Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, by Lew Wallace (American classic, Biblical)

“In first century Judaea, Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur is betrayed by his childhood friend Messala and sentenced to life as a Roman slave. When, during a pirate attack in the Aegean, Ben-Hur saves the life of a galley commander, his fortunes improve and he returns to Galilee a free man. There, his quest for vengeance turns into insurrection, but his life is transformed when he witnesses Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist.”


Ben-Hur 1959

When I was a child, one of the three big television networks in the U.S. ran the film Ben-Hur [1959] every year around Easter. In those days, the only way to watch a motion picture was to see it in a theater when it came out or watch it on network television. There was no streaming. There were no DVDs. There was no cable TV. There weren’t even video cassettes! When one of the networks broadcast a major motion picture like Ben-Hur, it was a big deal. Families like mine made arrangements to watch it, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t get the chance to see it again for another year.

Because of that, the movie Ben-Hur not only became a part of my Easter tradition, it became ingrained in my consciousness. I loved this film as a child, and I still love it as an adult. It should be no surprise, then, that shortly after I became a part of the Great Books Group, I suggested that we read Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Imagine my own surprise at the time when, after reading a good part of the book, I realized that I didn’t care for it enough to even finish it.

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Is Fiction Marketed to Latter-day Saints “Christian Fiction”?

To answer that question, it’s important to understand what Christian fiction is. Depending on who you ask, you may get one of these answers:

  • Fiction with a lot of talk about God
  • Fiction with very little, if any, sexual content, graphic violence, and foul language
  • Fiction that promotes traditional values and practices such as chastity, integrity, and repentance
  • Fiction written by practicing Christians for practicing Christians about practicing Christians
  • Fiction that explores religious themes in a way that testifies of Jesus Christ and glorifies Him
  • Fiction that preaches the gospel of Jesus Christ
  • Stories that would fall apart if the religious element were removed
  • Fiction that contains universal Christian themes and content that will appeal to Christians from a wide variety of denominations
  • A broad genre that contains works from all Christian denominations
  • A narrow genre that only contains books published by specific companies and imprints marketing to a conservative Protestant audience or by independent authors that meet the standards of these companies and imprints

Every single one of these descriptions is accurate. Not every work of Christian fiction, however, can be defined by every single description on this list.

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The Enchanted April

The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim (English Classic)

The Enchanted April“Drawn by a promise of ‘wisteria and sunshine,’ four English ladies exchange their damp and dreary surroundings for a month on the Italian Riviera. They’re different from each other in age and attitude, but all are bewitched by their rented medieval castle and the natural beauty of the Portofino peninsula. Their holiday not only refreshes their spirits but also reintroduces them to their true natures and reopens their hearts to love and friendship.”


I’ve been busy at work on Book 3 of the Dominion Over the Earth series, Day of Liberation, since the beginning of February and have had little desire to put my mind in the stories or even observations of other authors. I’ve had even less desire to put any of my own observations on anything I’ve read into a blog post, and I had pretty much determined that I am incapable of serious blogging and obsessive novel-writing at the same time. The Enchanted April, however, pulled me out of my fantasy world and into the real one long enough to write a blog post, which is ironic, since the book itself has the feel of a fairy tale.

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The Keys of the Kingdom

The Keys of the Kingdom

The Keys of the Kingdom

The Keys of the Kingdom, by A.J. Cronin (historical fiction)

“Francis Chisholm is a compassionate and humble priest whose individuality and directness make him unpopular with other clergy. Considered a failure by his superiors, he is sent to China to maintain a mission amid desperate poverty, civil war, plague, and the hostility of his superiors. In the face of this constant danger and hardship, Father Chisholm finds the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Recognized as A. J. Cronin’s best novel, The Keys of the Kingdom is an enthralling, fast-moving, colorful tale of a deeply spiritual man called to do good in an imperfect world.”


