Fan fiction vs Originality in literature? My honest opinion.

I’m all for fan fiction.  If you don’t know what fan fiction is, then here is a helpful link telling you what it is.  If you’d like a more humorous explanation of what fan fiction is, then watch this Youtuber’s insights into how weird it can be (apologies about some of the language and double entendres – I found the majority of it funny.  If you’re over 26, then you probably won’t understand why):

Namely, fan fiction is online adaptations of novels, films, manga, anime, Youtube videos and TV shows, written by people mostly in their teens or by adults who want to hone their creative writing skills.  They can be read for free on the internet.  The most popular fan fiction adaptations by far are of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series (yay!) and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga. (not so yay!)  I used to write fan fiction when I was a teenager, but never put it up online, and (unless I heavily edit them) they will never see the light of day.  I basically took the well known stories of Robin Hood, King Arthur and  Shakespeare’s Hamlet, added a new character into the mix, and charted what happened.  I remember sharing them with my sister to read, and her telling me that they were rubbish.  And now, I agree that they could be a lot better.

But here’s why I think fan fiction should be encouraged.  Firstly, it’s another step forward in the fascinating process of literary adaptations.  And far from stealing ideas, if you trace the literacy ancestry of the Robin Hood, King Arthur or Troy tales, the versions we have now are all essentially fan fiction.  What a wealth of material which can be read for enjoyment, adapted further into drama on stage or screen, or even adapted into modern day scenarios for a digital internet audience! Secondly, fan fiction encourages people to use their imaginations, to step outside what they’re used to and use their brains.  Thirdly, it subtly encourages people to be more literate, in what they read and in how they write for an audience.

However, what irks me most about fan fiction is that a lot of it is poor.  It has to be well written and original enough for it to really stand out.  And for it to be published and for the author, literary agent and publishers to profit financially from it, it should be well written and original.  I’ve never read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I’m assuming that there must be something original about it for it to have been picked from hundreds of scripts, become a global success and to have a much anticipated film adaptation.

You may have noticed that it’s been a while since my last review.  This is because I’ve just spent the last month settling into my first ever full time paid job.  Most of the evenings in September have been spent curled up in front of the TV, watching my first ever episodes of Downton Abbey, a myriad of shows on E4 or copious amounts of BBC.  But I have read two books as well.

sisters of the east end the queen's promise

Sisters of the East End by Helen Batten is an amalgamation of real-life stories from the sisters of St John the Divine.  Batten creates a fictional character called Sister Catherine Mary, whose first person narrative we follow, from her unsuccessful schooldays, to midwifery, to taking her vows as a nun, and as she travels abroad for missionary work.

The Queen’s Promise by Lyn Andrews charts the life of the fragile Henry Percy, whose first (and only) love is Anne Boleyn, whom we all know is one of Henry VIII’s many wives.  Andrews goes to great lengths to create a historically accurate fictional account (if that makes sense), and also adds a couple of fictional characters into the mix.  Depending on your literary tastes, these texts could both potentially be fantastic.

But I felt let down.  Yes, it’s not classic literature by any means.  I don’t think they’re texts which will stand the test of time.  And there are plenty of great books like that.  But I loved reading the original Call the Midwife books in my last year of university.  And I enjoyed the bodice ripping The Other Boleyn Girl back in 2008, when I was just starting Sixth Form and had to read it before starting my History A-Level course.  And I wonder if these far more prominent books overshadow these later ones.  In their shadows, Andrews’ and Batten’s texts on the same subject matter almost seem like properly published fan fiction.

