Book Review


As a parent – and a theologian – I’m always on the lookout for good children’s books, and good books about children … and good books in general. I’ve recently become aware of Graced Vulnerability: A Theology of Childhood by David H. Jensen. While I await my own copy to arrive, here’s a  review of the book that I read:

Taking seriously children qua children, Jensen issues a clarion call for Christians—theologians and others alike—to do the same. Tracing their place in the tradition, he notes the comparatively little attention afforded to children in theology and church. Cast as corrupt bearers of original sin, as those whose wills require breaking and reshaping, or as less than fully human entities on their way to personhood, children have been depicted and treated in ways that fall short of ancient Jewish and Jesus’ own norms and practices. A few voices have dissented, though at a comparative murmur and without providing adequate alternatives. Children remain largely devalued, even as church and society fail to counter their widespread abuse (local to global) amid war, poverty, disease, hunger, abusive sexual and labor practices, domestic violence, and crime. Jensen’s alternative “theology of childhood” draws on “the covenantal framework of children as full members in the household of God and the whisper of an ethic of care implicit in the gospel narratives of Jesus with children.” This theology calls Christians to become vulnerable with children as they attend to them, care for them in ways the tradition at its best has embraced, and enhance children’s lives as they are changed themselves to become like children. The means are the church’s distinct “practices of vulnerability”: peacemaking, baptism, sanctuary, and prayer. Crafting an original, rich, impassioned, keenly argued yet accessible book, Jensen has graced child and adult alike. His is constructive and practical theology at its best! – Allan Hugh Cole, Jr.

Sounds great. I’m looking forward to reading it. Gems will be shared. I’d be keen to hear comments from others who have already read, or are reading, this book.

The folks at Discerning Reader have drawn our attention to a new (and wee) book by Noel Piper entitled Most of All, Jesus Loves You!. They write:

Not too long ago Mrs. Piper (wife of the illustrious John Piper) was taken to task on Amazon’s reader reviews for the lack of theological ballast in this book. Mrs. Piper even had the grace to respond with a personal apology to those parents whose expectations were so brutally dashed. But she did point out that the book’s audience was the younger toddler between age 2 and 3, a demographic that is woefully devoid of Christian material. Mrs. Piper and her illustrator, Debby Anderson, obviously perceived the need and produced this little book, which my toddler still enjoys even though he is now a young child. Every night when I tuck him in, I paraphrase the title, asking him, “How much does Daddy love you?” He answers, “So much!” with arms spread wide. Then I ask, “How much does Jesus love you?” He smiles and whispers, “Even more.” So you see, this little book of 16 pages and far less than 100 words has accomplished what it set out to do.

That’s over 100 less words that this post!

A Review: Dynamic Dads: How to be a hero to your kids, by Paul Pettit.

Paul Pettit is a man’s man. The president of Dynamic Dads and a former sports broadcaster who writes on a level geared to the average dad, this book is best suited for a man who either doesn’t have the time to invest in a 300 page tome, or would turn apoplectic at the simple thought of a 300 page tome.  This book is a mere seven chapters, punctuated by inset ‘Dynamic Dad’ textboxes. Prefacing each chapter is a selection of quotations drawn from surveys, journals, Scripture, and various other luminaries, while each chapter ends with discussion questions ostensibly written with a ‘Dynamic Dad’s’ accountability group in mind. Pettit begins with the following statement, reflecting his desire that this book would serve its readers:  “I hope reading this book helps you become a better father. Or to be more precise, I hope reading this book helps you to father better.” This incident of inversion is a promising opening to a book that promises much by its allusion to heroic fathering.

Yet another propitious early sign is the author’s assurance that this is not another “nine steps” or “follow this proven plan” type of book; he does not claim to possess some “secret formula that unlocks the fathering code.” Pettit draws the parallel that just as God is mysterious and His ways are “often difficult to track or explain,” so fathering is a messy business with no surefire manual, nor recipe for success. With these humble statements Pettit launches into the rationale for writing this book, supporting his findings by proffering disturbing statistics, helpfully placing them in proper perspective: “Statistics, however, are cold, lifeless numbers. They alert us to a problem and for that I am grateful. But rarely do they move us to feel or to act. In addition, numbers do not have names. Statistics represent people and things, but numbers are not the people themselves. My heart does not break for the statistics but for the children: children who have never had a bedtime storey read to them by an adult male…” Throughout the book Pettit reveals his burden for children who lack fathers, or truly fatherly figures. Here is the wellspring of this book, and it goes deep.

