apply better to the New Testament writings, especially those of Paul who was very cosmopolitan and fluent in Greek, though I suspect that even there there is a lot of eastern/Semitic influence.)

The biblical text is ancient Near Eastern (ANE), and to understand it I think we must look at other ANE literature. There may be parts of what we know from western literature that do apply as well, but we need to first ask what applies. Ryken does not ask; he just takes western categories and terminology and applies them without asking if they are appropriate. An example of this would be his discussion of the terms “comedy” and “tragedy.” As I read this section, I thought “Ah, Shakespeare!” because in Shakespeare’s work we can see these two categories so clearly. But are they also applicable to biblical stories? Ryken assumes they are, though he must admit in the end that the Bible has few if any true tragedies (by his definition) and that it has many stories which are potential tragedies but which have (again, by his definition) comic endings. Perhaps, though, instead of needing to contort himself so, it would be just better to say that the biblical stories do not conform to western ideas of comedy and tragedy. And, indeed, why should we expect them to? It is worth noting that Ryken’s sources often betray this western lit bias. In the chapter “Types of Biblical Stories” he references works such as Victorian Poetry and Poetics and The Return of Eden: Five Essays on Milton’s Epics (pp. 77,79).

This, then, is the first issue I have with How to Read the Bible as Literature . . . — it treats the Bible as a piece of western literature without asking if it is appropriate to do so. A corollary of this is that it does not look to eastern sources to shed light on the text. The example that pops into my head is covenants. How can we understand the Ten Commandments or God’s relationship with Abraham without understanding ANE covenants? Nor does he address what the full range of what prophecy is in the OT(it is more than just visions and future-telling) or how the Bible responds and reacts to ANE creation myths. In his list if types of poetry, he completely neglects wisdom psalms and does not discuss wisdom literature as such apart from proverbs.

A consequence of Ryken’s approach is that it does not do as much as one would like to increase our understanding of the biblical text. Now there are places where Ryken talks specifically about how to read and understand certain kinds of texts, poetry and proverbs in particular, and he does discuss parallelism in the chapter on poetry, though he saves this section for the end whereas I would begin any discussion on biblical poetry with the concept of parallelism and what we can learn from it. His comments on these topics are somewhat helpful and are aimed at enabling the reader to better understand what he reads. Nonetheless, I still think there is so much more that could be done.

When we use the wrong terminology, we also find ourselves asking the wrong questions, and in the end we miss quite a lot of what the text is trying to tell us. On some level Ryken seems aware of that his terminology may not apply. In his discussion of what he calls epic hero stories, he says that “David, in fact, is the closest parallel in the Bible to the epic hero of the Western tradition” (p. 80; emphasis mine). Earlier in the same paragraph, he applies the lens of the epic hero story to the book of Judges. In doing so he must admit that “The Book of Judges lacks a unifying hero and is perhaps better viewed as a collection of separate hero stories” (p. 80). I would add to this that not only does the category fail to adequately explain Judges, we also miss quite a lot of its meaning if all we are looking for is hero stories. There is a definite pattern of rebellion, repentance and redemption which structures the book. When we see this pattern, we see that the main story here is not about Gideon or Samson but about God and His people. It shows us the people’s weakness, their unwillingness to be governed by God and why they so desperately feel the need for a king as the nations around them have. As such, it is a kind of prequel to the books of Samuel and Kings.

Understanding Biblical Literature in Its Context

Up until this point what I have been talking about is reading the Bible in its social and geographic context — that is, understanding it in the light of other works from the same time and place (very roughly speaking); we need to view it in its own world, if you will. But when we speak of context in biblical interpretation we also mean its literary context — what other verses, stories, books surround a given passage and how do these affect its meaning? Most Bible readers worth their salt know that we cannot just take isolated verses out of context and quote them willy-nilly to support any old thing we like. This is poor scholarship. But what exactly the context of a given story is when it comes to the Bible is a tricky question. Obviously, what we have in the Bible are stories within books within a Book. Sometimes there are even more layers involved if we are considering, for example, a story from the Abraham cycle. This nested approach applies as well when we are talking of proverbs, prophecies and psalms, each may stand alone but is also part of a collection which is part of the whole Bible.

