Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey

You don’t have to be a fan of Downton Abbey to enjoy Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle. If you enjoy British manor houses and history, especially the Edwardian era, you’ll like the book whether you’ve seen the series or not. But if you are a Downton Abbey aficionado, you’ll probably enjoy some of the behind-the-scenes information about the setting for the series.

The fictional Downton Abbey is set in a real castle called Highclere, home to the current eighth Earl of Carnarvon and his wife, the author of this book, the Countess of Carnarvon.

An able historian, the Countess draws from diaries, letters, and other information to tell of one of her predecessors, Lady Almina, who married the fifth Earl of Carnavon in 1895.

Almina was the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, a wealthy banker. Though she had been presented at court, “she had not been invited to the highly exclusive, carefully policed social occasions that followed. Almina’s paternity was the subject of a great deal of rumour, and no amount of fine clothes or immaculate manners could gain her access to the salons of the grand ladies who quietly ruled Society. So Almina had not attended all the crucial balls of her debut season, occasions that were designed to allow a young lady to attract the attentions of an eligible gentleman” (p. 4). But somehow she drew the attention of George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert. Apparently her beauty and large dowry overcame the circumstances of her birth. But from all accounts, Almina and George were fortunate to have a genuine marriage where they truly loved each other.

One of Almina’s main functions was to plan and host dinners and gatherings, even for the Prince of Wales, her husband’s friend. She was a master of organization and a charming hostess.

Unlike many women, she traveled with her husband, a man of many and varying interests.

But life changed during WWI. Almina had found a knack for nursing during one of her husband’s illnesses. During the war, she converted part of the castle into a hospital. She wanted the soldiers to feel like guests at a country estate. She knew they needed respite for the mind and soul as well as the body. But she wasn’t just a distant financier: she donned a nurse’s uniform, made rounds with the doctor every morning, and helped in various ways, even bathing gangrenous feet.

After the war, when travel could resume again, Almina and George traveled to Egypt. George had been to Egypt many times, because of his love for travel and the area, but also for his heath. The damp winters of England were unhealthy for him, so he often spent winters in Egypt. He had financed several excavations over the years without finding much for his efforts. He was going to give up, but then his partner in the work, Howard Carter, wanted to go one more time. George agreed, and this time, to their amazement, they found the tomb of Tutankhamun (not a spoiler as this is mentioned early in the book).

Between these major events, the book tells various details about George and Almina’s family, upstairs vs. downstairs life, the progression of the war and its aftermath, details around the Earl’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb, and Almina’s long-term legacy.

Almina grasped early on “that she was only one part of a machine that would long survive her. Part of her initial task on arrival was to understand the history and community that she was becoming a part of” (p. 15). “Everyone at Highclere, whether they worked above or below stairs, on the farm or in the kitchen, had a role to fulfil, and Almina was no different,” (p. 11).

In shows and films about this era, we often see lords of the manor not doing much besides hosting lavish dinner parties and going hunting. But, in fact, they had a lot of responsibility. Before the war, the Earl had an idea where things were going, and took a large sum of money out of the bank. “Considering that he was morally responsible for the welfare of the entire household, as well as the tenants, he refused the offer [of selling some of his land to the government] and set about adding to his flocks and herds. He also bought one and a half tons of cheese and an immense amount of tea. . . Once he had deposited the gold in his bank in Newbury, he was in a position to provide 243 men women and children with all essentials for at least three months” (pp. 125-126).

The current countess adds in the epilogue that even now, “The challenge for Highclere is to ensure that the Castle and its estate businesses remain strong enough to preserve their rich heritage. It is the same need to balance business and conservation that confronted Almina” (p. 292). “It was the economic fallout of the Second World War, combined with new tax structures, that made it impossible to maintain the opulence of previous generations at Highclere Castle,” (p. 301). When Almina’s son became the sixth earl, he had a reduced staff. WWII took a further toll on the whole country in many ways. The current earl and countess live at the castle part of the time and in a cottage at other times. They offer the house for various gatherings and other purposes (like settings for films) not only as a means of upkeep, but to preserve the house’s legacy.

The countess says in the prologue this book “is not a history, although it is set against the exuberance of the Edwardian period, the sombre gravity of the Great War and the early years of recovery after the conflict. It is neither a biography nor a work of fiction, but places characters in historical settings, as identified from letters, diaries, visitor books and household accounts written at the time.”

It took me a little while to get into this book. The first part was largely informational. But by the time the book got to the war and the castle becoming a hospital, my attention was more engaged. Overall, I really enjoyed it.

I got the Kindle version of this book a while back during a sale, but got the audiobook recently during another sale. Wanda McCaddon is a wonderful narrator for the book: I had previously heard her narration of several other classics.

There is a sequel to this book which I don’t have yet but would like to read some day: Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey. Lady Catherine was Almina’s daughter-in-law, an American who was not an heiress and wasn’t raised in anything like the society she married into. Her husband inherited the estate at a fairly young age, so they were both thrust into big responsibilities sooner than expected. Then they had to manage during WWII and the subsequent changes to the country and their lives.

