Thursday, December 6, 2018

Faithful Fiction and Comfort under the Cross




Keating, Ray. Reagan Country (A Pastor Stephen Grant Novel). Manorville, NY: Keating Reports, 2018. 309 Pages. Paper. Kindle available.

Keating, Ray. Heroes and Villains (A Pastor Stephen Grant Short Story). Manorville, NY: Keating Reports, 2018. 72 Pages. Paper. Kindle available.

Arbo, Matthew. Foreword by Karen Swallow Prior. Walking through Infertility: Biblical, Theological, and Moral Counsel for Those Who Are Struggling. Wheaton: Crossway, 2018. 116 Pages. Paper. $15.99.

I'm no snowflake. A faithful pastor cannot afford to be. Pastors and Christians face life and death issues frequently. We dare not hide our heads in the sand. We should face the difficult head-on, informed by Scripture, with faith in Christ, supporting one another with prayer and encouragement during cross-bearing.

The books in this review are different. The first books mentioned are fiction. The final titles are non-fiction. All deal with serious issues deftly thanks to the writing talents of their authors.

Our first novel visits the near-future of tomorrow's headlines. 

Reagan Country is the most-recent full-length novel in Ray Keating's Pastor Stephen Grant series. 

Please note the new cover style by the Rev. Tyrel Bramwell.

Could President Ronald Reagan's influence reach into the former "evil empire"? The media refers to a businessman on the rise as "Russia's Reagan." Unfortunately, others seek a return to the old ways, longing for Russia's former "greatness." The dispute becomes deadly. Conflict stretches from the Reagan Presidential Library in California to the White House to a Russian Orthodox monastery to the Kremlin. Stephen Grant, pastor at St. Mary's Lutheran Church on Long Island, a former Navy SEAL and onetime CIA operative, stands at the center of the tumult. He is strengthened by his faith, wife, friends, and former CIA colleagues, and is armed with a Glock and Holy Scripture. Grant is the kind of guy that Reagan would have appreciated. (Back cover)

Those who appreciate President Reagan may see this title and cover while browsing the many new books about our 40th President. Interest in the presidency is high given the contentious 2016 campaign, the recent death of President George H. W. Bush, and our nation's divided politics.

Reagan Country is a story of unexpected adventure. I have come to expect adventure for Rev. Stephen Grant in and beyond St. Mary's Lutheran Church (LCMS), but I did not expect this kind of plot. In an America where a large percentage of college students naiively prefer and/or promote socialism over capitalism, "Russia's Reagan" shows the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for the people who had been oppressed by socialism and communism. If only! 

My favorite part of this novel is the worldview of this eight-novel extended universe. We see everything in the context of pastors (don't forget St. Mary's Assistant) who confess Luther's Small Catechism and the Lutheran Confessions, active in Word and Sacrament ministry to real people, regular reference to Scripture, properly distinguished Law and Gospel, and glimpses into occasions of pastoral care and weekly liturgy (using Lutheran Service Book). Pastor Grant and the whole cast of Keating characters have to live with the consequences of their actions under the forgiveness of Christ. I know of no other author of thrillers that does this.

Reflecting on the series to date, one strength is the knowledge and research of the author. He becomes, if he is not already, a subject matter expert on the topic at hand. Reagan. Comic books. Wine. Baseball. Everything comes off as authentic, accurate, and well-informed.

Keating's creativity also avoids the formula of so much fiction in that we are not merely back to the "status quo" at the end of each installment. He develops characters, relationships, and situations in believable, realistic, human ways. We are primed, wanting more. 

And so I rejoice to share with you the coming of Stephen Grant short stories in addition to all the novels to date.

Heroes and Villains is the first (of hopefully many) Pastor Stephen Grant short stories.

As a onetime Navy SEAL, a former CIA operative and a pastor, many people call Stephen Grant a hero. At various times defending the Christian Church and the United States over the years, he has journeyed across the nation and around the world. But now Grant finds himself in an entirely unfamiliar setting – a comic book, science fiction and fantasy convention. But he still joins forces with a unique set of heroes in an attempt to foil a villainous plot against one of the all-time great comic book writers and artists.

