Review: Martin Luther (Christian Biographies for Young Readers)

Posted December 15th, 2016 in Random by Emily Varner

I requested the title Martin Luther for review because I have a 10-year-old homeschooler with whom I planned to share and co-review the book. We both recommend it highly. Upon receiving it, I left the unopened book on the breakfast bar, and before I knew it, the text and images had drawn my daughter halfway through the book. She read the entire thing with interest in a couple sittings (though she probably would have read the whole thing at once if we hadn’t had other priorities for the day), and continued to tell me bits of Luther trivia she had learned from the book for the next few days. This 2016 biography is, apparently, one in a series on key Reformers published by Reformation Heritage Books, and we are eager (“extremely eager,” she says) to read some of the others.

Author Simonetta Carr covers the broader context of Luther’s world in explaining elements such as home life in Germany, schooling, Catholicism in the early 1500’s, and the early Reformation. She highlights important places in Luther’s life, such as the Erfurt monastery, the seminary in Wittenberg, the castle of Fredrick the Wise, and the abandoned monastery where Luther and Katherine von Bora raised their children and welcomed many guests. Photographs of most of these places appear in the book, as do older paintings, sketches, woodcuts, or statues of key players, such as Pope Leo X, Johann Tetzel, Phillip Melanchthon, Fredrick the Wise, Charles V, and even Luther’s daughter Magdalene.

Carr gives details of Luther’s life from childhood to monk to Reformation leader in measured and appropriate amounts. The story flows and makes sense but does not drag as she explains about Luther’s search for spiritual peace and freedom from guilt, his desire to discuss his 95 theses, his many writings, his excommunication, the Diet of Worms, and his fake kidnapping.

The story continues to tell of his time in hiding at Wartburg castle and translation of the New Testament, his return to Wittenberg to help stem the violence Karlstadt approved, his marriage to von Bora and their work among the ill in Wittenberg, and their large family. Carr mentions the many writings of Luther at their appropriate places in the story but does not provide too much detail on them. After covering Luther’s death and burial, she also provides a section with extra facts and trivia about Luther and elements related to his life, such as all the industry Katie supervised in their home, Luther quotes, additional information about key players, and even an explanation of the Luther rose.

Overall, Martin Luther (Christian Biographies for Young Readers) provides an excellent overview of the life of an important historical and church figure. The reading level is probably most appropriate for independent reading at grade level 4-6 (my daughter says 3-6). The book should probably be read aloud to younger children in multiple sittings. The material is divided into seven chapters with clear, memorable titles, each containing about two items of beautiful new artwork per chapter. The chapters also include many images of people, places, maps, or historical artifacts. Carr also does an excellent job of explaining how the gospel was the driving force of Luther’s work, undoubtedly a significant element in the seismic changes brought about during and by the Reformation. Her treatment is faith-affirming and age appropriate for children with at least some religious background. My daughter also noted that another lesson of the book was that the Pope can be wrong, and consequently, that not all “Christian leaders” will be correct. (And as a side note, in the “Did you know?” section at the end, Carr uses strong language to dismiss Luther’s anti-Semitism in his writings as simply  unacceptable. Children deserve to be exposed to the idea that people can be admirable in some respects but not in others.) Young female readers will appreciate Carr’s explanations of how much Luther came to love and depend on his wife Katie, and what a strong woman she was in her own right. My daughter and I give Carr’s Martin Luther five stars!

The Death of a Newsman (or woman)

Posted May 6th, 2015 in Random by Emily Varner

I always find it funny—perhaps ironic is the more appropriate word—when I see and hear news reports relating the death of reporters or other media-related folks. Don’t get me wrong, I realize that people are mourning the death of this person, and I don’t take delight in that. On the other hand, lots of people die every day over whom a relative few people take notice.

Whoever happens to be the newly deceased media professional, I would be willing to bet that the average person on the street has never heard of this person. Sure, they may have been influential in the careers of our most well-known journalists; sure, they may have had a long enough tenure at a certain media outlet to be a legend there; sure, they may have been such a likable person that the industry is stunned by their young death; sure, perhaps this person was so on top of their game that no industry professional could ignore them. But none of these things really makes the death of that person newsworthy, do you know?

