Category Archives: Non-fiction

The True Crime book Harper Lee never finished

Author Casey Cep writes about a true crime story Harper Lee could not complete. “Harper Lee always said that she was ‘intrigued with crime.’ She grew up surrounded by stacks of the magazine True Detective Mysteries, cut her teeth on Sherlock Holmes, watched trials from the balcony of the local courthouse as a kid, and studied criminal law at the University of Alabama.”

The story of Reverend Willie Maxwell, a man accused but not convicted of murdering and collecting death benefits from five family members, was as compelling as any story Lee had grown up with. But she could not pull it together. Perhaps the characters were too much larger than life.

Part of why true crime stories are so appealing is that they force us to confront the limits of what can be known, and eliding those limits, whether by fabricating motives or means or inventing someone’s inner life, doesn’t just cross the boundary between fiction and nonfiction; it transgresses something deeper.

For His Lovingkindness Endures Forever

A great way to remember the Lord’s work in your life is to write down your prayers and experiences. My pastor has recommended a mementos box to remind you of the stories of God’s faithfulness. Others have recommended keep a diary. I know a ministry leader who has filled up dozens of journals with daily devotions, prayers, and their answers.

World News Group reports on a great-grandmother, Ernesta Wood, who has been writing letters for many years.

Wood’s home displays photos of her 53 descendants, nearly all Christians. Once a week for the past 16 years, she has sent them letters—777 in all, as of July 1—filled with stories. Some are dramatic: Her blind grandmother miraculously saw Wood’s grandfather minutes before he died. Other stories cultivate a sense of God’s presence in less dramatic moments: Once, her parents’ pet birds escaped but returned to their cage before dark, just as her mother had prayed.

How Landing on the Moon Changed Us

We once thought nothing was in the heavens, at least nothing like what we saw around us. We didn’t see the moon as a destination of any kind. Joseph Bottum says that began to change after the Renaissance. Authors used the moon as a metaphor for their own commentary for a while; later sci-fi authors explored how we could get there and who might meet us. Before the moon landing, authors told new stories of an uninhabited moon.

But after the 1969 moon landing, the expectation shifted again—to the notion that now we would see a rapid expansion of human settlement out into the solar system. The moon would be a pawn in interplanetary politics, a hostage in the fight between such dominant powers as Mars and the moons of Saturn.  . . . That space mission 50 years ago—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin moonwalking on July 20, 1969—felt to science-fiction writers mostly a precursor, a first step, to the planets beyond. 

Image by Ponciano from Pixabay

‘The Far Traveler,’ by Nancy Marie Brown

The 1,000 square-foot sail, requiring almost a million feet of thread, took two women four and a half years to make. It used the wool of more than 200 sheep, each sheep the size of a large dog and yielding two to four pounds of wool.

I resisted reading Nancy Marie Brown’s The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, because I generally avoid the whole matter of Viking women. The field is too fraught with politics. But I’ve come to trust Nancy Marie Brown, who, even when I disagree with her, seems to be a solid (and, as we see in this book, highly industrious) scholar with a fair mind. And I’m glad I read this one. It was an enjoyable and informative work. I learned stuff.

Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir is a figure of particular interest in the Icelandic sagas. Widow of Leif Eriksson’s brother Thorstein and wife of Thorfinn Karlsefni, who led the most ambitious attempt to establish a Norse colony in Vinland, she outlived three husbands and ended up becoming a nun and making a pilgrimage to Rome. Thus she was best-traveled woman in the Viking world, and possibly in the world at large. Though she seems a subsidiary character in the sagas, author Brown believes, based on saga hints and a deep understanding of Norse culture, that she played a more decisive role than has been thought.

This book would be much shorter than it is if it had not been extended – or rather enriched – by the author’s thoroughgoing efforts to enter profoundly into Gudrid’s world. In that capacity she spends time in museums and archives, travels far in Gudrid’s footsteps, and does backbreaking labor on an archaeological dig in Iceland. It makes for fascinating reading, and the reader learns a whole lot at her expense.