So the question we must ask is: when looking at a given passage, how wide a context do we need to consider? We may be able to learn quite a bit when reading a story (or psalm, or proverb . . .)  by itself, but when we become familiar with the whole of Scripture and can see it in the light of the rest of the Bible, we are likely to glean even more. Ryken acknowledges this, and even spends a chapter on it, near the end of his book, when he says:

“The result is a book in which no part is wholly self-contained but instead carries echoes from many other parts.” (p. 186)

Nevertheless, there are times when he does not go far enough in considering the wider context. For example he says that:

“For example, it is quite possible to treat the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22) as a self-contained story. But that same material becomes only an episode if we are discussing the story of Abraham as a whole.” (p. 45; see also p. 62 where Ryken again discusses this story)

I would add further that the story takes on a whole new meaning when we consider also the story of Jesus and God’s sacrifice of His own Son. Indeed our understanding of the binding of Isaac would be incomplete if we did not consider this wider context.

Though I don’t have a lot of evidence to back me up, I also question Ryken’s assertion regarding the sayings in the Book of Proverbs that “Beyond these [first] sections, though, the structure is miscellaneous and the unity nonexistent” (p. 127). I suspect that there is actually a lot more to which proverb is placed next to which one than we have yet discerned. [Side note: I love the way Psalms 80 and 81 seem to speak to each other — see this post; this is the sort of intentional placing of texts side by side that I thinking of.]

The Bible as Literature

There is still a larger issue which arises as one reads Ryken’s book, namely, is it even appropriate to read the Bible as literature? Is this something we should do? Or does treating the Bible as one would any other piece of literature undercut the truth value of Scripture? Honestly, I did not go into this book with these concerns. If you had asked me before I read How to Read the Bible as Literature . . . I would have said that while we cannot solely treat the Bible as literature that it is a perfectly valid way to approach the text and could even be useful in helping us delve into its meaning. Ryken made me doubt this, entirely without intending to I am sure. As a little preview of posts to come, let me quote the book I am currently reading, Openness Unhindered by Rosaria Butterfield; in presenting her own story, Mrs. Butterfield says that:

“I also learned that the Bible was a literary text, discernible through the lenses of literary devices. It seemed to me that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a metaphor, powerful only in the worlds of words.” (p. 13)

The point here is that when we begin to treat the biblical text as literature, as we would any other literature, we can begin to undermine its truthfulness. If we, for instance, regard some aspect of a story as a plot device, are we then saying that it didn’t really happen that way?

At the outset of this book Ryken said a lot about how literature works that I found myself agreeing with. He says “literature expresses truth in its own way” (p. 11) and “The knowledge that literature gives of a subject is the kind of knowledge that is obtained by (vicariously) living through an experience” (p. 13). As statements about literature in general I would agree. But in the midst of this he also says, “when the Bible employs a literary  method, it asks to be approached as literature and not as something else” (pp.11-12). On the surface this does not sound too bad. But as I think about it I wonder what this means for the historical books of the Bible. If we are taking them as literature, can we also treat them as reliable history? I feel that there is a door here which is being cracked open, a door that Rosaria Butterfield (in the above quote) and others have gone through.

Now the truth be known, I am well aware that history is written by the victors. Or at least that you and I can both write about the same event and yet give very different interpretations and depictions of it. Ryken addresses this as well:

“Authorial selectivity and arrangement of details lie behind every story in the Bible. There is always more than one way to tell a given story. The story as it finally stands has been consciously assembled by the author for a calculated effect on the audience. In short, storytellers control what you see and don’t see, how you see it, and when you see it.” (p. 63)

And again:

“Characters in biblical stories are conscious creations of the storytellers, not in the sense that the writers disregard the real-life person, but in the sense that they decide what to include and exclude from their portrait.” (p. 64)

We see this, I think, in the two pictures of David given in Kings and Chronicles. In the former, Israel’s great king is nonetheless a flawed and hounded human being; in the latter he is much more majestically portrayed. In a different way, we see it in the gospels, each of which gives a different viewpoint on Jesus’ life and ministry (see Ryken p. 133).

Despite these examples, I still found myself, as I read this book, coming back again and again to the question of how we can trust the historicity of the Bible if we are always confronted with the storyteller’s art and all the mechanisms he chooses to use. The lines are very blurry here. On one hand, I don’t believe we ever have truly unbiased accounts of anything, whether we are watching the evening news or reading history. On the other hand, truth is truth. There is a point at which any account goes from the realm of truth into that of fiction. That is why in our courts we are asked to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Any mother who has been confronted with a naughty child knows that there can be a lot of truth that is not the whole truth and that a half truth or a truth that is not complete might as well be a lie.