The Keys of the Kingdom 1944

The Keys of the Kingdom 1944

I just finished The Keys of the Kingdom and believe it’s a perfect novel to read during the Christmas season. It doesn’t contain the aura of glitter and magic of modern Christmas stories, but it is a love story—it dramatizes the love that a Christ-like priest has for his fellow human beings, his church, and God. Father Chisholm experiences many horrific situations, and during much of his life, he believes he’s a failure. Through it all, however, he never loses his focus—never forgets the Being he is really serving. Later in his life, he writes, “I have bumped my head so often . . . and so hard, in my strivings after God” (Part 4, Chapter 11). Continue reading

Cranford and Democracy in America, Volume 2

Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell (English classic)

“The formidable Miss Deborah Jenkyns and the kindly Miss Matty live in a village where women rule and men usually tend to get in the way. Their days revolve around card games, tea, thriftiness, friendship and an endless appetite for scandal (from the alarming sight of a cow in flannel pyjamas to the shocking news of the titled lady who marries a surgeon). But, like it or not, change is coming into their world—whether it is the new ideas of Captain Brown, a bank collapse, rumours of burglars or the unexpected return of someone from the past.”

My Lady Ludlow, by Elizabeth Gaskell (English classic)

“Lady Ludlow is absolute mistress of Hanbury Court and a resolute opponent of anything that might disturb the class system into which she was born. . . . The vicar, Mr. Gray, wishes to start a Sunday school for religious reasons; Mr. Horner wants to educate the citizens for economic reasons. But Lady Ludlow is not as rigid as one may think.

Mr. Harrison’s Confessions, by Elizabeth Gaskell (English classic)

“The story revolves around the arrival in the town of a young doctor and the attempts of the ladies of the town to place his status within their society and of course to find him a suitable wife.”

Democracy in America, Volume 2by Alexis de Tocqueville, translated by Henry Reeve (French classic, American classic)

“From America’s call for a free press to its embrace of the capitalist system Democracy in America enlightens, entertains, and endures as a brilliant study of our national government and character.”


Cranford

Cranford

I’ll admit that the little novel Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell, didn’t impress me much at first or even engage me.  The story is told by a young woman who writes about her experiences in Cranford as if she’s writing in her journal, which makes for a whole lot of telling and not a lot of showing. That, combined with the episodic nature of the plot, results in a lack of strong narrative drive. I kept reading because the style of writing, sense of place, and quaint characters relaxed me. I felt as if I had stepped into a world that didn’t exist anymore, and that, while not always happy or comfortable, was more self-sacrificing and less frenetic than our own.

Cranford gave me such a pleasant feeling that I went on to read two other stories by Elizabeth Gaskell that are similar to it: My Lady Ludlow and Mr. Harrison’s Confessions. It wasn’t until I had finished reading all three stories that I realized they dramatize some of what Alexis de Tocqueville describes—in philosophical and political terms—in Democracy in America, Volume 2. Tocqueville details the differences between aristocratic and democratic ages in great depth, and Gaskell breathes life into those differences as she looks back at the diminishing agricultural, aristocratic age of the generation that came before hers and gently carries her characters—and readers—into a more industrialized democratic world. Tocqueville observes: Continue reading

The Austin Family Chronicles

The Austin Family Chronicles, by Madeleine L’Engle (juv/YA fiction)

“In this award-winning young adult series from Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, Vicky Austin experiences the difficulties and joys of growing up.”


A Ring of Endless Light

A Ring of Endless Light

I found A Ring of Endless Light, the fourth book in The Austin Family Chronicles, at a thrift store earlier in the year and immediately fell in love with it. It reminded me of the higher-quality books I read as a girl and gave me quite a feeling of nostalgia. I loved the beach setting, and I felt at home with Vicky and her family—so much so that I read the other four novels in the series: Meet the Austins, The Moon by Night, The Young Unicorns, and Troubling a Star.

In The Young Unicorns, Chapter 17, Canon Tallis makes this observation about the Austin family: Continue reading

The Song of the Lark

The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather (American classic)

“In this powerful portrait of the self-making of an artist, Willa Cather created one of her most extraordinary heroines. Thea Kronberg, a minister’s daughter in a provincial Colorado town, seems destined from childhood for a place in the wider world. But as her path to the world stage leads her ever farther from the humble town she can’t forget and from the man she can’t afford to love, Thea learns that her exceptional musical talent and fierce ambition are not enough.”


I’ll confess that I was surprised when I read this book and found that one-third of it chronicles Thea’s childhood. I expected it to be more about her professional life and, by the time I finished the book, was glad it wasn’t. I thought that the life she led as an opera singer was dreary and that many of the people connected to her at that stage of life were shallow. I found satisfaction, however, in the fact that Thea, herself, recognizes that the professional world she lives in runs on false values. I loved her assessment of it in this conversation she has with a friend of her youth: Continue reading

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