The Paradox of Christ

“Above all, he is unselfish. Perhaps nothing strikes us more than this. Although he clearly believed himself to be divine, he did not put on airs or stand on his dignity. He was never pompous. There was no touch of self-importance in Jesus. He was humble.

It is this paradox that is so amazing, this combination of the self-centeredness of his teaching and the unself-centeredness of his behavior. In thought he put himself first, in deed last. He exhibited both the greatest self-esteem and the greatest self-sacrifice. He knew himself to be the Lord of all, but he became their servant. He said that he would one day come to judge the world, but he washed the feet of his friends.”

~John Stott, Basic Christianity

Nothing struck me quite so strongly as I read Stott’s Basic Christianity as the bolded sentence above. As someone who has believed since she was a young child, I have never really considered the “self-centeredness” of Jesus’ teaching. Of course he was self-centered – he’s God. He ought to be talking about himself. But if he weren’t God, were simply styling himself as God, he would be quite pompous.

Yet his actions aren’t pompous at all. He cares for the poor and needy, embraces outcasts, visits sinners in their homes. He served.

“…Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

~Philippians 2:5-11 (ESV)

This is the paradox of our faith – the God who is so High stooped down so low. He is indeed exactly what every person needs and does not shy away from proclaiming it: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” “I am the bread of life.” “I am the living water.” “I am the Good Shepherd.” “I am…” “I am…” “I am…” But, despite being God’s gift to man, he did not act as though he were.


Being Believed is Important

Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s Three Little Words evoked not a few complicated thoughts, but that wasn’t all I got from it as I read.

I also learned.

I learned, for one, that being believed is important.

Ashley writes of how her little brother would crawl into bed with her and pee the bed. Her foster parents would not believe it wasn’t Ashley who had been peeing the bed. On another occasion, Ashley slipped on the poop another foster child had smeared about – but her foster parents wouldn’t believe that she wasn’t the smear-er. Later, more seriously, she attempted to tell people of the abuse she and other children were experiencing and people didn’t take her seriously.

Now, Ashley writes of the times when she was in the right, when she was telling the truth and wasn’t believed. If she’s like any child, she told her share of lies as well.

But Ashley’s story brought home the importance of believing our children – or, even if we don’t believe them, of taking them seriously and avoiding shaming or punishing when we don’t know the whole story.

Does it matter whether the bed-pee-er was Ashley or her little brother? Only inasmuch as it might indicate that Ashley needed some help (it could have indicated a urinary tract infection, for example, if she had previously been dry consistently.) The foster parents could have said, in a neutral voice: “Looks like your bed is wet this morning. Let’s get it cleaned up.” They might ask, “Are you having a hard time staying dry overnight? Sometimes that means that you’re sick and don’t realize it.” And when Ashley says that no, it was her little brother who got into bed with her, they could have responded “Okay. Well, if you ever do find yourself having a hard time holding it overnight, just let us know and maybe we could talk to a doctor about getting help.” And then they could try to pay attention to see if her brother is indeed crawling into bed with her overnight and wetting the bed.

Our older children have started lying.

I know this because I watch them do something and then tell me that they didn’t do it.

Because I’ve seen their lying in action, it’s tempting to think they’re lying every time one child comes running to tell me that “so-and-so hurt themselves” (with the unspoken being “I didn’t do it!”)

But Ashley’s story has encouraged me to rethink my approach to this.

When I know that something is a lie because I have seen otherwise, I call out the lie.

But when I don’t know what actually happened? I try to be more circumspect.

I ask myself, is it important for me to ascertain who did what in this circumstance?

In a lot of cases, it isn’t really important. Do I need to know who spilled the water on the floor? No. I just need to clean it up – and it’s not going to hurt my children to clean it up together. Do I need to know who had the toy first? No, not really. I can just put the toy in time out since it wasn’t playing nicely.