The second chapter addresses the priorities of a godly father. Firstly, Pettit underscores the field on which fatherly heroics are performed: “It’s in the day-to-day, run-of-the-mill activities of our life that we impact our children the most. Habits, routines, and heroes are made in the normal days, not at the annual visit to the theme park.” That’s not to say that regular family vacations aren’t indispensible opportunities which serve to bind a family together, but the point is taken. Secondly, Pettit places people priorities over against time priorities, in correct sequence: “I personally know of no better way to accomplish [the task of being a hero] than to be a hero at home. How? Work hard each day at becoming a servant leader in your home. Honor your wife. Interact with your children at a deep level. And commit yourself to great character and integrity.” Later he states, “Your family will only be as solid as your marriage”, yet he realizes that fathering is a sacrificial endeavor on the part of both the husband and the wife.

Theologically, I was fairly impressed. Not only does this book root all fatherhood in God the Father, which many books on fatherhood do, but it is solidly Trinitarian, which is quite a bit rarer: “what is the Father is saying repeatedly? He is saying, ‘Listen to my Son!’ Jesus Christ said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself…” Not only is Pettit concerned with the practical how-to’s of excellent fathering, he is careful to set out the theological underpinnings of fatherhood. He reflects a refreshing God-centered view of fathering: “we can’t compare God with an earthly father because doing so demeans God, but we can compare the actions of a good father with God and say, ‘In the ways that a father is acting as a good father, he’s acting like God acts.’ ”

Obligingly, Pettit brings theology home to roost. He owns that “In the real world that you and I occupy, dads engage us in the same manner as all humanity; fathers are fallen, imperfect beings with flawed motives and actions.” Therefore, we ought to teach our children that not only all fathers “trace their lineage back to the father of fathers, apple-crunching Adam”, but we ought also to actively instruct our children about sin, since “there is only one perfect Father and He is in heaven. The job of perfect father is filled. You need not apply” (author’s emphasis).

This book’s blemishes are few but worth mentioning. Most jarring is a recollection of a locker room event that monopolized an entire page of type and seemed only tenuously related to the point at hand. The author’s broadcasting roots are showing. Likewise, some references to pop psychology concepts such as father wounds, performance anxiety, self-esteem and natural male aggression didn’t seem to jive with the biblical care exhibited in the rest of the book. And I couldn’t really fathom that children would be excited about composing a family mission statement, nor that many dads would enjoy constructing a Legacy Map calculating net end results of quality time spent with their children. Those points aside, this book is a useful bottom-shelf introduction to excellent fathering. It’s appropriate to close with quote ardently calling for God-centered fathering, the only truly successful parenting in light of eternity:

“Let’s jump into this fray we call fathering. Let’s father as hard as we can until our sides ache and we feel like we can’t father one more day. Let’s father in selfless ways, continually pointing our wife and children to the Father of fathers.” Amen.

This review is taken from DiscerningReader.com

We are grateful to Gordon Cheng for alerting us to The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name; finally, a ‘big Bible picture’, as opposed to a heap of random and moralised stories.

Judging the book by its cover, Gordon notes that the book is ‘a small hardback, nearly square, and it looks like a better quality children’s storybook’. He also praises the artwork: ‘The illustration for Goliath in the David story is a hoot. The waves in the storm before Jesus speaks words of calm are shaped like the stylised waves depicted in traditional Oriental art. The Pharisees and Sadducees—boo and hiss—look like they stepped out of the Spanish inquisition, with their Pythonesque blood-red robes and hoods. Fire, water, sky, stars and the green, green grass are textured and the colours are suitably primary where they need to be.’

