Hoping for Better Things

Book Review: We Hope for Better Things by Erin Bartels

There are two things I look for in Christian fiction. One is creativity, the second is meaning. We Hope for Better Things debut novel by Erin Bartels gives you both. Erin Bartels is wife of Zachary Bartels, author of Playing Saint and All Souls Day.

I started the We Hope for Better Things in the late afternoon Thursday and could not put it down until I finished the last word at the crack of dawn Friday. I kept telling myself, “stop after this chapter” but low and behold I needed to know just a little bit more, just a little bit more. It was a very compelling story with colorful characters I enjoyed getting to know.

Firstly, the creativity. Three time periods of Detroit are woven together: modern day, the late sixties during the riots, and the 1850s.  Each of the settings has a multi-racial couple trying to cross the racial divide. The way these three lives are intertwined and fold in on themselves is beautifully crafted.

Every time the scene changed to a new time period I marveled at the skill, the way the story arcs matched each other, the way the stories piggy-backed on the same themes. Erin Bartels crafted a lovely tale of passion about visionaries living ahead of their time.

On the negative side, though, is a missing bit in this creativity. The text is very compelling, as I said. It is tightly written which keeps you in the midst of the action. This makes you unable to put it down. But the problem with this tightness is it’s brusque, not matching the content. The book is literary fiction but written as mass market action fiction. Considering the heaviness of the content, I felt it needed a bit more poetry and feeling. A bit more lightness and beauty. My opinion; it did not detract from it being a great story.

Secondly, meaning. The theme of the book is we are all made in the image of God, no matter our color. The author writes in an afterward that the Black Lives Matter movement happened concurrently to the writing of this, so it’s a timely book for today’s social climate. Social justice is an issue very close to the heart of God, though social justice and biracial relationships are not a uniquely Christian message. God put compassion and empathy as core to universal conscience. We are made in the image of God, regardless of our skincolor. But ultimately this intrinsic value of humanity is bound to the Incarnation and Atonement of Christ. The three stories worked together to tell a bigger story, an epic saga, of the American people moving from fear of to love of racial differences. So it challenges the tensions of today, still hoping for better things.

My second dislike, though, was tied to this meaning. As Christians we have a duty to say something more than the rest of the world says. Sadly, this story was not uniquely Christian. It was published by Revell (Baker) and by a Christian (pastor’s wife). However, I kept hoping for that something else, which was missing.

Our Christian message is a bit more than social justice. It’s that the intrinsic value of humanity in the eyes of God compelled him to do more than just make us love each other. It compelled the Incarnation and the Atonement. Yes, there was prayer and God-honor in the book. There was church, but not much. But there was no risk for our message. Christ was missing.

C.S. Lewis wrote about this in Mere Christianity:

“Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him. Does that sound strange? The same principle holds, you know, for more everyday matters.

“Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

As a Christian author I personally “hope for better things” in the Christian industry. I want Christian writers to go that step further. That the reader is changed and grown spiritually, that they know God better, after having read a book–even fiction. To be fair, I rarely find a book that does this. But it’s what the Bible expects of us, in all areas of life (ie: Col 3:16, Titus 2:15, Isaiah 2:3, Rom 12:6-8). Don’t waste their life: encourage, exhort, build up, prod toward greater things in Christ.

We Hope for Better Things will definitely be a book well-loved by Michiganders for decades to come. It is their history, their lives, their heart. I enjoyed the journey with the characters, learning about history while appreciating the tensions, sorrows, and regrets.  I always measure Christian fiction by this: is the reader better off after reading this book? In the case of We Hope for Better Things, the answer is a resounding YES.

The reader has been changed. The journey has not been a mere emotional merry-go-round, but was purposeful. We come out the other end of reading it thinking about ourselves, measuring our own racially-charged biases, wanting “better things” for ourselves and our family in this world. So this is why I whole-heartedly recommend We Hope for Better Things by Erin Bartels.

If you’re a Kindle Unlimited member, the great news is that the kindle version of the book available there, for your reading pleasure. Enjoy. Be blessed. Please comment below if you enjoy it as well.

Heartache, Broken People

Mental problems are probably the most feared type of issue Christians face. Yes, we’re afraid of hunger and pain. But God will provide and God will comfort, and eventually these kinds of sufferings will be solved. But problems like we see in Broken Pieces are the ones nobody would choose. It doesn’t easily fit into our understanding of the victorious Christian life. Simonetta Carr’s Christian biographies for young readers first brought me into her reading circle. But this book, a cross-section of her personal life, brought me into her life.