If you’re interested in the castle, the countess has an Instagram account for it here: She shares some of the hidden nooks and crannies as well as the gatherings they currently host and other interesting details.

This book could fit in the Celebrity category of the the Nonfiction Reader Challenge. George and Almina were celebrities in their day, Downton Abbey has brought a new celebrity to the castle, and the current The Earl and Countess are celebrities now.

The London House

In Katherine Reay’s novel, The London House, Caroline Payne was working through an ordinary day until she received a phone call from an old college friend, Mat. He wanted to meet with her about her aunt, of all people. Caroline had been named for great aunt, the twin sister of her grandmother. But the older Caroline had died of polio when she was a child. What could Mat possibly want to know about her?

Mat was working on an article where he inadvertently uncovered information claiming that Caroline’s great aunt had been a Nazi collaborator who ran off with her German lover. As Caroline refutes Mat’s claim, Mat brings up evidence that looks genuine.

Caroline asks for time to research the issue on her own. She flies to London to the home of her late grandmother, now occupied by her mother. They find letters between the twins and diaries of Caroline’s grandmother, Margaret. As Caroline wades through them, she is taken back to the 40s and the twins’ coming of age in a life of privilege before war hit. But life-threatening illness and family tension separated them. Some of that tension remained to the current day in the distanced relationship Caroline has with her own parents. Will Caroline’s discoveries heal old wounds or make them worse?

I don’t know if this would be classified as a time-slip novel, but with some of the letters and diaries, we’re transported back to the setting and activities of the twins’ earlier days. In that sense, it’s also partly an epistolary novel. Katherine has a note at the end of the book sharing what elements were true or fictional.

I enjoyed the uncovering of clues in the older Caroline’s letters and the dynamics that brought healing to the younger Caroline’s family. Although WWII seems to be the setting of more novels than any other era, I do enjoy them even while I sometimes long for glimpses of other time frames.

It’s funny how certain themes seem to go around at the same time. For instance, I had never heard of the Monuments Men (who recovered art stolen by the Nazis) until the movie made about them a few years ago. But just this year I’ve read a book about them and seen them mentioned in others. Now there seems to be a theme of dressmakers involved in WWII, with The Paris Dressmaker by Kristy Cambron and this one and others. I hadn’t realized this book was going to involve haute couture and dressmaking until I got into it.

All of Katherine’s other books that I have read have been Christian fiction to some degree. I didn’t know that this one was not until I saw a review on Goodreads noting that this book was published under the new Harper Muse imprint and not Christian fiction. That’s not a problem in itself. Christian authors have many reasons for writing stories that aren’t blatantly Christian. Katherine does mention C. S. Lewis’s radio talks of the time which were later transformed into Mere Christianity.

But I was disturbed by a couple of elements in the book. One of the older Caroline’s letters describes her first sexual encounter. Thankfully, it stops before it gets too explicit. But the younger Caroline suspects her grandmother tore the rest of the description out of the letter because she was a “prude.” Then, the older Caroline was employed by Elsa Schiaparelli, a rival to Coco Chanel. She mentions the sexual innuendoes of some of the designer’s work, especially those in collaboration with Salvador Dali—and then proceeds to bring one beyond innuendo and spells out the sexual connotation of it. I could have done without that.

So, I have mixed emotions about the book. The story overall was good, but I was disappointed the sexual elements. Even though they probably would be considered tame by most other modern secular fiction, they were still too much for me.

I listened to the audiobook nicely read by Madeleine Maby, but then also caught the Kindle version on sale and read parts in it as well.

Something Good

The tagline for Vanessa Miller’s novel, Something Good, is “Three Women. Two Mistakes. One Surprising Friendship That Changes Everything.”

Alexis Marshall seemingly has it all: a good husband, family, home, and a generous source of income. She appreciates her husband’s rescuing her from an unstable home life. But it’s a strain living up to his standard of perfectionism.

Then the unthinkable happens. While fumbling to respond to a text while driving, Alexis loses control. The resulting accident leaves a young man paralyzed.

Alexis is consumed with guilt and wants to do something to help the young man. But her husband is about to make a lucrative deal selling the tech company he built. If it becomes public that Alexis caused an accident, the sale would be in jeopardy.

Marquita Lewis is a mouthy teenager who doesn’t understand why she can’t keep a job. She’s determined not to live in shelters as her mom did. She wants better for her baby son. When she loses her latest job, she decides maybe it’s time to confront the baby’s father.

Trish Robinson’s life was turned upside-down when her son, Jon-Jon, was paralyzed. He was in college on a football scholarship with a good chance of going pro. But that potential bright future is gone now. He is so depressed, he’s not even trying in his physical therapy sessions.

