Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Excitement over Christ's Coming

I just re-read a letter written by an early Christian to a man named Diognetus. It's a beautiful letter, written in a simple, refreshing, and poetic style around the second century A.D. I always liked it for its description of the early believers as "indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs," yet "extraordinary" because "they live in their own countries as if they were only passing through." Clear distinction of the two kingdoms.

But what impressed me today is the writer's excitement as he explains to Diognetus the wonder of Christ's coming:

"For, who of men at all understood before His coming what God is? Do you accept of the vain and silly doctrines of those who are deemed trustworthy philosophers? of whom some said that fire was God, calling that God to which they themselves were by and by to come; and some water; and others some other of the elements formed by God? But if any one of these theories be worthy of approbation, every one of the rest of created things might also be declared to be God. But such declarations are simply the startling and erroneous utterances of deceivers; and no man has either seen Him, or made Him known, but He has revealed Himself. [...And] after He revealed and laid open, through His beloved Son, the things which had been prepared from the beginning, He conferred every blessing all at once upon us, so that we should both share in His benefits, and see and be active.
Who of us would ever have expected these things? He was aware, then, of all things in His own mind, along with His Son, according to the relation subsisting between them.
"As long then as the former time endured, He permitted us to be borne along by unruly impulses, being drawn away by the desire of pleasure and various lusts. This was not that He at all delighted in our sins, but that He simply endured them; nor that He approved the time of working iniquity which then was, but that He sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be vouchsafed to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able. But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Saviour who is able to save even those things which it was [formerly] impossible to save, by both these facts He desired to lead us to trust in His kindness, to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counsellor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honour, Glory, Power, and Life, so that we should not be anxious[ concerning clothing and food."

Wonderful thoughts, as we celebrate the coming of our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counsellor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honour, Glory, Power, and Life.
"Who of us would have ever expected these things?"

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Turning in the Manuscript

Turning a manuscript to the publisher is one of the hardest things I have learned to do. It could be because I am a perfectionist. It could also be because I am new at all this and feel like I don't know what I am doing half of the time. Each time, however, God has come to my rescue at the last minute.
Even if many people had read my manuscript on Augustine, I was not totally satisfied with it until, just a week or so before my deadline, Dr. Philip Cary of Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, read it and sent me many valuable suggestions, taking the time to examine line after line, always ready to answer my questions (see an earlier post about this).
I turned in my first manuscript of my short novel on Olympia Morata in May. The corrections went back and forth between my editor and I for a few months, until she felt that it was done. Still, I was not completely happy with it. Since this is my first attempt at writing a novel, I thought I was just expecting too much. "Maybe this is all I can do," I thought.
By a turn of God's providence, I discovered only one month ago that I had to obtain permission for all my quotations of Olympia's letters and poems because, even if they were written in the XVI century, the translation I used was quite recent. The permission was given, but too restrictive. The only alternative was to re-translate everything. The letters were originally written in Latin, the poems in Greek.
I studied Greek for four years and Latin for seven, but that was a long, long time ago... Right then, a young man preached at our church. "Most of you know me for my passion for anything Greek," he said as he introduced himself. The answer! I asked him if he wanted to translate some poems for me and he said yes. His name is Chris Stevens. The result was fantastic, as he was able to catch subtle nuances that the original translator, probably not as acquainted with the Septuagint version of the Bible, had missed.
As for Latin, I was happy to discover that I can still master the language. My mother would be proud of me! I actually read each passage out loud in Latin, feeling like a teenager again. Never mind that, way back in high school, Latin translations were seen as gruesome tasks. This time I actually enjoyed them!
All this unexpected extra work, however, served another purpose. It was buying some time. Enough for my friend and former editor Heather to email me and invite me over. I had sent her my manuscript months ago, asking if she could review it, but she had never answered. I found out why. She had been fighting cancer and undergoing chemotherapy. Being in remission, she was now willing to read my manuscript.
"I need to send it in by Friday," I told her.
"Send what in by Friday??? This is Wednesday night!!!"
I really didn't expect her to do it, but I told her Monday would be OK. She must have worked late into the night, even Thursday, after a day spent watching her three young grandchildren (triplets). Her comments came in three messages, insightful and discerning, probing me to draw deeper into the wells of my mind to find more convincing and poignant explanations of various concepts and emotions.
Her questions were incisive. I had written this book with young Christian girls in mind, mostly Reformed Christians, and many statements were unintelligible to other readers.
"I have been bought with a price," Olympia's father said in my manuscript.
"Who bought? Who sold? What price?" asked my friend.
Well, tomorrow is Monday and the manuscript is done, thanks to Heather, thanks to Chris Stevens, and thanks to God. This time, even I am satisfied with it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Happy Birthday Augustine!