I enjoyed The Far Traveler, and highly recommend it. I was particularly pleased when she demolished the judgment of Jared Diamond on the Greenlanders in one of his books, and when she explained positive reasons why Christianity appealed to so many Viking women, in spite of all the “superior” rights we’re always told they enjoyed under the old religion.

A good  book, which every Viking buff ought to read.

‘The Holy Island of Lindisfarne,’ by David Adam

[Bishop] Aidan was deeply moved by such generosity, and, taking hold of the open hand of [King] Oswald, said, ‘May this hand never wither with age.’

Not long afterwards, aged only 38, Oswald was killed in the battle of Maserfeld….

This is the book I mentioned reading the other day, about the island of Lindisfarne, renowned both in religious and secular history as a center of early English Christianity and the site of [supposedly] the first Scandinavian raid of the Viking Age.

The author, David Adam, is an English clergyman and for 13 years served as vicar of the church at Lindisfarne. As such, he brings a wealth of personal experience to this work, making The Holy Island of Lindisfarne rather a subjective book.

Beginning in the heroic age of British resistance (what we call the Arthurian Age, though Adam doesn’t mention that), we learn how the heathen Saxon invader, King Oswald, applied to the Irish church for a bishop. This led eventually to the establishment of an episcopal seat on the mystical island of Lindisfarne, which is connected to the mainland by a causeway, but is fully an island twice a day. Author Adam goes on to tell of the community’s ups and downs through history, illuminating the historical facts with his own personal experience of the place. It’s quite a charming account.

As a pure work of history, I think The Holy Island of Lindisfarne probably falls short of the mark. But as a virtual tour, it’s excellent. You’ll want to visit the place. The author isn’t embarrassed to draw spiritual lessons now and then too.

Recommended.

Death Levels Us All

Matthew McCullough’s recent book on death was featured last week in World Magazine’s Saturday series. It’s not a subject I like to think about, perhaps because I like to imagine I’m above it just as he says here:

The reality of death is profoundly humbling. It tells me that I’m not indispensable. It assures me I will be forgotten. And so death boots me from my self-appointed place at the center of the universe. But learning to recognize death’s challenge to my subconscious narcissism also raises haunting questions about who I am. It isn’t just that death is humbling. It can also be profoundly disorienting.

Most of us would probably agree that a reality check is a generally a good thing. No one likes a narcissist. Wouldn’t it be better for all of us if none of us saw himself as more important than everyone else? If death puts us in our place, that’s ultimately healthy, right?


Yes … but. Death’s challenge actually pushes even deeper. Death’s statement does more than put us in our place. It also raises questions about where our place actually is.

Write History as You Would Want to Be Written About

If only all history teachers would take a Golden Rule approach as Yale professor Mark A. Peterson does. It would revive history as a viable college major. (via John Wilson)

“If you take seriously the moral reality of historical subjects as equal to your own and write about them with the respect they deserve, I think that is a valuable skill in terms of how you conduct yourself in your daily life,” says Peterson. “In that regard, I see a serious engagement with the humanities as the most essential thing that anyone can pursue in college. Even subjects that we don’t always associate with ‘the humanities’ such as engineering, computer science, and chemistry deserve the kind of scrutiny that humanistic thinking teaches, the capacity to imagine and interrogate how the discoveries we make and the things we invent will shape the lives, for better or worse, of real human beings like ourselves, our fellow inhabitants of humanity’s only planet.”

Sub-creators

A snippet from Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter.

This is from his account of the long night’s conversation among Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Hugo Dyson at Oxford in 1931, which bore fruit a few days later in Lewis’s conversion. It’s tremendously important.

We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil….

Lewis listened as Dyson affirmed in his own way what Tolkien had said. You mean, asked Lewis, that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened? In that case, he said, I begin to understand.

