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.”
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).
I absolutely love this book! It engaged me completely, and I came away from it with a more refined vision of what holiness looks like as described in this verse from the Bible:
Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.
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.”
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, Canon Tallis makes this observation about the Austin family:
The Dark Trench Saga, by Kerry Nietz (Christian fiction, Evangelical)
“Sandfly is a debugger. He is property, bought and paid for in an Earth under sharia law. All faiths but one have been banned. And the rule of the great Imam is supreme.
“As a debugger, Sandfly has an implant in his head that connects him to the world’s technology—and doles out mental shocks to keep him obedient. All he wants is to fix bots and avoid shocks.
“Now he’s been called into Earth orbit. The masters have a new spacecraft—one capable of interstellar flight. On its maiden voyage, the only robot on board went mad and tore itself apart.
“Why? Better question: does it pose any risk to humans?
“When Sandfly reviews the bot’s final moments, he perceives something unexpected. Something impossible.
“As Sandfly pieces together the clues, a trap spreads beneath his feet. If he solves the mystery, he may doom himself. And if he fixes the robot, he may shatter his world.
“Suspenseful, unique, and awash in cyberpunk jive, A Star Curiously Singing presents a bleak future that might be closer than we think.”
The Dark Trench Saga is Christian science fiction at its best—the setting is unique and well-executed, and the faith-based aspect of the story is perceptive and complex enough to inspire thought. Nietz brilliantly uses a continuous digital “stream” of information as a symbol for the knowledge of God that flows to humanity from Heaven. This “superlative stream” provides a flow of light and truth to those who are spiritually prepared to receive it—sanctifying power that “reprograms” the person’s mind and heart.
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.
“With neither friends nor family, Lucy Snowe sets sail from England to find employment in a girls’ boarding school in the small town of Villette. There she struggles to retain her self-possession in the face of unruly pupils, an initially suspicious headmaster, and her own complex feelings, first for the school’s English doctor and then for the dictatorial professor, Paul Emmanuel. Charlotte Brontë’s last and most autobiographical novel is a powerfully moving study of isolation and the pain of unrequited love, narrated by a heroine determined to preserve an independent spirit in the face of adverse circumstances.”
I read Villette by Charlotte Brontë for the first time about twenty years ago. During that first reading, I became caught up in the raw emotion and love story of this great work. I thought it was a very stark novel, and I said as much when one of the members of my book group told the rest of us in the autumn of 2014 that she had recently finished reading it. She disagreed with my opinion and declared that it was a happy book. Of course, this disagreement fascinated the other members of the group, and we put it on our list for 2015. I just finished re-reading it and still think it is stark and that it ends in tragedy. Imagine my surprise when I learned that I was the only one out of the five in attendance at our meeting who felt that way. We had a spirited discussion about the matter, and I couldn’t persuade them to my point of view, and they couldn’t persuade me to theirs.
Women and the Priesthood: What One Mormon Woman Believes, by Sheri Dew (Latter-day Saint doctrine)
“In Women and the Priesthood, Sheri Dew discusses the varying responsibilities of men and women in the context of key doctrine of the Church, including the eternal truths that women are vital to the success of the Lord’s Church, that God expects women to receive revelation, and that both men and women have access to God’s highest spiritual blessings.”
Sometimes a book comes along that gives me much more than a glimpse of Zion but an all-out vision of it. This is one of those books. The thing this book does best is detail the tremendous spiritual gifts available to women who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saintsright now and how—as powerful as we are now both individually and as a group—we will become even more powerful and able to accomplish the great work God has for us to do as we rise up and access the priesthood power already available to us. I’m sure that the reason this book resonates with me so much is that I share Sister Dew’s vision. I have long understood the principles she teaches in this book and have taught them to both women and men in the Church. The reason I feel so passionately that we should keep our reading wholesome and media habits clean is because such practices will better enable anyone to access the power of God. In the chapter entitled “God Expects Women to Receive Revelation,” Sister Dew talks about this reality:
“ARRANGED centers on the friendship between an Orthodox Jewish woman and a Muslim woman who meet as first-year teachers at a public school in Brooklyn. Over the course of the year they learn they share much in common—not least of which is that they are both going through the process of arranged marriages.”