Ryken himself seems to be trying to preserve the truth value of the biblical text. He speaks, for instance, of the support of archaeological evidence for biblical claims (p. 131). Nonetheless, many of his statements seem to undercut the reliability of the Bible. He notes, for example, that the settings of various stories often have symbolic meaning –“Spiritual revelations often occur on mountains” (p. 35) being one example. When we begin to make statements like this, we can quickly come to believe (or at the very least lead others to believe) that these settings are authorial choices and therefore purely metaphorical. And once we begin to cast doubt upon the details, it is a quick and slippery slope to coming to believe that the whole story is metaphorical and not historical. Elsewhere he says that the gospel narratives “convey an astonishing sense of reality” (p. 133) and in discussing prophecy that the visions of the prophets “exist in the imagination and not in empirical reality” (p. 165) and again that “We know that people do not fly through the air on wings” (p. 169). He may now this, but I believe that if the Bible says that a prophet was transported and/or saw a heavenly vision that he quite possibly did go somewhere and definitely did see something that was more than his imagination.

Drawing Some Conclusions

So what are we supposed to do then? I’m not advocating living in ignorance or taking the Bible in isolation. But I do think we need to acknowledge that it is fundamentally different from other books. I don’t know that I have all the answers but here are some conclusions and ides that have occurred to me:

  • We need to consider the geographical and social context of the Bible. Its human writers, at least for the OT, would have had some familiarity with the myths and stories of the cultures around them (read: ANE other cultures) and so it is reasonable to expect them to have responded to these cultures in their own writings. They also had to some extent a common culture with their neighbors so it is reasonable to look for similar genres and literary devices.
  • We need to exercise more caution in applying western concepts to the Bible (again, especially the OT). These things will be more familiar to us, but we must guard against putting our own expectations on the text.
  • When interpreting an given text, we should consider it on many levels: on its own, in the immediate context of its book, and in light of the rest of Scripture. A corollary: we should become more and more familiar with all of Scripture so that this becomes easier and easier for us.
  • When discussing the storyteller’s art, we should be careful with the phrasing we use. While the speaker may have  a healthy respect for the authority of Scripture, others, especially children, may be led to think that if we call one part of a story metaphor or hyperbole, that skepticism about the whole is appropriate.
  • We need to keep in mind who the ultimate Author of Scripture is. Ryken speaks in his book of the text’s various human authors and, of course, there were many people involved in its authorship and editing. But each of these, I believe, was led by the Holy Spirit. We are told that the Bible is “God-breathed.” While its many human contributors are not infallible and would surely have had their own opinions and biases, we must not lose sight of the fact God has given us the Book He wants us to have. We know for instance that Paul wrote other letters which were not included in the canon and that there were other chronicles which recorded the history of the nation of Israel. But the Bible we have is what God ahs chosen to preserve and hand down through the generations to us. It is this divine inspiration which truly sets the Book apart form all others.


Book Series for Tween and Teen Boys

Dear Reader,

I have had a couple of conversations (or virtual conversations) about book series for boys between the ages of 9-15 or so. I don’t know what it is about boys, but it seems a lot of them like to find series and read them through. It can be hard, though, to find quality ones. I know my own local library tends to have a lot of fantasy-type books. I don’t inherently object to fantasy, but there is a thread in modern books which irks me (more on that here). So I thought I would give  a list of the series my older boy (now 15) has read.

Book Series for Tween and Teen Boys

Though I know they need hardly be mentioned among Christian homeschoolers, let’s start with The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The former is much easier reading than the latter. I will admit that as a child I started both and could not get into them. My kids have enjoyed them though. My older son has read Tolkien many times over.  But they are excellent in their outlook and theology (both authors are Christian) and my son has enjoyed them both. I am not a huge fan of Christian lit but, though Narnia at least is quite obvious if you know the Christian story, these books do not come off as obvious or preachy. A warning: read them first! Don’t go to the movie versions. The Lord of the Rings in particular has been made very violent in the movies.

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling — Okay, I know you have heard of this one. And I know some will have objections to the magical elements. For me Harry Potter is at a level I can take. My older son has read them all many times as well. HP and Lord of the Rings are the two series he keeps coming back to.

Rick Riordan — Riordan has a few series. Percy Jackson and the Olympians one is the most well-known. In it the main characters are demi-gods, the offspring of human and the ancient Greek gods. He also has an Egyptian series which my kids don’t like quite as much and a newer Norse one which we haven’t tried. We have done many of these as audio-books so I have heard most of them too. Though in many ways they embody the themes I object to in other teen books (misunderstood kid discovers he/she is not really human), I find these books humorous, exciting and enjoyable to listen too. But then again, I don’t mind Greek myths either.