In fact, this kind of coverage seems to me like a desperate grasping by media powers-that-be to legitimate their life of sacrifice for their hard-earned journalistic careers. Perhaps this coverage has less to do with the death of a colleague and more to do with what each writer and reporter hopes others will write and report when his or her time comes. It’s obituary one-upmanship. Woe betide the newsmaker who never makes the news!

As a society, are we haunted by the fear that when we pass into eternity, no one will have anything nice to say about us? That no one will notice? That we will be replaceable in our homes, our jobs, our fields of expertise? And ultimately, are we afraid that as all this comes to pass, our life will then have been meaningless? Pitiful? Fleeting?

There’s an entire sermon here of course, but as I am not a preacher, I’ll leave that to someone else.

And yet as a publicist, I’ve realized that there is at least one other reason that the death of media folks makes the news: It’s really super annoying to get mail addressed to people who have been dead for years. Maybe, just maybe, the message will reach those publicists who have a hard time keeping track of these things!

So as the cynical yet hopeful, philosophizing yet practical publicist that I am, here’s my resolution upon encountering news stories about the deaths of media folks: give myself that little “who really cares” moment before saying a prayer for the deceased’s family and friends; reflect on the brevity of life—and make sure my database is up-to-date.

His Kids Christmas, Volume 1 Review

Posted October 31st, 2014 in Random, Reviews by Emily Varner

His Kids Christmas

Perhaps the most important thing I can say about His Kids Christmas, Volume 1 is that my eight-year-old likes it, sings along with it, and sings the songs from the album when the music isn’t playing. So by that metric alone, I recommend this album for a Christian family’s holiday rotation.

I am picky about music made for kids. I’ve been on the hunt for Christian children?s music like the Maranatha Kids records I listened to as a kid in the 80?s?either hymns, choruses, or Scripture memory songs sung by kids and intended for kids, but sung well, with some harmony and in tune. Most albums I find are overly trendy, of poor musical quality, or just plain annoying. The His Kids sample I heard sounded good and the list of songs suggested the creators had included a few classic Christmas carols. It was enough to make me want to give it a chance.

With the opening song of the album, “Here We Come A-Caroling (Wassail Song),” I was reminded of another childhood favorite, which opened with the same: Disney’s All-Time Favorite Christmas Songs (feat. Larry Groce). The comparison holds up fairly well for the slower, more traditional songs (“O Come, O Come, Emanuel,” “Away in a Manger,” and “Christmas Time is Here”). These are lovely, non-synthesized sounding contributions to this collection, with children and perhaps one or two adults with very lovely voices singing in pleasing union or harmony.

But this is an album for kids who are used to hearing pop music sounds, so there are definitely some jazzy, hip-hop sounding pieces. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is a pop rendition with a very strong beat; my daughter starting doing her Christmas parade jazz choreography to it (but I still prefer the traditional hymn). Our favorite newer tunes are “Light of Christmas” and “No Better Holiday.” The former was already a favorite from Owl City, and the original electronic sound receives a good treatment here. But I’m not a huge fan of the super-synthesized selections in this album. The general consensus at my house is that we could do without “All I Have to Give” and “I Hope This Gets to You,” but everyone is going to have their favorites.

“Jingle Bells” features a slightly off-key tiny kid voice, which we think is adorable. All the same, I applaud the creators for not overdoing that feature by using it in other songs. This is good album for giving kids exposure to well-sung music. I am happy to recommend this album for parents and kids who want to keep the true meaning of Christmas in focus, and who enjoy singing along.

I received a free copy of this album in exchange for my honest, unbiased review.

Publicity Writing and Copyediting, Considered

Posted January 28th, 2014 in Copyediting, Publicity, Random by Emily Varner

As this website attests, I am primarily a publicist for books in biblical studies and church leadership. But I also copyedit books on occasion, to exercise my copyediting and proofreading skills (not to mention learn a ton). My informal tagline for copyediting is “helping really smart people not sound dumb;” and while it sounds arrogant, I beg to differ. Bar none, the authors I have copyedited have been brilliant, creative, thoughtful, perceptive, and organized. But that doesn’t mean they express themselves in the best words, phrases, sentence construction, or tone. To read through a manuscript I am editing is to become an anonymous student of a master teacher, to ask questions that will enable other students to learn well, and to clear up clutter and confusion that will detract from the message. When authors come back with appreciation for how their nameless copyeditor has channeled their style and thoughts to make their books better, this hard work is all the more worthwhile.