Today Augustine is 1655 years young. Yes, just read any of his writings, especially his Confessions or some of his letters and sermons, to see how young he really is in his constant quest for truth and sincere communion with God.
I will celebrate his birthday with the prayer that the small biography I wrote for children will help many to appreciate his writings and have a greater desire to know and love God. (Click on the links on the left side of this blog to see the cover and some sample pages of my book on Augustine).
The cake on the left is an attempt, by Pasticceria Colzani, in Cassago, Italy (supposedly the same place as Cassiciacum, where Augustine spent some time preparing to be baptized and join the visible church) to reproduce the cake Monica prepared for her son Augustine on his 32nd birthday. It is made of the same ingredients described by Augustine: spelt flour, honey, and almonds - very healthy in today's standards.
On that grey and rainy day, the cake brought joy and comfort to all: Monica, Aeodatus (Augustine's son), Navigius (Augustine's brother, who apparently had a propensity for sweets), his friend Alipius, maybe his friend and host Verecundus, and some disciples. In fact, it prompted a three-day discussion on the pursuit of happiness, and the treatise De Beata Vita (On the Blessed Life) was the happy result.
The desire for happiness was very important for Augustine, an inborn, universal instinct which is meant to lead us to true happiness in God. For Augustine, happiness is... ultimately, to enjoy God forever.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

John Calvin Still Travels

About two months ago, a man contacted me from Austria. He needed a translation of some documents because he is trying to claim his Italian citizenship, which will allow him to continue his missionary work in Europe. In the course of our transaction, I discovered that he is the principal of an International Christian School in Vienna, and I introduced my book on John Calvin to him. He liked it so much that he ordered four more copies.
Just today, he sent me his school's newsletter with a picture of the book being offered to the school librarian. You can see the Austrian band on the same page.
I am really amazed and humbled by all this. I am glad that the book sells well because good sales will prompt the publisher to continue the series, and I believe the series is absolutely needed. But if the books are well done it's all because of God's providence and mercy in spite of myself - as my publisher and some of my friends can attest.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

God's Encouragement

Finally, after many months of hard work, the second book in my series,
Augustine of Hippo, is at the printshop! It is scheduled to be published on November 20th by Reformation Heritage Books, Grand Rapids, MI.
Of course, I am very excited.
The only setback has been the news that my Italian publisher, Alfa & Omega, could not afford to publish this high-quality, hard-cover, heavily-illustrated book, in Italian. I understood their problems. Still, I was quite disappointed. I believe a book on Augustine will be very well received in Italy, as it appeals to Protestants and Catholics alike. I was begrudgingly prepared to look for another publisher there.
But God was ready to surprise me. After hearing John Calvin, the first book in the series, read during Sunday school class, a member of the Reformed church in Novate Milanese offered to help fund the printing of the second book. I am waiting for a final decision from the publisher, but things definitely look promising now.
I am amazed at this encouragement from God. My vision for these books, as I explained before, is to give our children a simple picture of God's work in His church throughout the ages, with clear references to the historical context and an easy explanation of the progression of theological thought (I am writing an article for Modern Reformation where I explain why Church history is an essential part of our children's curriculum). It's wonderful when others share and support this vision, and especially when God's hand is so visibly at work.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Thoughts on Art

