Reader's Reviews

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman (Henry Holt & Co., 2017)

Because of God’s compassionate love in Jesus Christ, the Church is called to care for those who suffer. And among those who suffer acutely, at least because of the stigma attached, are people with mental illness. Over 20% of Americans struggle with some form of mental illness. As one way to increase public awareness, May has been observed in the USA as Mental Health Awareness Month since 1949.

Vincent Van Gogh suffered from mental illness. You think of him first and foremost as the Dutch post-impressionist genius behind such iconic paintings as “Sunflowers” or “Starry Night.” And that he is! But throughout his adult years, Van Gogh suffered from a combination of illnesses, possibly including clinical depression, epilepsy, acute anxiety, and bipolar disorder. And his world, including his parents and siblings, was uncomfortably at a loss as to how to handle it. As his father wrote in a letter when Vincent was 27, “If only some light would shine on that distressing darkness of Vincent.” But no such light did shine. In the end, at age 37, Vincent took his own life.

Vincent and Theo is not primarily about mental illness. Instead, it is a retelling of Vincent’s life through excerpts from letters to his brother, Theo. Deborah Heiligman, the author, argues convincingly that “the world would not have Vincent without Theo.” And so it is the relationship between the two brothers that takes center stage. Through that, I came to see Vincent’s development as an artist in an entirely different way. For example, I saw the beauty of “Sunflowers” in a fuller context, especially its choice of vibrant colors that Theo had advocated for years.

But most profoundly, I experienced the confusion and pain that a family feels when a loved one struggles with mental illness. Sadly, the church of Vincent’s father, who was a pastor, did not serve Vincent well. Nor did most of his family. But Theo was there for Vincent—at least most of the time. And that brotherly commitment to someone in dark need is the reason I recommend this award-winning book so highly.

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Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Cover art for Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains is a historical novel in which the reader experiences slavery through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old girl named Isabel. As the Revolutionary War begins and America starts to fight for freedom, Isabel and her younger sister Ruth are sold to a Loyalist (pro-England) couple in New York City. In the city, her cruel master separates Ruth from Isabel. From that moment on, much of the plot is driven by Isabel’s deep longing and hope for being reunited with Ruth.

In my history classes I have learned about the evils of slavery; however, when they are witnessed through the eyes of a teenage girl, they become so much more powerful and personal. For example, history textbooks talk about slaves being branded, but when Isabel undergoes the excruciating pain of the hot metal pressed against her cheek, you the reader cannot help but cringe in horror. How could people have done that to a thirteen-year old girl?

This is just one of the many examples in which Isabel experiences the hardships of slavery, injustice, and loss, yet she remarkably maintains hope. I loved this book because its gripping plot described Isabel’s personal struggle for freedom while simultaneously describing our nation’s battle for independence. I admire Isabel’s strong will and determination, which allow her to continue to hope and love despite her horrific situation.

Another reason I appreciate Chains is that every chapter begins with a historical quote. Each quote comes from various leaders of our nation (e.g., Thomas Jefferson) or from important documents that were circulated at the time (e.g., Common Sense by Thomas Paine). The author brilliantly weaves those famous excerpts into the chapter as Isabel experiences them in real time.

Chains is the first book in The Seeds of America trilogy. In the rest of the series (Forge and Ashes), Isabel, Ruth, and a loyal friend named Curzon must depend on each other as they endure the war, separation, and ultimately fight for their freedom. I highly recommend this book and the rest of the trilogy!

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Shaking the System: What I Learned from the Great American Reform Movements by Tim Stafford

George Santayana famously said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Recently, John Tiersma-Watson, one of the missionaries that Stone Hill Church supports, drew my attention to Shaking the System. Written by Tim Stafford, senior writer for Christianity Today, it is a book that strives to heed Santayana's advice by learning from Christians of the past who engaged in activist movements.

When Stafford himself was a college student during the Vietnam War, a pastor advised him not to waste his time on social activism but to focus on saving souls. That pastor was typical of an entire generation of evangelicals, especially white evangelicals, who saw activism as a distraction from the gospel.

That attitude is changing today, but many American churches today have no institutional memory of Christian activism in our country’s history. Stafford aims to fill that gap. The strongest point of the book is its well-chosen and engagingly narrated historical examples, featuring fascinating people from various reform movements such as Theodore Weld (abolitionism), Carrie Nation (temperance), and Bob Moses (civil rights).

Stafford carefully describes the promises and pitfalls of various options facing the would-be activist. For example, he shows how easy it is for avowedly non-violent activist movements to unwittingly slip into violence, and how alliances with political leaders so often lead to compromise and betrayal. These are lessons we could well apply to the many social upheavals of today. 

If the book has a weakness, it is Stafford’s treatment of truth. Nowhere does the author state that truth is revealed to us by God through Jesus Christ; instead, he refers to "truth that you believe in your gut." But what if your gut and my gut disagree? Who is right? Stafford does not address this problem.

Nevertheless, I believe that Stafford has done the Christian community a great service; studying his book will certainly help churches today pursue social activism more thoughtfully and effectively.

Read Tim’s full-length review of Shaking the System here.

