Friday, April 26, 2013

Nothing Daunted: The Story of Isobel Kuhn

Isobel Kuhn (1901-1957) is one of my favorite missionary writers.  She and her husband, John, served the Lisu people in the mountains of southern China from 1934 to 1950.  Nothing Daunted gives an overview of their life and ministry.  When Isobel and John went to China they had no idea that they would be ousted because of WWII and later because of communism, but God laid it on their hearts to focus on a teaching ministry.  They knew they could never reach the hundreds of Lisu villages by themselves, so they held yearly Bible schools for men, women and teens. These were intensive weeks of training in the newly translated Lisu New Testament.  

The Kuhn’s encountered many trials.  Some of their carefully trained leaders died of illness because they lived so far away from medical care. Their daughter Kathryn was sent to a boarding school that was captured by the Japanese during the war. Fighting among the clans threatened to destroy the churches. But John and Isobel toiled on.  When they left China in 1950 there were 17,000 believers.  Because of the Kuhn's insistence on thorough Bible training, the Lisu Christians continued to preach and teach; 50 years later there were 200,000 Lisu Christians.

After you read this book, you should read one of Kuhn’s own books. Green Leaf In Drought is probably the most famous, but By Searching is another gem.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

5th Year Blogiversary

Gulp! I just realized I've been blogging for five years.  I had planned to do a special post on the momentous occasion, but life got busy and the date slipped by.  I will make amends by citing a few statistics that I find interesting.

I wouldn't be telling the truth if I said I don't care if people read my blog or not.  Yet I never purposely choose a book just because it will increase traffic.  I read what I like and at the same time I endeavor to point people to the best books.  (It's been a wonderful treat to have my readers point me toward great books as well.)

Now for the statistics. . . The five most popular posts in the past five years.  C.S. Lewis' The Horse and His Boy wins hands down with 4,000 views; my second most viewed post is Tolkien's The Two Towers. But would you believe my third most popular post is on Aesop's Fables? Fourth comes a WWII classic called Code Name Nimrod and finally the YA title The Wednesday Wars.

I am astonished that some of my more obscure posts receive comments (Kathleen Norris & I Saw Two Englands) and I puzzle over the fact that my rave reviews (Wind in the Willows) get little or no commentary.  It keeps me in a pleasant state of wonder.

I appreciate that blogging gives me a platform for sharing my love of literature; secondarily it provides me with a delicious sort of accountability - I'm "forced" to keep reading and writing on a consistent basis and I feel stretched and nourished in new ways every week.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Setons by O. Douglas

A few months ago I raved about new (to me) Scottish author, Anna Buchan, whose gentle domestic drama Penny Plain was a delightful read.  The Setons had the similiar theme of a close-knit family that loved books, but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as its predecessor. The opening chapter tells of an informal dinner party where many characters are introduced.  While we are trying to keep them all straight, we finally meet our heroine, Elizabeth Seton, the pretty minister's daughter.  She is a kind and vivacious young woman who is refreshingly free of pretension and guile.

Elizabeth's father, Mr. Seton, comes close to having the same place in my heart as dear Mr. Harding (from The Warden) because of his sterling character.  He is a lover of God's word and an eloquent preacher who is gladly being "wasted" on his little congregation.  Having just read the depressing The Pastor's Wife by von Arnim where everyone was a Christian in name only, it was heartening to read a story of people who were sincere in their faith.

"Pure religion and undefiled," we are told, "before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in affliction and keep ourselves unspotted from the world." If this be a working definition of Christianity, then James Seton translated its letter as but few men do, into a spirit and life of continuous and practical obedience.

Mr. Seton has a particular fondness for the writings of Sir Walter Scott and the family is well versed in Pilgrim's Progress and Cyrano de Bergerac.  Elizabeth explains to one of her suitors, "We were brought up on the Bible and the Shorter Catechism.  In our case, the diet was varied by an abundance of poetry and fairy tales, which have given us our peculiar daftness."

Some readers may struggle with the occasional conversations in Scottish brogue.  The Kindle's built-in dictionary was helpful for many of the words and places that would be unknown to most American readers.  (A "cuddy", for example, was explained as being "Scottish for a donkey or stupid person.")

