Monday, 31 December 2018

Christian Greats Challenge 2019 Book List

These are the books I'm considering for the Christian Greats Challenge in 2019. Some of them are re-reads that I'd like to re-visit after a long separation. For details of the challenge see my original post here.

1)  A Book on Early Church History: 

On the Incarnation by Athanasius

2)  A Book About a Prominent Christian Who Was Born Between 500 A.D & 1900

Not shown in the picture above as I haven't decided yet :)

3)  A Christian Allegory

Hinds' Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard (a re-read because I just found a beautiful copy with watercolour illustrations) or Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

4)  A Book on Apologetics 

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

5)  A Philosophical Book by a Christian Author

Tending the Heart of Virtue by Vigen Guroian

6)   A Missionary Biography 

L'Abri by Edith Schaeffer (re-read) or Chasing the Dragon by Jackie Pullinger

7)  A Seasonal Book 

Marian @ Classics Considered linked to some ideas on Lenten reads which sparked my interest so there are a few ideas running through my head which I'll mull over for awhile.

8)  A Novel with a Christian Theme

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

9) A Good Old Detective or Mystery Novel

Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers. I would really like to re-read her books that include Harriet Vane who becomes Lord Peter Wimsey's wife but I can't find them & think my older children must have taken them when they left home. Looks like I might have to buy my own copies.

10)  A Substitute

Every Good Endeavor by Timothy Keller

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Announcing the '2019 Christian Greats Challenge: Past & Present'

The Purpose of the Challenge

There are a few reasons I decided to run this challenge:

* I enjoy the community aspect of blogging about books & thought it would be fun to host a challenge with a link-up & get to visit & comment on other blogs.

* I have a number of books by Christian authors on my shelves.  I'd like to read these & a challenge will help to spur me on.

* I've been surprised by the sheer number of classic authors whose writings contain dominant Christian themes. Many of these authors were not professing Christians but they had imbibed a Christian ethos that is evident in their writing.

* As I was reading 'Surprised by Joy' by C.S. Lewis this year he spoke of his 'chronological snobbery' before he became a Christian. He defined this as, ‘the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.’

Studying/reading history whether it be world history in general or Church history specifically, helps to counter this snobbery. 

* And lastly...

'A child is born in an obscure village. He is brought up in another obscure village. He works in a carpenter shop until he is thirty, and then for three brief years is an itinerant preacher, proclaiming a message and living a life. He never writes a book. He never holds an office. He never raises an army. He never has a family of his own. He never owns a home. He never goes to college. He never travels two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He gathers a little group of friends about him and teaches them his way of life. While still a young man, the tide of popular feeling turns against him. One denies him; another betrays him. He is turned over to his enemies. He goes through the mockery of a trial; he is nailed to a cross between two thieves, and when dead is laid in a borrowed grave by the kindness of a friend.
Those are the facts of his human life. He rises from the dead. Today we look back across nineteen hundred years and ask, What kind of trail has he left across the centuries? When we try to sum up his influence, all the armies that ever marched, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned are absolutely picayune in their influence on mankind compared with that of this one solitary life…'

Dr James Allan Francis, 1926


1)  A Book on Early Church History
(up to about 500 A.D) or a book written by a key figure who lived during that time, or a biography about that person. Examples:

The New Testament Book of Acts
Augustine of Hippo
Selected chapters from a book on Church History: e.g. 'Christianity Through the Centuries' by Earle E. Cairns.
A well-written children's book is also acceptable e.g. Simonetta Carr's biographies.

2)  A Book About a Prominent Christian Who Was Born Between 500 A.D & 1900 

Francis of Assisi
Joan of Arc
John Wycliffe
Martin Luther
William Wilberforce
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
A good children's adaption may be used.

3)  A Christian Allegory

Pilgrim's Progress or The Holy War by John Bunyan
One (or more!) of The Chronicles of Narnia or The Space Trilogy C.S. Lewis
Books by George MacDonald

4)  A Book on Apologetics 

e.g. Authors such as Ravi Zacharias, Francis Schaeffer, Josh McDowell, G.K. Chesterton

5)  A Philosophical Book by a Christian Author

This could be on Education, Virtue, Morals, Worldview or Ethics. Some ideas: books by Anthony Esolen, Charlotte Mason, Stratford Caldecott, David Hicks, Vigen Guroian.