I caught up with two of my course mates from university yesterday over tea and cake, having not seen them for a while.  We all have gained English Literature degrees, but still love books and reading.  One works in Waterstones, and the other is about to start work as a trainee librarian. I was telling them about this book blog, and about these two books, but told them that I do feel bad for being so critical about these two books.  Creative writing is hard, if you want to get it right.  You definitely don’t write your best work when you suddenly feel ‘inspired’ to just write a novel.  It’s a painful process.  You have to use your brain.  You have to think about what you’re writing.  But also not over-think it, otherwise the tone may come across as corny (inserting words from a thesaurus when you 1) don’t really know what they mean 2) never have heard them being used, can POTENTIALLY be a bad idea).  And I have so much respect for published authors.  The majority of them really persevered in finishing their texts, and then bombarding as many literary agents as possible to get a look in, facing rejection around every corner and not much hope.  So, firstly, well done and I’m not one to tear them down.  But I do have the right to an opinion, especially as someone who has studied texts at undergraduate level for the best part of three years, and who has an active interest in the publishing world.

So the good things about these books are that they’re both accessible.  They were easy for me to pick up and read after a hard day’s work.  They do transport you to other periods of time (East London in the 1950’s and Elizabethan England), so top points for escapism.  Andrews’ sub plot about Henry Percy’s page boy working his way up the Tudor career ladder and finding true love and starting a family is sweet.  It also diverts the reader from the main plot about Percy and Boleyn, where (to be perfectly frank) nothing much happens after the middle of the book.  I suggest that the remaining abbeys in this country should buy Batten’s book and plug it wherever they can go.  It’s very winsome in making a nun’s life appealing.  If I hadn’t already considered seriously becoming a nun (believe me, I actually have), then I would have been quite swayed (besides the fact that this fictional character was a nun about fifty years ago, where everything was very different).

But in short, the texts lack originality, and true depth.  I wish that Andrews’ book went more under the surface, so we could really feel and experience what Henry Percy was feeling, rather than just having to presume so from what he says.  I wish that we had more insight into Anne Boleyn’s frame of mind, how she transitioned from a pleasant young woman into a scheming and devious woman, grasping for as much power as she could.  I wish that Batten had introduced more secondary characters and not just made it all about one individual, just to break the flow and keep readers more engaged.  I also wish Batten had made Sister Catherine Mary’s story more relevant to the very different world today.  I recommend these books if you want something easy to escape into after a long day.  But in order to find something which will stay with you, I heartily recommend looking elsewhere.

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A good old Anglo-Saxon pillaging yarn – (The Pagan Lord – Bernard Cornwell: reviewed)

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Thoroughly endorsed by The Times newspaper (which is after all a highly respected broadsheet), The Pagan Lord is a historical novel worth perusing.  This tale takes place in the Anglo-Saxon era, where Britain is divided into tribal regions of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex, almost all nobility had Aeth as prefixes to their names, and pagan belief dwindles as Christianity grows in its hold.

The titular pagan lord is an ageing warrior called Uhtred.  He is desperate to regain the Bebbanburg fortress, rightfully his but stolen from him by his uncle, and to slaughter any man who gets in his way.  Having not read many adult historical novels (apart from The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory) from a male point of view, I was unprepared for Uhtred’s ruthless hatred for Christians.  He even disowns his own son in the opening chapter, who becomes a priest, dubbing him ‘Father Judas’, for betraying his pagan heritage.  Yet, Uhtred is a strangely likeable character in his persistence to fight his enemies despite the odds against him, lack of hesitancy to really follow through his threats of chopping people to bits, as well as being merciful and kind to women and children.  Whether this mercy is realistic of an Anglo-Saxon lord or not, considering the bloodshed throughout the novel, Cornwell does well in plunging the reader into this character’s point of view.  And in a culture where women were viewed as acquisitions, he includes at least one female character (Ingulfrid) who has a brain and mind of her own.  Overall, a book for adults who wish to plunge into this neglected era, and follow one man’s shrewd determination to take back what rightly belongs to him.

Waiting for Columbus – Thomas Trofimuk (review)

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Hybrids are funny things.  The other day, a friend told me about ligers – a cross between a lion and a tiger.  I’d show you a picture, but I feel like it would distract from the main point of this blog post.  So I won’t.

Anyway, biological hybrids are funny things.  Partly because they’re a cross of different species – they’re unable to make more liger babies.  So ligers will never have their own families, their own descendants, any lasting heritage.

