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."