Archive for the ‘Biographies & Stories’ Category

The first chapter of Nothing to Envy begins with this mind-boggling picture.

Days after finishing this book, I am still captivated by this image, as well as the descriptions of daily life that Barbara Demick gleaned from North Koreans who have escaped to the South. Stories of the brain-washing of a nation by Kim Il-sung and then his son Kim Jong-il. It is not over-the-top to say that they presented themselves as Father and Son figures…and somehow got a nation to buy into it. Stories of malnutrition to the point that grammar school children have the stature of a 3 year old. Stories from the late-1990’s famine that “the good die first” because they would not steal or get involved in the ‘evil, capitalistic black market.’ Stories of cornmeal being ‘extended’ by grinding the husks and cob along with the kernels, sometimes sawdust thrown in as well.

Barbara Demick weaves her book around the lives of 6 North Korean citizens who escaped and live in South Korea. Somehow she makes their dreary lives in the North riveting, I suppose because so much of it is so alien and inhumane. NtE does not deal much with the politics of North v. South, and touches on communism v. capitalism mostly from the vantage of slogans fed to the North Koreans. The details of daily life carry the narrative.

The book builds to the climax of the famine in the late 1990’s. Oddly enough when the famine hit and foreign aid arrived, capitalism gained a toe-hold. The NK army confiscated the foreign aid and sold it. A black market sprung up overnight. Though illegal, citizens didn’t care; what are you going to do? Kill me? I’m dying already.

For me, this paragraph about the black market is the snapshot-memory of the book:

Every time she went to the market,  Mrs. Song saw something that astonished her. Peaches. Grapes. Bananas. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a banana–may twenty years ago, when Chang-bo brought some home as a treat for the children. One day she saw oranges, real oranges! Mrs. Song had never tasted an orange–she only recognized it from pictures. Another day, she saw a mottled yellow-brown fruit with green spikes growing from the top.

“What is that thing?” she asked a friend, who told her it was a pineapple.

As the famine progressed, people looked for any means of relief-even escaping to China. Most of those who escaped initially intended only to get food in China and then return, but one taste of freedom led to an appetite that could not be satiated by the husks of dull security. Interestingly, house churches in China play a key role in the underground railroad that funnels escapees to freedom in the south.

Why read this book? The North Korean regime will collapse soon. It cannot sustain its own sinful incompetence. What will we as a free people do to alleviate the needs? How will we train the North Koreans to live as free people? Most importantly, what will the church do? The better we know how they have lived, the better able to help them.


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If you have never read Ralph Moody’s series of books describing his late ‘childhood’ and ‘teen’ years, you are in for a treat. As I said in reviewing Little Britches, I believe every father ought to read these books with his son. And it wouldn’t hurt to read them with daughters as well. I know I will.

I just finished reading the last of the series, and I am already missing Ralph Moody.

Here is a good, brief synopsis of each book from Cumberland Books:


  • Little Britches. Ralph Moody was eight years old in 1906 when his family moved from New Hampshire to a Colorado ranch. Through his eyes we experience the pleasures and perils of ranching there early in the twentieth century.
  •  Man of the Family. Father has died and Little Britches shoulders the responsibilities of a man at age eleven as the family works to establish themselves in Denver.
  •  The Home Ranch. During the summer of his twelfth year Ralph works on a cattle ranch in the shadow of Pike’s Peak, earning a dollar a day, tested against seasoned cowboys on the range and in the corral.
  •  Mary Emma and Company. Mary Emma Moody, widowed mother of six, has taken her family east in 1912 to begin a new life. Her son, Ralph, then thirteen, recalls how the Moodys survive that first bleak winter in a Massachusetts town.