Publicity writing can feel like the opposite challenge; at times, I long to retreat into the safety of using many words to explain an argument, perspective, or approach. Instead, I get a handful of words–a few phrases–that can either push the book and author into a deserved spotlight or hide them in the waterfall of new books and resources, which are constantly pouring out before a seemingly shrinking number of book readers. My tagline for publicity writing could be “trying not to sound woefully ignorant of an author’s complete argument.” If I could express the entire argument in a few sentences, there would really be no need for a book. And especially in (though not limited to) academic circles, PR hype is not my friend. Can something be “the best,” or “comprehensive,” or “groundbreaking”? Perhaps, but I had better be doubly certain of that before I want to claim it.

In publicity copywriting, the author and editor can become a great ally in the process. I don’t have the leisure of reading each manuscript three times, I don’t have the same depth of understanding of the subject matter, and I don’t communicate nearly as much with influencers in the book’s field. Involved authors help nuance the necessary truncation of their material and point publicists in the direction of the most receptive audience for their work.

In these situations I am no longer the faceless entity re-crafting phrases but an actual person with an email address, someone whose job description includes turning into tweetable text something that requires a book. And that thick skin that authors get warned about needing upon the return of their copyedited manuscript transfers to the publicity copywriter–being content not to get it the first time and to need a hand, whose extraordinarily thin wording may require a good deal of finesse before it can go to work for the book and the author.

Comma Clarity (or Lack Thereof)

Posted March 4th, 2013 in Random by Emily Varner

I recently started a new copyediting project, a collection of lectures from a theologian now deceased (which, incidentally, makes querying the author about edits a challenge). I also happen to be watching, and helping where I can, as my first-grader’s reading skills develop. She is doing fine, but her more-developed oral language skills seem to be causing her some problems: the early readers are boring, but she won’t slow down enough on more challenging books so that the words on the page are the words she actually reads. Her attempts to “read” her predetermined meanings bring some of the most fascinating yet maddening moments of my day. It is reader-response to the n-th degree: “No worries if the words aren’t really there; I can make a sentence with similar-sounding words say what I have in mind.”

But the funny thing is, I can see myself doing the same thing as I edit. Last night I was nearly done composing a query (which goes to the compiler/editor, by the way, not the author) when I realized I had read the sentence entirely wrong. Fortunately, I at least had the words right and the problem was one of emphasis and construction, but I had to laugh. Context and style really do take the driver’s seat: our ability to derive meaning out of someone’s written words is severely hindered without these often subtle signals.

In my recent editing work, this has manifested itself in much deliberation over commas. House style for my current project prescribes a less-is-more approach to commas, which runs slightly against the grain for me. But essential commas, of course, have to stay (or, in some cases, be added). Here are some of the words and phrases bringing some additional fascinating yet maddening moments into recent days.

Because . . . (I Said So)
Think about this one for a second.
“Clean up your prose, because I said so.”
“Don’t clean your prose because I said so; do it because you want to learn to be a better writer.”
It seems simple enough in the abstract, but consider how easily this can lead to a situation in which a comma makes the difference between two opposite meanings depending on the rest of the sentence. Whether you see a comma signals how to read and emphasize the phrasing. For example, “The church cannot bring all its resources to bear on present problems, because clergification removed the sense that all members of the believing community are ministers . . .” Now try it without the comma.

That . . . (the World May Know)
“Jesus came that the world may know he is the Christ.” (in order that)
“Jesus came; that the world did not know him was not his fault.” (noun clause)
“Both are sentences that express Jesus’ coming to Earth.” (restrictive relative clause)
These are three valid uses of that, and again, if you’re reading out loud, you need to decide which use it is before the words come out of your mouth or you’ll end up re-reading it. Another lovely can of worms is the use of which. Don’t get me started on that one.

