Readers' Reviews

The Carols of Christmas by Andrew Gant (Thomas Nelson, 2015)

The Carols of Christmas cover image

Here are some odd and ends of Christmas carol trivia:

  • The first line of a best-known carol originally read, “Hark, how all the welkin rings! Glory to the King of kings.” (So what’s a welkin?)
  • The words of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” can be traced back to seven prayers, the Advent antiphons, that were in use during the early 500s. (That’s long ago? But what’s a welkin?)
  • The tune to “O Christmas Tree” has popped up in all kinds of unlikely places, including the stadium of the Manchester United football team and the state capitol of Maryland. (Interesting, but I still want to know what a welkin is!)
  • The words to “O Holy Night” were revised and revised and revised again in a way that parallels the course of theology during the 19th century. (Yes, but…)

It’s no surprise that there are plenty of books providing background to Christmas carols. For almost two months every year, carols are everywhere! You hear them when you shop at MarketFair. You can listen to them non-stop on Pandora, Spotify, and Sirius XM. During Advent, you sing them on Sunday mornings. So it’s easy to take these familiar songs for granted. But in terms of their origins, carols are hardly ordinary. And that’s why there is always a market for books that tell their backstories well.

Andrew Gant teaches at Oxford and is a renowned British composer. Not surprisingly, his contribution to the literature about carols, The Carols of Christmas, includes stories about 21 well-known tunes as well as their words. It makes for an enlightening read, especially since the music for some carols involve so many different people and countries and classes. While reading the book, I developed a deeper understanding of the extent to which carols are a gift of the whole church to the whole church. As a result, the book is well worth the read.

Oh, and as for “welkin,” it’s an archaic term that means the sky or the heavens.

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Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture by Jaroslav Pelikan

Mary Through the Centuries Book Cover Image

In the 500 years since the start of the Protestant Reformation, few issues continue to divide Protestants from Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians like the doctrine of Mary, mother of Christ. Where the latter two groups see Mary as the one who is “Full of Grace,” “higher than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim,” even the “Mother of God,” Protestants tend only to see idolatry. And while much progress has been made to bridge theological divides in other areas, with respect to Mary, both sides continue to caricature the other.

Into this void of understanding steps Jaroslav Pelikan’s Mary Through the Centuries, a readable overview of the development of thought and doctrine about Mary in the East and the West, Catholicism and Protestantism, Old World and New World. One of my favorite things about this book is that it is not a catechesis meant for dogmatic instruction. Rather Pelikan, considered the greatest Church historian of the 20th century, simply presents the historical facts: what doctrines mean, where they came from, how widely they are acknowledged, and how they influenced the life of the Church. For example, Pelikan notes how the Virgin Birth has historically been a matter of crucial importance for Christian doctrine: Mary’s virginal conception by the Holy Spirit is the assurance of Jesus’s divinity; that Jesus takes on Mary’s flesh is the assurance of His humanity.

In addition to offering theological analysis, each chapter looks at how ideas about Mary have been incorporated into art and culture at various times and places. He also looks at how Marian doctrine has played an important role in the lives and faith of the poor across the centuries, and how Mary has been, since her “Magnificat” in Luke 1, the earliest Christian proponent of social justice.

Whether you believe Mary is the “Great Example” or the “Great Exception,” there is much to be learned about how Christians over time have understood and honored her. There are opportunities to grow in our own faith, especially as we move into the Advent season, waiting alongside the expectant mother of the coming Emmanuel.

Learn more about the book:

“Jesus on Safari: The Legacy of Jaroslav Pelikan” (First Things)

“The Mary We Never Knew” (Christianity Today)

Preview Chapter 1 of the book

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Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

The book called Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick is amazing. In this story, starting in 1977, Ben is deaf and is traveling to New York City in a search for his dad but finds someone else instead. At the same time, the book tells about another character, Rose, who is also deaf and traveling in New York City. Rose’s story begins fifty years before Ben’s story. Even though they come from different time periods, they have a larger connection than you think. Eventually they cross paths, and many secrets are revealed.

This story is fun and intriguing and has many mysteries you have to figure out. I also like it because half of the book, Rose’s part, is told in detailed pictures like a graphic novel, and the other half, from Ben’s point of view, is told in words. I think that is very unique. The story also shows that God is with everyone, even in the hardest times. This is a great book, and I think you should read it.

Wonderstruck has also been made into a major motion picture just like the author’s earlier book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It is in theaters now, but you should always read the book first!