In most cases, even when my children are fighting with each other, I don’t need to arbitrate. We talk about how we ought to behave toward one another (regardless of who started the current fight). I may have to find a task for each of the children to work on with me or they might need to play in the same room as me for the next while until their current squabble has cooled down. But I don’t need to know “who did it”.

If possible, I can create an environment that disincentivizes lying – without making it my default to visibly disbelieve my children.

Because being believed is important.

An Apt Description

Thomas More, in Utopia:

“I am out practically all day dealing with others, and the rest of my time is devoted to my family, and so I leave nothing for myself, that is for writing.

When I get home, I have to talk with my wife, chat with my children, confer with the servants. All this I count as part of my obligations, since it needs to be done…. As I am doing such things, as I said, a day, a month, a year slips by.

When do I write then? And as yet I have said nothing about sleep and nothing at all about eating, and for many that takes up no less time than sleep itself, which consumes almost half our lives. The only time I get for myself is what I steal from sleep and eating.”

An apt description of why I blog so much less frequently than I would prefer.

My brother, the pumpkin runner?

It didn’t take long, when reading Marsha Diane Arnold’s The Pumpkin Runner, to find parallels between her main character and my brother Josh.

First, there’s the name. “Nearly all the sheep ranchers in Blue Gum Valley rode horses or drove jeeps to check on their sheep. But Joshua Summerhayes…”

Then there’s the running. “But Joshua Summerhayes liked to run…” Yep, that’d be Josh.

Finally, there’s Joshua’s penchant for eating raw pumpkin.

Not that my brother Josh is crazy about raw pumpkin (at least, I don’t think he is). But when I read:

“That was the year his family planted a pumpkin patch behind their clapboard ranch house, where the sun sparkled through the eucalyptus trees near Blue Gum Creek.

When the pumpkins had grown as round as a wombat’s belly, young Joshua stopped by to enjoy a golden slice.”

When I read that passage (from the second and third paragraphs of the story), I remembered my brother Joshua’s love for raw green beans. Now, don’t get me wrong. We all loved to munch on the raw green beans while we spent countless hours stemming for mom to can. But Josh took it to a whole ‘nother level. We teased that Josh ate more than went into his bowl to be canned.

The Pumpkin Runner goes on from there, of course. It tells the story of young Joshua Summerhayes, young no longer. At 60 years old, he’s still running powered by the pumpkins in the patch out back. But when a newspaper announces a run from Melbourne to Sydney (just 900 km or ~560 miles), Joshua tells his dog: “It’s been a while since we’ve visited the city, Yellow Dog…. We could see two cities and get in a little run as well.” And so they did – Joshua in his orange gumboots, Yellow Dog beside him, and Aunt Millie driving from stop to stop with pumpkin treats as fuel.

I’m not sure Tirzah Mae was as impressed with the story as I was – it was a bit long and she had her eye on a Barbie easy reader she’d picked up the last time we were at the library (groan!) But I sure enjoyed envisioning my brother, 30 years down the line, running a long distance race fueled by raw green beans.

I’ll be Aunt Millie, driving the Jeep.


Church History: The Age of Jesus and the Apostles

This year’s main spiritual goal is to “grow theologically through a study of church history”. To that end, I’m using Bruce L. Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language as a spine and reading original sources and biographies to supplement my study. This month’s section was “The Age of Jesus and the Apostles, 6 BC – AD 70.” In other words, the New Testament Age. Because I am already relatively familiar with this stage of church history, this was an easy month. I read Matthew, Acts, and Ephesians as my original sources and selected two books on Paul from my local library (only one of which I finished, as seen below.) I also found one of Shelley’s recommended readings at my library and read that.

Core Reading: Church History in Plain Language
The two chapters on “The Age of Jesus and the Apostles” are easy reading. They summarize the narrative portions of the New Testament, giving some historical details drawn heavily from the below-mentioned Great People of the Bible and How They Lived.