Or . . . (Something Else)
And then there’s the appositional use of or.
“We are not even discussing the use of colons or dashes.” (alternative)
“Em-dashes, or ‘my favorite punctuation marks ever,’ haven’t yet been mentioned.” (“also known as”).
Notice how, in the second example, taking out the commas makes two separate things out of something intended to be identified with one another.

Clarity in punctuation makes a difference–usually between sense and nonsense, but occasionally between dramatic differences in meaning. I offer my thanks to the many professional editors and style gurus helping authors express the things they want to say so that readers encounter minimal obstacles on their way to meaning. I keep learning so much from you in the small contributions I make to that cause. Now back to my commas.

Theologians Past, Theology Future, and Venn Diagrams

Posted November 15th, 2012 in Books, News by Emily Varner

I’ve been helping spread two big Zondervan news items this week: the announcement of New Studies in Dogmatics, a theology series in the works, and the release of Theologian Trading Cards. The latter is a playful yet extremely informative look at many of the most influential players in the history of Western theology. The former sports an ancient-future approach to dogmatic theology, taking the cues for new theological exploration from the creeds, councils, confessions, and writings of church leaders throughout the ages.

The press release and list of contributors for NSD can be found on the Zondervan Academic Koinonia website here. If you were one of the lucky ones, you also got an email from me making the announcement. (If you want to be so fortunate in the future, you can always go to my contact form and send me a message.) An interesting personal note on this project is that one of the series editors, Michael Allen of Knox Theological Seminary, is a former Wheaton Grad School classmate. If memory serves, he was an undergrad doing an accelerated master’s program in the same department I was working on my, er, decelerated master’s program. (Is that what it’s called when you are working full-time while you finish it?) We were in a few classes together and had some mutual friends. Which, just like the publication of my close grad school friend’s revised dissertation in a highly anticipated book, is additional confirmation that I am getting old way too fast.

But back to the theology/theologian news: Often press releases and media mailings are an excellent excuse to hear more from authors about their books. In the case of Theologian Trading Cards, it made made a ton of sense to interview Norman Jeune III because there is so little written about the work in project itself–no preface, no intro, no appendix. The author and I ended up with much more material than we could mail out with all the decks, and Scot McKnight enthusiastically posted the full version of our Q&A on Jesus Creed here.

My first grader’s teacher is big on Venn diagrams. I think in the olden days this was called comparing and contrasting, not that I’m knocking the Venn diagram, which is so helpful for visual learners. (And there’s nothing like having my particular first grader to make a person appreciate all kinds of learning styles.) My daughter’s class has done Venn diagrams, for example, to explore different versions of the same story or to compare their elementary school with one they visited. As I was considering posting on these two news items, a Venn diagram came to mind. I thought, What would I put in the overlapping portion of a Venn diagram about Theologian Trading Cards and New Studies in Dogmatics?

The first answer that came to me: Kevin Vanhoozer, a highly respected theologian who teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL. He is a consulting editor for and contributor to New Studies in Dogmatics and you will also find a card with his photo and bio in the deck of Theologian Trading Cards. You never know when those first grade logic skills will come in handy.

But if you want me to fill out the rest of the diagram for you, you’re out of luck. You can imagine a lot of the differences simply due to the fact that we?re looking at a book series under development and a deck of cards already produced. But that middle section will be filled out more and more as the NSD volumes come out. Which early church thinkers and reformation writers will guide Marguerite Shuster, for example, as she writes her volume on Creation? What foundational theological concepts do we owe to whom as we build a constructive theology for our day?

And that, my friend, is why 1) You should get a set of Theologian Trading Cards now and start reading through them and 2) You should pray for the contributors to the New Studies in Dogmatics series as they write them, and eagerly anticipate their work over the next four years. My guess is that you might not need to whip out the old Venn diagram, but you will have some higher-order thinking skills to consider what each theologian is doing throughout his or her volume.

But if you want to send me a Venn diagram of your findings, I promise to study it with interest.