‘Tolkien: a Biography,’ by Humphrey Carpenter

During the war he had said to Christopher: ‘We are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring’ and now he wrote: ‘The War is not over (and the one that is, or part of it, has largely been lost). But it is of course wrong to fall into such a mood, for Wars are always lost, and The War always goes on, and it is no good growing faint.’

The trailers for the new Tolkien movie looked kind of good, so I figured I might go to see it. It seemed to me it would be a good idea to read a Tolkien biography before I did that. And although I’m now hearing that the movie leaves out Tolkien’s Catholic faith – which means I probably won’t see it after all – I’m glad I bought Humphrey Carpenter’s Tolkien: A Biography.

The book is easy to read and not too long. It follows “Toller’s” life from his birth in South Africa to his death in England, and the author is clearly a sympathetic fan – though he is often amused by Tolkien’s eccentricities. Which were many.

This is, I believe, the classic Tolkien biography, and it’s fairly old now. I expect there are new things to be learned from more recent ones. I noted, for instance, that Carpenter speaks of “Jack” Lewis’s transfer to Cambridge University only in passing, as a step backwards in the two men’s friendship. While that’s true enough, it should have been noted that it was through the good offices of Tolkien himself that Jack got the job.

But, reading as a fan, I found Tolkien: A Biography fascinating. I recommend it highly.

‘The Saga of a Supercargo,’ by Fullerton Waldo

A little while ago Dale Nelson, a friend of mine, sent me a book he thought might interest me. It was an old work called The Saga of a Supercargo, by the now-forgotten author Fullerton Waldo, copyright 1926. It’s an account of a tramp steamer voyage from Philadelphia to Greenland, on which Waldo served as a “supercargo” (a representative of the ship’s owners with supervisory duties). Dale thought I might enjoy it for its descriptions of Greenland. I did – more than I expected, actually – though I wish I’d read it before I wrote West Oversea.

At the time, Greenland (a protectorate of Denmark) was embargoed to foreign trade – in order to protect the native Inuit (here called Eskimos, of course) from exploitation and disease. However, Greenland had one export product – the mineral cryolite (which Waldo spells kryolith), used in various industrial applications, mostly for cleaning. The Pennsylvania Salt Company had a license to receive part of the island’s cryolite production each year, to help defray the costs of the colony to the Danish crown. The P.S.C.’s ships were the only non-Danish ships permitted in Greenland, and Waldo, as a writer, was interested to document the voyage.

It’s a lively account. Waldo recounts the stormy voyages to and from Greenland (no wonder the Vikings didn’t do it more), and the frontier conditions in which a small colony of Danish officials, mining engineers, and laborers made a life in a frontier setting, often in dangerous conditions. Inuit life is described in amusing detail. Forecasts said that the cryolite deposit would run out in a few years, and then all this would end.

Waldo was a pretty good writer. He writes as an author of his time – his writing is a little more flowery than what we’re used to today, but unlike many older writers, he uses the flowery language well, and doesn’t overdo it. It illuminates his meaning. I found it an interesting study in style. I also enjoyed his sharp character sketches of his fellow crewmen – mostly Norwegians.

This book is, apparently, fairly rare, and the facsimile on sale at Amazon isn’t cheap. But if you run across it and find the subject interesting, it’s well worth reading.

The Curious Christian, by Barnabas Piper

I remember a relative in the family of one of my college friends telling me about his bright young son (maybe grandson) before going to school. He was inquisitive about everything and was encouraged to love learning. But after a year in first grade he shut down; he didn’t ask questions or chat about his observations anymore. His father (or grandfather) blamed it entirely on the school system, took the boy out, and taught him at home. I think he said it took a few months for the little guy to regain his curiosity. A nurturing environment was all he needed.

I remembered this story while reading Barnabas Piper’s book, The Curious Christian: How Discovering Wonder Enriches Every Part of Life. His premise is as simple as that subtitle. We need curiosity in our lives to worship the Lord fully, engage our world courageously, and live together as God directs. We may call it by another name: invention, devotion, problem solving, hospitality, or even perseverance; Piper draws all of those things together into curiosity. That’s what we need.