And literary hybrids are also funny things.  I haven’t actually read many of them (as far as I recall).  Maybe this is because many people do not consider hybrid literature will work or sell in the book market.  People and publishers may like to stick to pure genre: pure chick-lit, thriller, sci-fi or autobiography.  So do literary hybrids work as products?

Picador claims that Waiting for Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk is ‘part romance, part mysterious thriller’.  So this book is essentially a hybrid.  It is a puzzle which makes readers press on to discover the truth.  But it’s also centred on romantic love, exploring it in many forms.

A guy called Columbus (well, who calls himself Columbus) is found washed up on the shore, and is sent to a mental asylum in Seville,  A nurse called Consuela, still reeling from a failed romantic relationship, is given the task of drawing out his memories, and passing on his flashbacks to the asylum’s doctor.  Gradually, Consuela falls for her patient, despite his state of mental delusion.  Then a detective called Emile (who pops up throughout the text in seedy bars and lonely hotel rooms, edging closer and closer to Seville each time) shows up, and draws together the solution.  Not going to give it away, but it makes sense of Columbus’s flashbacks, which are usually of his romantic liaisons with women named Isabella, Selena, Cassandra and Beatriz, full of fourteenth century political intrigue, yet peppered with anachronistic elements.  Columbus has conversations with the Spanish queen Isabella on the telephone, plays pool with her husband King Ferdinand, and their councillors have meetings with ring binders, cell phones and cups of coffee.  Like any good thriller, the conclusion is utterly unexpected and devastating, and makes the reader want to flick back through the book, checking the twist is plausible, and spotting how the odd details support this dénouement.  So this text works as a thriller.

As a romance, it explores Columbus’s colourful love life, but in the least smutty way possible, as well as Consuela’s growing love for this mentally disturbed man.  As Columbus’s charm and magnetic personality is made clear from both the character’s own mouth and witnesses Emile encounters, it is unsurprising that Consuela should fall in love with this refreshingly honest and flawed character.  This Christopher Columbus is definitely not the utterly pious yet power hungry figure of history we see from his own historical account of his voyages.  There is a pervasive sensual undercurrent in the text, so if you don’t like that sort of thing, I recommend you steer clear of this one.  But this text also works as a romance, as well as a thriller.

So how is this book packaged effectively as both a romance and a thriller?  Well, cover-wise, Picador have combined gold embossing with a red brown brick design, which conveys the text’s historical component, as well as the warmth and passion found on Spanish streets.  The text itself launches straight into the insanity of the mental asylum, full of madness which seems beyond solution, but instantly seen through the eyes of sensitive and caring Consuela, with her feelings of longing and compassion.

Romance and mystery are bound up together, as Trofimuk explores these romances which are cases to be solved.  The setting’s warmth and the exotic nature, and the seal of approval given by the Times on the front cover, confirms that this is a successful hybrid of thriller and romance, ideal for summer holiday reading. Maybe this will spark a trend of more combined genre novels in the twenty-first century book market.

Waking Dream by Rhiannon Lassiter (review)

I probably first read Waking Dream by Rhiannon Lassiter when I was eleven or twelve.  I honestly can’t remember whether my mother bought it for me or not.   It’s survived book culls throughout the years, which shows how highly I value it.  And I definitely remember fervently telling someone that this was my favourite book.

It’s about three brothers, who each have one child.  Their children couldn’t be more different from each other.  When one of the brothers dies, the three cousins are forced to spend time with each other in a house in the countryside.  Bethany is still grieving from her father’s death, and loathes her cousin Poppy, who excels in everything at the school they both go to.  But Poppy is dissatisfied with her popular and successful life.  She feels like she’s been fed lies all of her life, and is determined to find out the truth about their family.  When their cousin Rivalaun (previously unknown to them) arrives, who has grown up travelling between worlds, they all find themselves on a quest in the unstable Realm of Dreams, seeking what they desire and trying to discover where they really come from.

I reread it yesterday, and once again, sailed effortlessly through the slightly faded paperback.  I enjoyed every page.

The only problem is that I’m struggling to figure out why exactly I love this book.