I enjoyed a wonderful sermon by my pastor, Rev. Michael Brown, on Bezalel and Oholiab and their artistry work in the temple (Exodus 31). One of the main points of the sermon was that God takes form and beauty seriously and has very high aesthetic standards. He also takes pleasure in the creativity of His creatures.
That God loves beauty and art is obvious in creation and in the fact that He has placed an artistic tendency in all of us. Even if we don't all create art, we appreciate it to some extent. And even if we don't all paint or compose, we use our creative faculties daily to beautify our life and the world around us.
The tragedy is what today's American Christian culture has done to those natural artistic tendencies. They have repressed them, censured them, and minimized them. Many have already drawn striking similarities between the church in the Middle Ages and the evangelical churches of today. This is particularly true regarding art and censorship. Whenever we try to give art a pragmatic moral function, we cripple it, as history continues to prove. God sees art as something legitimate in itself. Rev. Brown quoted Francis Schaeffer as saying, "Art needs no justification." Schaeffer also said, "The lordship of Christ should include an interest in the arts. A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God."
Rev. Brown pointed out that, with the fall, damage has come to God's initial masterpiece. Christ came to restore creation to the beauty originally intended. It's wonderful to understand our yearnings for beauty as parallel to our yearnings for holiness, as both will be present in full in the world to come.
The reason I chose this painting of Ophelia by John Everett Millais for this blog entry is that I was struck by the story behind it. Millais was one of the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of Romantic painters moved by the passion to reform art and bring it back to the intense colors and abundant details of Italian XIII century art and Flemish art. The Pre-Raphaelite movement has received much criticism and I am not making here a case for their art, but their passion and devotion is admirable. At a time when most artists were painting inside studios, Millais spent countless hours in the fields, studying nature in all its details. The poor model spent hours in a freezing bathtub (the candles used to warm the water had gone out and she was afraid to mention it) until she developed pneumonia.
What motivated this extreme devotion? An unquenchable yearning for beauty and perfection, something every artist will immediately identify as his or her own. God has put this yearning in all of our hearts and we need to recognize it and honor it. Sadly, we find it mostly in non-believers. But why? It seems that, of all people, we should share most intensely the groaning of nature waiting to be delivered (Romans 8:19-22).
Sometimes we hear, "See what passion and devotion non-believers show in their art? We need to show the same for God." What those messages normally indicate, however, is that we should express our passion and devotion only in "spiritual" things such as worship and prayer, or practical things directed to the furtherance of the Gospel. We should have learned by this time that the Gospel is not promoted by a paranoiac fear of culture and the refusal to use our talents to express our yearnings and even groans. Thank God for the Psaltery and the honesty of those songs!
Last (I am already going over the time I have allowed myself for this), the passion and devotion that moved Millais to labour day after day in the reproduction of every blade of grass is an eulogy to accuracy and precision in our work. Rev. Brown exhorted us to flee mediocrity in our vocations. There is a wonderful word for mediocrity in Italian, "pressapochismo". "Pressapoco" means almost, roughly, more or less... Pressapochismo is a noun derived from the adverb, meaning "roughliness" (my spell-check is telling me that the word doesn't exist, but maybe it should.
It's disheartening that Christians are often satisfied with mediocrity in the arts. It doesn't matter if the music is poor, if the novel has no plot or the art is shoddy, as long as the message is there. God knows the pain I suffered after the artist of my first book stopped working for me. I thought it would be easy to find another artist, but I was faced with a choice of poor quality or prohibitive prices. Sometimes, sadly, Christian artists offered both! It was also a lonely struggle, because many Christian friends were puzzled by my suffering. Why should I care so much about the quality of the art? I am grateful to God who has provided a truly great artist (Matt Abraxas) for my third book, on John Owen.

Disclaimer: this blog entry is not meant to give an accurate summary of Rev. Brown's sermon, but only my own impressions and thoughts. You can hear his sermon here: http://www.christurc.org/sermons_exodus.html