Trish’s husband, Dwayne, is enraged at the woman who caused the accident and feels she should be doing more. Trish thinks they should forgive and forget and move on. She’s doing all she can to help Jon-Jon, and now Dwayne is pressuring her to get a job. But how can she leave Jon-Jon alone when he can’t take care of himself?

Trish prays for something good to come from all their trials. But the answer comes in a surprising way.

It was enjoyable to read of friendships that crossed so many differences–race, economic status, personality. etc. It was difficult and took time, but the characters learned and grew through their interactions.

And it was especially refreshing to see a Christian fiction book that was all-out Christian. I know some stories call for subtlety, but some are so subtle that it’s not clear who the characters have faith in or what kind of faith they have. I’m thankful Vanessa created her characters to express their faith in natural and believable ways. Even though the faith element is clear, it’s not heavy-handed.

A couple of sub-plots deal with mental illness in a couple of the families.

My favorite quote from the book: “Sometimes our greatest tragedies become the greatest gifts we can give back to the world” (p. 298, Kindle version).

I had not heard of Vanessa Miller before seeing this book on a Kindle sale, but I am glad I did. I enjoyed this book quite a lot.

Where I End

Katherine Clark was visiting her son’s school, playing tag with some children on the playground. One boy climbed up on the jungle gym and jumped off onto Kate’s head. They both fell to the ground. The boy’s arm was fractured, but Kate’s neck was broken, and she was instantly paralyzed from the neck down.

Kate tells her story in Where I End: A Story of Tragedy, Truth, and Rebellious Hope. She writes, “Strictly speaking, this is not an autobiography, nor is it a piece of journalism about a particular event. Rather, it is a series of reflections—broadly but not strictly chronological—in the wake of an event that has shaped my story as well as the stories of those who love me” (p. 10).

I appreciate that she says her story does not have a fairly-tale ending and she’s not a fairy-tale heroine. “It’s a tale penned in grief and sorrow. But is also a story abounding in hope, beauty, and the miraculous. It is at times humiliating” (p. 13).

Kate intersperses the details of what happened to her on that fateful day and the aftermath of surgery and physical therapy with reflections of the effects of her injury on her children, the inevitable “why” question, coming to terms with the label “quadriplegic,” wrestling with God’s will and His mysteries, and so on.

Her doctors had said she would never walk again. But as her healing surpassed what was expected, she felt almost guilty that she was progressing while so many others she had met in the hospital were not. When someone urges her to tell her story in a small group, often the next person will say something like, “Well, I don’t have anything to follow that,” as if testimonies were a contest. Kate writes, “I hate when the story severs discussion. I hate when the story culminates in a comparison of cross bearing, and as a result, a chasm between us” (p. 198). Kate didn’t want to draw attention to herself, yet her injury and partial recovery were part of her story, her life now. Her history was divided between before and after the accident. As one friend told Kate’s husband, “The only faithful response to living this story is to tell it’ (p. 9).

When one suffers an injury such as Kate’s, the big question is whether the patient will walk again. If that milestone is reached, the patient is thought to be healed. But the patient can still experience life-altering symptoms. In one chapter, Kate details the symptoms she still experiences and the things she still can’t do. She had been in good shape before the accident, a runner, and could no longer count on the body she was once so sure of.

It wasn’t until this chapter that I realized some parallels between my situation and Kate’s. When I had transverse myelitis, I could walk again after a few months of physical therapy and a lot of prayer. But I still have balance issues and numbness in both lower legs and my left hand. I knew exactly what she was talking about when she mentioned her hands feel like she has gloves on all the time, making fine motor skill difficult (though in my case it’s just my left hand, which is not my dominant one, thankfully).

Kate writes also of the mix of feelings she experiences: joy for the amount of healing she has recovered, yet lament for the loss. “I live in the midst of this tension—gratitude and grief—every day” (p. 212).

Though grief remains a part of us, we should not need nor should we desire to be continually affirmed in our sadness. That doesn’t mean we won’t sometimes speak of our sorrow or that we won’t continue to grieve. Some wounds we bear until heaven. It merely means that grief takes its proper place in our stories, and its role is never that of the star, nor does it play the part of the savior.

We live in the shadow, dear reader, but the darkness cannot overcome the light (p. 127).

God shined His light through His Word and His people as they came alongside to help in various ways and to share truth.

I so appreciated Kate’s testimony of God’s grace in hard circumstances.

This book fits the Medical Memoir category of the Nonfiction Reader Challenge.

Be Courageous (Luke 14-24)

The gospel of Luke is so full of good things that Warren Wiesrabe divided his commentary on Luke into two books. I mentioned the first, Be Compassionate (Luke 1-13): Let the World Know Jesus Cares, earlier in the month. Its companion is Be Courageous (Luke 14-24): Take Heart From Christ’s Example.

