“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.”
When I was a child, one of the three big television networks in the U.S. ran the film Ben-Hur  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.
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 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.
Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, by C.S. Lewis (fantasy)
“Haunted by the myth of Cupid and Psyche throughout his life, C.S. Lewis wrote this, his last, extraordinary novel, to retell their story through the gaze of Psyche’s sister, Orual. Disfigured and embittered, Orual loves her younger sister to a fault and suffers deeply when she is sent away to Cupid, the God of the Mountain. Psyche is forbidden to look upon the god’s face, but is persuaded by her sister to do so; she is banished for her betrayal. Orual is left alone to grow in power but never in love, to wonder at the silence of the gods. Only at the end of her life, in visions of her lost beloved sister, will she hear an answer.”
After Psyche is banished, Orual returns to her people and determines to “go always veiled.” She does this to hide her face from her people, herself, and from the gods. She also veils herself—although it’s not clear she realizes it—to mimic what she sees as the silent and inapproachable nature of the gods. As time passes, she realizes the power that the veil gives her:
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.
For Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 1: Introduction), please click here.
For Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 2: The Power of Democracy), please click here.
Part 3: Babylon or Zion?
In the Introduction of Democracy in America, Volume 1, Alexis De Tocqueville declares that the democratic revolution of the world “possesses all the characteristics” of being “the will of God”:
In perusing the pages of our history, we shall scarcely meet with a single great event, in the lapse of seven hundred years, which has not turned to the advantage of equality. . . .
Whithersoever we turn our eyes we shall witness the same continual revolution throughout the whole of Christendom. . . .
The gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore a providential fact, and it possesses all the characteristics of a divine decree: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress. . . .
If the men of our time were led by attentive observation and by sincere reflection to acknowledge that the gradual and progressive development of social equality is at once the past and future of their history, this solitary truth would confer the sacred character of a Divine decree upon the change. To attempt to check democracy would be in that case to resist the will of God; and the nations would then be constrained to make the best of the social lot awarded to them by Providence.
Tocqueville doesn’t speculate on why this democratic revolution of the world is the “will of God.” I, on the other hand, will attempt to give an explanation. In the Bible, we learn that there will come a time when:
“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.
“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.”
“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.
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:
“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.