  •  The Fields of Home. Ralph is having trouble adapting to city ways in Massachusetts, so he is sent to his grandfather’s farm in Maine, where he finds a new set of adventures.
  •  Shaking the Nickel Bush. Skinny and suffering from diabetes, Ralph Moody is ordered by a Boston doctor to seek a more healthful climate. Now nineteen years old, he strikes out into western territory hustling odd jobs, facing the problem of getting fresh milk and leafy green vegetables.
  •  The Dry Divide. Ralph Moody, just turned twenty, had only a dime in his pocket when he was put off a freight in western Nebraska. Three months later he owned eight teams of horses and rigs to go with them.
  •  Horse of a Different Color. The final book in the Little Britches series, it recounts Ralph Moody’s final years of wandering before settling down to marriage and a career.
The books have occasional cursing, particularly when cowboy conversation is recounted. However, it would be easy to skip over those comments if reading the books aloud. These instances do provide valuable teaching opportunities for parents to guide their children in properly understanding the use and misuse of language. It is helpful to note that the hero of the stories does not use the bad language. The biggest stumblingblock I found was in Ralph’s deceptiveness, particularly in Shaking the Nickle Bush, but even these examples can be turned to good teaching moments.
The series paints the picture of a boy becoming a man. His ingenuity, thrift, perseverance, and other virtues serve him well. His friendliness and ability to attract people of good character provides a valuable example to children. His ability to get along with others who were somewhat disreputable, while not being influenced by them, provides an equally useful example. These books are rich fodder for discussions about life, friends, work, honesty, and a host of other topics.

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I love to read, and I love to read good books. Occasionally I find a book compelling, once in a while fascinating, only rarely riveting. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is all three and more. This is easily the most riveting book I have read in years, and I read a lot of good books.

Unbroken is the life story of Louie Zamperini, a Olympic-caliber distance runner during the 1930’s who endured Japanese POW camps during WW2. Growing up hard-scrabble in California, as a teen Louie discovered he had a rare gift of speed and endurance.

In the 1936 Olympics he competed in the 5000 meters, an event he had raced fewer than a half dozen times prior to qualifying. When WW2 broke upon American shores he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was assigned as a bombadier to the Pacific theater.

The majority of the book traces his trials as a Japanese POW, and reading this is not for the faint of heart. The Japanese enslaved and tortured their American POW’s, and as a world-renowned athlete, Zamperini was targeted for particularly harsh treatment. I told Jill that reading this lengthy portion was akin to watching a train wreck in slow motion: you didn’t want to watch, but you couldn’t pull your eyes away.

After being liberated and repatriated, Louie like many returning veterans, faced extreme battles with bitterness and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is at this point that the book takes a wholly unexpected turn that changes it from simply compelling to truly worthwhile.

Hillenbrand’s writing fits well with this story. I don’t read especially quickly but I could not put this down, and I finished the book in less than two days.

If you are looking for Father’s Day gift, this is then book to give. Just get it early so that you can read it first. If you are looking for a beach book, wear a lot of sun screen, because you will not realize how long you are in the sun as you become absorbed by Unbroken.


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Ralph Moody was eight in 1906 when his family moved from New Englandto Colorado. Little Britches tells the story of the next few years of their lives as they try to make a go of ranching. It is a heart-warming story wonderfully told. Think of Little House on the Prairie from a boy’s point of view.

But LB transcends Little House in several powerful ways. Laura Ingalls reveals her affection for her father, but Moody’s magnificent reverence for his father shines throughout his book. As he recounts numerous occasions in which his father earned great respect from fellow ranchers and his family. Ralph’s father lived a life of integrity that remained the lasting memory of his son.

Little Britches also shines brightly as Ralph Moody recounts the life and character lessons that his father imparted.

After Ralph has lied to his parents: “Son, there is no question but what the thing you have done today deserves severe punishment. You might have killed yourself or the horse, but much worse than that, you have injured your own character. A man’s character is like his house. If he tears boards off his house and burns them to keep himself warm and comfortable, his house soon becomes a ruin. If he tells lies to be able to do the things he should do but wants to, his character will soon become a ruin. A man with a ruined character is a shame on the face of the earth.” 