Luke 14 drops us right in the middle of Jesus’ ministry, with His healing of a man and then teaching through several parables. The next several chapters continue in much the same way. In addition to parables, Jesus teaches His disciples about the need to take up their cross and follow Him. In chapter 21, Jesus prophesies about the future.

Up to this point, the Pharisees, scribes, etc., have been keeping a close eye on Jesus, trying to trip Him up with questions, challenging His actions. In Chapter 22, things escalate with Judas offering to betray Jesus.

The narrative slows down in the next few chapters to focus on the events leading up to Jesus’ death. He celebrates the Passover with His disciples, institutes the Lord’s supper, is arrested, tried, and is found innocent, yet He is still given over to be crucified. Chapter 23 tells of His crucifixion and burial, and chapter 24 tells of His resurrection, appearance to the disciples, and ascension back to heaven..

There’s a lot in each of those chapters. In our discussion of five chapters at a time at church, we could only hit a few highlights in each one.

Luke’s books were written to his friend, Theophilus, to provide “an orderly account . . . that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4).

Wiersbe ably explains things along the way, shares insights, and harmonizes Luke’s account with that of the other gospel writers. Some of his comments:

Our modern world is very competitive, and it is easy for God’s people to become more concerned about profit and loss than they are about sacrifice and service. “What will I get out of it?” may easily become life’s most important question (Matt. 19: 27ff.). We must strive to maintain the unselfish attitude that Jesus had and share what we have with others (pp. 21-22, Kindle version).

What does it mean to “carry the cross”? It means daily identification with Christ in shame, suffering, and surrender to God’s will. It means death to self, to our own plans and ambitions, and a willingness to serve Him as He directs (John 12: 23–28). A “cross” is something we willingly accept from God as part of His will for our lives (p. 26).

This chapter makes it clear that there is one message of salvation: God welcomes and forgives repentant sinners. But these parables also reveal that there are two aspects to this salvation. There is God’s part: The shepherd seeks the lost sheep, and the woman searches for the lost coin. But there is also man’s part in salvation, for the wayward son willingly repented and returned home. To emphasize but one aspect is to give a false view of salvation, for both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man must be considered (see John 6: 37; 2 Thess. 2: 13–14) (pp. 31-21).

Sin promises freedom, but it only brings slavery (John 8: 34); it promises success, but brings failure; it promises life, but “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6: 23). The boy thought he would “find himself,” but he only lost himself! When God is left out of our lives, enjoyment becomes enslavement (p. 36).

Peter’s self-confident boasting is a warning to us that none of us really knows his own heart (Jer. 17: 9) and that we can fail in the point of our greatest strength (p. 129).

I never noticed this before, but both the ESV Study Bible and Wiersbe point out that Luke begins and ends in the temple. In the first chapter, the birth of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, is announced to his stunned father, Zechariah. In the last, Jesus’ followers “worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.

May we follow in their footsteps, joyfully worshiping and blessing Him.

Aging with Grace

In Aging with Grace: Flourishing in an Anti-Aging Culture, Sharon Betters and Susan Hunt “want readers to ask, ‘What if aging, though challenging, is not a season of purposelessness, but rather an opportunity to discover our true identity in a way we couldn’t in the first half of life? What if we purposefully prepare for the afternoon of life while we are in the first half of life?'” (p. 18, Kindle version). The book is helpful for those already in their later years as well as those wanting to prepare for them adequately.

Susan writes, “The world tells us aging is our enemy, and we should fight it; the Bible says it’s our friend: ‘Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days'” (Job 12: 12)” (p. 27).

God promises the righteous “still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green” (Psalm 92:14). Susan acknowledges that, with the physical problems that often accompany getting older, we don’t always feel fruitful, full of sap, and green. But “this promise of growth does not mock my physical reality; it transcends it” (p. 28).

The gospel imperative to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3: 18) does not have an age limit. The same grace that gives us new life in Christ empowers that life to develop, mature, and flourish. We never finish growing. There is always more grace to experience and more to know of Christ’s love. This growth is gradual. We don’t produce it, but as we trust and obey God’s word, we can anticipate it (p. 28).

Susan and Sharon alternate chapters. Some chapters delve into the Bible’s teaching about getting older, particularly Psalm 92 and 71. The chapters in-between take a closer look at some of the older women in the Bible: Anna, The “matriarchs of the exile,” Elizabeth, and Naomi.

Anna was the older widow who came up when Mary and Joseph brought baby Jesus to the temple in Luke 2. At first the elderly Simeon rejoiced that he had lived to see “the Lord’s Christ” and prophesied about Him. Part of that prophesy was to Mary, that “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35). I hadn’t thought about it this way before, and the Bible doesn’t specifically say that Anna spoke to Mary, but Sharon proposes that Anna’s coming right at that moment helped comfort Mary.

Simeon told Mary the hard reality that a sword would pierce her soul. Can you sense Mary holding her baby boy a little tighter, her throat constricting and tears welling up? This young mother needed a tangible touch of God’s tender love. At this intense moment we meet eighty-four-year-old Anna. God providentially met Mary’s need through an old woman who hoped in God. At exactly the right moment, Anna shows up (p. 48).