N.D. Wilson  — Wilson is apparently a Christian author. Honestly, I haven’t read any of his books but they were recommended to us by our pastor’s family (a source I trust) and my son is enjoying them. The two he has tried so far are the 100 Cupboards series and Ashtown Burials. A good sign: I see on his website that Wilson has books on Eden and Noah for ages 4 and up. I’ll have to check those out.

The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander — Alexander should be listed soon after Lewis and Tolkien, so here he is. I think he has other series too. My son has liked everything he’s read by Alexander.

M.T. Anderson — Anderson is a weird one. We like weird around here. We first encountered him in his Pals in Peril series. These are best qualified as detective stories. The name of one, The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen, will give you an idea of their character. That series is younger, I would say middle school age (with all the silliness middle school boys love; but not just a gross out book). I think my son also read another of his middle age series though I don’t know which one. He has also tackled an older series, Octavian Nothing. This one deserves a warning that there is some adult content. We did the first one as an audio book and even my then 12yo dd was lost. But my older one liked it. The premise takes a while, like most of the book, to figure out and is pretty bizarre. It is set during the Revolutionary War.

Agatha Christie — An oldie but a goodie. If you like mysteries, don’t forget these classics.

The Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald Sobol — Older books again. Very quick reads for the boy with a short attention span who likes a puzzle. Both my boys read these.

Allen Quartermain by Rider — I call this as a series because there are sequels. These are also older books. I read both this one and King Solomon’s Mines as did my son. We both enjoyed them.

The Molly Moon series by Georgia Byng — I didn’t read these either (bad parent, bad parent!) but my son enjoyed them all a few years back. More middle school level silliness and probably a fair amount of gross stuff is my guess.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud — We all listened to the first of these and then my son read the rest. They are borderline imo because of their treatment of magic/occult stuff. Edited to add: with no prompting my son brought these up in conversation recently and mentioned how much he had liked them. It has been a few years since he read them so I take that as pretty high praise.

The Emerald Atlas  series by John Stephens — Another one I didn’t read and which is probably borderline with the magic-y stuff. Here is a blurb from the author’s website:

“Brimming with action, humor, and emotion, The Emerald Atlas is the first stage of a journey that will take Kate, Michael, and Emma to strange, dangerous lands and deep within themselves. It is the story of three children who set out to save their family, and end up having to save the world.”

Children of the Lamp by P.B. Kerr — I think we listened to the first of these (or maybe two?) and then my son read the rest. As the name implies, there is an Arab twist here. There are djinn (like Arab genies) involved. But honestly I think this one bothered me less than Stroud’s books. I think they are for a slightly younger age too though they are still at least middle school level.

The Golden Door series by Emily Rodda — She has another series which may be more famous. This is the only one we’ve tried. Amazon calls it a “high-fantasy” world.

The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini — Amazon calls is “worldwide bestselling saga of one boy, one dragon, and a world of adventure.” My son seemed to really enjoy this series and they seem to be widely popular.

The Francis Tucket Books by Gary Paulsen — A safer choice and an easier read. These books are set in the Old West. No fantasy here. Just a lot about growing up, becoming a man, and dealing with Indians.

William O. Steele — I’m not sure if any of Steele’s books are actually  a series. But he has a ton set in olden times in America. Lots of battling the elements and hostile peoples. They can be found on Amazon under the series name Odyssey Classics. 

The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott — Another series recommended by the pastor’s family. They have titles like The Alchemyst and The Enchantress. There is stuff about the search for eternal life. But they seem like really good books.

Wayside School by Louis Sachar –Pretty harmless silliness for younger kids. Upper elementary age, I’d say. Though they are set in a school, there doesn’t seem to be the bullying and other issues which often bother me in school-y books.

A to Z Mysteries, Calendar Mysteries and Capital Mysteries by Ron Roy — Not high literature but more fairly harmless books for the younger set. Kids seem to zip through them pretty quickly but Roy has a lot to offer so it might still take them awhile.

The Time Warp Trio by Jon Scieszka — A group of boys travel through time, visit other times and places (hidden history lessons here), and satisfy your young boy’s need for grossness.

The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner — More oldies but goodies. Easy to read mysteries for elementary kids. Make sure you stick to the original series (there are only about 30 of them).

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl — Pretty brief for a series but I am including them because these are such great, classic books. Read all his other ones too while you are at it. Have we forgotten how to manage so much silly without a ton of gross?

Drift House by Dale Peck — Children adrift on a houseboat is what I get. The author says C.S. Lewis was his biggest influence. My older son enjoyed them.

Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger — Okay, this is probably a desperation choice for the Star Wars fan who is a reluctant reader. My younger son enjoyed these. A lot of silly, I am sure.