The book was published in 1917, just before the end of WWI.  The story ends with the advent of the war and Buchan refuses to tie up everything neatly.  Some characters lose loved ones. Men talk of going off to war and to glory, but it is only the mothers who seem to be honest about the horrors of bloodshed.

If you liked Downton Abbey, you'll enjoy this book set in the same period.  There is no servant-filled mansion, but wealthy Aunt Alice does give up her large house to be used as a hospital.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment by Richard Winter

We all know that television and electronic games are dumbing down the minds of this present generation; we don’t need another book on that subject.  It was the subtitle of Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment that caught my attention: Rediscovering Passion and Wonder.  Winters offers more than a mandate to turn off the TV.  He gives theological reasons for doing so.

The gist of the book is that when we are focused on the pursuit of our own pleasures, we miss the greatest pleasures of all that come from contemplating the beauty and majesty of our Creator.  As we focus on Him, purposely setting aside the many distractions this world affords, we discover new meaning and purpose.  Boredom is not an option.

Quoting Gene Veith, he writes, Boredom is a chronic symptom of a pleasure-obsessed age. (p. 41)
From a 1765 sermon by James Fordyce:  There is not, methinks, anything more contemptible, or more to be pitied, than that turn of mind, which finding no entertainment in itself, none at home , none in books, none in rational conversation, nor in the intercourses of real friendship, nor in ingenious works of any kind, is continually seeking to stifle reflection in a tumult of pleasures, and to divert weariness in a crowd.(p. 81)
For those of the current generation the normal reflex when bored is to watch a video or surf the Web.  What can we do to help our young people accept the short-term pain of learning creative life skills in order to avoid the long-term pain of chronic subconscious boredom? What can we do to teach them that an addiction to electronic entertainment will shrivel their souls?  Many of the short-term solutions to boredom undoubtedly give pleasure.  But these are unsustainable and provide only a counterfeit of life and ultimately lead to spiritual emptiness. (p. 124)
My chief complaint about Still Bored is that it seems more like a well-researched term paper rather than the outpouring of an author’s heart.  The writing is sometimes choppy.  The book’s value, however, is in its thoughtfully chosen quotes.  Winter’s insights take a backseat to his original source material, which may be as it should be.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Mourning the Death of Beautiful Language

        I felt a pang when I read this sentence in my new recipe book: No one disputes the healthful properties of fish.  All those great omega thingies protecting our arteries and keeping strokes and heart attacks at bay.  But fish is also the hurried cook's BFF. (emphases mine)

        Last night I was leafing through a Scholastic Book catalog that arrived at our house.  I remembered how I used to read it as a child, carefully savoring each title and circling the many books I wanted.  But what a sad surprise to see a plethora of titles such as, Underpants Thunderpants!, Cinderalla's Bum, and Me Want Pet! (These may be wonderful books, but the titles would seem to belie that.) Further perusing led me to the book, Wind in the Wallows, a knockoff title from the great children's classic, which is, sad to say, a book about flatulent pigs. What a horrible literary legacy we are giving our young!

        I believe the Bible should be accessible to all people in all places and have no quarrel with recommending translations that are more understandable than the King James Version. At the same time, I deeply regret that many newer versions eradicate all the beauty and majesty of biblical language.

        Psalm 18:18-19 in the New American Standard version reads: They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but the Lord was my stay.  He brought me forth into a broad place; He rescued me, because he delighted in me.  A more modern version reads: They hit me when I was down, but God stuck by me.  He stood me up on a wide-open field; I stood there saved - surprised to be loved!  Am I the only one who thinks that this is distressing? It makes God sound like my BFF, which is certainly belittling to His greatness, power and love.

        I know I will be accused of curmudgeonliness, but I can't help but think that when we translate phrases to their lowest possible difficulty of meaning that we are robbing our children (and ourselves) of one of life's exquisite beauties - words that take us beyond our daily reality and lift us to a higher plain.

        On a more positive note, a second grader was reading to me recently from a book called Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes. Most of the book is in simple, childlike language, but occasionally Henkes throws in a word to savor like: "Pish!" or "winsome" or "jaundiced." I loved it that he respected kids enough to trust them with big words.