Learn more about the book:

Book site

Book trailer

Discussion guides for the author’s books

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Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle

Tattoos on the Heart Cover Image

Father Gregory Boyle, author of Tattoos on the Heart, is a Jesuit priest who has devoted his life to working among the urban poor in Los Angeles. While serving at Dolores Mission Church and watching his community be ravaged by gang violence, Father Boyle mobilized his parish to found Homeboy Industries in 1988. Through offering jobs and social services such as child care and tattoo removal, Homeboy Industries has become the largest gang rehabilitation program in the world. Central to their approach is providing hope and self-worth to the “homies” by treating them as full human beings, loved by God.

Tattoos on the Heart exposes the incredible hardships of life in an East LA community: broken families, substance abuse, high teenage pregnancy rates, brutal gang violence, to name a few. Father Boyle tells story after story of the real people with whom he has built relationships, through his efforts to help young people leave the gangs and live for peace. The book is not the author’s memoir, nor is it his sociological evaluation of the neighborhood and its challenges. Rather, it is meant to be devotional reading, with each chapter centered on a spiritual theme. Through stories and quotes from a wide variety of spiritual leaders, Father Boyle shares lessons learned and invites readers to adopt them as their own. He manages to teach much about communities plagued by gang violence and the best ways to help.

Those who read this book should know that the people encountered in its pages often use offensive speech, as the author shares candidly the language of his neighborhood. Additionally, the tragic violence may discourage or shock you. Many of these stories do not have happy endings. But I kept reading because Father Boyle’s point is how to live with this violence and how to work for change amidst it. You need to hear about it to appreciate the work being done.

Finally, I found myself wishing I could hear more from Father Boyle about his theological perspective on evil, suffering, and God’s wrath. Does his view of God’s transforming love include wrath towards what is hateful and evil? I am not sure. Nonetheless, I am inspired by Father Boyle’s sacrificial ministry and the power of his boundless compassion to bring about change and hope.

Note: Father Boyle recently published a follow up to this book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship (2017).

Learn more about the book:

Author interview in 2010, with book excerpt (NPR’s Fresh Air)

A short film following an ex-gang member on a typical day at Homeboy Industry’s bakery

“House of Second Chances,” about Homeboy Industries (Fast Company)

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Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline, MD and Jim Fay

Parenting with Love and Logic book Cover image

I thought parenting would be easy until I had my own children! 2 Timothy 4:2 reminded me to “correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.” But too often I was angry and frustrated, exhausted by power struggles with those precious little gifts from God.

Now that I am a grandparent, I have another chance to parent more effectively. A friend recommended Parenting with Love and Logic. Psychologist Foster Cline and educator Jim Fay describe an approach that teaches children to think, decide, and live with consequences, in order to develop a sense of responsibility. Although the book references Christian ideas, it is written for a general audience, focusing on ages 1-10 yet relevant for any child.

The authors present two main concepts. First, children need thoughtful guidance and firm, enforceable limits, while reasonable real-world consequences do the teaching. Parents and caregivers can ask questions and offer choices within safe limits, allowing children to make the decision. For example, a 9-month-old can be given very simple choices: “Would you like pretzels or Goldfish for snack time?” Two choices are given that are acceptable options and can be enforced. If the child declines to choose, then the parent decides.

Second, the authors suggest that genuine empathy and sadness in response to mistakes are what drive lessons into children’s hearts – not anger, lectures, or punishment. In the snack example, if the child chooses pretzels and then wants something else, the parent can say, “It’s hard for me to stick with choices I make, too. You can continue eating your pretzels or resume playing with your toys.” Then enforce their choice.

Like any self-help book, Parenting with Love and Logic will not solve every problem or produce perfect children. But its examples and practical tools are helping me better enjoy my grandchildren and grow in confidence when caring for them. The authors remind us that God gave all humans freedom, including the opportunity to make mistakes. When Adam and Eve made the wrong choice, God allowed them to suffer the consequences. He loved them enough to let them make a decision and live with the results.

Note: When researching the authors, I discovered that Dr. Cline faced some past controversy with his recommendation of Attachment Therapy, or rage reduction therapy, when counseling caregivers of adopted or foster children. This book does not deal with that psychological theory.

Looking for more advice on parenting, especially through difficult seasons? This weekend, November 10th-11th, Stone Hill will be holding a forum on parenting teens. Learn more here.

Learn more about the book:

Book and ministry site

Video resources related to the book

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The Life We Never Expected by Andrew & Rachel Wilson

Written by the parents of two autistic children, The Life We Never Expected contains a wealth of wisdom and practical strategies for raising children with special needs. Keenly insightful and concise enough even for the most sleep-deprived parent, this book radiates empathy and vulnerability as the Wilsons reflect on their parenting experience through five cycles of five repeating themes: weeping, worshipping, waiting, witnessing, and breathe.

The “Weeping” chapters discuss the importance of lamentation and grieving, both before God and with others. As a caretaker of the physically disabled and of children with special needs, these sections deeply resonate with my experience. The book normalizes the anxiety and distress of parents, bringing those emotions into the congregation so that we might “bear one another’s burdens” more honestly.