Supplemental Reading:

Great People of the Bible and How They Lived by Reader’s Digest
Bruce included this work in his recommended readings for this section – and I’m glad he did. I’ve only read the New Testament section (so far), but I’ve found this to be a highly readable retelling of the narrative of the New Testament with appropriate historical details added in text and with photographs and illustrations. Given that this is a secular work, I would have expected significant skepticism about the words and works of Christ, as well as how the apostles interpreted said words and works – but this is not a skeptical work. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I especially enjoyed the discussion of temple politics and the divisions between the Pharisees and Sadducees and the discussion of the divisions between the Jerusalem Jews and the Hellenists. Another thing I’d never thought of was how the locus of ministry in the New Testament shifts from Galilee (during Jesus’ early ministry) to Jerusalem (during Jesus’ late ministry and the apostles’ early ministry) to Antioch (from which Paul and Barnabas’s missionary journeys were launched.)

Paul: In Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright

This is a small but dense work edited from some lectures Wright gave at Cambridge University. I found it difficult to find time to read it because it required my full attention (something in short supply!) to get Wright’s points. Nevertheless, I am glad I read this. Some points I found useful:

  • Wright points out Paul’s consistent use of the word “Christ”, which we tend to think of as little more than Jesus’ surname, but which conveyed quite a bit more in Paul’s Jewish context. Specifically, Paul was consistently pointing to Jesus’ messianic role – what Wright calls an “apocalyptic” context. Wright discusses some of the expectations the Jews of Paul’s time would have had surrounding the term “Christ” and what that would have meant to them. To remind myself of this context, I’ve been mentally substituting “The Promised Messiah and Savior” whenever I read “Christ” in the New Testament.
  • Occasionally, I hear the cross in the Roman world compared to an electric chair – “You’d never hang an electric chair around your neck.” But Wright points out that the cross was not simply a means by which Rome carried out executions. It was a symbol of Rome’s might, particularly its power over conquered peoples. The cross represented the power of Rome to kill those who oppose. Yet the subversive nature of the gospel stated that the cross represents the power, not of Rome but of God, not to kill but to save.

Paul: The Mind of the Apostle by A.N. Wilson

I gave this book up after 50 pages, having grown tired of passages like this:

“If readers of the New Testament choose to believe that Paul never set eyes on Jesus and that he had no psychological interest or compulsion to inspire him throughout the thirty years in which he preached Jesus Christ Crucified other than the testimony of the friends of Jesus, whom he had barely met, then that reader is entitled to his or her point of view.”

I understand that not all biographers of Biblical persons consider the Bible to be the authoritative word of God – but I’d prefer not to represented by a straw man. Only a reader of the New Testament who is determined to disbelieve it will assume Paul’s reason for believing was “the testimony of the friends of Jesus whom he had barely met.” Scripture plainly states in Acts 9 and 22 that Paul’s reason for his “obsession” with Jesus was a personal encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Call the Damascus road experience a hallucination if you like, but don’t pretend that the Bible gives no explanation for Paul’s zeal.

The Brothers Grimm: Wrap Up

I had grandiose plans of reading ALL of the Grimm’s fairy tales, but I’m awfully glad that I gave myself the out from the beginning. As it was, I read 22 of the tales and 14 picture book versions, listened to 1 audio retelling, and watched 2 video retellings. I posted reviews of the retellings – and have a half dozen half-written posts about the other tales I read.

I’ll post those someday – but for now, I’ll just list what I read:

Hansel and Gretel

I read and reviewed eight different picture book versions of this very famous tale.


I read and reviewed four different picture book versions and a video retelling of this familiar tale.

King Thrushbeard

I found only one picture book version of this fun Taming-of-the-Shrew-esque story. I’d like to see more.

The Frog Prince

No kissing! Yay! I read one picture book version, listened to an audio version, and watched a video retelling (that I didn’t like at all.)

Stories published elsewhere

So, those Disney stories I watched/read as a child? I think most of them are probably drawn more from Perrault’s French version of the stories. But I did read the Grimm’s versions of “Puss in Boots” and “Cinderella”.