6)   A Missionary Biography or A Biography of a Prominent Christian who lived any time between 1500 A.D to 1950 A.D

7)  A Seasonal Book 

Pick a time of the year such as Lent, Easter, Christmas, Advent, a Saint's Day, an Anniversary/event  in the Church Calendar, and read a book for yourself or choose a book to read to a child. Paraclete Press have some good selections. 

8)  A Novel with a Christian Theme

E.g. forgiveness, redemption, self-sacrifice, grace. It doesn't have to be written by a Christian but the theme needs to play a prominent part in the story e.g. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, The Scarlet & the Black by J.P. Gallagher, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

9) A Good Old Detective or Mystery Novel...Why??

This is what J.I. Packer said:

'...these are stories of a kind that would never have existed without the Christian gospel. Culturally, they are Christian fairy tales, with savior heroes and plots that end in what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe—whereby things come right after seeming to go irrevocably wrong. Villains are foiled, people in jeopardy are freed, justice is done, and the ending is happy. The protagonists—detectives, Secret Service agents, noble cowboys and sheriffs, or whatever—are classic Robin Hood figures, champions of the needy, bringers of merited judgment and merciful salvation. The gospel of Christ is the archetype of all such stories. Paganism unleavened by Christianity, on the other hand, was and always will be pessimistic at heart.'

Some worthy authors: Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, G.K. Chesterton, Rex Stout, John Buchan.

10)  A Substitute - choose a book by any of the authors below in place of one of the above categories:

Timothy Keller
A.W. Tozer
Patricia St. John
Jan Karon
Wendell Berry
C.S. Lewis
Edith Schaeffer
Elizabeth Goudge


Choose a second book from a category you like


Write a blog post with a list of books you think you might get to read for each category and link it below. (Update: link here)
When you finish a book, write a review and link it here with the name of the book in brackets. Use hashtag #christiangreats if posting on social media.

The aim is to enjoy the books and stretch yourself by reading outside your normal parameters or by introducing yourself to a new author. It's not to make you feel pressured so you're welcome to join in even if you only read from one or two categories.
Feel free to copy the image for your blog.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Back to the Classics Challenge 2019!!

1. 19th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1800 and 1899.

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (1878)

2. 20th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1900 and 1969.

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden (1969)

3. Classic by a Female Author.

A Josephine Tey title...or George Eliot??

4. Classic in Translation.

War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1867) or something by Jules Verne or 

5. Classic Comedy. Any comedy or humorous work.

Three Men in a Boat (1889) by Jerome K. Jerome or a book by Gerald Durrell

6. Classic Tragedy.

? The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

7. Very Long Classic.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1862) or ??

8. Classic Novella. Any work of narrative fiction shorter than 250 pages.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (1886)

9. Classic From the Americas (includes the Caribbean). Includes classic set in either continent or the Caribbean, or by an author originally from one of those countries.

I have no idea...maybe something by Willa Cather, Edith Wharton or Rex Stout

10. Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania (includes Australia).

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (Japan, 1943) or a Nevil Shute title (Australia);

11. Classic From a Place You've Lived. Read locally! Any classic set in a city, county, state or country in which you've lived.

So for me, this is either Scotland, Australia or New Zealand.

12. Classic Play. Any play written or performed at least 50 years ago.

I'll be going with Shakespeare. Perhaps The Merchant of Venice.

For details of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge see Karen's guidelines at Books & Chocolate.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Back to the Classics 2018 - Final Wrap-up

These  are the books I've read this year for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at  Books & Chocolate. I finished all 12 categories so have 3 entries in the draw.

This is my fourth year to complete this challenge and I plan to sign up again for 2019. If you are planning to do the challenge next year feel free to say hi in the comments and put a link to your post with the books you plan to read.
My original list was a little different to what I actually did but what I like about Karen's challenge is the flexibility she allows.
I don't usually have a rating system but I thought I'd try it out with these books: 

19th Century Classic - The Refugees by A. Conan Doyle (8/10) Good but some of his other historically based books are better

20th Century Classic - Beau Geste by P.C. Wren (8/10) An unusual mystery in an unusual setting

Classic by a Woman Author - The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (9/10) I've loved everything I've read by this author

Classic in Translation - Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (9/10) Raw, powerful story

A Children's Classic - Linnets & Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge (7/10) Good writing but I had misgivings about some of the content

Classic Crime Story - And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (6/10) The awful characters  in this story made it hard for me to feel any connection with it. Christie was clever, but I don't always like her writing.