The exile Sharon refers to occurred after Israel had repeatedly rejected God and turned to idols. God had sent prophets and sometimes delivered his people into the hands of their enemies. But even if they repented for a while, they eventually turned away from God again. So God allowed Nebuchadnezzar to remove them from their land and take most of them to Babylon for 70 years. God tells the people as a whole in Jeremiah 29 to settle down, plant, build, marry, and pray for the land of their exile. The older people would have realized they would die in exile and never see their country again. Again, I don’t think the Bible specifically mentions the older women in this scenario, but Sharon posits what they might have done.

Though the elderly women might not be able to physically build houses, their status in the family gave them a key opportunity to influence the attitudes and stability of their households. They could be life-givers or life-takers. They could choose to joyfully embrace God’s call to cultivate a godly, peaceful community or they could choose bitterness, whining, and complaining, and so can we (p. 84).

A few of the other quotes that stood out to me:

There are many things we can no longer do as we age, but age does not keep us from fulfilling our purpose to glorify and enjoy God. An ever-growing knowledge of God’s undeserved love—his grace—changes our motivation: “The love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5: 14)” (p. 39).

Repenting women who find rest in Jesus become life-giving women who flourish as gatherers. When our heart is Christ’s home, we can become homey places for troubled hearts to find refuge,” (p. 70).

The world equates flourishing with activity and productivity. A biblical perspective does not mean we do more; it means we become more like Christ. We mature in faith, hope, and love” (p. 98).

As counterintuitive as it sounds, flourishing is a slow and progressive death that brings abundant life. Our new heart has new desires. Even as our physical bodies grow old, God causes our new desires to flourish as they are fertilized by his word and Spirit, and we die to self-centered desires, dreams, and demands (p. 99).

As life slows down, we can become controlling and critical, or we can reflect on God’s sovereign love that chose and planted us in his house. The more we live in the light of the reality of his presence, the more we flourish as his Spirit fills us with sap to nurture and encourage others to flourish (p. 105).

One joy of aging is a stillness of soul that helps us see the small moments as sacred moments when we can reflect God’s glory to someone else (p. 145).

The plot of dirt where we die [to self] is also the place where we flourish (p. 146).

To me, flourishing means gratefully accepting the past and present trials God gives me, and looking for opportunities to use what I have learned to help others. . . Whatever situations we find ourselves in as we age, there are nuggets of gold in our past that we can pass on to others. God never wastes a trial, a grief, or a wilderness wandering. We flourish when we give to others the lessons God has taught us (p. 151).

Naomi did not know her ordinary little family would become an extraordinary link to the coming Messiah. In fact, she died without knowing how her seemingly insignificant life fit into God’s magnificent eternal tapestry (p. 154).

At the end of each chapter, the authors include testimonies from older women in various circumstances who share how they found God’s grace to flourish. 

I very much enjoyed this book and it’s encouragement that we can keep growing and flourishing at any age. I’m pretty sure I’ll be reading it again in years to come to keep reminding me of its truths.

Updated to add: I forgot to mention that I’ve been reading this book in conjunction with InstaEncouragements. They’ve been going through the book and summarizing chapters each Tuesday the last few weeks. The comments have been enlightening as well. This book was on my to-read list anyway, and when I saw they were going through it, I jumped in. Reading with a group helps reinforce what I learn plus draws out things I missed. So, if you read this book, you might want to check out those posts as well.

Shadows In the Mind’s Eye

In Janyre Tromp’s novel, Shadows in the Mind’s Eye, Sam Mattas is on his way home from WWII. He’s changed and scarred physically and mentally by what he has experienced, seen, and had to do. He jumps at loud sounds. He’s not always sure what’s real and what’s imagined.

But he’s going home. Back to his dear wife, Annie, and Rosie, the daughter he’s looking forward to getting to know. Good, hard, familiar work on the farm and peace and quiet will set him right soon. He hopes.

Annie has dealt with trauma of her own even before her marriage. Her abusive father was a corrupt judge. When she was a girl, she found her dead mother in a lake. But Sam rescued her from all that. Life was hard while he was away. She had to scrabble for supplies, do all the farm work herself, and take in her mother-in-law.

But Sam is on his way home. She knows, from what her mother-in-law told her about her husband’s return from war, that it might take a while for things to return to normal. But everything will be all right.

Except everything is not all right.

Much has changed, and their wounds run deep. They have to learn new rhythms and ways of relating.

Then Sam starts seeing things. Lights in the woods, men in the shadows. Sam is convinced that something nefarious is happening out there, and he must protect his family. However, his delusions only put them in harm’s way.

But what if he is not actually hallucinating?

The chapters switch back and forth between Sam’s and Annie’s points of view. Their mistakes and learning how to deal with each other is interwoven with the suspense of what’s actually happening behind their house, not knowing whom to trust, and everything not seeming as it appears.