By having curious minds we will take interest in others and in the culture around us. We will share stories and listen to others share theirs. Too many of us believe we have resolved the answers to the big questions and fear the answers or exploration others have found if they differ significantly from our understanding. Our school system presses us into this mold: know what’s being graded and repeat that answer for the test. If you ask too many questions (particularly the wrong sort of questions), you’ll get shamed or possibly kicked out.

From behind our overprotective hedge, we don’t have anything like this passage in mind:

All of creation resonates with God’s voice, sometimes only as echoes faint, distant, and indistinct. It reflects Him in some way, blurry or clear. Nothing exists that was not created by God and sustained by God. Sustained means that every day He keeps it existing. We have a hard time imagining the opposite of this, so we take it for granted. But without God’s sustaining power, we would cease to exist. We would not fall down dead. We would not crumble into dust or ashes. We would not melt like wax. We would be erased, all of our matter simply gone. Just as God spoke the world into existence–out of nothing, a total void–with His word, so He keeps it in existence daily with His word. And so the world continues to bear God’s mark and echo His divine voice.

Piper encourages us to lean into God’s mark on the world by asking questions and taking an interest in what’s around us. How is the Holy Spirit active in our community? What new avenues can we take in love, joy, peace, and the rest that will worship our Lord more wholeheartedly and love our neighbor more selflessly?

This review may come too late in the season, but I think The Curious Christian would make a great graduation gift. It’s a short, well-written book that could light a fire under people who feel a little hemmed in by undefinable cords. Its message is easily one of those that seem obvious at first blush but need to be repeated and applied in various ways to truly stick. It’s easy, enjoyable reading, though it could be improved by adding some stories.

Christ Jesus, A New Hero

“Christ’s death on the cross offered healing to billions over the past 2,000 years—and it also inaugurated a different kind of storytelling. The hero no longer had to be a Hercules whose strength moved huge stones. He could be one who gave his life for another—and then God would roll away the stone. “

World News Group’s Marvin Olasky wonders how many stories have been inspired by the life of Christ. I’d say, not so many that thousands more wouldn’t be welcome.

The Vikings: From Odin to Christ, by M. & H. Whittock

The voluntary nature of the Scandinavian conversion – in Denmark and Sweden at least – seems to have led to communities feeling that they did not need to significantly alter their artistic communication or abandon their traditional culture in order to be good Christians.

C. S. Lewis writes somewhere that one of the best methods of evangelism would be for Christians, not to produce more “Christian” work, but to simply do better work as Christians. From my perspective as an amateur historian, I would say that Martyn and Hannah Whittock (father and daughter) have produced superior historical work in producing The Vikings: From Odin to Christ, published by Lion Books, a Christian publisher.

It’s weird for a guy like me, a promoter of the historical value of the Icelandic sagas, to say, but there’s good reason to believe that the story of the conversion of the Vikings, as presented in the sagas, may be misleading. The Whittocks point out – and somehow I’d missed this – that there is little report of violence in the conversions of Denmark and Sweden. Only in Norway, where saga writers had political motivation to glamorize Olaf Haraldsson as Norway’s national hero and saint, do we have stories of torture and threats of death.

It may be true that Olaf was a bloody-handed tyrant (I believe that). But his work may not have been as influential in the conversion as the sagas suggest. There’s good reason to think that the earlier Christian king, Haakon the Good, who gets short shrift in the sagas, may have been a far more effective missionary than history remembers.

This harmonizes with things I’ve been saying in my lectures for some time. Now, having read the Whittocks’ book, I have more ammunition for those arguments.