Classic Travel or Journey - Sick Heart River by John Buchan (8/10) Buchan is one of my favourite authors. This book is more philosophical than some of his others. It's good but I've enjoyed some of his other books more than this one.

Classic With a Single Word Title - Catriona by R.L. Stevenson (7/10) Good story but it rambles somewhat.

Classic With a Colour in the Title - Green Dolphin Country by Elizabeth Goudge (8/10)

Classic by a New-to-You Author - The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge (7/10) Both books by Goudge were good reads. her writing is  beautifully reflective.

Classic That Scares You - Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (10/10) What more can I say than that Tolstoy was a marvellous writer?

Re-Read a Favourite Classic - Mr. Standfast by John Buchan (10/10) This was the third time I've read this book and I've appreciated it more each time I've read it.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Back to the Classics: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1873-1877)

 One of the problems with classic literature is that we may think we know what the book is about before we even read it. I can think of many classic books that I’ve never read but could tell you their basic plot.


This was the problem I had with Anna Karenina because my ‘knowledge’ of it was basically:  Woman commits adultery and ends up throwing herself under a train. It was written by a Russian, so of course, it would have a mass of various names, patronyms, and diminutives to confuse the reader. I’d also never read anything by Tolstoy before so had no idea he was such a brilliant writer and that I could trust to his expert skill.

But, oh my! What a book this turned out to be. And what a shame to believe you know the crux of the story and to put off reading it because of this. I’m just very thankful I finally decided to read it.
I’m not going to attempt a ‘review’ but will share some thoughts, impressions, and quotations, and hopefully, if you’ve put off reading A.K. for whatever reason, you might just be persuaded to give it a go.

‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

Tolstoy jumps into his narrative with the observation above.
Family, community, and society are central to the story as are country life and city life. Tolstoy was a master when it came to characterisation and getting into people’s heads. There are seven main characters in Anna Karenina and he succeeds in allowing the reader a certain intimacy and empathy with each of them.
Prince and Princess Shcherbatsky have three daughters. One is happily married, another unhappily, and the youngest has just refused Levin’s offer of marriage and has had her head turned by the dashing Vronsky. The Prince thought highly of Levin but his wife disliked him in ‘his sharp judgements, his awkwardness in society (caused, as she supposed, by his pride), and his, in her opinion, wild sort of life in the country.’ 
She thought that Vronsky was far superior but the Prince was furious with his wife for her attempts at matchmaking:

‘It’s loathsome, loathsome to look at, and you’ve succeeded, you’ve turned the silly girl’s head. Levin’s a thousand times the better man. And this little fop from Petersburg - they’re made by machine, they’re all the same sort, and all trash...I see a man who has serious intentions, that’s Levin; and I see a popinjay like this whippersnapper, who is only amusing himself.’

Vronsky had never know family life, barely remembered his father, and had no respect for his mother:

‘In his soul he did not respect her and, without being aware of it, he did not love her, though...he could not imagine to himself any other relation to his mother than one obedient and deferential in the highest degree, and the more outwardly obedient and deferential he was, the less he respected and loved her in his soul.’

‘Vronsky...despite the full realisation of what he had desired for so long, was not fully happy. He soon felt that the realisation of his desire had given him only a grain of the mountain of happpiness he had expected. It showed him the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realisation of desires.’

Levin was an interesting person, full of self-doubt, idealistic ideas, and awkwardness. Tolstoy opens the window into his mind and his inner struggles and it was quite comical at times.

‘I need physical movement, otherwise my character definitely deteriorates.’

In Part Seven, Chapter XIV, Levin’s wife is having her first baby and Levin was convinced she was dying. He doesn’t understand how the doctor can sit in another room smoking and chatting...

‘Suddenly there was a scream unlike anything he had ever heard. The scream was so terrible that Levin did not even jump up, but, holding his breath, gave the doctor a frightened, questioning look. The doctor cocked his head to one side, listened, and smiled approvingly.’