And then, just when we think he’s forgotten to comment on the actual words themselves, he applauds author Sally Lloyd-Jones as ‘a natural story-teller’ whose stories are ‘funny, friendly, sad, scary, joyful and playful’. Sounds just like the Bible to me. Here’s a snippert from the crossing of the Red Sea:

What were God’s people going to do? In front of them was a big sea. It was so big there was no way around it. But there was no way through it—it was too deep. They didn’t have any boats so they couldn’t sail across. And they couldn’t swim across because it was too far and they would drown. And they couldn’t turn back because Pharaoh was chasing them. They could see the flashing swords now, glinting in the baking sun, and the dust clouds, and chariot after scary chariot surging towards them. So they did the only thing there was left to do—PANIC!

You can read heaps more about it here.

Robert W. Jenson & Solveig Lucia Gold, Conversations with Poppi about God: An Eight-Year-Old and Her Theologian Grandfather Trade Questions (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006). 158 pages. ISBN: 97815874321613. Review copy courtesy of Brazos Press.

When was the last time you had a conversation about baptism, temptation, purgatory, time, economics, the Nicene Creed, creation, the Trinity, Christmas, metaphysics, church calendars, evil, indulgences, the Holy Spirit, liturgy, Lucifer, hamsters, a ‘really stupid’ bishop, the disestablishment of the Roman Church, the imago Dei, and a host of other things, all with the same person? When was the last time you did so with a person who just happens to be a world-renowned Lutheran, and ecumenical, theologian? When was the last time you did so with an eight-year-old who knows more about Dante than not a few philosophy undergrads?

In this remarkable book, we are invited to eavesdrop on a spontaneous and unscripted conversation between elementary schoolgirl Solveig Lucia Gold and her septuagenarian grandfather affectionately called ‘Poppi’, more formally known as the Reverend Canon Professor Dr. D. Robert W. Jenson, B.A., B.D., M.A., D.Theol., D.H.L., DD.

The book comprises the verbatim transcripts – with minor editing of ‘Ums’, ‘Well, buts …’ and ‘You knows…’, etc – of conversations recorded on a Radio Shack cassette recorder over a series of weekends in which Solveig visited her grandparents (‘Poppi’ and ‘Mimi’) in Princeton. After each session, Mimi typed it up.

The authors invite us to read their book ‘as you would a Platonic dialogue, though in this one, the role of Socrates goes back and forth’ (p. 10). Their discussion is more wide-ranging than most systematic theologies, and is filled with wit, warmth and wisdom.

Time for an example:

Solveig: How can God pick who goes to heaven or hell?

Poppi: By looking at Jesus, who loves you, Solveig.

Solveig: Can you show me?

Poppi: One way of saying what happened with Jesus is that Jesus so attached himself to you that if God the Father wants his Son, Jesus, back, he is stuck with you too. Which is how he picks you. (p. 20)

The young Episcopalian and her ‘sort of half Anglican and half Lutheran’ (p. 70) Poppi return to some themes a number of times over the weekends. One such theme that offers some of the book’s richest insights concerns the Spirit, or ‘God’s liveliness’ (p. 38), as the good Professor Dr Poppi likes to remind his granddaughter. Solveig tries on more than one occasion to argue a case that the second and third articles in the Creed ought to be reversed not only because ‘all of us share in the Spirit’ (Father and Son included), but also because that’s how you cross yourself. Poppi agrees, ‘Father, Spirit, Son is probably a better arrangement’ (p. 146). The Spirit is also ‘God’s own future that he is looking forward to’ (p. 42). They compare God’s liveliness with Santa Claus who is ‘sort of like a messenger from the Holy Spirit – in a way’ (p. 100), before coming to discern the spirits to see if they are from God, for whom to have Spirit means that he ‘doesn’t stay shut up in himself … but that the goodness and mercy – and wrath, when it comes to that – that is in God blows out from him to hit you and me. And that means that just like your spirit is yours and not mine, even though your spirit effects me, so God’s Spirit is his and not a spirit like Santa Claus’ (p. 101).