I’m also delighted that the Whittocks have very clearly read Bishop Fridtjof Birkeli’s untranslated book, Tolf Vintrer Hadde Kristendommen Vært i Norge (which Anders Winroth, for all his expertise, overlooks entirely in his book on the conversion of Scandinavia). I’m delighted that Birkeli’s important ideas, largely unknown to English readers till now, are being conveyed through this book.

The Vikings: From Odin to Christ covers a lot more than the conversion of Norway, of course. We start with a historical overview, then examine each Scandinavian country in turn, followed by various regions that the Vikings colonized. I have a couple minor quibbles – at one point they suggest St. Olaf’s opposition was motivated by heathenry, but they correct that later on.

I haven’t found a history book a page-turner in a long time. The Vikings: From Odin to Christ kept me turning the pages. I recommend it highly.

Serious Preaching in a Comedy Culture

Dr. David P. Murray worries that preachers joke around in the pulpit too much.

Since coming to North America, I’ve preached in a number of different churches. A few times I’ve been taken aback by laughter in response to something I’ve said in my sermon. The first time it happened, I froze on the spot. I could hardly go on. I was stunned. In Scotland, I never cracked a joke in the pulpit. It would not even cross my mind to try to make people laugh. That was just not done in most Reformed churches. Yet, now, the same words, said in the same way, create laughter!

A few months ago I heard a well-known preacher give an address on a very serious subject to a large conference. He started by speaking of his own sinful inadequacy. But as he confessed his sinfulness, laughter erupted. The speaker was startled. He tried again. The result was the same. He eventually said that he could not understand the reaction, abandoned his introduction, and just got started on his address.

In some ways, none of this should surprise us. We live in a comedy-saturated culture. . . .

He notes some preachers are naturally light-hearted and will present their subject more humorously than others will, but comedy as a means of crowd-pleasing should be avoided. Preaching, he says, should be serious.

This is not an argument for dull, boring, predictable, unimaginative or lethargic preaching. Preaching should be energetic, lively, interesting, creative and joyful. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that ‘a dull preacher is a contradiction in terms; if he is dull he is not a preacher. He may stand in a pulpit and talk, but he is certainly not a preacher.’

‘Song of the Vikings,’ by Nancy Marie Brown

The famous phrase, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” was inspired by this book [Heimskringla]: Snorri is indeed a deft biographer.


Any Viking aficionado can’t help being aware of Snorri Sturluson, the Icelandic chieftain who penned Heimskringla, the sagas of the Norwegian kings, and the Prose Edda, which tells us almost everything we know about Norse mythology. He is an essential figure in the lore – Tom Shippey called him “the most influential writer of the Middle Ages.”

And yet, although he has a saga we can read, most of us don’t know a lot about his life (the saga is rather sad and bloody, and was written by a relation who disliked him. I confess I haven’t read it). So Nancy Marie Brown, who wrote Ivory Vikings, which I reviewed not long ago, has done us a service by writing his biography for a modern audience in Song of the Vikings.

Song of the Vikings follows Snorri’s life story, and integrates it with commentary on his important works (some of the attributions have been questioned, but Brown seems to accept them). Thus we get insight on the events of his life through considering the things he wrote that appear to have been informed by them. For instance, the content of Heimskringla bears witness to Snorri’s ambivalent attitude toward the institution of kingship – he was somewhat star-struck by kings (and may have collaborated to subvert the Icelandic republic for a Norwegian king), but he had bitter experience of royal capriciousness. His narrative of Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, may relate to some bad years Iceland suffered following devastating volcanic eruptions, and also the violence that accompanied the breakdown of his own (somewhat cynical) schemes to make himself “the uncrowned king of Iceland.”

The book begins with an anecdote about J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and we learn much about the amazing influence of Snorri’s work throughout the world’s literature and art – for better and worse. This is all the more remarkable because his books weren’t even known outside Iceland until around the beginning of the 17th Century.

I was very impressed by Song of the Vikings. Any reader interested in Norse history or myth will gain many new insights. Author Brown is a good writer and an impressive scholar. I recommend this book.