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Plot

On Sunday, Pastor Brown exhorted us to keep our eyes on God's story and not on our individual stories. That takes on a new meaning now that I have written a short story. It's the advice every how-to book on writing will ever give. First of all, they say, establish a logline. Whose story is it? What is the goal? How does the main character get from point A to point B? After establishing the logline ("It's the story of a _____ who starts out _____ and finally ends up ________), you must paste it on your computer where you can always see it, because keeping in mind the main story is one of the hardest thing for a writer.
My friend Dianna is writing a movie script where four friends embark on a short but adventurous journey to reach an immediate goal. All four need to grow through this journey, but the story is really about one of them, Daniel. Dianna and I meet weekly. She helps me to make some progress on at least one of my innumerable projects, and I give her some feedback on her script. "Is it Daniel's story?" she asks repeatedly.
The focus on the main character and the main plot is ever-present in a writer's mind. I hope my writing experience will make it easier for me to keep my eyes on the ultimate, over-arching plot of humanity: God choosing and preserving a people for Himself and for His glory.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


I have just finished getting all the photos together for my book on Augustine. Too bad that we don't have a portrait of Augustine done by his contemporaries. Not that skill was lacking. I am so amazed at the talent of the artists of the Fayum mummy portraits in Egypt, done more or less at the same time when Jesus was on earth.
This was more or less the type of people who surrounded Jesus, the Apostles, and later Augustine (even if, in 400 years, the fashion had probably changed).
I am wondering why we had to wait another 1400 years to see the same realism in art.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

New Obstacles and More Help

Just as I was breathing a sigh of relief after receiving the last illustration for the Augustine book, I received an e-mail from my publisher saying that some of the photos I sent him are not good enough! Since this book has only 12 illustrations (six less than the other one, mostly because of problems with the illustrators), I really need to include a lot of photos!
One of the problems is that, as opposed to the Calvin book, we don't have portraits of Augustine done by his contemporaries, and we don't have any buildings from that time still standing - just ruins. In Milan, we have less than that, because the city was totally destroyed by Barbarossa in 1162.
A second problem is time - most of the photos on wikimedia and other free sources online have a low resolution, and where am I going to find lots of photos with so little time left (the book is being typeset and they actually stopped working on it because of this)?
I have been looking everywhere and praying for God to supply.
One of the first answers to prayer has been this photo on the left, sent by James O'Donnell, provost at Georgetown University and author of Augustine: a New Biography, which has been a great addition to my research material while writing my book. James O'Donnell has a wonderful website on Augustine: http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/augustine/
This photo shows the remains of Augustine's church in Hippo Regius, with the altar and apse at the far end. I am deeply grateful to O'Donnell and to God!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Unexpected Encouragement

I have received, just a few days ago, an e-mail from Phillip Cary, Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania (photo on the left).
Dr. Cary graciously agreed to read my manuscript on Augustine (on short notice!) and made some precious comments and suggestions. He also wrote a wonderful review for the back cover.
Phillip Cary is author of several works on Augustine, including Augustine: Philosopher and Saint, 12x30 min. tapes by The Teaching Company (highly recommended). These tapes have helped me immensely in developing the outline of my book, as they point out quite clearly the milestones in Augustine's life and the main issues in his thought. Dr. Cary's enthusiasm for this great man of Church history is contagious and I hope I was able to convey it in my book.
I appreciated Dr. Cary's comments and suggestions because they were very specific. He obviously took much time to thoroughly examine each paragraph. But they were also particularly helpful because they shared the same idea that children can understand more than we often give them credit for. He said things like, "Even for a children's book, couldn't you...?", or "in a book for children, shouldn't you?"
I felt like he was next to me, coaching me along. I couldn't ask for anything better! And what a timing! The book is being typeset right now! God is taking care of this book in spite of myself.
Dr. Peter Brown (photo on right) is the author of Augustine of Hippo: a Biography, which has been considered the standard account of Augustine's life and thought. It's one of the clearest books I have ever read, as well as thorough and full of useful annotations. It has been my main source of reference while writing my book.
I have contacted Dr. Brown only recently to ask him to write a review for my book. The reason why, in both cases, I wrote so late is that I never thought these great professors and authors would take the time to consider a small children's book such as mine. Regrettably, Dr. Brown is too busy at this time, but he sent me a personal and warm reply, greatly encouraging me in my pursuits.