The parts on “Worshipping” serve as devotionals, emphasizing the priority of the spiritual life in the face of relentless challenges. One of my favorite chapters discusses the preeminence of joy in biblical worship. Andrew quotes C.S. Lewis saying, “It is a Christian duty for everyone to be as happy as he can.” He then reflects on how this “fight for joy” impacts his ability to parent and live well, sharing strategies for finding joy in the Lord.

The “Waiting” sections offer theological reflections on some of our deepest questions, as Christians living in a world fraught with trauma and sorrow. How can we maintain hope in the face of unanswered prayer? How does the parent of a regressing autistic understand the Bible’s healing narratives? These questions are thoughtfully and sensitively explored.

The “Witnessing” chapters alternate between the witness offered by special needs individuals, and the personal witness of God’s faithful care for the Wilson family. One especially poignant story involves a boy with Down’s syndrome. In his infancy, someone prophesied that he would touch nations. At the time, this seemed like a painful reminder of the impossible. But years later, that child met a visitor from Kenya. Astonished by the child’s genuine love for God, the man later accepted a government post advocating for children with special needs.

This vibrant little book reaches an extraordinary level of depth for its brevity. I recommend it not only for caretakers and parents of special needs children, but also for new parents, those in ministry, and anyone struggling to maintain faith in the midst of overwhelming, life-changing circumstances.

Looking for more advice on parenting, especially through difficult seasons? On November 10th-11th, Stone Hill will be holding a forum on parenting teens. Learn more here.

Learn more about the book:

Andrew Wilson on the book’s publication (THINK)

Author interview (Jelly Telly Parenting)

Publisher’s site, with excerpt

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Eastern Voices: Insight, Perspective, and Vision from Kingdom Leaders in Asia in Their Own Words

Just a few miles from Stone Hill sits a tiny white church that has been repurposed to function as an architect’s studio. The building serves as a metaphor for the decline of the Christian faith across the US. But something much different is happening in other places. Over the past 50 years, Christianity has truly become a global faith. While in retreat in the West, it is blooming and advancing in the global South and East: Africa, Asia, and South America.

Our bond in Christ to brothers and sisters across the globe carries with it a wonderful responsibility, one that this insightful book makes a delight. Eastern Voices Volume 1, a collection published by the ministry Asian Access, allows us to listen to and learn from godly Christian leaders who serve in Asia and for whom a country in Asia has always been home—whether Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Myanmar, or Sri Lanka.

The challenge of Asia in relation to the gospel is vast. Almost 60% of the world population lives there, and its backgrounds are, as one missiologist puts it, “complicated, diverse, and spiritually overwhelming.” The 15 men and women who wrote the chapters of this book shed light on how God is at work in Asia and what the people of God are learning:

  • Read how Pastor Yoshiya Hari of Saikyo Hope Chapel describes the spiritual impact of the 2011 tsunami. Learn particularly about a gospel awakening that is occurring as an unyielding cultural barrier to church health has been exposed.
  • Ponder the prophetic assessment of so much of today’s worship by Adrian De Visser, founder of Kethu Sevana Ministries in Sri Lanka. He raises questions about worship in his cultural context that relate directly to us in ours.
  • Be inspired by my favorite chapter, written by Kavitha Emmaneul, founder of Women of WorthThank God for using our sister to stand up to the evil of skin-color bias, aka colorism, in India.

Read all 15 leaders’ stories. Be instructed. Be transformed.

This weekend, October 20th-21st, there will be an opportunity to learn about God’s work through and among Indian Americans. Stone Hill will be hosting a conference by the Advance Initiative. Find out more here.

Learn more about the book:

The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis

The Space Trilogy

Marcus Gibson

For years I’d heard about C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy and had considered it with apprehension. I am not a great reader of science fiction, but I had difficulty anticipating how Lewis’s work might compare with Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series, books that I had greatly enjoyed. My apprehension, as I discovered this summer, was ill founded. Not only do Lewis’s books – Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength – exemplify the best of the science fiction genre, in my opinion they are some of Lewis’s most profound books, period.

The series follows a professor of linguistics, Dr. Ransom, who is aptly named for the Christ-like role he plays in the stories. When we first meet him in Silent Planet, Ransom is being kidnapped by ambitious scientists, who take him to Mars aboard their space ship. His kidnappers have established contact with the Martians, whom they believe require a human sacrifice to their gods in exchange for gold that the men desire. When Ransom escapes, he discovers that the Martians are not interested in killing him nor anyone, being an intelligent race that has never suffered the Fall.

