When people refer to something as a “fish story,” they normally mean that it is clearly exaggerated or simply a figment of the teller’s imagination. The most recent entry on the literature page, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, however, is based on an actual event on which the author wrote a newspaper article sixteen years before the publication of the book. The tale he has told goes far beyond the experience of one individual, tapping into universal truths about courage, perseverance, and the relationship between man and nature. The novelette is full of Christian imagery, highlighting suffering and sacrifice, though sadly its tale of triumph in the face of hardship and failure yields no sense of ultimate redemption. The book won a Pulitzer Prize and was a major factor in Hemingway receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature two years after its publication.
The most recent addition to the adult Sunday School courses offered on the website is a series on the second part of the book of Acts, which focuses on the ministry of the greatest missionary in the history of Christianity, the Apostle Paul. From his conversion on the road to Damascus through the early years when the Lord was preparing him, revealing new aspects of the Gospel to him, and he was learning by experience how best to preach the Gospel through his three missionary journeys, his arrest in Jerusalem, imprisonment in Caesarea, and finally his journey to Rome, Luke traces the work accomplished by God through the former persecutor of the church. The central part of Paul’s evangelistic ministry was his task of spreading the Gospel to the Gentiles, and by the time the book of Acts ends, Christ’s commission to His disciples to be witnesses throughout the known world is well on the way to being fulfilled.
How is one to find forgiveness for a sin that he has no intention of renouncing? Henry Scobie, a policeman in a British colony in West Africa during World War II and a devout Catholic, is stuck in an unhappy marriage. In an attempt to please his wife, he sends her to South Africa, where she has always wanted to live. While she is gone, he gets involved in an affair. Much to his surprise, she decides to return. What is he to do now? If he confesses his sin to the priest and does the assigned penance, he will have to leave his mistress and make her miserable. If he refuses to leave the mistress, he will not receive absolution, but when he declines to accompany his wife to Mass, she will know something is wrong, and he will make her miserable. If he goes to Mass unconfessed, he will be in a state of mortal sin and will condemn himself to everlasting punishment. How can he love God if obeying Him makes someone he loves unhappy? The trap in which Scobie finds himself is the central dilemma of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. Few books illustrate more clearly the ineffectiveness of Roman Catholic traditions and dogma in dealing with human sin and providing real forgiveness and a way to grace, thus reminding us of the blessing to be found in the free grace of Christ that is obtained only by faith.
The fifth century B.C. witnessed a flowering of culture in the city of Athens that has had an enormous influence on Western culture ever since. It was the Age of Pericles, the era of Athenian democracy, and the century that produced great Greek playwrights such as Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Among such giants of the theatrical arts, one stood above the rest in terms of the recognition he received during his lifetime, and that was Sophocles. Though only seven of his plays have survived, he is acknoewledged today to be among history’s greatest tragedians. More than any other, his play Oedipus Rex has stood the test of time to the extent that many consider it the greatest tragedy ever written – superior even to the finest of Shakespeare’s works. The play tells the tale of a noble ruler who has spent his entire life fighting against the oracles of the gods, who prophesied that he would kill his father and marry his mother. The extreme measures he took to avoid the fulfillment of that prophecy actually contributed to its fulfillment, and he winds up a blind outcast from his people. From a Christian standpoint, the foolishness of fighting against the gods is better illlustrated by the words of Jesus to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” Saul, later the Apostle Paul, submitted to God rather than fighting against Him, and his end, though it involved martyrdom, was one of glory rather than shame.
Luke wrote a two-volume history of early Christianity – the Gospel that bears his name and the book of Acts. The latter surveys the growth of the church from 120 frightened followers of Jesus in an upper room in Jerusalem to the spread of the faith throughout the Roman Empire through the ministry of the apostles and others. More than half of the book of Acts is devoted to the ministry of the Apostle Paul, who is in a Roman prison when the book ends. I’ve divided the study of Acts into two portions. This first course covers the sections of the book that deal with Gospel messengers other than Paul, primarily Peter and John, Stephen, and Philip. My goal is later to add a second adult Sunday School course that covers the rest of the book, concentrating on the travels of the Apostle Paul.