In between laughs, they talk about what it is about Holy Communion – Solveig’s ‘favourite part of going to church’ because she gets to ‘stretch and walk around a little’ (p. 31) – that means that ‘the wine should be the very best’ (p. 33) and that dissolvable bread should be banned. The meal should be appetising, and not like those baptisms ‘when they just dribble a couple of drops on the baby’ (p. 34). They also talk about a confirmation service led by ‘this weird bishop guy’ who is ‘really stupid’ (p. 34).

While I’m trying to resist the temptation to share every gem in the book (and there are lots), allow me one more, this time on heaven, purgatory, and hell:

Solveig: Do you think of where you might go after you die as two places or three places? I think of it as three places.

Poppi: What three is that?

Solveig: Heaven, purgatory, and hell.

Poppi: So you hold to the doctrine of purgatory?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: You know that is very controversial.

Solveig: Why? It’s in Dante, isn’t it?

Poppi: Well, it’s in Dante, yes. But of course, Dante isn’t exactly in the Bible.

Solveig: No. But he’s still …

Poppi: The thing about purgatory is that it’s a very reasonable idea. It’s just that we don’t know if it is true.

Solveig: Except … Maybe God thinks that you should just go to two places. If you are bad, he has no patience with you at all, and he will just sort you to go to heaven or hell. I think that is reasonable enough.

Poppi: That God is impatient?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: That’s where I think the notion of purgatory is reasonable. I don’t think the Bible talks about God’s being impatient in quite that way.

Solveig: If he isn’t impatient, maybe he doesn’t want us to spend time thinking about where we should go.

Poppi: You know that plate that your mother and father gave us that hangs on the wall in the dining room?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: Remember what it says on it?

Solveig: I don’t remember what it says.

Poppi: It says, ‘I desire not the death of the wicked.’

Solveig: ‘As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.’

Poppi: Right. So the biblical God takes no pleasure in sending people to hell, and that’s why I think that purgatory is a reasonable idea. The problem is we don’t have any way of knowing whether the purgatory idea is true or not.

Solveig: It’s just Dante’s idea.

Poppi: Well, it was older than Dante.

Solveig: It was?

Poppi: Yes.

Solveig: Yes. Well, see, I think of Dante as a theologian, in a way.

Poppi: He was a very great theologian.

Solveig: Yeah, I know. I’m saying that he kind of liked to make up things he wasn’t quite sure about, if you know what I mean.

The delightful exchanges in this album offer us a model of how good theological dialogue can and should take place: with mutual respect and humility which delights in both the giving and the receiving; with an eye on the scripture, an eye on the tradition, and an eye on the world (for those who possess at least three eyes); and within an environment of safety in which no idea is too whacky and no avenue of enquiry cut off prematurely.

Carl Braaten’s words regarding this book are worth repeating,

Robert Jenson has created a new medium, with his granddaughter Solveig, to teach the basics of the Christian faith. Just as Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism for children, this book of conversations covers the beliefs and practices of the Christian church – among them the commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the sacraments – in a way that parents, regardless of their denomination, can confidently read and discuss with their children. Robert Jenson has translated the core convictions of his two volumes of Systematic Theology into simple truths that his eight-year-old grandchild can understand in the course of their unrehearsed and lively conversations. If you want to know what a sophisticated theologian really believes, listen to him explain the mysteries of the Christian faith to a child in simple terms without being simplistic.

The following is a review by David Crowley of the book The Power of Play by David Elkind.

As a teenager, driving by empty ballparks would launch my Dad into childhood stories of playing daylong pick-up games. He’d complain about how “kids these days” only play baseball as part of an organized team. Well, that trend of children spending their time in scheduled activities has continued over the past twenty years, with the consequence that they spend little time enjoying unstructured play. David Elkind’s The Power of Play makes a compelling argument that this reduction of spontaneous play comes at a significant cost for children.

Elkind is a Professor of Child Development at Tufts University. This is his first book that I’ve read, but I gather that he has written influential books in the field for many years, notably The Hurried Child and All Grown Up and No Place to Go. This new book does a good job of blending practical advice with broader analysis of childrearing trends and their implications. If you’re looking for a how-to parenting book, this would disappoint; but if you’re interested in placing your parenting experience in a broader social context, I’d recommend giving this a read. Though Elkind is an academic, this book is written for a general audience and is a pretty quick read. His points are often supported by personal anecdotes from his family and practice, thus adding an easily accessible quality to the book.