Money Quote from Job by Walton

Posted October 18th, 2012 in Books, Random by Emily Varner

I spent part of my morning redeeming my gym time by reading. (Sorry, fellow gym-mates, but the TV is boring–especially for the next two and a half weeks in a swing state.) Today: Job (NIV Application Commentary) by John H. Walton. I realize reading a biblical commentary on the elliptical machine makes me odd, but who am I trying to kid?

But that’s not the point–here’s the money quote for the day. I believe I even said “Wow” out loud when I read it, and then re-read it:

“Trusting God–which is the same as fearing God–means accepting the fact that God does not need us or anything we possess or accomplish, and acknowledging that he is not lacking in any aspect of his character or nature. The God revealed in the Bible cannot be manipulated or outmaneuvered, and our petty attempts to do so only demonstrate our refusal to accept Scripture’s presentation of God in favor of our own caricatures of him.”

–Job, John H. Walton, p. 334.

Obviously this makes a lot more sense when you’re reading the commentary through, which is why you should read the whole thing.

A No-Email Transaction

Posted October 10th, 2012 in Random by Emily Varner

Recently, I wanted to contact a well-known elder statesman of contextual New Testament scholarship about a review, but discovered that he “doesn’t do” email. Which meant typing and proofing a letter, printing it, addressing and stamping it, waiting for the reply, and sending another letter (or, in this case, two). What a testament to the momentous changes in office work in the past fifteen years that this is a rare occurrence!

I was arranging a review for a publication, and the logistics really were quite comical. Check in with the paper editor about their openness to having so-and-so write a review (email). Send a letter (mail). Wait. Get response (mail) and ask editor a couple questions (email). Receive another letter the next day with a change in the review scope (mail). Order some additional books (email). Check in with review editor (email). Make a determination about what the best way to proceed (need some time to think). Send another letter (mail; two days later than I would like because of Sunday and the holiday). Right now I am waiting for the reply letter so I can email the paper editor with the final word.

At first, it was refreshing to type, print, and sign a real communication! And I felt like I was getting a Christmas card when I received the response. The editor and I both expressed some envy about someone who could continue to function at such a high level without email. (Maybe that’s why–I’m certain this scholar thinks so!) Why don’t I do this more often? This is so real and tangible! But then the complication set in. Oh, it would be so much easier if I could just get an immediate response. Or maybe even call, or IM, or text!

So I guess I’m not going to switch to an all paper system after all. But the experience was a good reminder to me of why personal notes still matter, why “slow” can sometimes be better than “fast.” And why, even though I’m not giving up my email account and Twitter feed, I really do need to unplug for a few hours each day, think, dream, and not “do” email.

All Blog Reviews: frameworks

Posted September 24th, 2012 in Books, News by Emily Varner

What a pleasure to hear what reviewers from far and wide thought about frameworks! I believe this is the complete list of reviews (in no particular order):

Mark Howell Live – Mark Howell

Grace4Sinners – Mathew Sims

Dallas Theological Book Center Blog – Kevin Stern

Bible Geek Gone Wild – Shaun Tabatt

Logos Worldview Blog – Brian Holland

Barkma – Ben Barkley

Words on the Word – Abram Kielsmeier-Jones

Tom Farr Blog – Tom Farr

And those previously posted: – Casey Tygrett

Snapshots – Wendy Swantek

Book Bargains and Previews – Tricia

My Two Mites – Robbie Pruitt

ChristFocus Book Club – Debbie White



End of Week Posts on frameworks

Posted September 20th, 2012 in Books, News by Emily Varner

Bloggers are still weighing in with their thoughts on frameworks: How to Navigate the New Testament. (And incidentally, a few bloggers have asked for a small extension into next week as well!)


Tom Farr gives a nice overview here.


And Christopher Tillman acknowledges the gap in introductory literature for believing Bible readers: “An average OT/NT Introduction book may very well be intimidating for folks who are genuinely seeking a better understanding of Scripture, yet don’t have the supporting resources provided in a seminary environment.” His commendations and reservations are fleshed out here.


And another brief review appeared in Book Bargains and Previews.


I?m eager to see what pops up at tomorrow and early next week!