Rachel Getting Married

My husband is a movie-lover. He watches a movie every night when he is not watching football. I don't usually join him - too much blood most of the time. Last night I was sick with a cold and saw this interesting movie about family woes. Rachel's sister Kym (Ann Hathaway) struggles with terrible guilt for having caused the death of her little brother. As she explained the weight of that guilt, she said (as I remember), "I cannot forgive myself, and can't believe in a God who will." And later, "What am I supposed to be now? Even if I were Mother Theresa I could not remedy what I have done."
She is so right. I think with sadness of days gone by when I would have said, "No, God forgives you. He is waiting with outstretched arms." But those who are crushed by guilt know better. God, in His justice, cannot forgive, and there is nothing we could ever do to atone for our sins. To say otherwise is to minimize our sin and Christ's sacrifice.
We can never help others by pulling them up to a made-believe, Mary Poppins type of world where everyone can be happy just by accepting that God loves us. We need to delve into the real world where they are suffering, sharing their real pain, and agree with their absolutely logical conclusions, and then introduce them to a real historical event - the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and to the Covenant of Redemption that it fulfills - the only logical explanation to why there is still hope in this fallen world.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A 9/11 Reflection

A few people today asked what I was doing on 9/11/2001.
I remember watching the news early on TV. My father called from Italy. He knew nothing about it. I explained what had happened, and he said, "You make it sound as if it's the end of the world." He called me an hour later and said, "It IS the end of the world!"
Well, it was not, really, but it reminds me of the sack of Rome in 410, the first time Rome was ever invaded in almost eight hundred years. It had been called the Immortal City. I can imagine the same shock and fear. We know that many blamed the "new" Christian religion. Too weak of a God, they said. That's why Augustine wrote the City of God, a 22-book reply!
In some ways, however, it was different then. The Visigoths were not motivated by religious beliefs. They were not trying to make a statement. The 9/11 hijackers did.
Over the months that followed, I was saddened by the reaction of many Americans, who chose to respond with hate to hate, with violence to violence, with prejudice to prejudice.
I worked for Arab-American Business Magazine for a while after that, and was appalled to find out how many Arabs were mistreated in this country as a result of 9/11. Sad, sad stories. I also wrote two articles for a Christian paper, on the same subject, hoping to present a different view. In the process, I spoke to some wonderful people and was enriched.
My conclusion, eight years later, is quite simple: we are all sinners, Arabs, Americans, Italians, or whatever. It's only by God's grace that I didn't hijack one of those planes or torture some Iraqi prisoners, as appalling as the thought seems to me.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Augustine on Science

I am not partial to Augustine, and of course I don't agree with everything he ever said, but there is so much of his thought that I could not include in my biography for young readers. I love this quote on science.

It is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics [science]; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? (Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis).

Sunday, September 6, 2009

How puritan were the Puritans?

I just read an interesting article on Tim Challies' blog http://www.challies.com/archives/articles/quotes/the-puritans-and-sex.php
If the Puritans, like the Reformers before them, had a positive attitude toward sex, how did the change in attitude come about?

I always found interesting to notice different views of modesty in different cultures, throughout the centuries and around the globe.
At the time of Augustine (IV-V century), Christians were baptized naked, in front of the whole congregation. Ancient Romans slept naked, and so did monks in most monastery. It was a V century Catholic saint, Benedetto da Norcia, who finally wrote in his rules that his monks should wear something in bed.
It was the medieval Catholic church that destroyed valuable Greek and Roman works of art in the name of modesty (it is said that the church destroyed more artwork than the barbarians).
It was during the Counter-Reformation that Pope Pius IV hired an artist to add some pants to Michelangelo's Last Judgment.
On the other hand, the Renaissance (and the Reformation) ushered in a renewed appreciation for the classics in all their forms.
In the XVI century, Olympia Morata, the subject of my historical novel, widely praised by her Reformed contemporaries for her knowledge and piety, translated two fables from one of the most irreverent and scandalous books of the XIII century (Boccaccio's Decameron) and quoted freely "poets of love" such as Catullus and Ovid in her correspondence with other Christians.
On the occasion of her wedding, she composed this prayer,

Wide ruling Lord, highest of all rulers,
Who formed the male and the female sex,
You who gave to the first man a wife for his own,
Lest the race of man die out,
and wished the souls of mortals to be the bride of Your Son
and that He die on behalf of His Spouse,
give happiness and harmony to husband and to wife,
for the ordinance, the marriage bed, and weddings are yours.