Less-Familiar Princesses

“Maid Maleen”: a Sleeping-Beauty-like tale, except with more twists. “The Skillful Huntsman”: a modest man slays figurative dragons (actually giants and maybe a pig?) and wins the princess’s hand. “The Princess in Disguise”: a Cinderella-like tale, except with more twists (including a really yucky incestuous promise.)

Tailor Tales

I read two different tales about tailors (generally clever but rather self-important men). “The Gallant Tailor” aka “The Brave Little Tailor” aka “The Valiant Tailor” aka “Seven at One Blow” is the one I remember from childhood. But there is also “The Giant and the Tailor”.

Stories with Adult Themes

Infidelity and wife-beating. Not exactly great material for children’s stories. Preview these before you share them with your kids: “The Little Farmer”, “Sharing Joy and Sorrow”, and “Old Hildebrand”.

Gruesome Tales

You’ve been warned that the Grimm’s are GRIM and are eager to mine the depths of their gruesomeness? Try “Fitcher’s Bird” and “The Robber Bridegroom”.

Create-your-own Fairy Tales

A few of the tales seemed incomplete, like they’re just waiting to be made into an episode in a Shrek-like fairy tale amalgam. Wanna try your hand at it? Read “The Golden Key”, “Sweet Porridge”, and “The Old Beggar Woman”.

Thumbling Tales

Actually three different tales: “Tom Thumb”, “Tom Thumb’s Travels”, and “The Young Giant”.

Miscellaneous Tales

“The Nail”, a moral tale. “Jew among Thorns”, an anti-Semitic tale (uncomfortable). “Clever Gretel”, with a not-so-nice protagonist. “The Singing Bone”, a Cain and Abel type tale. “Fair Katrinelje and Pif-Paf-Poltrie”, an incomprehensible courting story. “The Elves”, a Christmas story. “The Goose-Girl”, a rather goosey all-too-compliant gal who gets the guy in the end anyway.

Thanks to everyone for reading along – don’t forget to go to Reading to Know to link up what you read and to read others’ thoughts on The Brothers Grimm.

The Brothers Grimm: The Frog Prince

I much prefer the Grimms version of “The Frog Prince” to whatever detestable variation resulted in the saying “You have to kiss a few toads before you find your prince.”

This story is (thankfully) not about playing the field, but about keeping promises.

No kissing involved.

The Frog Prince retold by Edith H. Tarcov, illustrated by James Marshall
A relatively faithful retelling of the story, written as a “level three” first reader (for 1st and 2nd grades). The large print and relatively simple sentence structures make it easier for children to read – but this still includes an abundance of words and parts of speech. I enjoyed the little rhymes the frog says. I did NOT enjoy James Marshall’s illustrations, which were cartoonish (all the people reminded me of Alice from Dilbert.)

The Frog Prince by Jan Callner (Audio)
An audio retelling of the classic tale, with a full cast of characters and accompanying songs. There are some embellishments to the story, but most of them are positive developments (showing the princess’s evolution from self-centered brat to friend, for example). Also, there were a few amusing bits – after the fairy godmother exclaims her displeasure at not being invited to the Prince’s party, the narrator asks “Do you know what she did?” and answers “She destabilized the entire geopolitical balance of the region – that is, she turned the prince into a frog”. On the other hand, the songs drove me absolutely NUTS – or at least they would if I had to listen to them more than once. Overall, I won’t be listening again.

The Tale of the Frog Prince from Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre (DVD)
Having been rather disappointed in Shelley Duvall’s version of “Rumplestiltskin”, I was prepared for her “The Tale of the Frog Prince” to be less than stellar. Except that I couldn’t help notice that these were different actors – Robin Williams is the frog, and the back of the DVD case has accolades from the New York Times. I let my hopes rise.

The opening scene, where a narrator introduces the plight of a poor king and queen who couldn’t have a child, raised my hopes further – only to let them be immediately dashed when said king and queen begin harranguing one another.