When he went into the room his wife seized his hands and said, ‘Don’t leave, don’t leave!’ and then pushed him away.

‘No it’s terrible! I’ll die, I’ll die! Go, go!’ she cried, and again came that scream that was unlike anything in the world.’
‘Doctor! What is it? What is it? My God! he said, seizing the doctor by the arm as he came in.
‘It’s nearly over,’ said the doctor. And the doctor’s face was so serious as he said it that Levin understood this ‘nearly over’ to mean she was dying.

Around the time I was reading this part of the book, our eldest son and his wife had their first baby. My daughter-in-law had a long labour and then delivered a whopping 11 pound boy. When our son rang us he said he had no idea that childbirth was going to be like what they experienced.
‘It was brutal!’ were his words. I immediately thought of Levin.

Levin had rejected his childhood beliefs and tried to reason his way through life. He undergoes some dramatic changes, struggling with his idealistic ideas that fall flat in real life.

...while his wife was giving birth an extraordinary thing had happened to him. He, the unbeliever, had begun to pray, and in the moment of praying he had believed.

Dolly, married to Anna Karenina's philandering brother, Stepan, felt that she had lost herself in the process of being a mother. Alone in a carriage on her way to visit Anna she has time to reflect on her fifteen years of marriage,

'pregnancy, nausea, dullness of mind, indifference to everything,,and, above all, ugliness...Labour, suffering, that last moment...then nursing, the sleepless nights, the terrible pains...'

Released from her everyday cares, she falls into a reverie where she questions the point of it all and considers that she should have left her husband and found happiness somewhere else. 
As she spends time with Anna and her crowd, she has a feeling of unhappiness and that she is poorly playing a part in the theatre with actors better than her.
She decides to go home earlier than intended:

Those painful cares of motherhood that she had hated so on her way there, now, after a day spent without them, presented themselves to her in a different light and drew her to them.

Tolstoy describes Anna Karenina as she follows a course that rapidly changes everything in her life and her exclusion from the society she desperately needed to belong to.

Anna said whatever came to her tongue, and was surprised, listening to herself, at her ability to lie. How simple, how natural her words were...She felt herself clothed in an impenetrable armour of lies. She felt that some invisible force was helping her and supporting her.

Towards the latter part of the book the stream of consciousness narrative that Tolstoy uses with regards to Anna is superb and reminded me of Dostoevsky’s character, Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment - psychotic and paranoid.

Death is a theme throughout and interestingly, only one chapter has an actual title and that is Ch XX - ‘Death.’
I could fill this blog with excerpts from this outstanding novel but so much needs to be read in context. It is multilayered, thought-worthy and deeply spiritual. I don’t know how Tolstoy managed to intersperse so much humour amid the pathos and tragedy, but he did. And to my surprise, I was able to keep up with the Russian names quite well, referring to the 'List of Principal Characters' at the front to the book - Crime & Punishment confused me no end with that side of things.
An impressive book in all respects!

Book Depository has 53% off the lovely Penguin HB pictured above at the time of writing. This edition was translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and it flowed beautifully.
The free Kindle version here is translated by Constance Garnett, which I haven't read so can't comment on, but she is highly regarded as a translator.

Updated to add some articles on translations of Anna Karenina:

Linking to Back to the Classics 2018 - Classic That Scares You

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis (1955)

C.S. Lewis (1898 - 1963) has been called one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century as well as the most influential writer of his time. He wrote over thirty books including the beloved children’s classic, The Chronicles of Narnia, which was my first introduction to his writing when I was about twelve years of age. I didn’t know at the time that he was a Christian and had written a whole swag of other books that were going to be influential for me later on in my life.

Surprised by Joy is an autobiography that tells of Lewis’s journey from Atheism to Christianity starting with his childhood in Belfast and the loss of his mother to cancer. He goes on to describe his boarding school years in England, (one school he calls ‘Belsen’!) his childhood faith and how he lost it, his fascination with the occult for a time, and his Atheism during his youth. He touches on his War service during the Great War and his years at Oxford and ends with his reluctant conversion to Theism and then the next step as he embraces Christianity.