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Everyone a Child Should Know by Clare Heath-Whyte

Cover Art for Everyone a Child Should Know by Clare Heath-Whyte

Everyone a Child Should Know teaches that you can make a difference for Christ:

…whether you grow up rich or poor. (Amen!)
…in many professions. (Amen!)
…whether you are a man or a woman. (Amen!)
…whether or not you have a disability. (Amen!)
…only if you were born in Europe or the United States. (Wait... what?)
I was really excited to find a book with engaging, well-written mini-biographies of Christians. The illustrations are interesting and fun, each accompanied by a verse. The biographies start with questions that pull kids in. They hit on the many ways to serve Christ with our lives, appropriate for ages 3 to 8. My children wanted to read more. Of the 54 people profiled (two biographies feature couples), 19 are women – and all have changed the world for Christ.

For example, the biography of Adoniram Judson shows him in Burma (now Myanmar), quoting Psalm 22 about all nations worshiping God. After asking “who first told you about Jesus?” Heath-Whyte talks about Judson’s decision to go where “almost nobody had heard about Jesus at all.” This book doesn’t shy away from serious difficulties, either: “He was ill, he was put in prison, his wife died, his children died - but Adoniram kept going.” Heath-Whyte does a brilliant job of showing examples of perseverance, compassion, and hope. Our children (and we!) need to hear this.

While the individual biographies are good, as a whole, this volume is incomplete. More than half of the people profiled were born in the UK, with the rest being primarily from Europe or the US. There is not a single Christian profiled from Central America, South America, or Asia, where more than 60 percent of Christians live today. The only African Christian is Augustine of Hippo, from the 4th century. Only two of the biographies are of Black people, and everyone else is White. To have no profiles from the vast majority of the world ignores the reality that God’s kingdom includes people from “every tribe, tongue, language, and nation.”

Despite my reservations, this book is still a good way to introduce younger children to heroes of the faith. But it’s only a start. Pair it with other resources to better represent the body of Christ. Or, could we get Everyone a Child Should Know, Volume 2?

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How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs

How to thing cover image

Our culture seems more divided than ever, many of us hardened against any idea that contradicts our particularly held narratives of how the world works. Alan Jacobs, a professor at Baylor University, experiences this division first-hand in navigating two very different groups that often view one another as an RCO – the Repugnant Cultural Other (a term borrowed from anthropologist Susan Friend Harding). Jacobs has spent his life working in academia and is also a committed follower of Jesus Christ. He has experienced a hardened animosity between these groups, which seem unable to have constructive and civil dialogue together. This is the reason for his book How To Think, on the art of learning to think in our cultural moment.

In chapter one of his book, Jacobs recounts the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was part of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. This church was founded by her grandfather and is probably best known for its public statement: “God Hates Fags.” After Phelps-Roper is befriended by someone holding very different views from herself, she begins to think outside the narrative with which she grew up. Her thinking begins to change. This journey illustrates some of the ways that the author calls us to engage, in order to navigate the hardened silos of narrow thinking in which we are all prone to operate.

Jacobs carefully crafts a vision for thinking that, I believe, we all hope to live out in our own lives but are often ill-equipped to do in our divided cultural moment. At the end of the book, he summarizes a 12-point Thinking Person’s Checklist. Two of those points are:

  • Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with. Listen to them for a time without responding. Whatever they say, think it over.
  • Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing.

As believers, we of all people should be people who engage with others with this kind of mindset. As Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your Mind.”

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Waiting on the Word: A poem a day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany by Malcolm Guite

Waiting on the Word cover image

It is the second week of Advent, and December has already been a tough month. The Christmas season can be a grief-filled time, without the cheer so often promised. Yet Malcolm Guite’s Advent devotional, Waiting on the Word, uses the expansiveness of art and language to quietly help us make room for hope, in the midst of these challenges.

Some friends recommended this devotional for its marriage of poetry, essay, and scripture. Each day (Advent through Epiphany) presents a poem by both classic and contemporary poets, Christian and secular. One day it might be an earthy piece by contemporary Christian poet Luci Shaw. Another day it might be an offering from well-known bards like Keats and Milton. Some poems are lighter in tone, embracing the joy of a crisp snowy day or the warmth of an embrace. Others are darker in nature, reflecting on the cold and the broken. They all reveal the complicated facets of the human experience.

In each case, Guite, a British priest and poet, chaplain at Cambridge University, walks the reader through the poem, offering literary analysis and his reflections on themes like darkness and light, hope and redemption, the divine and lowly humanity. While his essays are sometimes more on the technical side, I have found Guite's insights to be thoughtful and fruitful – always with an invitation to explore the poems further, investigate our faith deeper, and see how these ponderings apply to our daily lives.

This is the second year my husband and I are reading through this devotional. We read these poems aloud before bed: once through as an introduction, the second time for better understanding. Even if we have no clue what the poem means, Guite’s musings do an admirable job of showing the way. Sometimes my heart feels heavy at the start of a reading, but I am lifted by the end – guided back to the profound beauty that is Emmanuel, God with us, in this broken world.

“Though winter night will soon surround us here,

Another Advent comes, Dayspring is near.”

- From today’s poem,

“Launde Abbey on St. Lucy’s Day” by Malcolm Guite

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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

Public library / B&N / IndieBound / Amazon

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)

Public library / B&N / IndieBound / Amazon

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