The story is a life crisis with the following characters 1) a teenage Christian young man who comes down with sudden schizophrenia his first months at college, 2) his Christian mom and dad who want to honor God with every breath as they pursue every means of help for their son 3) a group of elders at a reformed Church who likewise have to balance the young man’s sinful choices with his mental circumstances. The third element was especially impactful for me.

As a pastor’s wife, I’ve seen my share of people with mental problems come in and out of the church door.  In our experience, people with this disease have hunted us down, stalked us, and threatened us, and one even killed the girl who broke up with him. Their parents have come to us and either told us to leave them alone “this is not a real conversion,” or have warned us, or have blessed our efforts to make their son feel accepted.

It is never easy to know how to protect the flock while loving the sick person—especially one who refuses to take his medication—which is very common. But compassion is difficult to muster when faced with the threats.

This book should be read by every man who desires to pastor a church and by everyone who desires to be a functioning part of their church. We need to understand in order to help. In order for the church to help both them and their families, we need to see it “happening” from inside a Christian family. This is what Simonetta Carr is able to do in her present-tense narrative.

We see that life is made of those little faith-spun choices, where we aren’t sure if we’re doing the right thing but we trust in the sovereignty of God who is bigger than our mistakes. We see that God has given us our “burden that is not too much to bear” so that we can prove faithful in that. Simonetta Carr’s example of a faith-driven life is inspirational, empowering, and reassuring. We’re all tromping down this same path in a broken heartache world.

 Because mental issues are so fearsome, it seems people with these sicknesses are pushed away for “someone else” to deal with.

Thankfully, medication and counseling can help. The last chapters of her book deal with practical helps for those struggling with these issues. But since laws allow for autonomy of people over 18, and 18 is the age when this disease begins to hit, often the sick person is not enabled to will themselves toward healing.

While there is no hard and fast rule or steps to fix it that can be presented to church leaders, this book is a helpful model of how to face this as a church body. Reformed faith in practice.

What is this thing called schizophrenia, nobody knows. But what is a Christian to do? How can a Christian BE schizophrenic? And how can the church contribute to healing, both for the sick person and for his or her family? These are the questions that are analyzed in this book.

Broken Pieces is a story, but it’s more than a story. It’s is A CASE STUDY OF FAITH IN THE TRENCHES, of the Church in the trenches of this horribly broken world.

Please read this book. There are many families hiding their “shameful” struggles with mental illness who need the support of Christ-followers who care enough to face the bias and fear. Once you read this book, you will gain compassion for them, for what they’re going through. You can be the one that makes a difference in their battlefield of the mind.

Here’s a link for how to order your copy from the publisher today. I just saw, it’s $10 preorder!

Preorder information: CBD Preorder,Amazon Preorder

Review of Playing Saint, by Zachary Bartels

kcMKzqaoi

Playing Saint by Zachary Bartels, which came out in 2014, gets top score in my book. As a pop Christian novel, it does an excellent job of intertwining history, intrigue, character development and theology.

The protagonist is an up-and-coming tele-evangelist called Parker Saint. In avoiding a scandal, he comes face to face with “a demanding detective, a trio of secretive Vatican operatives, and a centuries-old conspiracy to conceal a mysterious relic.” This premise is truly far-fetched. However, it is tempting enough of a premise that it pulls you in. You find out about his family background, his aspirations, his love-interest, and then comes the CSI connection and you’re hooked. It’s a fun ride. But what makes it excellent is that it is written by a pastor with a vision for the Great Commission.

Too many novels labelled as Christian fall short of true redemption. In a sense, they find resolution in a “job well done” or a “husband/wife gained.” This trend reminds me a lot of Matthew 24:27-29, where Jesus says

For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

Though nothing is wrong with marriage; the point of the passage is that life is more than just “doing your thing.” The main message of Christ’s ministry was “Judgment Day is coming, get right with God.” This is the very same wonderful message of Zachary Bartels’s book. The primary movement in the story centers around recognizing falsehood in your life and urgently finding Truth.

Playing Saint delves into topics that are currently leading the Church astray, particularly “Narcissistic Christianity” which is popular in tele-evangelism, and unbiblical demonology which is rampant worldwide.