I had not heard of Janyre Tromp until Anita interviewed her about this book on a podcast, Working Through Trauma in Literature and Real Life. Janyre’s experience with caregiver trauma and her grandfather’s experiences after the war led her to study PTSD. Her book was not out yet at that time, but I pre-ordered it then.

Some of the quotes that stood out to me:

Happily ever after don’t happen lessen each person in marriage works. It’s like a team of horses, They both have to carry their own load (p. 155).

Once you let yourself start feeling, it all breaks loose (p.147).

I stood quiet, soaking in her peace. Every motion was calm, sure, She knew where she belonged, and that sent her roots deep into the ground, able to weather whatever life threw at her (p. 122).

You’d think holding joy right up against sadness would shatter a body. But it don’t. Joy…it sneaks in all around where things is broke, sticks it all together and finds a way to make you whole. It’s where things is broke that joy shows through.

My one criticism is that characters say “Lord Almighty” and such. In my book, taking the name of the Lord of glory and using it as an expression is taking His Name in vain. If something is done in vain, it’s useless; it hasn’t accomplished the purpose for which it was meant. God’s name in meant to be reverenced, used in prayer, in worship, or in talking about Him.

Other than that, I really enjoyed the book. Parts near the end were quite suspenseful. I liked the realistic way Sam and Annie reached out to each other yet made mistakes as well.

The Paris Dressmaker

The Paris Dressmaker by Kristi Cambron is a tale of two women in WWII Paris.

Lila de Laurent is a dressmaker and budding designer for Chanel. But the salon closed its doors as Nazis took over Paris. Working odd jobs for a while, Lila is surprised by a call from an old friend from Chanel who has become a collaborator with the Germans. She needs a gown for a party and knows Lila’s style. At first Lila is repulsed, but then decides this opportunity affords her the chance to pick up information for La Resistance.

As Lila flees from danger one night, she runs into the man she once loved, whom she thought was dead. But whose side is he on now? Can she trust him with her secrets?

Sandrine Paquet’s husband is a French soldier, and she lives with her son and mother-in-law. The place where she works is taken over by the Nazis, who demand that the employees catalog and crate art work the Nazis have stolen from French Jews. The German captain, von Hiller, has taken an interest in her. To refuse his attention outright would be fatal, but she takes pains to be cooperative while keeping him at a distance so things don’t get too personal. Neighbors misunderstand, however, and accuse her of being a collaborator. What they don’t know is that she and her boss are working for La Resistance as well, right under the Nazi’s noses. Though their shop doesn’t deal with textiles, one of the items that came to them was a beautiful blush Chanel gown. In a few moments alone, Sandrine searches the gown and finds a cryptic note initialed LDL sewn in the hemline.

Kristy Cambron is one of the best storytellers around. She weaves historic and personal details into the lives of these two women with suspense, pathos, and a touch of humor. The faith element is subtle but vital.

I miss the days of linear stories that start at the beginning and unfold until the end. But that’s not the fashion these days. The scenes alternate between the two women at different times in their lives, before and during the war. It was a little hard to keep up with at first until I learned to pay attention to the dates at the beginning of each chapter.

The author’s afterword shares which elements were historical and which were fiction, something I love to see in historical novels.

The Kindle version of this book is free with Amazon prime membership at the moment, and I got the audiobook at a 2-books-for-one-credit sale. With the Whispersync function, it was nice to delve into whichever one worked best for me in a given situation and pick up where I left off in the other.

Kristy has written another winner, in my opinion.

Be Compassionate (Luke 1-13)

In the gospel bearing his name, Luke, “having followed all things closely for some time past,” undertakes “to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4).

Luke is a doctor and very detailed in his account. He is also a Gentile, and he emphasizes the availability of the gospel to everyone.

Luke begins before Jesus’ birth with the prediction of John the Baptist’s birth. Luke progresses the angel’s announcement to Mary that she would bear the long-awaited Messiah, the well-known Christmas story, Jesus’ ministry and teaching, death, burial, resurrection and ascension.

Because the book of Luke is so full, Warren Wiersbe divided up his commentary on Luke into two books. The first is Be Compassionate (Luke 1-13): Let the World Know Jesus Cares.

Wiersbe says Luke’s “key message is, ‘For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost’ (Luke 19: 10). He presents Jesus Christ as the compassionate Son of Man, who came to live among sinners, love them, help them, and die for them” (p. 16).

In the passage about Jesus’ temptation, Wiersbe says:

Satan questioned the Father’s love when he tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread. He questioned His hope when he offered Jesus the world’s kingdoms this side of the cross (see Heb. 12: 1–3). Satan questioned the Father’s faithfulness when he asked Jesus to jump from the temple and prove that the Father would keep His promise (Ps. 91: 11–12). Thus, the enemy attacked the three basic virtues of the Christian life—faith, hope, and love (p. 52).