As Ransom learns about these creatures, his eyes are opened to the reality of a cosmic warfare of apocalyptic scale. Though he initially sees the Martians as simple, he comes to realize that humans are the true savages. Earth has fallen silent in the midst of the music of the spheres, and all the heavenly hosts are preparing for cosmic battle against its dark ruler.

While these books are truly science fiction – they imagine a technologically advanced society and the moral challenges faced by such advances – they are also, in a sense, medieval. By localizing angelic beings in space and within particular planets, Lewis draws upon medieval theology, notably Dante’s Paradiso, which itself drew upon Classical Greek philosophers such as Plato. And by blatantly linking the technologic with the demonic in That Hideous Strength, Lewis attempts to remove the veil from our modern eyes that allows us to only see the material rather that the full reality of the world around us.

With a gripping narrative, profound theology, and important questions regarding technology and modern life, C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy is a must-read. And while some aspects may seem silly, now more than 50 years after these books were written, the questions regarding how Christians ought to use technology and how we ought to engage with a technology-crazed society are more relevant than ever.

Learn more about the books:

Silence by Shūsaku Endō, Trans. William Johnston

Silence book cover

Alex Kato

At the turn of the 17th century, while attempting to unite Japan by conquest, the Tokugawa shogunate tried to crush the Christianity that united the southern daimyōs (feudal lords) against them. Here, the blood of the martyrs was apparently not the seed of the Church. The feudal government virtually eradicated Christianity and sealed off Japan from Western influence for 250 years. Today, many consider Japan the largest unreached people group in the world, 125 million people with less than 0.5% Christian. Shūsaku Endō‘s Silence opens a chilling window into that defining period of persecution. As a Japanese American, the book both complicated my vague pride in Japanese orderliness and efficiency, and fanned my desire to somehow serve this nation still in desperate need of the Gospel.

In Silence, Sebastian Rodriguez, a Portuguese Jesuit priest, sails to Japan in the midst of this withering persecution. He sneaks from town to town, offering sacraments to secret Christians, all while looking for his mentor, who is rumored to have renounced the faith. Father Rodriguez arrives prepared to fight off fear, but as he watches the Christian peasants suffer, he finds his true adversary is doubt. Amid this slaughter, why does God seem silent?

Silence disturbed me. The torture is cold and creative. Yet, it is historical, and it’s something Christians should grapple with, personally and theologically. I recommend reading the book before seeing Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film adaptation, not only to bring Rodriguez’s internal dialogue into the visual experience but also to know how upsetting the images will be (and decide whether to watch the poignant but graphic film after all).

Endo leaves readers with complicated questions. Why does God seem silent? What does it mean to obey God? What would I do in the same situations? Personally, I needed people to ask these questions with, and it was helpful to read and watch Silence with others from my Stone Hill small group. Look for an opportunity to read this book with others, because I am sure it will unsettle you, as it should.

Learn more about the book:

The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon, Disney-Hyperion, 2016

The Bone Sparrow

Emily Lo Gibson

With the massive refugee crisis across the globe, it's hard to turn on the radio and not hear about the millions of people fleeing war, poverty and persecution. Certain places and people are familiar to our ears: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan…

But what about those who often don’t make the news, like the Rohingya of Burma? Zana Fraillon does an admirable job of putting this little-known Muslim people group on the map with her new novel, The Bone Sparrow. While it’s written for a younger audience (middle grade), we all could benefit from reading it. We learn through the innocent eyes of ten-year-old Subhi, or DAR-1: the first child born in the detention camp where he and his family await decision on their immigration status.

The story of Subhi, his sister Queeny, and his mother Maá unwraps slowly. But soon, we find ourselves in the dusty detention camp, feeling the relentless beat of the sun, avoiding the threatening gaze of the Jackets (security guards). Subhi invites us to experience his imagined Night Sea, to muse on his hopes and dreams, to grapple with the confines of his “limbo life.” He is no longer a faceless refugee. We also meet our second narrator, the spunky, cheeky Jimmie who sneaks to the camp from the “Outside.” She’s technically “free,” but is also imprisoned by her own grief and precarious state. We learn how unseen she has been as well.

This friendship, crossing cultures and status, is most endearing and fun to read. (Look for the Shakespeare Duck and dreamy food sessions!) Yet it doesn’t shy away from the stark realities of camp life. There were several times when I found my heart racing and full of sorrow, even as I found moments to laugh and smile.

The Bone Sparrow is a creative way for us at Stone Hill to think about being dedicated followers of Christ who “Impact Our World” by bridging that gap between the refugee and us. Just as Subhi and Jimmie found common ground, we, too, can welcome the stranger, the “other” into our lives. After reading the book, consider contacting the Missions Team in order to learn more about refugees in our area, or learning about and praying for a people group in “limbo.”


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