Elkind’s central thesis is that spontaneous, unstructured play is crucial for children’s healthy development. He begins by noting that children have lost around twelve hours per week of free time over the past twenty years, including eight hours of outdoor play. Factors driving this trend include overzealous parents trying to push their children to achievement, rampant consumerism, and too much time spent in front of computers and televisions. Unstructured play allows children a chance to develop their imaginations. This important informal play with others, absent coaches and referees, helps children develop their social skills.

Throughout the book, Elkind relates the benefits of play to well-understood stages of development (well-understood for anyone who’s taken a psych course that mentioned Piaget or Erikson). He derides efforts to teach children academic and other skills for which they are not ready. For instance, according to Elkind, pushing academic skills like reading with a preschooler is likely to frustrate her. Moreover, such premature focus on reading both takes her away from developmentally appropriate activities that build confidence and reduces free playtime that builds imagination.

I found chapters on toys and media especially instructive. Elkind’s comments on the abundance of toys many kids have today resonates—our son has so many toys he can forget about something for a few weeks then discover it again like it’s a new toy. The author expresses concern that children aren’t called upon to use their creativity with the abundance of electronic toys today that don’t require the imagination like the simple toys of times past. Elkind reviews popular educational videos and computer games, finding the educational claims of most videos ranging from unproven to ludicrous. Our son isn’t yet of age to play computer games, but when he does get interested in them, I’ll certainly want to test them out first after reading how inappropriate many of them are.

Elkind’s final chapters suggest another direction we can go with our children, one that would encourage more play and its related benefits. “Lighthearted parenting” encourages parents to relax a bit, and focus on sharing our passions with our children. “Schooling with the Heart, Mind and Body” argues for educating the whole child rather than teaching to the test. According to Elkind, achievement and learning, as well as emotional development, would follow if parents and educators heeded this advice.

I generally agreed with most of Elkind’s views, and feel that his is an important voice, given the educational and parenting norms of the day. There were times, however, when I would have liked to have seen a little bit more of the research basis for his arguments, rather than just backing a point with an anecdote. My other critique of the book is that Elkind frequently referred to a framework of “play, love and work” as being critical to the development that can be fostered through play. While this concept makes sense, the repetition of this theme felt a bit forced to me at times.

These small critiques aside, The Power of Play is an important book for parents, educators and everyone else concerned about children in today’s society. If enough of us read this book and take it to heart, our children would be happier and healthier as the book’s subtitle suggests. And perhaps my dad will one day pass by a ballpark and see his grandson playing an unscheduled pickup game with some friends.

Review by David Crowley, President of Social Capital Inc. and father of an almost two-year old boy. David is a graduate of Harvard College. In his free time David enjoys playing ball, exploring the outdoors and reading with his son. (HT: Dadlabs)

I’ve just finished reading Gisela Preuschoff’s Raising Girls. Preuschoff is a psychologist and family therapist. The earlier chapters trace the developmental changes in girls, exploring why girls are different, their emotional world, and offers some thoughts on how parents could go about developing their relationship with their daughter/s in the earliest months and years. Two further chapters explore issues of social conditioning, and education (this was the most disappointing chapter).

In the final two chapters, Preuschoff turns the spotlight onto questions of family dynamics, the teenage years, peer relationships, communication styles, and self-esteem.

One of the real strengths of the book is its discouragement of a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting, an approach all-to-commonly repeated. Rather, Preuschoff encourages parents to really get to know their daughters, identify and encourage their strengths and passions. I most appreciated this.

To be honest, however, I found the book overall a weak compliment to its cousin Raising Boys. My main disappointment with the book (and it is certainly not unique here) is that I felt that it was written to mums rather to dads. Dads, of course, get the obligatory 2-3 pages, but that’s about it. I’d be keen to hear how other dads found this book.

That said, it was worth reading, and I will devote the next few posts to sharing some thoughts/quotations from it.