Tag Archives: S.D. Smith

Cultures and Christians: Book Recommendations

Throughout the approximately twenty centuries since Christ, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth have lived in a variety of cultural climates, both apathetic to their cause and enraged by it. Regardless of the century, language, and environment, the levels of freedom and comfort, Christians have always existed. There has never been a time when they have died out. Christianity’s success cannot be predicted by the right moral culture, nor the most conducive political climate. The Christian confession of Christ as Lord spread like wildfire during the Roman occupation and persecution of the first century. Yet, Christianity was also arguably strengthened during the American Restoration movement as it seemed to enjoy a burst of freedom. So, whether or not our cultural environment approves of us does not seem to indicate a tell-tale sign of how well we will flourish in it.

In recent months I have been reading and reflecting a great deal on culture and the proper response to it as a Christian. My natural instinct, honestly, is to shrink back from the excessive amounts of pop culture and trends. However, much of the books, articles, and podcasts I have been reading and listening to have urged me to think more broadly about our responsibilities and opportunities to engage the people around us. I am feeling challenged more than ever to spread truth and beauty and goodness in His name.

I would love to recommend the following books to those of you considering how to live successfully in this post-Christian culture ( in whichever culture you find yourself) as followers of Jesus, while still making genuine connections with people. We do not need to despair, for we know the end of the story. We do not need to be silent, biding our time.

For the Spirit that God has given us does not make us timid; instead his Spirit fills us with power, love, and self-control.

2 Timothy 1:7 GNB

We need not fight and rage against the machine, for his light of peace is within us. Instead, we have the opportunity to create a culture which best reflects his beautiful face.

Although some of these books have a more specialized focus than others, there is a striking similarity and continuity of thought among them. I encourage you to read these in communion with others and discuss how you can build a culture that is faithful to Christ and open to loving all people.

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher is a Roman Catholic turned Eastern Orthodox writer and editor. His book, The Benedict Option, received mixed response as some felt it to be too pessimistic and fear-inducing. I found it both challenging and poignant, and a catalyst to aid me in refocusing my purpose. Dreher makes use of both the symbols of Noah’s ark and Ezekiel’s streams of water “issuing from the altar.” In his mind the Church is both the ark and a wellspring.

“The church, then, is both Ark and Wellspring- and Christians must live in both realities. God gave us the Ark of the church to keep us from drowning in the raging flood. But He also gave us the church as a place to drown our old selves symbolically in the water of baptism, and to grow in new life, nourished by the never-ending torrent of His grace.”

p. 238

Dreher uses the Rule of St. Benedict to make application as to how we should order our lives today. He warns against a consumerist society, promotes a certain amount of asceticism, and believes in prayer as work and worship. He advocates for groups of Christians working together for the stability and flourishing of their local communities. Religious liberty, according to Dreher, is of vital importance if our cultures are to thrive. He reminds us of examples in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and China under the era of Communism. As Christians in America today, we have a choice.

“Part of the change we have to make is accepting that in the years to come, faithful Christians may have to choose between being a good American and being a good Christian.”

p. 89

“Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good…ceasing to believe that the fate of the American Empire is in our hands frees us to put them to work for the Kingdom of God in our own little shires.”

pp. 98-99

Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for our Common Life by Makoto Fujimura

In 2009 Japanese-American artist Makoto Fujimura was commissioned by Crossways to create an illuminated manuscript, The Four Holy Gospels, in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. It was published in 2011 as part of the English Standard Version. The artist is the founder of the Fujimura Institute and the International Arts Movement, which “creates a new paradigm by lovingly tending to cultural soil and caring for artists as pollinators of the good, true and beautiful.” In his book Culture Care, Fujimura encourages all artists, regardless of media, to produce high quality fiction, film, paintings, sculpture, poetry, etc. in order to cultivate a Creator-honoring culture.

“The God revealed in the Bible has endowed creation with overflowing beauty. There God is not characterized by utility but by abundant love. God desires his creatures-especially those who in Christ are adopted as his children-also to be creative and generative.”

pp. 96-97

As God is the Creator, we are likewise creators, as we bear his image. Fujimura challenges modern-day Christians to move about their spheres in ways they have perhaps not done before. He asks us to look at the entire story of the Bible and to find our place in it today.