I know it’s naughty to judge a book by its cover, but this one is intriguing.

wakingdream

Who is the freckly, ginger-haired girl lying amongst blades of grass?  What is she looking at?  Has she just been sleeping, hence the ‘Waking Dream’?  Despite the bizarre jarring fonts of the text titles (really, snakey blood-tricked font with the serene calming text title?), the cover’s design is enticing for a teenage reader browsing bookshop shelves.  Let’s say it isn’t your typical serious book cover.  If faced with the choice of choosing between a Penguin Classics cover, and this, I would pick this up first.

Like a few other rare books aimed at a teenage audience, it sets the bar high for readers.  There is a Proem and Epilogue, a more poetic introduction and conclusion.  And atop of each chapter are a few lines of poetry by ‘The Great’s’ – William Blake, D.H. Lawrence, William Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson.  It’s easy to skip over them, but it forces the reader to consider why Lassiter includes them.  It elevates the first-person, angsty diary entries in the first half, and the narrative accounts in the second half, so they have more weight than they would otherwise.

Lassiter also unashamedly draws in the readership through affable characters, to make them appreciate the much neglected classical education of myths and legends, the visual arts and story telling.  Sylvester (one of the men) is an English professor at Oxford, who encourages Bethany to study Classics at university:

”I don’t know much about Classics,’ I said and he instantly began to educate me.  I sat in my chair and listened while he told me about myths and philosophy and I found the rise and fall of his voice soothing.  […] I think he would be a good tutor.  Even though my mind wandered during our conversation I felt as if  I was soaking up knowledge from the river of his voice.  It wasn’t until the light faded outside and we could hardly see each other in the darkened room that I realized I’d been listening to him for hours and that all the unpleasantness of the morning had fallen away from me.’ (pp. 98-99)

Bethany’s deceased father Felix was an artist, and we get to see art honestly through her eyes and teenage experience, as she leafs through an art book with her cousin Rivalaun:

‘I’ve never really known what to say about my father’s work.  I know things about art, of course.  But most of what I know is from conversations my father’s friends used to have.  I know about techniques and schools of painting and even who the galleries hate and who doesn’t get the notice they deserve.  But at school, when teachers talked about my father, I was never sure what I was supposed to say.  To talk about his reputation sounds like boasting to most people and I don’t honestly think I’ve got the right to talk like an art critic.  Besides, he’s my father.  I saw many of those paintings while they were still works in progress.  In a weird way, it’s a bit like seeing family photographs on display.  But Rivalaun didn’t seem to expect me to say anything.  He worked through the book methodically, reading the titles of each painting, studying them for a few moments and occasionally glancing at the main text before turning the page.  I watched as compositions I’ve known all my life flashed past my eyes.’ (p. 113)

Danaan, Bethany’s other uncle, is a mysterious storyteller and world traveller, and keeps his relatives and readers wrapt as he ventures telling his own true story:

”Our story is ambiguous,’ he begins.  ‘As dreams often are.’ His voice is relaxed, and his quiet figure has become the focus of the room, his listeners caught in the spell he casts out with the web of his story.  Although he has told a thousand thousand stories on half a hundred worlds, this is the one he will tell for the first time tonight – the one in which the storyteller becomes part of the tale – and for the first time he feels uncertain of where to begin, although his words roll smoothly through the library, sinking into the book-lined shelves.

‘Just as stories exist somewhere between truth and lies,’ he says,’ the land of dreams is on a boundary between real and unreal.  In this world, and in an infinite number of other stranger worlds, there are things which hold constant.  People are born, they live, they die.  They accept the reality of the world in which they live. But some things remain a mystery, even to the wise.  Mysteries that have existed since the beginning of time.  Mysteries like death.  And dreams.’ (p. 147)

After reading this, I wanted to reread myths and legends which used to fill my head, flick through an art book, and listen to a skilled story teller, to be sucked into a story, escape what I’m used to around me.  It seems like Lassiter’s mission: to give credibility to the arts, not just for educational purposes, but as a way to legitimately navigate life.  It’s hard to tell whether she universally succeeds.  I haven’t met many other people who have read this book.  When I looked on Goodreads, the reviews are mixed.  Some people just don’t understand this book, but other people adore it.  Perhaps this reflects the distinction people draw between the sciences and the arts.  You are either scientific or creative, not both.  Unfortunately, it appears that only the teenagers interested in the arts would latch onto this, whilst scientific types would probably dismiss this as weird and strange.