During my career as a high school teacher, I directed more than fifty plays. Finding suitable scripts was not always easy – not only did we need plays with a reasonable number of characters and doable male/female balance, but we also wanted quality stories that were worthwhile and clean (I often had to alter scripts to get rid of language problems and other issues). While explicitly Christian plays are available, they tended too often to be sappy, sentimental, and overly didactic. I thus found that doing secular classics and equipping the audience to view them from a Christian perspective when I introduced them was the most helpful approach. I also wrote two scripts myself, both of which were adaptations of nineteenth-century classics. In writing these scripts, I tried to preserve as much as possible the beauty of the language of the authors rather than “dumbing it down” for a modern audience. These two plays are now available through Planters Press. Royalties are $50 per performance and are payable to the playwright.
Sense and Sensibility, like all Jane Austen novels, is a love story. She tells the tale of two sisters who are in many ways polar opposites, both of whom find true love where they never expected to find it. In the process, they learn much about not judging by appearances and the importance of communicating with those we care about. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are delightful creations, and their eventual romantic partners, Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, are upright men of great integrity.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins was the first of the so-called Sensation Novels. It is a melodrama filled with mystery and romance, heroes and heroines who demonstrate integrity and overcome adversity, and despicable villains who seek to destroy others for their own benefit. It was published at the same time and in the same magazine as Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” and the two novels share some remarkable traits, including lookalike characters and contrasting settings.
The study guides on this website are designed for high school students, their teachers, and other adults, so thus far I have chosen not to include any children’s books on the list. In the case of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, however, I have decided to make an exception because, while the book was written for children, young people and adults can enjoy it as well. Not only is the book a delightful fantasy, but it also contains a presentation of the Gospel in a fresh format that speaks to those of all ages, and the depth of the symbolism enables even Bible scholars to appreciate the saving work of Christ in a new way. The book is neither an allegory nor a theological treatise, but rather what Lewis called a “supposal” in which he sought to answer the question, “What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?” I would encourage you both to enjoy the book as a simple story and think deeply about it as a way of seeing anew the work of Christ on behalf of sinners.
Anthony Trollope, a contemporary of Charles Dickens, wove tales that brought fascinating characters to life while incorporating critiques of the political, social, and religious environment of nineteenth-century England. The Eustace Diamonds, the latest addition to the literature page, was influenced by Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, but is not a mystery in the normal sense as much as it is a narrative that sheds light on the variety of characters (and their flaws) that inhabited the English upper class or wished to do so. The central character, Lady Elizabeth Eustace, will do anything she can to maintain her wealth and status, even to the point of keeping a diamond necklace she despises simply because the family of her late husband wants to take it away from her. The humorous tactics she pursues enliven the novel while also giving insight into the consequences of greed and deceit in human relationships.
In late April, I spoke at conferences on the Bible in Rochester and Buffalo. Among my presentations was a lecture on the transmission of the biblical manuscripts and how they were incorporated into the canon of Scripture, based on chapters six and eight from my book Defending Your Sword. If you would like to listen to the lecture, you may access it here.
Among the non-writing prophets in the Old Testament, surely the greatest were Elijah and Elisha. They ministered in the godless Northern Kingdom of Israel from the reign of Ahab to that of Jehoash, a period of almost seventy-five years, continually reminding the people of the power and goodness of God and calling them to turn from their idols and worship the Lord. James tells us that Elijah was a man like us (James 5:17), so we can learn much from his experiences with the Lord and with God’s people, and both prophets performed miracles that foreshadowed those done by Christ during His earthly ministry. They showed God’s love and power to kings and widows, Israelites and Gentiles, and demonstrated by their actions and prophecies God’s sovereignty over all people. The study of their lives and ministries is the most recent one added to the Adult Sunday School lessons available through this website.