It's interesting that she mentions the marriage bed, while in our culture we are quite shy to include it in our conversations, and I doubt that we would pray for it in public!
When I first came to America from Europe, I noticed fewer people kissing in public. On the other hand, couples at church felt quite free to stroke each other's backs, sometimes for the whole length of the sermon, something that I have never seen in Italian churches!
My point? I don't know. I don't think blogs need to have a point, necessarily. I am just making an observation.
Or maybe, if we want to find a point, it is the same as in my previous post - the study of history widens our views.
This time, however, I am not adding a picture to the post...

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Church History for Children

I just read a very encouraging message from a dear friend and mentor of mine. "Just by reading your blog and the notes on Amazon and the like, it seems to me that you have some really worthwhile material. There is a lot of good in church history told simply, with thought to detail and a valid picture of the person and times," he said.
I have come to appreciate church history the hard way (by believing, for a while, some who claimed to have reinvented the wheel). I believe it's important for us and our children to understand how the church throughout the centuries has formulated and crystallized the biblical doctrines we hold today.
There are several reasons why studying the development of Christian thought can be useful to children. I will mention some, not in any particular order.
First, by studying church history, children will develop a respect for Christian tradition and realize the inadequacy of simplistic answers. If a child has no idea of the church's continuous and conscious effort to examine and refine its theological thought throughout the centuries, he/she will think that choosing a belief system is as simple as choosing a hairstyle or a favorite football team. The best choice will be whatever sounds good.
Second, children will learn to deal honestly with questions and doubts. As they examine different views (including the different heresies and the answers the church has provided), they will compare different thought systems and reasoning, instead of accepting blindly and lazily the beliefs passed on by their parents.
Third, history will teach our children how men and women of all ages have faced great questions regarding God, faith, and salvation. My hope is that, as they read about Calvin's struggle to leave a church and belief system he had been upholding for years, or Augustine's intense battle of wills, they will realize the weight of their choices and the importance of taking seriously the same questions and struggles.
My first book, on John Calvin, is not packed with theology. I mostly showed how Calvin organized the Protestant church and its beliefs soon after its birth. With my book on Augustine, I introduce the controversy against Pelagius and Augustine's careful explanation of the doctrine of sola gratia. It's all in simple terms, for young children, but I hope they will remember that sola gratia was not a 16th century invention.
In my book on John Owen, I am planning to get even deeper. John Owen's theological work is so massive and had so much impact on future generations of Christians, that it must be addressed, even in a book for 1st-4th graders. And children can certainly understand.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

My Weight is My Love

I love this picture of Augustine thinking as he writes The City of God, (De Civitate Dei). Many pagans had blamed the sack of Rome of 410 on the Emperor's abandonment of the traditional gods and embracement of the new Christian religion, so Augustine embarked on a 13-year, 22-books long answer. He pointed to two different cities. "Two loves have created these two cities," he said, "namely, self-love to the extent of despising God, the earthly; love of God to the extent of despising one's self, the heavenly city. The former glories in itself, the latter in God."
Love is a constant theme in Augustine. Some time earlier he had written in the Confessions, "A body by its weight tends to move towards its proper place. The weight’s movement is not necessarily downwards, but to its appropriate position: fire tends to move upwards, a stone downwards. They are acted on by their respective weights; they seek their own place. Oil poured under water is drawn up to the surface on top of the water. Water poured on top of oil sinks below the oil. They are acted on by their respective densities, they seek their own place. Things which are not in their intended position are restless. Once they are in their ordered position, they are at rest. [...] My weight is my love. Wherever I am carried, my love is carrying me. By your gift we are set on fire and carried upwards: we grow red hot and ascend."
This painting of Augustine looking up reminds me of this quote.
But there is another reason why this painting is dear to my heart. It was done by Emanuele Taglietti, the artist who has illustrated my children's biography of John Calvin. He had started to work on the Augustine book but decided not to continue. This decision, which nearly destroyed our friendship, was very difficult for me to accept. I knew I was largely to blame and felt terribly guilty. Someone told me that working with an illustrator is like a marriage. If that's the case, what I experienced in this case was a pain similar to that of a divorce.
Yesterday, however, he gave me permission to publish his painting here, which means a lot to me. It's like lifting an ugly cloud. Posting it here is liberating. As life goes on, wounds tend to heal and gaps tend to be filled, even as new wounds are inflicted and new gaps form. In this fallen and unsteady world, with all the mistakes I constantly make, I am always comforted by Proverbs 21:1, "The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will." As Heidelberg Catechism Q28 says, "in all things, which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from his love; since all creatures are so in his hand, that without his will they cannot so much as move." My weight is my love.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