Little Britches is a book that every boy should read, and every dad should read with his boy. I am sure that girls would enjoy LB, but it strikes me as particularly good for boys.

Reading this book makes this dad want to live an exemplary life so that he can achieve the same kind of legacy with his children. The life lessons from Ralph’s father provide a wealth of opportunities to discuss with children.

Two cautions though. It would be wise to read a chapter ahead so you can consider how to discuss certain events with you son/children. In particular, be advised that Ralph’s dad dies of pneumonia in the last chapter, so I would not recommend this book for younger children.

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A while back I read Eric Metaxas’s biography of Deitrich Bonhoeffer, and was both fascinated and confused. Metaxas writes extremely well, and his description of the daily events in Germany, particularly the German church, of the 1930’s and 40’s sheds light on things overshadowed by world events.

However, his silence and even whitewashing of Bonhoeffer’s neo-orthodox theology left me quite puzzled. In the months since the publication of Bonhoeffer, numerous scholars also have weighed in on this, as Tim Challies notes in this column.

I ran across an interview that Metaxas gave in which he was asked about the controversy, and I found his answer to be a lengthy example of ‘begging (evading) the question.’

4) There has been some criticism that perhaps you paint Bonhoeffer as “too evangelical”. I thought this was unfair, that you had painstakingly given the whole of Bonhoeffer’s theology, even quoting lengthy excerpts. How do you respond to this criticism?

I find the criticism hilarious on the one hand, and tragic, on the other.  Bonhoeffer and any other serious Christian is less concerned with being an “evangelical” — whatever that really means — than with being a Christian, a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ.  One thing I have said over and over:  I never set out to paint any portrait of Bonhoeffer other than what I saw, for good or for ill.  That some seem to think that I have put some English on the ball seems to say more about their expectations than about the reality of his life.

Note how Metaxas 1. invokes personal feelings to point attention away from the real issue. 2. blurs the term ‘evangelical’. 3. conflates orthodoxy (right beliefs) and orthopraxy (right conduct). It is possible for a person to do right, but believe wrong (Mtt. 7.21-23). 4. uses an ad hominem attack on critics rather than deal with the substantive charges.

The facts are what they are:  Bonhoeffer thought of the Bible as the living “Word of God” and prayed every day and pointedly criticized the regnant theological liberalism of his era (both in Berlin and at Union in New York) and called abortion “murder” and advocated a traditionally biblical view of sexuality and called for the Lordship of Jesus Christ over every realm in history and culture, and advocated obedience to God under all circumstances and spoke against mere “religion”…  so, yes, he tends to look pretty “evangelical.”  But that really is a label that is unhelpful when trying to understand him.   Bonhoeffer was a devout disciple of Jesus Christ.  That should suffice, I think.

What does Metaxas mean by “the living ‘Word of God'”? Particularly, what did it mean to Bonhoeffer? The charge is not that he was a liberal theologian, but that he was neo-orthodox in his beliefs. Note again Metaxas conflating orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Not that some ideologues on the left and right haven’t been annoyed, as you mention.  But they are annoyed at reality, not at my depiction of reality.

It all really is somehow funny, though.  It has to be noted that theologically liberal Bonhoeffer scholars have kept deadly quiet for decades, while chest-beating humanists like Christopher Hitchens and “Bishop” John Spong have claimed Bonhoeffer as one of their own.  But when  Bonhoeffer is portrayed as the robust and serious Christian that he was, they have howled with all their might and main and have practically scampered up palm trees to cast down their cocoa-nuts of bitter fury.  One wonders where their priorities lie.

Fussy theological conservatives, on the other hand, who have accepted this false theologically liberal view of Bonhoeffer, are another story, no less tragi-comic.  They bring to mind the guy on the beach with the metal detector and headphones, oblivious to the staggering beauty of the sand and sea and sky.   They seem bent on discovering any scrap of evidence that “proves” Bonhoeffer was neo-orthodox, and if not that, then something else unpalatable — anything!  I think even a cigarette butt in the sand would thrill them.  They sometimes seem to be worshiping an idol of theological purity.