The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Graham — Okay, I really thought there were sequels to this one. I think I am conflating it with another dragon series. Does anyone know which one I am thinking of? Grahame is the author of The Wind in the Willows and wrote in the late 1800s. If that doesn’t recommend this book to you, well, you need to read more old books.

Terry Pratchett — We’ve only read a few scattered books by Pratchett but some of his are series (see them all here). They vary in content. I read Dodger and found it a tiny bit risque at parts but a pretty good read. It is set in Charles Dickens’ time so there is the added history lesson they don’t know they’re getting bonus. We also listened to We Free Men which we didn’t think was a spectacular story but had a lot of silliness in the wee men’s names which we still refer to.

Solomon Snow books by Kaye Umansky — Ridiculousness abounds for kids in (what seems to be) Victorian England. How come all books set in this time and place seem to be better?

Roman Mysteries by Henry Winterfield — Fun and slightly educational reading for upper elementary or middle school.

The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence — Okay, Lawrence’s actually have the name “Roman Mysteries.” I don’t know that Winterfield’s series has a name. Both are good.

The Bogle Books by Catherine Jinks — Victorian England again, What did I tell you? These ones center around a fanciful creature called a bogle that eats kids. Don;t let that put you off; they are decent books and not scary.

Smells like Dog and sequels by Suzanne Selfors — It was my daughter who read these but she tells me if a boy likes dogs he will like them too. I think they are pretty silly and not hard reading.

Avi’s Crispin series — Avi is very prolific. Some of his books are about animals (the Redwall, the animals are the main characters and talk). The Crispin books are about a boy living in, if I recall correctly, medieval times. We really enjoyed them.

Gary Blackwood’s Shakespeare series — More hidden education. When we first started one of these books, I thought it was not the best writing but then as we went along, we all got sucked into the plot. Not hard books but a great way to get at Shakespeare’s time and even at modern themes like the rights of an author to his material, etc.

Clyde Robert Bulla — I cheat so much. You guys shouldn’t let me get away with this stuff. Again I am not sure there are any series here but Bulla is so prolific there is still a lot to read. His books all seem to be set in different historical times and places. They are usually exciting adventures for upper elementary and beyond (and younger ones too though perhaps as read alouds).

The Swindle series by Gordon Korman — Korman is a modern writer and has some of the themes of modern writers that I don’t always like (bullies in school, siblings don’t get along, etc.). But we did enjoy this series. It has animals (not as talking characters but as major parts of the plot) which is always a plus. I would not assume his other series are as acceptable.

The Inkheart and MirrorWorld series by Cornelia Funke — She’s German; is that a recommendation? Inkheart in particular gets a lot of attention. My older son has enjoyed both these series. They are older, at least late middle school.

Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy — Another one that’s compared to Lewis. I don’t know if it’s deserved by my son enjoyed them.

The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins — A boy goes underground and encounters giant rats and the like. It didn’t sound to appealing to me but my son loved them and I know another boy who is a reluctant reader who did too.

The Indian in the Cupboard and sequels by Lynne Reid Banks — My two older ones read some of these in a class and seemed to like them.

The Incorriglibles series by Mary Rose Wood — An absolute favorite series of ours. More Victorian children, mystery and utter silliness. We all adore these but I did have someone tell me her son couldn’t get into them because the main character is female.

The Redwall series by Brian Jacques — Okay, we listened to the first one and never got into them but I knew if I left them out, someone would mention them. Talking animals in a medieval setting with lots of descriptive detail is what I remember.

That’s my list so far; what am I forgetting (or haven’t yet discovered)??


Let’s Play Guess which is the Living Book

Dear Reader,

Ready for a game? Below are the first paragraphs from two history books I picked up for my kids’ schooling this year. You tell me which one is the living book. Bonus points if you tell me which one was published first. Spoiler: this should be super easy. Comment below with your answer. When I get the right response, I tell you what the books are. Ready? Here we go:

Book #1:

“When John Brown was born in 1800, the United States was a young and growing country. Settlers poured into the new territories of the West. They built towns and turned forests into farmland. New states were added to the Union, and the country’s population swelled. Americans were very proud of their country. Many people claimed there was more freedom on the United States than in any other country in the world. However, in the southern states, almost one million blacks wore the chains of slavery.”

Book #2:

“Gunshots cracked the cold grey dawn of October 17, 1859 in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Awakened by the noise, frightened citizens hastily dresses and gathered in the streets. “What is it?” “What has happened?” they nervously asked one another.”

Bring on those guesses!


p.s. Double bonus: tell me which one makes you want to keep reading.


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