Category: Christian Classics

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Volume 1 and Volume 2, by Mark Twain (American classic)

“Regarded by many as the most luminous example of Twain’s work, this historical novel chronicles the French heroine’s life, as purportedly told by her longtime friend—Sieur Louis de Conté. A panorama of stirring scenes recount Joan’s childhood in Domremy, the story of her voices, the fight for Orleans, the splendid march to Rheims, and much more. An amazing record that disclosed Twain’s unrestrained admiration for Joan’s nobility of character, the book is matchless in its workmanship—one of Twain’s lesser-known novels that will charm and delightfully surprise his admirers and devotees.”


Joan of Arc’s fascinating holy life, combined with Mark Twain’s superb storytelling, make Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc the most compelling, uplifting novel I’ve read in a while. With this novel, Twain accomplishes what I believe is a difficult, if almost impossible, feat for an author—he makes a holy person both believable and accessible. At the other end of the spectrum, his evil characters are also just as real and believable—horrifyingly so.  Moreover, all of his characters, both fictional and historic, are unique and interesting. With his phenomenal insight into human character, Twain helped me understand how so many real people—both commoners and aristocrats—could have believed that a seventeen-year-old peasant girl had been visited by angels and called of God to deliver France from English bondage.  Continue reading

The Return of the King

The Return of the King

The Return of the King

The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien (fantasy)

“The Companions of the Ring have become involved in separate adventures as the quest continues. Aragorn, revealed as the hidden heir of the ancient Kings of the West, joined with the Riders of Rohan against the forces of Isengard, and took part in the desperate victory of the Hornburg. Merry and Pippin, captured by Orcs, escaped into Fangorn Forest and there encountered the Ents. Gandalf returned, miraculously, and defeated the evil wizard, Saruman.

“Meanwhile, Sam and Frodo progressed towards Mordor to destroy the Ring, accompanied by Smeagol—Gollum, still obsessed by his ‘precious’. After a battle with the giant spider, Shelob, Sam left his master for dead; but Frodo is still alive—in the hands of the Orcs. And all the time the armies of the Dark Lord are massing.”


As the armies of the Dark Lord amass, Denethor, the Lord and Steward of Minas Tirith, works to prepare his people for battle. In the first chapter of this volume, one of the soldiers of Gondor says this about Denethor and his captains:

‘They have many ways of gathering news. And the Lord Denethor is unlike other men: he sees far. Some say that as he sits alone in his high chamber in the Tower at night, and bends his thought this way and that, he can read somewhat of the future; and that he will at times search even the mind of the Enemy, wrestling with him. And so it is that he is old, worn before his time.’

Denethor sends his son Faramir on a hopeless mission to fortify the garrison on the river, where the first assault will fall. Faramir and his men are forced to retreat. While doing so, Faramir is shot with a poisonous dart and is carried, unconscious, to his father. At this point, Minas Tirith is besieged and surrounded by enemies. Denethor sits with his almost-dead son, so consumed by grief, guilt, and despair that he no longer cares about defending the city. When Denethor commands his servants to burn Faramir and him alive on a funeral pyre, the hobbit Pippin realizes that Denethor’s mind is overthrown before the city is overrun and goes for help. Continue reading

The Two Towers

The Two Towers

The Two Towers

The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien (fantasy)

“Frodo and his Companions of the Ring have been beset by danger during their quest to prevent the Ruling Ring from falling into the hands of the Dark Lord by destroying it in the Cracks of Doom. They have lost the wizard, Gandalf, in a battle in the Mines of Moria. And Boromir, seduced by the power of the Ring, tried to seize it by force. While Frodo and Sam made their escape, the rest of the company was attacked by Orcs.

“Now they continue the journey alone down the great River Anduin—alone, that is, save for the mysterious creeping figure that follows wherever they go.”