And finally, Lassiter’s exploration of magic and dreams lured me most, as a teenager and an adult.  Magic and dreams are presented in a sinister way, with Poppy’s disappearance into the Realm of Dreams associated with police looking for her as a ‘missing person’ and the shifting nature of the Realm of Dreams leaving the worried parents of the cousins ill at ease.  But dreams are boundless.  No one can prove a dream.  There are many theories about them, but no proof except from the dreamer.  What a superb topic for an author to delve into, to encourage teenagers to think beyond the tangible and realize that there may be more to existence than that which meets the eye.

How to enjoy prayer (book reviews)

Enjoy your prayer lifePraying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World

For various reasons (which I won’t disclose fully here, in case this blog ends up as my own very personal diary), I’ve been finding prayer quite difficult in the last few months.  Prayer as in talking to my Heavenly Father on a regular basis.

I feel very vulnerable in admitting this.  Sometimes I find praying comes naturally.  Other times, I have to force it, and it feels like the weirdest thing in the world.   A lot of doubts start swirling around in my head: does God really want to answer my prayers?  Surely if God is sovereign and in control, prayer won’t make a difference?  I have too many things and people to pray for – who should I prioritize?  What’ll happen to the people I forget to pray for?  Am I a bad Christian for not praying for everything and everyone I know?

A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller and Enjoy Your Prayer Life by Michael Reeves have been the two books recommended to me by friends.  They haven’t transformed how I pray.  But they have both been very helpful, and I’m praying (yes…) that the truths in these two books would rage against these doubts which I constantly fight against.

Both books couldn’t be more different, and their cover designs are evocative enough to grab the consumer’s interest.

Enjoy Your Prayer Life is a small (even pocket-sized), bright-yellow-covered, forty-eight paged book, from the same author who wrote the widely acclaimed (at least in evangelical Christian circles) The Good God – exploring the complex theology of the Holy Trinity.  Through short and punchy chapters (each one no more than eight pages), Reeves goes back to the Biblical theology of what happens when a Christian prays.

10Publishing’s mission is to produce ‘quality Christian resources that are Biblical and accessible’.  Jonathan Carswell and his team have succeeded with this little book.  It is highly accessible, due to its length, size, generous sized font and margin space, and the use of displayed quotations in each chapter, breaking up the body of the text to create more variation for the reader.  And it is undeniably Biblical – constantly referring to scriptural passages (referenced in brackets), as well as reformed theologians like Luther, Calvin and Packer.  This book is ideal for a busy twentieth-century audience: people who have busy lives, who think they have very little time to read and reflect on spiritual things, and whose prayer lives suffer as a result.

However, Miller’s book takes a far more thorough approach to the many struggles Christians have with prayer.  This is evident from its lengthier chapters, many diagrams and also the text’s cover design. The bright yellow cover of Enjoy Your Prayer Life indicates it contains uplifting truths to brighten up, or even enjoy, the reader’s relationship with God. Miller’s dark and intense cover, with the more dramatic navy and white contrast, as well as the photograph of waves violently breaking over a protruding rock in the sea, suggests that this text is far more deep and profound.