John Owen, the Pastor

My next project (just started) is a children's biography on John Owen. Before I start any of these biographies, I always wonder, "Why is this person important to our children?" I could never write without having that thought clear in my mind, especially since my books are very simple and concise and I don't have room for non-essentials.
With Calvin, I was impressed by the clarity of his writings. Without him, it would have probably taken much longer for the Church to develop an unified, cohesive thought. Calvin's honesty and precision in writing were also particularly striking to me. As a veteran translator, I recognize and appreciate a well-thought choice of words. That's why, I believe, Calvin had (and has) so many enemies: his message is absolutely clear.
His commitment to the clear exposition of the truth in spite of tremendous obstacles, afflictions, and disappointments reveals a deep-seated love for God and His church. All this was fixed on my mind as I wrote my children's biography on John Calvin.
Augustine was also driven by an utmost passion for God and His truth, which he expressed in a more emotional and poetic language than Calvin. This commitment for the truth led him to formulate with clarity and boldness the doctrine of Sola Gratia, even when it led to the uncomfortable but unavoidable conclusion of God's predestination. He had some other amazing achievements, but these were the main point fixed on my mind while writing about him.
As I now face the immense volume of writings produced by John Owen, I have to ask myself the same question, "Why in the world am I writing about this person?" Owen had a tremendous impact on the religious and political life of his day, and his writings on the atonement, the Trinity, worship, and covenant theology are, in my view, conclusive, thorough, and comprehensive, but how can I convey this to a 7-year old?
Then I saw that Owen's motivation in writing was always pastoral. When the Socinians realized that the only way to allow man's choice as the determining factor in his salvation is to claim that God doesn't know everything, Owen saw the awful implications of this teaching on a pastoral level.
My second son, Simon, claims to be an atheist (I sympathize with Monica in her prayers for Augustine). This morning I asked my children, "What is more comforting, to think that Simon's eternal fate is entirely in God's hands, or to think that God doesn't really know what choice Simon will eventually make, so his eternal destiny is really in his own hands?" The answer was obvious even to my youngest. God is perfectly merciful, wise, and just. My son is very stubborn, impetuous, and has made a good share of foolish choices.
Seeing Owen's writings in their pastoral context makes them relevant even to our youngest children. I will be teaching Sunday School to 4th-6th graders this year, but I hope that Tricia will allow me one visit to her class (1st to 3rd graders) to read my manuscript once it's done. Children are my greatest inspiration and critics.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

This Was Augustine

My book on Augustine is nearly finished and should be out before Christmas, God willing (I will post the final cover when it's ready).
It has been a very intense experience for me. I lost my first illustrator when I was already half-way through the project, then I embarked on a long and difficult search for the right artist. One day, when I was particularly discouraged, I saw this painting online (see left). I stared at it for a long time. This is really Augustine as I see him, his soul constantly stretched forth toward God. I found the name of the artist, Ezio Pollai, and I called him in Siena. His wife answered the phone.
"I am calling from America," I said. "I would like to speak to Master Pollai."
Ezio Polliai was utterly surprised. He enthusiastically gave me permission to publish his painting in my book and, in a very Italian way, invited me for coffee at his house, just behind Via dei Pittori. I wished to hop on a plane right then...
I asked him if he would do illustrations for my book, but he said that he does only paintings. Still, I felt that God was encouraging me. Pollai's ability to capture and portray Augustine's soul encouraged me to think that maybe, with my feeble words, I could introduce to our children this great man of old who bared his soul with a startling degree of honesty and revealed a yearning for God that invariably jolts us out of our complacent daily lives and moves us to cry with him, Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
I pray that my book may convey to our chidren the same hunger and thirst after God which continued throughout Augustine's life and caused him to assert boldly the wonderful doctrine of God's grace that, many centuries later, was at the heart of the Reformation.