I commend Zachary Bartels for using his writing platform to fulfill the universal Christian call to ministry. As it says in 1 Timothy 4:1-5:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

My teenage daughters laugh at some Christian novels that, to validate themselves, have subtitles to the effect of “an action-packed Christian thriller,” which is like telling the punchline before you get into a joke. In my opinion, the caliber of a novel will pull those phrases out of readers. There is a definite need for suspense novels for Christians. After a hard day’s work, we sometimes need to escape into fiction. But also there is a definite call for ratcheting-up the quality of those Christian novels to meet the spiritual hunger and confusion of modern-day Christians. Meat. Perspective. Instruction in righteousness. Exhortation and comfort.

Hollywood and the pulp-fiction market shovel out adventure and romance that spins Narcissistic Hedonism as the end-all to aspire for. When you read a novel or watch a movie, brain cells called “mirror neurons” physically cause you to have empathy, and enable you to live vicariously through the lives of the characters you are reading about or watching. This is a scary thing if a reader is not cautious about the “in-portal” to their mirror neurons.

Our moments on earth are limited. When we choose to be entertained for the hours it takes to read a book, we are submitting our minds to be shaped by some author or another. What will happen depends on that author’s values and worldview. But if we carefully choose our “teachers,” we can become better after our time in that book. Especially when the writer’s message is Christ’s message, Paul’s message, John’s message. This is what makes Playing Saint so refreshing.

Thank you, Zachary Bartels, for doing for Christian fiction what we hope more writers will do. I look forward to reading The Last Con, because I know I will be a better Christian after reading it. You recognize your responsibility to me.

update 2/2019 (See review of We Hope for Better Things, by Erin Bartels, the wife of Zachary Bartels)

Review of Mr Nary by Roo Carmichael

kcMKzqaoi
I made the mistake of starting to read Mr. Nary in the hospital waiting room. Not a place to be guffawing every ten seconds or so.

The wry sense of humor, the unexpected turns of phrases, the laughable story and story-within story and novel within that story with a romance on the side, the ability to surprise the reader with hilarious word choices and random thinkings of an exceptionally ADHD want-to-be-author, announce the brilliance of Roo Carmichael as a skilled craftsman of delightful reading pleasure.

Hemingway said, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”

Grady’s distractedness and discouragement and loss of control of the characters and his unending procrastination…his innocent egotism and belief in fan clubs and best seller lists in his honor…so real it hurt.

Thank you, Roo, for this nonpariel adventure into the realm of the absurd but strangely realistic life of a first-draft writing author.

UPDATE:
My family and I were lucky enough to be able to meet the author. What a blast! We were super-surprised to find that the first few letters in this book were the ACTUAL PRANK on his father Bill Carmichael, author of The Missionary. Can’t wait for the sequel. What novel plans has Grady got up his sleeves? Anxiously waiting for the next installation, Mr. Carmichael!

Love and Logic Review

lovelogicI recommend the Love and Logic program. Before we used this program, we had a lot of trouble in the management of our children. But incorporating the principles behind this has enabled us to see obedience in a different way. Love and logic works on the principle of reasoning with your child. Letting them have choices that are within your acceptable framework.

Do you want bananas or strawberries on your cereal?

Do you want to wear this shirt  or that shirt?

It looks cloudy. Do you want to wear a sweater or not wear a sweater?

Do you want to go to the park or the museum today?

As they get older, the choices get more complicated.

Do you want to do your homework before dinner or after dinner?

Do you want my suggestions for how you could do better on your homework?

The principle is to teach the child to make decisions. And let them fall.  When kids are small, their falls are much smaller. If they learn to crash their bike or fall off the playground equipment, they are developing not only physically–learning how much tighter to hold on–they are also developing the awareness of what will happen if they do not master that skill.  Because the negative is they don’t learn the pain of falling until they’re zooming down the road on their motorcycle. Big falls are much worse. Let them fall and make the wrong decision while the cost is small.

If they choose to wear a sweater on a cold day, that is great and wise. If they choose to not wear their sweater, they will shiver. And the shiver is a small lesson where they (hopefully) make a note to not forget a sweater on a cold day–or at least to look out the window to see the weather.