From there? Well, lots of angry yelling, lots of name-calling, lots of innuendo. Yep, that’s right – all sorts of innuendo.

And a kiss. Of course, a kiss.

I wasn’t a fan. Obviously.

The Brothers Grimm: King Thrushbeard

An unfamiliar tale, “King Thrushbeard” tells the story of a beautiful princess who is less than beautiful inside. She has many suitors, all of whom she turns away with mocking. One such is a king with an pointy jaw, whom the princess mocks as “King Thrushbeard”. In his anger at his daughter’s refusing all her suitors, the princess’s father vows to give her in marriage to the next beggar that comes knocking at the castle door.

And so he does.

This particular story reminds me a lot of “The Taming of the Shrew” – in which a proud and sarcastic woman is tamed by an uncouth husband (although with a bit less spousal abuse!). I would love to see this story retold more frequently.

King Thrushbeard illustrated by Felix Hoffman

This is the only retelling my library had of this tale – and it’s a quite faithful retelling. The illustrations are nice but not amazing – the people are quite angular and their garments are an odd mix of Renaissance-style tunics and jerkins and 1920’s cut flapper dresses. It’s really quite odd. However, since I like this tale so much, I think it’s worth tracking down a copy (even if the illustrations are odd).

The Brothers Grimm: Hansel and Gretel

The tale of Hansel and Gretel is one of the more familiar of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Prior to actually reading the tale, I knew that the children were left in the woods, couldn’t follow their trail of breadcrumbs home, discovered a gingerbread house occupied by a witch who intended to eat them, and ended up locking the witch in her own oven.

What I didn’t know was the level of detail found in the original story (or stories). The children were left in the woods at the urging of their mother (stepmother?) who feared there wasn’t enough for the whole family to eat. The children found their way home by way of dropped moonstones. The first time they were left in the woods, Hansel tricked the witch into thinking he wasn’t gaining weight by giving her the same old animal bone to feel when she came to check his finger for fatness. After they were free of the witch, the children were carried across a pond by a kind duck (what?) They arrived home at last to find their mother (stepmother?) dead.

It was fun to see how different translators and retellers tell this story, and how different illustrators illustrate it. It is certainly a dark tale – but each version has its bright moments.

Hansel and Gretel illustrated by Sybille Schenker, text edited by Martin West

Visually, this book is gorgeous. You can recognize it by its black cover sewn together with orange thread. The illustrations are typically black and white with stark contrasts – but with great depth thanks to a multitude of vellum overlays layering page upon page upon page. The illustrations are beautiful, but creepy. The text is fairly detailed, but translational choices emphasized the relationship between brother and sister – and decreased the forboding nature of their abandonment by having the stepmother (as opposed to the mother) doing the convincing and then the actual abandoning (the father is apparently there, but it is stepmom who marches the children into the woods and tells them that their father and she will return for them – which, of course, doesn’t happen.)

Hansel and Gretel illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, retold by Rika Lesser
This book received the Caldecott Honor in 1985 (it’s as old as me!) for Zelinsky’s beautiful illustrations. I wish I knew enough about art history to be able to place them in some artistic school – but I’ve seen paintings in this style in museums. They are perfectly suited to the tale and to the historical setting of the tale. The story is told well, with lots of dialogue between characters. Interestingly, about half of the book addresses the period before the children found the gingerbread house.

Hansel and Gretel retold by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti
A relatively wordy version for slightly older children, this retelling increases the spook factor rather than playing it down. Trees claw at the children in a forboding manner; the old woman (never named as a witch) tells the children that she hopes their arrival heralds the coming of meat to her kitchen again. The additions to the story fleshed it out but didn’t feel contrived or moralistic like some of the other versions (that I didn’t like so much.) Mattotti’s illustrations are stark, black and white with lots of tangled branches and the occasional eye poking out. The people are the clearest of all the forms, but even they are merely black outlines against a white splash of light. The illustrations and story alternate with each double page spread, making this a better choice for reading to oneself than for reading aloud (since you can’t look at the pictures while someone else is reading.)