And arguably, Miller delves deeper than Reeves, interweaving stories of his personal struggles with prayer into his seminar style chapters.  Reeves’ book by contrast feels like more of a long academic essay or talk broken up into more manageable sized chunks.  And although I found the lack of Bible quotations mildly distressing, it is still very useful in taking the reader back to the big theological truth of prayer.  Prayer is talking to our Father in Heaven, the one who didn’t wait for us to sort ourselves out, but sent his Son to die for us, to face the punishment we deserve for rejecting God as our Father, because he wants us to be in relationship with Him!  He wants us to come honest, come trusting, ‘come messy’.  Miller addresses all kinds of struggles, and gives practical suggestions for setting aside time of focused prayer regularly, as well as continuous prayer throughout each day.  Miller’s book is for people (like me) who acknowledge that they definitely have a ‘prayer problem’ which needs to be addressed.  And I find it really intriguing that on the back cover and the page preceding the first chapter of Enjoy Your Prayer Life, there is a quotation  from Miller, saying ‘Let Michael Reeves nourish and encourage your prayer life! I warmly commend this book to you.’  Should these two books be read alongside each other?  Or has Miller realized that Reeves’ explanation of how prayer actually works, through Word and Spirit, is key to becoming truly excited about talking to God?

Like I said, these books haven’t transformed my prayer life.  But I can see why other Christians are so excited by them.  If you feel busy (let’s face it, very few people between the ages of 18 and 50 don’t feel pushed for time), grab a copy of Enjoy Your Prayer Life.  Or if you think your prayer habits need a complete overhaul, read both!

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (review)

Penguin Books (or should I say Penguin Random House Publishers) claim that they believe ‘in publishing the best books for everybody to enjoy’ and ‘quality books published passionately and responsibly make the world a better place.’

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is undoubtedly one of Penguin’s best recent specimens.

I’m nearly lagging two years behind the hype.  I’m not a Nerdfighter, so therefore don’t know much about the Vlog Brothers, apart from their fantastic modern adaptations of Austen novels, which can be found here.  But I’m jumping on the bandwagon of praise and acclaim anyway.  It’s like Harry Potter.  It appeals to both teenagers and young adults (i.e. people under the age of thirty-five).  As we open the bright blue cover, with its eye-catching yellow, white and black crayon font, the generous margin and line spacing eases the reader into the text.  I sailed through the first chapter (as well as my friend, who picked up the book ‘just to have a look’, and ended up reading the whole chapter, resisting my feeble attempts to snatch it back).  It is very very readable.

Hazel, a sixteen year old American girl from Indianapolis, and a survivor of terminal lung cancer, is pragmatic and frank about her precarious situation from the very start.  She is someone kept alive, but who will never recover:

Late in the winter of my seventeeth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.

Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer.  But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer.  Depression is a side effect of dying.  (Cancer is also a side effect of dying.  Almost everything is, really.) But my mom believed I required treatment, so she took me to see my Regular Doctor Jim, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical depression, and that therefore my meds should be adjusted and also I should attend a weekly Support Group.

This Support Group featured a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven unwellness.  Why did the cast rotate?  A side-effect of dying.

The Support Group, of course, was depressing as hell.

This completely disarmed me.  I was expecting a whole lot of sentimentality and gushiness.  I honestly don’t know any cancer survivors who are under the age of forty.  I don’t know how they must feel.  But I reckon they should sound the same as any other sixteen year old, going through the tricky adolescent stage of being a stroppy teenager.  But Green does something even better.  With Hazel and her star-crossed lover Gus, they are presented and maintained as intelligent, cynical and quick witted.  Fantastic.

I checked out one-star reviews of the book on Amazon (the majority were five-star), from people who are determined to loathe the book.  One actual real cancer survivor hates it because the feelings Hazel goes through are apparently unrealistic.  Fair does.  But I thoroughly disagree with Miss Paige V. Richards, who laments

the characters were entirely unrelatable and quite frankly as a fellow teenager, I can honestly say that no teenager has ever spoken in the way Green suggests.  Gus and Hazel seem as though they’ve swallowed a thesaurus and after a short time it becomes unbearably irritating.

I wonder if she’s missing the point here.  Hazel and Gus are characters who should have gone on to do great things.  Hazel as a literature expert (or even a poet), and Gus as a quirky genius.  But the fault is in their stars.  They are exceptionably brilliant young people, but destined to have their futures scarred by cancer.

And I’m quite cynical when it comes to romance.  I don’t understand Romeo and Juliet.  I don’t think I will ever understand the whole ‘love-at-first-sight’ thing.  But even I felt myself go mushy at this intellectual and emotional romance.  And this IS why this book straddles the teenage and adult fiction genre.  The two main protagonists are so right for each other…

And I don’t want to ruin the rest of the book for you.  Haven’t seen the film (I don’t really want to now), because I wager the book is far better.  No more words can do it justice.  Give it a go!