The Two Towers begins with the death of Boromir and the capture of Merry and Pippin, two hobbits who are the kinsmen of Frodo. The remaining members of the fellowship—Aragorn a Man, Legolas an Elf, and Gimli a Dwarf—set off across the plains of the country Rohan—also known as the Riddermark—in pursuit of the Orcs who captured Merry and Pippin. Several days into their journey, they encounter Éomer, the nephew of the king, and the men of his household, who have been in pursuit of the Orcs on horseback. Aragorn declares his kingly lineage, shows his famous sword, and explains that he is searching for “Halflings,” which are creatures of legend to the Men of Rohan. Éomer responds with this observation:

‘All that you say is strange, Aragorn. . . . Yet you speak the truth, that is plain: the Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived. But you have not told all. Will you not now speak more fully of your errand, so that I may judge what to do?’ (Book 3, Chapter 2)

This has always been my very favorite quotation from The Lord of the Rings. It contradicts conventional wisdom, and yet I believe that it’s true—or if it isn’t true in the case of every honest person, it should be true. The question then becomes: Why is it true? Continue reading

The Fellowship of the Ring

The Fellowship of the Ring

The Fellowship of the Ring

The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien (fantasy)

“In ancient times the Rings of Power were crafted by the Elven-smiths, and Sauron, the Dark Lord, forged the One Ring, filling it with his own power so that he could rule all others. But the One Ring was taken from him, and though he sought it throughout Middle-earth, it remained lost to him. After many ages it fell into the hands of Bilbo Baggins, as told in The Hobbit.

“In a sleepy village in the Shire, young Frodo Baggins finds himself faced with an immense task, as his elderly cousin Bilbo entrusts the Ring to his care. Frodo must leave his home and make a perilous journey across Middle-earth to the Cracks of Doom, there to destroy the Ring and foil the Dark Lord in his evil purpose.”


We are told in the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring that Saruman the White is the most powerful of the wizards in Middle-earth and trusted by wizards and Elves as a wise, formidable enemy to Sauron, the Dark Lord. When Gandalf the Grey goes to Saruman for help, he learns that Saruman is no longer working to destroy Sauron but to supplant him and has, therefore, become a traitor. Here is a piece of this conversation as Gandalf tells it in Book 2, Chapter 2:

“‘For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!”

‘I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.

“‘I liked white better,” I said.

“‘White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning, White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“‘In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

Saruman believes that his new clothing is more beautiful than the original white. The change in his clothing, of course, parallels his personal transformation. Saruman started out good but after delving too much into the works of the enemy, he became the enemy. As the conversation continues, Gandalf sees that Saruman doesn’t realize that he’s following a familiar pattern. He thinks he’s becoming independent, not evil.

Saruman has created a fabric that looks like white at first glance but isn’t. Even Gandalf doesn’t discern the true color of the fabric until he looks closely at it. When he does finally make this observation, he is able to do so because he knows what true white really looks like. Making that distinction is not an easy task. White pigment with a drop of another color looks like white, but it isn’t. Discerning the true nature of a color that looks like white would be impossible unless the observer has a firm image in his or her mind of what true white really looks like. Continue reading

Mirrors of George MacDonald

When we gaze into our own “fairyland of the soul,” what do we see? Do those lovely scenes reflect the glamour of the world or the glory of Zion? The illusions of Satan or the visions of God?


Phantastes

Phantastes

Why are all reflections lovelier than what we call the reality?—not so grand or so strong, it may be, but always lovelier? Fair as is the gliding sloop on the shining sea, the wavering, trembling, unresting sail below is fairer still. Yea, the reflecting ocean itself, reflected in the mirror, has a wondrousness about its waters that somewhat vanishes when I turn towards itself. All mirrors are magic mirrors. The commonest room is a room in a poem when I turn to the glass. . . . Even the memories of past pain are beautiful; and past delights, though beheld only through clefts in the grey clouds of sorrow, are lovely as Fairy Land. But how have I wandered into the deeper fairyland of the soul, while as yet I only float towards the fairy palace of Fairy Land! The moon, which is the lovelier memory or reflex of the down-gone sun, the joyous day seen in the faint mirror of the brooding night, had rapt me away. (Phantastes, by George MacDonald, Chapter 10)

Continue reading

Phantastes

Phantastes

Phantastes

Phantastes, by George MacDonald (classic fantasy)

“First published in London in 1858, this adult fantasy novel follows Anodos, a man who searches for his ideal of female beauty in a dream-like world. Anodos has many adventures and faces many temptations in this fairyland, from tree spirit confrontations to a long trek to the palace of the fairy queen, where he eventually meets the Marble Lady. MacDonald would later astonish and influence writers such as C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and W. H. Auden, who saw in this work the successful embodiment of the depth and meaning of our inner, spiritual world. The poignancy of ‘Phantastes’ lies in its representation of a spiritual quest, one in which ideals are compromised, and the ultimate surrender of the self brings both overflowing joy and profound sadness.”