The important thing in this system is to give them a million choices that don’t matter, so that when it does matter you have the freedom to say, “I give you many decisions to make all the time. This is going to be my turn to make a decision.” For example, when your child could fall very far and get very hurt, that would not be a ‘your choice’ time.  It’s a parental choice time. If they are used to having freedom with the choices YOU give them, the choices you’ve already filtered through, then actually anything they choose is okay with you already.

One more point. Learning to live with the results of your own decisions is a part of growing up. If the decision works or doesn’t work. While children easily want to make choices, their own reasoning through options is not always spot-on. This is why choices should be filtered through parent-permissible options.  The bigger the child gets, the less you give them choices. Instead you ask, “What are you going to do about it?” Keeping the monkey off your back.  If they’re stumped, you can ask them, “Would you like some suggestions?” Then you give the choices.

I recommend reading the books.

Review of The Facade by Michael Heiser

Missing “Crucial” Detail: the Cross of Christ

I looked at The Facade on two levels. The first is the storyline and craft. I am glad to have read this book. It presents a fictional scenario for the alien/demon connection in end-time events. I was engaged completely in the storyline. The plots and subplots worked well, and I especially liked how the documentation of the Roswell/Paperclip/experimentation theories worked into the plot but also informed the readers. The final scene persuaded me to not buy the sequel.

The second level I want to address is the message. The book presented the view of demons supported by church fathers in the early years, namely that demons were unholy offspring of angels with women. This is unsupported in Scripture. John Calvin addressed this idea in his Genesis commentary: “That ancient figment, concerning the intercourse of angels with women, is abundantly refuted by its own absurdity; and it is surprising that learned men should formerly have been fascinated by ravings so gross and prodigious.” When you start to bring into the dialogue extra-biblical sources, you compromise the principle of Sola Scriptura and open yourself up to misunderstanding and heresy.

Another and stronger objection I have to the message has to do with a premise that is unfounded: demons killing Christians, directly. Men can kill Christians. Demons no doubt have given rise to all the persecutions of Christians since Stephen. Demons can stir in men the desire and malice to kill. But to give a freedom to demons in fiction that they do not have in life undermines the victory that Christ wrought on our behalf (and undermines the integrity of the book’s premise). Christians are immune from them. And Christians are safe under the hand of a God through whom every demon must get permission for any act, i.e. the Book of Job.

The reason Scripture is void of any but a cursory explanation of the hierarchy or inner-workings of the demon world, is that it is God’s business. How he uses angels or manipulates demons in the answer of our prayers is a mystery the Bible clearly leaves unanswered. It is not really important, in the big scheme of things. We may wonder. But the obvious silence on the matter means that there are more important things to be thinking about. Our business.

Not, is a demon on my shoulder whispering for me to commit adultery, but rather, “God, give me help to overcome this temptation!” Not, what demon is blocking our church’s evangelism efforts, but rather, “God, bring salvation to our town. Give the believers strength and wisdom in their evangelism.” We should not give undue attention to the demonic realm. We should know it’s there, and remember “greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world.” So even if we come across someone that is demon/alien-possessed, we address Christ in the matter, “Jesus, I ask you to free this man from his chains.”

The most important point to remember is “undue attention” is what the prince of demons wanted in the first place, why he fell. My biggest problem with The Facade is that there is no Jesus Christ whose death brought victory and safety to his bride. The cross did nothing, in this scenario.

I recommend reading The Facade, and then following it up with this book, Chuck Lowe’s Territorial Spirits and World Evangelisation.

A quote from the above book says regarding Paul, in his epistles of Ephesians and Colossians, “First, he insists, the power of Satan has already been decisively broken …. We need not fear Satan’s power: Christ has much greater power and far higher authority …. Nor need we fear Satan’s vengeance …. Nor need we fear Satan’s dominion over the world …. Secondly, all this was done without our help or involvement …. The war has been won, and it has been won without us” (p57).

The main character of The Facade, Brian, is supposed to be a Presbyterian. He would have known this if he were a catechized Presbyterian. I agree that aliens are demons in modern garb. It’s great that this has been tackled in a religious scenario. However, the fiction it is preaching alongside the real facts of the alien “problem” creates a heresy. It declares that the author does not fully understand the implications for Christians in this field.

The testimonies of former victims on the Alienresistance website, praised in his acknowledgements, should have been enough to teach the author that the only way to rid oneself of alien influence is the name of Jesus.