But to have perspective on it all, we must remember that both types, left and right, have always been with us.  As a friend of mine once said:  ”They are like the children in the marketplace who say, ‘We played the pipe and you would not dance; we played a dirge and you would not mourn!’”   Quel domage [what a shame!].


Nowhere does Metaxas begin to deal directly with the question of Bonhoeffer’s theology, which was controversial while he was alive as well as in the ensuing years. Setting aside that specific issue, it is irresponsible for a biographer to avoid dealing with this specific point which is undeniably a substantial part of Bonhoeffer’s life story.

Metaxas’s book is well written, but flawed for the gaping hole at a crucial juncture.

His response here does, however, serve Christians well, for he highlights a necessary question: What defines an evangelical? Orthodoxy or orthopraxy?

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When I met Jill, I was impressed with her competitiveness and interest in sports. Since she grew up near St. Louis and I in northern Ohio, we had to divide allegiances to foist upon our children. I chose the Browns – and have been apologizing to the kidlets ever since – and Jill chose the Cardinals.

Every current Cardinals fan has a deep appreciation for Albert Pujols, so when this book became available for review, Jill jumped at the chance to read it and detail her thoughts.

Pujols:  More than the Game by Scott Lamb & Tim Ellsworth

229 pages

“Hero” as defined by Meriam-Webster online includes the following:

1 a : a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability b : an illustrious warrior c : a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities d : one who shows great courage

2 a : the principal male character in a literary or dramatic work b : the central figure in an event, period, or movement 4 : an object of extreme admiration and devotion

Outside of definition #3 (hero as in submarine sandwich), you can pretty much take your pick of the rest in defining Albert Pujols.

A household term in my family (avid Cardinal fans) since he broke onto the scene in St. Louis Cardinal red in 2001, he epitomizes what young and old alike search for (or should) in a role model.  The statistics he has amassed, the accolades that have showered down on him, his reputation precedes him…and for good reason.  No one in the history of the game has put up the same numbers across the board that #5 has.

So what makes him “tick,” for lack of a better term?

His family’s influence on his life (for good and bad) is still obvious today, with his Grandmother América’s strong sense of morality and diligent work ethic at the obvious-to-the-casual-observer’s forefront.  The vivid memories of his father’s drunken stupors serve as constant reminders of the evils of alcohol and its affects on a person and those that love him.

But his personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ is his true constant.  It was obvious throughout the biography that while conflicts howl and slumps come and go, Albert’s foundation rests solidly on not who he is or what he has done, but Who has given him these abilities and what the responsibilities and privileges are that come with that gift.

While not perfect, his character reflects one of “true grit.”  Good grief, the man was taken 402nd in the ’99 draft…to most players demoralizing; to Albert, simply an opportunity to grow his game and his ability to adjust.  His burst through the farm system left heads spinning, but even there he was looking for ways not only to develop his talent, but to deepen his testimony and relationship with his Savior.

Nearly every chapter in More than the Game inundates the reader with his seasonal statistics.  Typical for sports biographies.  He expects more of himself than he accomplished the last game or the previous season.  He takes his role as clubhouse leader seriously – loving when necessary, confronting when he must.

Two short sentences follow each other from the close of one chapter to the intro to the next.  They pretty much succinctly summarize the rest of the story:  “Pujols didn’t yet realize that ‘special’ was just beginning.  ‘Every time I go out there, it’s to glorify my God.’” (p. 104-105)

The following is a necessary disclaimer required by some agency of our national government intruding once again in areas that are wholly irrelevant to their biblical and common-sense and constitutional responsibilities:

This book was received from Thomas Nelson, Inc. as a review copy through their books-for-bloggers program. TN,I does not require a positive review; all opinions are solely those of the reviewer.

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