“…churches often present the middle two elements (fall and redemption) but rarely connect the whole story of the Bible-that begins in creation and ends in new creation-with the stories of our present lives and communities. We often issue this great book, reducing it to a book of rules, a checklist for earning our way into heaven, or a guidebook for material prosperity or personal well-being. Many churches replace God as Artist with God as CEO of the universe…

Christian communities are thus often busy with programs, but rarely seen as a creative force to be reckoned with, let alone as a power of good that affects whole cities and gives everyone a song to sing.”

pp. 95-96

Fujimura believes in truth telling, but also believes that the Christian has more to tell than just the darkness and grimness of reality. There is more to the real world than brokenness and despair.

“In The face of the undeniable and often unbearable human suffering all around us, we must still affirm beauty and work to make our culture reflect it. This is why a culture care approach will encourage truth telling about alienation, suffering and oppression alongside truth telling about justice, hope, and restoration.”

p. 56

Fujimura invites all artists- and here his definition of an artist or creator is wide and encompassing- to participate in culture care, in creating and restoring.

The third book recommendation, A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping our Kids Navigate Today’s World by John Stonestreet and Brett Kunkle, was just published this year. The authors make a point early in the book of defining culture as morally neutral. There is nothing inherently negative about living within a local culture. On the contrary, some cultures may be extremely moral and beneficial. As creatures, we were created to make something of the world. That is, our culture, not the created elements, the trees, the lakes, the birds, but the art, the cuisines, the sports, the entertainment and myriad of expressions that converge to comprise any one culture. Stonestreet and Kunkle writes particularly to parents, church leaders, youth leaders, and anyone who has spiritual contact with teens. They articulate words of warning and encouragement to both teens and their adults to aid in teaching and training young people to build their faith. They frequently describe us as “image-bearers” in this broken world. Like Fujimura, the authors of A Practical Guide to Culture do not see culture as something to be shunned, but something to take advantage of – a beautiful opportunity on which to construct something beautiful and healing.

“Cultivating is exactly the sort of behavior the Scriptures would have us expect from God’s image bearers… God made humans with the capacity to do something with His world, and that’s exactly what we do. Culture was an integral part of God’s plan for us and His world from the very beginning.”

Celebrating contemporary artists and leaders, the authors give nods to several people involved in various fields who are creating beautiful culture. Educator and Founder and President of Celebrate Kids, Inc., Dr. Kathy Koch, the aforementioned artist Makoto Fujimura, and S.D. Smith, author of the middle grade novel series The Green Ember, and others are all lauded as having accepted the call to be faithful in their sphere, “celebrating, creating, confronting, co-opting, and correcting” in the world.

Addressing contemporary topics like LGBTQ issues, screens and technology, and the media, Stonestreet and Kunkle discuss how Christians should biblically view them. By far the strongest sections of this book are their treatment of racism and Part Four: Christian Worldview Essentials, a final section on teaching our children a Christian worldview. Stonestreet and Kunkle remind us that tolerating racial or ethnic barriers is a sin.

“Do we find our identity in the gospel of Jesus Christ? Have we cultivated a posture of forgiveness and reconciliation or of hostility and bitterness? Do we simply dismiss all concerns about racism without listening carefully to others?

Followers of Jesus don’t have the option of tolerating racial or ethnic barriers. It’s sin. We take our cues from Scripture,not from culture.”

The heart of the book lies in the final section. It could easily be read by an adult to help a teen, or by the teen herself. Stonestreet and Kunkle present the Christian worldview in describing why we believe the Bible to be historically true and accurate, but also why we consider it to be the very words of God. They also help teens navigate other world views, and show them how honest people might disagree with them.

“Classical tolerance actually entails disagreement about important matters, but we ‘tolerate’ those who hold differing opinions, treating one another with respect even while disagreeing.”

In a world that purports tolerance, we see pitifully few discussions which seem to epitomize a tolerant or understanding spirit. How much richer and more beautiful would our cultural soil be if we were able to engage our neighbors with truth, beauty and goodness, all while listening?

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A Book Discussion (and a Sermon Quote): The Green Ember series by S.D. Smith

“The Green Ember burns; the seed of the New World smolders. Healing is on the horizon, but a fire comes first. Bear the flame.”

-S.D. Smith in The Green Ember, p. 364

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We could easily become discouraged. The world has become obsessed with hatred and bigotry and violence. Our public voice of dissonance has no hint of forbearance. Children’s problems are growing weightier, darker, and their literature is reflecting that in the name of “reality,” “daily life” and “awareness.” It is not any worse than previous generations have experienced, but it is certainly a marked characteristic of our current culture. For this very reason I am pleased my family and I have found S.D. Smith. Somehow, through a share on Facebook, or maybe a pop up on my newsfeed, we discovered The Green Ember series.