Surprised by Joy is so quotable that I found I was familiar with many passages because I’d read them elsewhere but didn’t know where they came from. Lewis’s candidness and humility oozed out of this book. His childhood memories were related without emotionalism but with an inherent poignancy as were his difficulties in his relationship with his father and his experiences at various boarding schools.
He describes the public boy’s school practice of pederasty and admits that while he was not tempted in that area he none-the-less had his own share of being ‘successfully’ tempted in other areas and he was careful not to cast judgement upon those who fell in an area he never had to struggle with.

Some interesting bits:

C.S. Lewis’s parents were very disparate in origin and temperament. Lewis was more like his mother - cheerful, cool and calm, while his father was sentimental, emotional and not inclined to be happy. This contrast between his parent’s temperaments bred in him a dislike and distrust of emotion from an early age.
He describes his childhood and the happy times he had with his brother who was three years his senior, the different influences on his life during that time and of the ‘absence of beauty’ which characterised his childhood:

'No picture on the walls of my father’s house ever attracted - and indeed none deserved - our attention. We never saw a beautiful building or imagined that a building could be beautiful.'

There is a theme throughout the book that is conveyed in the title. Lewis describes this as Sehnsucht - a experience of a sense of longing, yearning, and wonder or ‘an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.’ He called this experience, Joy.
These experiences came to him in the memory of a memory, or the ‘longing for the longing that had just ceased;’ one being the memory of when his brother brought a toy garden into the nursery.

‘As long as I live, my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden.’

It also came to him through Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin and then through poetry. The quality common to all three experiences was Joy.
When Lewis was seven years old the family moved to a larger house in the country,

‘I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books...’

When Lewis was ten years old his mother was diagnosed with cancer and had surgery, which in those days they performed in the patient’s house! She later died and Lewis’s relationship with his father grew more distant while he grew closer to his brother.

'With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.'

Reflecting on his cruel headmaster at Belsen and why those ‘wasted and miserable years’ under him did him little harm in the long run:

‘Hardly any amount of oppression from above takes the heart out of a boy like the oppression from his fellows.’

On his passion for the occult...’It is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body it has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts.’

Of sexual temptation, he explains that a new element entered his life - Vulgarity - and he underwent a violent and wholly successful assault because of his ‘deliberate withdrawal of myself from Divine protection.’

On School Life:

'Spiritually speaking, the deadly thing was that school life was a life almost wholly dominated by the social struggle; to get on, to arrive, or, having reached the top, to remain there, was the absorbing preoccupation. It is often, of course, the pre-occupation of adult life as well; but I have not yet seen any adult society in which the surrender to this impulse was so total.'

In praising one of his teachers he said:

'...even if he had taught us nothing else, to be in Smewgy’s form was to be in a measure ennobled. Amidst all the banal ambition and flashy splendours of school life he stood as a permanent reminder of things more gracious, more humane, larger and cooler.'

About games (sport) in school Lewis likened them to a toothache or pebbles in your shoes and didn’t give them the 'moral and almost mystical virtues’ schoolmasters claim for them. He thought they led to ambition and jealousy but he felt it was a misfortune that he had no affinity for them because it can cut you off from companionship with some excellent people you wouldn’t associate with any other way.

On reading newspapers:

'Nearly all that a boy reads (in newspapers) in his teens will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance. Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand.'

Ha! Nothing much has changed.

'A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere...God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.'

During his time at Oxford after the Great War, Lewis’s chronological snobbery began to be overthrown. He describes chronological snobbery as ‘the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.’
The more he read...Plato, John Donne, George Herbert, George MacDonald, Chesterton, the more alarmed he became. ‘All my books were beginning to turn against me.’

He was shocked when he found that the most intelligent and best-informed man in his English class at Oxford was a Christian and others began to pop up on every side.
He had always wanted to call his soul his own and not be interfered with. Now he felt the demand of ‘All.’

'In the Trinity Term if 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England...
The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?'

Lewis knew that God was to be obeyed simply because He was God and he found that as he moved  from Theism to Christianity, his search for Joy lost its importance. If we are lost in the woods and we suddenly see a signpost we make a big deal out of it but once we find the road we don’t stop and stare at every passing signpost as we travel along because we want to get to our destination and we know we’re on the right road.
Joy, ‘the old stab, the old bitter-sweet’ was a valuable pointer to something other and outer.