  

Old-School Christian Heroines – which book to read?

Women and the church.

I wonder what you think of that combination.  I instantly think of the furore recently in the Church of England over whether women should be made bishops or not.

If you’re reading this and you’re a Christian, you’ll probably agree with me that there are range of opinions about the role of women in church.  Not all Christians agree on this issue.  And it is an important issue, which deserves adequate discussion.

But today is not that day.  Instead, I’m going to bring to attention two books which I’ve read recently on women and church.  Feminine Threads by Diana Lynn Severance, and Old Wives’ Tales by Clare Heath-Whyte.  Both are biographical, looking in detail at the lives of Christian women whose good (and bad) deeds have miraculously been preserved.  In them are sections devoted to female figures like Amy Carmichael, Susanna Wesley, Anne Boleyn, Selina Countess of Huntingdon, Sarah Edwards, Elizabeth Fry, Elizabeth Whitefield and Florence Nightingale.  There’s also space given to lesser known women like Molly Wesley, Mary Newton, Augustine’s mother Monica, Ethelberga (the wife of Edwin of Northumbria), Dhuoda, Hildegard von Bingen, Pulcherina and Eudoxia, Katherine Parr and Margaret of Scotland.  Severance examines a broad range from the days of the early church to the present day, whilst Heath-Whyte focuses on a handful of women in the eighteenth century.

Reading Heath-Whyte’s book so soon after Severance’s (it took me two years to finish Severance’s) brings out their contrasting methods of achieving the same aims even more.  Both women want to uphold the Bible as the authority in their biographies.  Severance and Heath-Whyte are both complementarian: they believe that women and men are equal in value, but have different roles in church.  Severance clearly states in her introduction: ‘the reader is encouraged to discerningly use the truths of Scripture to evaluate the lives of the numerous women in Feminine Threads.  The standards for Christian women and the church should always be the Scriptures, not the practices of any individual or group, regardless of their influence or charisma’ (p. 16). And this is dutifully upheld throughout her analysis and presentation of events by her tactful remarks, and text boxes which interrupt the flow of the text to address key issues, like whether women were priests in the early church, and the importance of singleness and marriage, and draw attention to particular figures.

From the detail and dense nature of the book (I felt a bit overwhelmed by the depth of information from each chapter), the audience in mind is for the more academically minded, and those genuinely interested in the full story of women’s role in ‘the tapestry of Christian history’.

However, Heath-Whyte’s little book is far more accessible than Severance’s, yet still upholds the same scriptural values: that these women’s lives should be assessed alongside scripture.  Whilst Severance leaves it to the reader’s discretion to decide whether the women are truly admirable or not, Heath-Whyte includes mini Bible studies at the end of each chapter, forcing readers to go back to the Bible in evaluating whether these women are godly or not.

I agree that we do have much to learn from these women.  My favourite woman to look at in both books was Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, who used her wealth to support preachers, create organisations to uphold the Bible in ministry and sounded like a lot of fun.  But I wonder if Heath-Whyte’s questions of comparisons at the end of each chapter are fair on the women.  After all, no one is perfect, and everyone is sinful.  And surely instead of ensuring we are better than or more like the flawed women we read about, our standard for godliness should be Jesus himself.  Yes, they can be an encouragement, as she contends in her introduction, as women nowadays seek to serve Jesus now in an anti-Christian culture.  But it feels like this book borders on a subtle legalism, the focus being more on the women when even the Bible is heavily involved.  However, if the reader keeps their brain switched on whilst reading, hopefully they shouldn’t fall into this trap.

So if you want a broad and thorough overview of a variety of Christian women over many years, you have plenty of time on your hands and academic capability, I highly recommend Feminine Threads.  But if you just want to focus on a few women, and you’re busy with little free time to fritter away, grab yourself a copy of Old Wives’ Tales.