The women in my book group wanted to try something written by George MacDonald, so I recommended “The Light Princess,” thinking they would like that one better than Lilith, which is quite strange in a way I wasn’t sure the other members of the group would appreciate. After I re-read “The Light Princess,” I decided to try Phantastes. Phantastes isn’t a long novel, but it took me several weeks to get through it. Part of that was because the plot structure was episodic, lacking a strong narrative drive, but more than anything, George MacDonald simply isn’t a writer one can read fast. His work, like poetry, demands to be savored.

In Phantastes, Anodos is on a quest to yield to the “enticings of the Holy Spirit” and put off “the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord.” (Book of Mormon, Mosiah 3:19) The apostle Paul describes this spiritual rebirth with these words: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (2 Cor 5:17) MacDonald creatively describes the final stages of this process in Chapter 22: Continue reading

The Mansion and The Story of the Other Wise Man

The Mansion

The Mansion

The Mansion,” by Henry Van Dyke (American classic, story)

“John Weightman wanted the best of everything. He surrounded himself with beauty and riches, and was very careful with how he spent his money. ‘No pennies in beggars’ hats,’ he liked to say. Until one night he dreamed that he died . . .

“Finding himself with a group of travelers dressed in white, John joins them on their journey to the Celestial City where each individual will be rewarded with a mansion based on treasures set aside. Thinking that his mansion will be the most grand, John Weightman learns what it truly means to lay up treasures in heaven.”

The Story of the Other Wise Man,” by Henry Van Dyke (American classic, story)

“Long, long ago, a wise man named Artaban, a priest of the Magi, discerned from heavenly signs that the time was at hand for the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy—the birth among the Hebrews of a holy Prince and Deliverer of Man. Hastening to join three fellow Magi for the long journey into Judaea, he paused to help a dying man and was left behind. And so Artaban began his pilgrimage alone, striking out not toward the realization of his life’s deepest longing, as he hoped, but only toward misfortune and suffering. Or so he believed until one blessed, radiant moment.”


These two classic Christmas stories illuminate the human progression from goodness to righteousness to holiness. Continue reading

The Idiot and Daystar

The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Russian classic)

“. . . a saintly man, Prince Myshkin, is thrust into the heart of a society more concerned with wealth, power and sexual conquest than with the ideals of Christianity. Myshkin soon finds himself at the center of a violent love triangle in which a notorious woman and a beautiful young girl become rivals for his affections.”

Daystar, by Kathy Tyers (Evangelical science fiction)

After fleeing to their sanctuary world for safety with other telepathic Sentinels, members of the Caldwell family must decide whether to accept or reject the claim of a previously unknown family member that he is Boh-Dabar, the prophesied Messiah.


Okay, I know what you’re thinking—that only a person with a very strange brain would talk about a Russian classic and an Evangelical science fiction novel in the same breath. Despite the obvious differences between these two books, they are based on the same premise: What would happen if Jesus Christ came to live among a particular group of people? How would He act? How would people react to Him? What would He require of those people individually and as a community? Continue reading

What About Doctrinal Differences?

As I begin this quest to capture and share glimpses of Zion from the fiction I read, a few of you may wonder whether you should read some of these books that may promote religious or social ideas you don’t agree with. A few of you may be troubled by the fact that I’m recommending books that don’t agree on many points with the tenets of my own church, which, in the effort of full disclosure, is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some of you may think that I’m glossing over the very real doctrinal differences between religions to present a view of life that has no basis in reality. Some of you may be looking for tools to help you better evaluate the religious content you encounter in your own reading. For all of these reasons, I want to address the issue of doctrinal differences up front and get it out of the way. Continue reading

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