I’ve often heard that this passage shows Satan tempting Jesus with “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” that 1 John 2:16 describes. I think that’s true as well as Wiersbe’s viewpoint.

In response to Jesus answering Satan’s temptation with Scripture, Wiersbe says:

Jesus balanced Scripture with Scripture to get the total expression of God’s will. If you isolate verses from their contexts, or passages from the total revelation of Scripture, you can prove almost anything from the Bible. Almost every false cult claims to be based on the teachings of the Bible (p. 53).

Some of the other quotes that stood out to me:

It was our Lord’s custom to attend public worship, a custom His followers should imitate today (Heb. 10: 24–25). He might have argued that the “religious system” was corrupt, or that He didn’t need the instruction, but instead, He made His way on the Sabbath to the place of prayer (p. 54).

Jesus was not teaching that poverty, hunger, persecution, and tears were blessings in themselves. If that were true, He would never have done all He did to alleviate the sufferings of others. Rather, Jesus was describing the inner attitudes we must have if we are to experience the blessedness of the Christian life (p. 80).

Life is built on character, and character is built on decisions. But decisions are based on values, and values must be accepted by faith (p. 81).

There is a difference between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is a matter of the mind: We cannot understand what God is doing or why He is doing it. Unbelief is a matter of the will: We refuse to believe God’s Word and obey what He tells us to do. “Doubt is not always a sign that a man is wrong,” said Oswald Chambers. “It may be a sign that he is thinking.” In John’s case, his inquiry was not born of willful unbelief, but of doubt nourished by physical and emotional strain (p. 93).

There are many people today who criticize the church for not “changing the world” and solving the economic, political, and social problems of society. What they forget is that God changes His world by changing individual people. History shows that the church has often led the way in humanitarian service and reform, but the church’s main job is to bring lost sinners to the Savior. Everything else is a by-product of that. Proclaiming the gospel must always be the church’s first priority (p. 94).

Power is the ability to accomplish a task, and authority is the right to do it, and Jesus gave both to His apostles (p. 117).

It is impossible to be wrong about Jesus and right with God (p. 121).

We must first say no to ourselves—not simply to pleasures or possessions, but to self—and then take up our cross and follow Christ daily. This means to be identified with Him in surrender, suffering, and sacrifice (p. 122).

[After the transfiguration] As wonderful as these experiences are, they are not the basis for a consistent Christian life. That can come only through the Word of God. Experiences come and go, but the Word remains. Our recollection of past experiences will fade, but God’s Word never changes. The farther we get from these events, the less impact they make on our lives. That was why the Father said, “Hear him!” and why Peter made this same emphasis on the Word in his report (2 Peter 1: 12–21). Our own personal “transfiguration” comes from inner renewal (Rom. 12: 1–2), and that comes from the Word (2 Cor. 3: 18) (pp. 125-126).

I appreciate Dr. Wiersbe’s insights and commentary on the Scriptures.

Objectionable Elements in Books and Film

Christians vary widely in what they consider objectionable material.

On one side are those who don’t restrict themselves from reading or watching just about anything. Any suggestion that some material might not be appropriate is met with accusations of legalism and censorship.

On the other side are those who, if they applied their preferences to everything they read, would not even be able to read their Bibles.

Most of us are somewhere in-between.

The difficulty is that the Bible doesn’t give us specifics such as: these words are okay, these words are not, these words are tolerable up to three times. Only this amount of skin is acceptable. These sins are okay to read about, but these are off limits.

So we have to draw from other truths and principles in the Bible. But we have to make sure we’re not pulling one thread and disregarding others.

Some would immediately go to Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” A great verse. Our mental health would be much better if we followed this verse.

But is this verse saying we can’t watch war movies? Or murder mysteries? Or any book that has sexual sin in it?

The Bible contains a great deal of violence. Here are just a few samples:

And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out (Judges 3:21-22).

At that time Menahem sacked Tiphsah and all who were in it and its territory from Tirzah on, because they did not open it to him. Therefore he sacked it, and he ripped open all the women in it who were pregnant (1 Kings 15:15).

So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia (Revelation 14:19-20).

The Bible tells us about sexual sin. Judah visited a prostitute, which was bad enough; but then he discovered she was his daughter-in-law. Amnon was guilty of both rape and incest when he assaulted his half-sister, Tamar. David called for the wife of Uriah, one of his mighty men, while Uriah was away in a battle. After committing adultery, impregnating Bathsheba, then trying to cover the whole affair up, David had Uriah put in the hottest part of the battle so he would be killed. Then David married Bathsheba. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.

And the Bible shows us an array of deception, injustice, and just about every kind of sin imaginable.

Some might say, there you go. All of this is in the Bible, so it’s okay to watch or read it in other venues.

Well, before we jump to that conclusion, we have a couple of things to consider.