Monday, August 24, 2009

What Would Augustine Do?

There is usually at least one portrait of men and women from Church history which is done by one of their contemporaries. Not so with Augustine. The oldest portrait of Augustine was done in the VI century (about 100 years after his death, see photo on left). On the web there must be a hundred different paintings, each portraying Augustine as some artist saw him.
Augustine was a Berber from Northern Africa (Algeria). So maybe that's what he looked like (see photo on top right). But his personality? Most of the artists who sent me their initial samples saw him as a pious, quiet, remissive man, and often depicted him burdened by heavy church apparel. On the other hand, from his geographical background and his writings, I see him as an extremely passionate man, very intense, fervent, always looking for more truth, more light, more understanding. So, in every situation, my suggestions to the artist always included the most dramatic response.
In some ways it was probably good. Wes, my present artist, is a quiet, unassuming man, and his personality has come up in some of the illustrations. So our feelings combined probably granted a pretty well-rounded personality to our Augustine.
But that's just the point. What did Augustine really do and feel in the situations we have portrayed? As I read his description of the different events of his life, my mind would immediately create a mental picture which I did not even stop to question. Not until an artist sent me something totally different after reading the same passage.
We will never fully know the answer to my question, not as long as we are in this world. I believe that we have done the very best to illustrate each situation as Augustine or his contemporaries have described it. Jay (my publisher) may say that I have been even too fastidious.
On the other hand, this dilemma shows the wisdom behind the 2nd commandment. No matter how closely you stick to the written text, if you draw a picture of Jesus you will always end up making it your Jesus. Same for slogans like WWJD. How do we know? And who cares? We know what Jesus wants us to do, and that's enough. I know, I am digressing... I always think too much. That's why I love Augustine!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Illustrating the Unknown

Illustrating my biography on John Calvin seemed like a breeze. My artist did a wonderful job and I barely had any comment or correction to make. But the book on Augustine has been tough, because we know so little about the time period. Also, most artists throughout the centuries have depicted Augustine as he would have looked in their day, wearing what people would normally wear in their time. So we are left with a ton of questions: Did Augustine have a beard? What clothes did he wear? Was the Bible read in books or in scrolls? Did churches have a baptismal bowl? I read somewhere that new converts were usually baptised naked (something obviously inappropriate for a XXI century children's book). How about crosses? It seems that early Christians did not wear them around their neck (just like we would not wear a model of an electric chair). Did bishops wear a tiara? Did Augustine travel on horseback? (one artist wanted to have him travel on an elephant, but that was a bit too extreme). Most of the time, we stuck to the ancient rule: "When in doubt, don't". If a questionable detail was not needed, we just skipped it.
If I were to list all the questions that come up as the artist illustrates this book, I could fill pages of this blog. I might write a short story about each illustration, as I am sure most readers will never know how much effort has gone into this small children's book!
to be continued...

Monday, August 17, 2009


I am collecting pre-publication reviews for my book on Olympia Morata. I have received three so far. The last one, received today, was particularly encouraging to me. I am not giving too much away because, God willing, it will be published on the back cover, but it ended by saying, More than strength of character, Simonetta Carr celebrates the strength of the God in whom these believers trusted.
May we, and our children, exhibit the same trust in these days of our own pilgrim exile.
This is really what I wanted to convey. I am so glad someone noticed!

Friday, August 14, 2009


So many people have been telling me that I should write a blog. I really don't know what they expect to see, but I thought I should honor their wishes. Immediately, I was faced with a decision - I hate decisions. "Choose a name for your blog." Forget it, I thought. I went back to my weekend passion - finishing up my historical novel for young girls. I re-read some letters written in the XVI century by my main character, Olympia Morata. "Autosxedia," she wrote at the end of a letter to her father, "a few words at random."