I watched this film for the first time about a year ago and liked it so much that I recently watched it again. Because it’s such an unusual, obscure film that helped me envision Zion, I thought I’d comment on it. Nasira and Rochel were more familiar than foreign to me for a couple of reasons. I live in a suburb of Washington, D.C. that is as religiously, philosophically, and ethnically diverse as the area depicted in the film. The friendship between Rochel and Nasira could have taken place in my community. The challenges they faced could have happened here too, and while I can’t imagine a principal at one of my children’s schools challenging devout women in the vigorous way the one in the film did Nasira and Rochel, the principal’s mindset is prevalent in my community and contributes to a culture that can be hostile to religious ideas and practices that aren’t politically correct.
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (science fiction)
“In the Utah desert, Brother Frances of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz has made a miraculous discovery: the relics of the martyr Isaac Leibowitz himself, including the blessed blueprint and the sacred shopping list. They may provide a bright ray of hope in a terrifying age of darkness, a time of ignorance and genetic monsters that are the unholy aftermath of the Flame Deluge. But as the spellbinding mystery at the core of this extraordinary novel unfolds, it is the search itself—for meaning, for truth, for love—that offers hope to a humanity teetering on the edge of an abyss.”
Getting a glimpse of Zion from secular post-apocalyptic fiction is a difficult task; the reader is fortunate to get a glimpse of civilization in such stories. I found A Canticle for Leibowitz to be an exception. This is not a happy book, but it shows the faith of several generations of Catholic monks and their efforts to preserve the world’s knowledge and keep the light of Christ alive during very dark times. I particularly liked the way the abbot of the monastery, Dom Zerchi, proclaims that he’s subject to “another law” and refuses to allow Doctor Cors, a man who writes permits allowing “hopeless cases” of radiation sickness to be euthanized by the government, to set up a “clinical testing” station in the monastery.
Fireweed, by Terry Montague (Christian fiction, Latter-day Saint)
When sixteen-year-old Lisel Spann sees her brother off to fight in the coming war against what she and her German compatriots have been told is Polish aggression, she “is hardly prepared for the coming years when the storm erupts in full fury. She fights feeling of hopelessness as she watches the Nazis tear her loved ones from her life. Before her eyes her beautiful city is turned to rubble under the allied bombs.” With the help of her family and neighbors, she struggles to survive and hold on to her faith.
If Feathers and Rings is the Latter-day Saint novel I keep going back to, Fireweed is the one that has stuck with me the most. For that reason, when I recently saw it on the shelf of used books at the local bookstore that sells products to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I bought it to re-read. When I opened it up and read in the author’s introduction that she is a descendant of Germans who lived for a century in Russia before immigrating to the United States, I felt an instant connection to her since I, too, am a descendant of the same group of people, although my ancestors settled in Kansas, not Idaho, and I didn’t grow up with a connection to the German community (aside from my mother’s stories) in Topeka the way the author did in Rupert, Idaho. I didn’t, in fact, know enough about my own family history at the time I originally read Fireweed to see the connection, but I’m so delighted to see it now!
“The Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers).
“God has just such gladness every time he sees from heaven that a sinner is praying to Him with all his heart, as a mother has when she sees the first smile on her baby’s face” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot).
“God’s love and mercy can overcome all things—our ignorance, and weakness, and all the burden of our past wickedness—all things but our wilful sin, sin that we cling to, and will not give up” (George Eliot, Adam Bede).
“Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America).
“I decided that God, a kind and loving God, could never be proved. In fact there are . . . a lot of arguments against him. But there isn’t any point to life without him. Without him we’re just a skin disease on the face of the earth, and I feel too strongly about the human spirit to be able to settle for that. So what I did for a long time was to live life as though I believed in God. And eventually I found out that the as though had turned into a reality” (Madeleine L’Engle, The Moon by Night).
About the Author
Creator of spaced-out Christian fiction and clean-reading resources. See my BIO.