The Cookie House by Margaret Hillert, illustrated by Kinuko Craft
This is unique among the retellings because it is a first reader, with just 59 words. The text primarily consists of Hansel and Gretel’s thoughts as the events of the tale occur: “Mother is not here. Father is not here. I do not like this.” This leaves the illustrations to tell the story – which they do quite well. As with all first readers, this is a book best read by a child (since it doesn’t have the rich text that makes parental read-alouds so beneficial) – but it really is a nice version of the Grimms’ story. I can certainly see a child reading it to her parent and then having dialogue about what was happening in the pictures (to flesh out the story).

Hansel and Gretel illustrated by Susan Jeffers, retold by Amy Ehrlich
A straightforward retelling of the story – with one new-to-me detail: a white bird led the children to the witch’s gingerbread cottage. The stepmother is often referred to as “the woman”, helping to make the betrayal a little less personal. Illustrator Susan Jeffers has two different illustration styles (it seems to me). The woodland pictures are in great detail, with individual leaves on the trees and lots of lovely wildlife. The indoor pictures and those prominently featuring people seem to be almost in the style of American Country Crafts (you know, the kind from the ’80s and ’90s, round faced dolls with peat moss hair and painted on cheek circles?) This wasn’t a bad picture book, but it’s not my favorite either.

Nibble, Nibble Mousekin retold and illustrated by John Walsh Anglund
A quite wordy version with lots of text on each page and a fair bit of extraneous description. This one has Hansel fill his pockets with stones on the mere suspicion of his stepmother’s wickedness, without having overheard her plan (in fact, she never shares the plan with the father – thereby freeing him from the guilt of weakness.) Furthermore, the stepmother runs away rather than dies, leaving the children and their father to enjoy each other in the end. The illustrations alternated between color and black and white on every other two-page spread. The children remind me of Precious Moments dolls – but the rest of the illustration is different enough that it’s only a passing reminder. I generally prefer the more faithful retellings found above.

Hansel and Gretel retold and illustrated by James Marshall

The retelling was neither bad nor spectacular – but the cartoon-like illustrations didn’t really suit my fancy. My library also had a video version of this, in which the illustrations are lightly animated (the stepmother is always munching something). While the generally very story-book like manner was appealing (that is, a narrator read the story while each page was shown on screen versus the flash-from-one-scene-to-another-very-quickly nature of typical cartoons), I still wasn’t impressed with the storytelling or the illustrations.

Hansel and Gretel retold by Cynthia Rylant, pictures by Jen Corace
Generally speaking, the retellings of “Hansel and Gretel” have been faithful to the extent that my commentary has focused on omissions or on illustrations. This retelling is an exception, for while the illustrations are interesting, what stands out is what Rylant has chosen to ADD to the story – explanations. She explains the stepmother’s selfishness, explains the father’s weakness, and explains the moral she wants children to derive from the story.

“It has been said that guardian spirits watch over and protect small children, and that may be so. But there are also stories of children who find the courage to protect themselves.”

“Perhaps this is when guardian spirits finally intervene, when small children have already been so brave.”

I would much prefer that retellers keep to the story and let parents and children talk about what the story means. In this case, I am all for children being brave – but I want my children to know the bravery that comes from complete reliance on the Holy Spirit, who intervenes when we can do nothing, granting us supernaturally a spirit of “power and of love and of a sound mind”.

So this is one retelling I don’t recommend.

C.S. Lewis to Bloggers

In his masterful turn-the-world-upside-down book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has his diabolical character Screwtape write the following:

“It remains to consider how we can retrieve this disaster. The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert [his conviction and subsequent remorse] into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it; that is often an excellent way of sterilising the seeds which the Enemy plants in a human soul. Let him do anything but act.”

I felt the sting as I read.

But will I convert the conviction of the Lord into obedience?

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”

~James 1:22-25 (ESV)