The Bible is honest in reporting people’s sins because none of us is without sin. This honest acknowledgment of sin shows our need for a Savior.

But no sin in the Bible is there gratuitously, just for scintillation and excitement. Only the bare minimum of details is given to convey what happened. When sin is portrayed, it’s shown as wrong.

God often cites violence as one reason for His judgment. Have you ever noticed, for instance, that one reason for Noah’s flood was that “the earth was filled with violence”? (Genesis 6:9-14).

We don’t see details of David and Bathsheba or Amnon and Tamar in the bedroom. The warnings against the “strange woman” of Proverbs are enough to show her danger but not enough to cause one to lust just from hearing about her.

So just because a sin is cited in the Bible doesn’t mean it is okay. If you read the whole counsel of God, you see what He thinks about each one.

But because people do sin, the Bible tells us about it.

I heard someone say once that they didn’t read a certain book because two characters committed adultery.

Personally, I would not toss a book or movie just because there was adultery or murder in it. It would depend on how it was handled. Is the author presenting the sin as okay or wrong? Are there disturbing details that put negative images in my head? Is the need for forgiveness and redemption shown?

I don’t really care for books or shows where adultery is the main story arc. However, I have read books that show the devastating effects of adultery on the wife and children who were left behind in a broken marriage. I’ve read some that showed the hard work needed to come to a place of forgiveness. And I have seen redemptive stories where the broken couple worked through their issues and the marriage was restored. These things happen to real people in our world today. They can help us empathize with what people in such situations go through.

And the same could be said of most other sins in literature or shows. A murder mystery is more about figuring out the puzzle of “whodunnit” rather than glorifying murder. Most portray murder and violence as wrong: the whole purpose of the plot is finding the offender so he or she can be brought to justice. But there are shows and books that play up the violent part of such a story, seeming to delight in the gore or the perverted thinking of the perpetrator.

After the success of the 1985 film version of Anne of Green Gables, starring Megan Follows, a TV series called Road to Avonlea aired based on some other books of L. M. Montgomery. A friend was telling someone how much she enjoyed the series, when her companion said she didn’t watch it because of some characters’ tendency to gossip. I did not see the series. I know from reading many of L.M.M.’s books that gossip was a besetting sin of many characters in her stories. But gossip wasn’t presented as admirable or acceptable. In fact, innocent characters suffered due to gossip. So whether or not the author spelled out the wrongness of gossip, she showed it. On the other hand, if watching this program caused this woman to be tempted to gossip or to think lightly of it, then she was right in avoiding the show.

1 Corinthians 10:6 says, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” Paul then warns against the practices of some in the OT: idolatry, sexual immorality, putting God to the test, and grumbling (funny, but we don’t see people objecting to the latter in modern literature). Then he says in verse 11, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” Just as the Bible teaches from both good and bad examples, so can stories in film or literature.

So how do we determine what’s acceptable or not in reading or viewing? How the wrong is handled is one factor. Is it written in a way to glorify the wrong, giving more details than necessary, showing no consequences? Does it cause me to sin in watching or reading? This is my objection to “steamy” scenes even in Christian fiction, not to mention secular works. Even if I can discern between right and wrong in the work, does the wrong lure me or put wrong words or images or desires in my head?

These principles guide me as well:

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up (1 Corinthians 10:23).

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12).

If a show or book is tearing me down rather than building me up or bringing me under the power of wrong, I need to step away from it.

Another guideline is conscience. Conscience is not a perfect guide and needs to be trained by the Word of God. But we shouldn’t ignore conscience lest it become seared or numbed.

Of course, this topic could be expanded exponentially. We haven’t even touched on wrong philosophies. Reading the Bible and other books helps us develop discernment. But we don’t have to restrict our reading to what we agree with. We read everything with Christian eyes even if what we’re reading isn’t Christian. We evaluate as we go along. But if I sense a wrong philosophy is filtering into my thinking, it might be time to pull back.

Though I’ve been discussing secular books and shows, these same principles guide in Christian viewing and reading as well. Once I picked up a book aimed at helping teen guys battle lust. I scanned the first few pages to see whether I might bring the book home for my then-teen boys. But then I put the book back down. I felt if they didn’t have a problem with lust before they started, they would before they finished. The authors were way too explicit in describing the kinds of problems and situations they wanted to counsel guys to avoid.

These are some of the guidelines I use in evaluating what to watch or listen to. What are some of yours?


I’m thankful to Dr. Ronald Horton, chair of the English department of my college when I was there and my Literary Criticism teacher, for a lecture on this topic when I was a student. What he taught formed the foundation of my thinking. Some years later, his lecture was turned into a booklet and sold in the university bookstore. When I was about 3/4 of the way through this post, I decided to see if he had posted his notes online anywhere. I found them here on A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements in a chapter from a larger volume titled Christian Education: Its Mandate and Mission. If you’re interested and have time, this is an excellent read. He goes into a lot more detail and nuance than I can here. 

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)