Building on the Christian fantasy genre, Smith has created an inspiring world of anthropomorphized animals who are attempting to battle the evil in their own world as it spreads throughout the Great Wood, and beyond, into all Natalia.

Rabbits with swords.

After wolves attack their village, set fire to their home, and take off with their parents and baby brother, Heather and Picket begin a journey. It is a coming of age story in which Smith seemingly draws on his love for C.S. Lewis. Not only are they seeking their family, but are likewise in search of a more peaceful world. After a previously unknown Uncle Wilfred and his adopted son Smalls rescue them from the wolves of Redeye Garlackson, they are sequestered in Cloud Mountain, a hidden community determined to preserve the old peace and order of the Great Wood. The rabbits live in true community as they prepare for eventual battle, and continue developing beautiful skills of creativity, artisanship and industry.

“Everywhere they looked, energetic work was underway.” p. 200

Smith utilizes a great deal of Christian imagery throughout the book.

“Of course!” Emma said. “Now, they do other work like everyone else: gardening, cleaning, teaching – whatever’s needed. But all the crafts are honored here. We’re heralds of the Mended Wood.”

The Green Ember, p. 155

We see similar ideas within the early Church.

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…”

Acts 2:44-46

Endearing characters are introduced, such as the slightly bumbling, clay-flinging Eefaw Potter, or the sweet, grandmotherly sage, Old Mrs. Weaver. They slowly begin to help heal and strengthen  the aching hearts of Heather and Picket as they grow into the vision of Cloud Mountain. I won’t reveal what events transpire, but they are distressing to the rabbit siblings, and demonstrate how betrayal and true evil exist even in their fantasy world.

My boys and I completed the first in the series, and are midway through the newly published sequel Ember Falls. I love that even though there are many battle scenes and deaths, this is not too scary a read aloud for my six year old, and yet it has maintained the interest of my twelve year old. I love that family members within the book unabashedly profess their love and affection for one another, that there is not bullying among the allies, but a focused purpose in defeating the evil. To borrow an expression from Andrew Pudewa from the Institute of Excellence in Writing, this is not so much a “twisted” or “broken” story, but a “healing” story. It is a glorious tale of fighting evil in unison. Heather and Picket are fully aware they are still in the middle of their story. They are painfully unaware how it will all end, but the unity of Cloud Mountain has taught them of a greater hope. The Great Wood may have been razed by the destructive fire, but as they repeat triumphantly,

“It shall not be so in the Mended Wood!”

Yes, Old Testament concepts of the remnant  (Jeremiah 42:2, Ezra 9:8) resonate here as the rabbits huddle in their warrens awaiting eagerly for the heir of King Jupiter to appear. We can see the imagery of a broken or a cursed world becoming new and healed and mended.

He glanced at Smalls, then said in a strong , defiant voice, “It will not be so in the Mended Wood!”

Then the group, all but Picket and Heather, each struck the air with a fist and called out in an echoing reply, “The Mended Wood!”

p. 132

“Cursed is the ground because of you…”

Genesis 3:17

“…the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

Romans 8:21

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Revelation 21:5

This past Sunday our minister chose the oddest text, three brief seemingly insignificant verses at the close of the epistle to the Philippians. You can listen to the sermon here if you like. He discussed several observations based on the fact that there were Christians in Caesar’s household. At this particular time, this would have meant the infamous Nero. Among the fact that these people had witnessed blatant evil, but saw themselves ultimately, defiantly as citizens in the kingdom of heaven, they all understood they were a proleptic community.

Proleptic. Living into our future reality as if we are already there. It is living in anticipation of the future promised or hoped for.

“Here we anticipate the Mended Wood, the Great Wood healed. Those painters are seeing what is not yet but we hope will be. They are really seeing, but it’s a different kind of sight. They anticipate the Mended Wood. So do all in this community, in our various ways….This is a place out of time. A window into the past and the future world. We are heralds, you see, my dear, saying what will surely come. And we prepare with all our might, to be ready when once again we are free.”

p. 220

This is the inspiring image The Green Ember series provides us. Through Heather and Picket, Mrs. Weaver, Emma, the gentle doctor-in-training, Uncle Wilfred, Smalls and others, we see a group of rabbits wholly living out the vision of the Mended Wood, even in desperate times. S.D. Smith draws on the beauty of Christ’s church, working together, as if they have already fully entered the Kingdom of Heaven.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

Revelation 21:4

Bear the flame.”