Most pastors that I know have extensive libraries. I had the bug early. My comic book library has 10,000 volumes at last count. That covered my main period of collecting from 1986-1996, largely Superman and Batman plus the West Coast Avengers and Silver Surfer. Before superheroes, I read G. I. Joe. Before that, I apparently learned how to read with the help of Bugs Bunny and Uncle Scrooge, Scrooge McDuck, that is.

Heroes and Villains takes you inside all the drama of a comic convention, including that which only Stephen Grant can help with. It's an enjoyable romp complete with the gritty realism of the Burton Batman films, the camp of the Adam West adventures of the 60's, and the modern humor of LEGO Batman. 

If you know the adventures of the Avengers from the movies or the pages, dream of the day of decent DC films, or love the experience of Comic-Con, Heroes and Villains is the read for you! 

Gun-toting clergymen aren't only found in Wyoming. Keating's novels and short stories prove it with Pastor Stephen Grant and his adventures. May they continue! DC and Marvel are famous for telling stories of worlds like ours, yet different. This is the "multiverse." Somewhere, there is a world like ours where these stories have their own screen adaptations. How I'd love to see Pastor Grant on Netflix!

I love reading about a fictional Sheriff, Walt Longmire, while living in the region of Wyoming that inspired the fictional town and county in the novels of Craig Johnson. 

There is also a second series set in Wyoming, in another fictional town in another fictional county, about a fictional Game Warden, Joe Pickett, in the novels of C. J. Box. I am also a Lutheran pastor. It is an example of the embarrassment of riches that I also get to read about a fictional Lutheran pastor, Rev. Stephen Grant, 

through the keyboard and creative mind of Ray Keating. 

The cover designer of Keating's recent Stephen Grant titles of LCMS Pastor Tyrel Bramwell. His novel on the historic, Biblical, faithful, and apostolic practice of close(d) communion is called Come In, We Are Closed.


Many evangelicals are unfamiliar with it, don't understand it, and are often offended when they encounter it, but when it comes to the Lord's Supper the Scriptures clearly teach that Holy Communion is not for anybody and everybody. In this short work of fiction Rev. Tyrel Bramwell recalls the questions he had when he first encountered closed Communion as a young evangelical and the conversations he has had as a pastor, in order to dispel false assumptions and provide the Biblical answers to real misunderstandings.

It is a challenge to convey theological truth and faithful practice in fiction. The Rev. Tyrel Bramwell does so with theological deftness, pastoral winsomeness, and confessional faithfulness with regard to the challenging topic of Closed Communion. Engaging, humorous, and authentic, Come in, We Are Closed is the helpful tool laypeople and pastors have been praying for to reach those used to Open Communion. This book creatively and conversationally expands the limited number of Bible texts used to explain this faithful biblical practice within a fuller Lutheran confession of a Christian worldview and additional teaching on many other aspects of the Sacrament of the Altar. Come in, We Are Closed deals with Jesus' own words and how many react to them with unbelief instead of faith.

Another of our LCMS friends is Vanessa Rasanen, author of the first book in the Hearts on Guard series, Soldier On.


He's fighting for his country. She's praying for his safety. When tragedy strikes, can their marriage and faith survive?

Charlie and Meg Winters are no strangers to the military life and the challenges it brings. But when an IED rips through his convoy killing his friends, the loss proves almost too much to bear.

Meg finds her trust in Christ wavering, and secrets she's been keeping for years drive a wedge between her and her husband.

What if everything Meg believes is a lie?

What if Charlie finds out what she's done?

Can Meg and Charlie save their marriage or will the horrors of war and the ghosts of their past tear them apart and forever shipwreck her faith?

Soldier On is a gripping contemporary women's fiction novel. If you like inspirational stories of faith tested under pressure, then you'll love Vanessa Rasanen's true-to-life novel.

Like the books by Keating and Bramwell above, Rasanen's debut novel is realistic, grounded, and authentic, and delivers true comfort in Christ because it deals with difficult topics in all of their gritty agony. This is Law and Gospel, properly distinguished, applied to life. A military couple deals with their vocations as Lutheran Christians, sinners and saints, complete with Scripture, prayer, Luther's Small Catechism, and church services with Lutheran Service Book.

I recommend all the fiction titles above because they help the reader deal with difficult topics, like the following nonfiction title, Walking Through Infertility.



Walking through Infertility: Biblical, Theological, and Moral Counsel for Those Who Are Struggling

By Matthew Arbo, Foreword by Karen Swallow Prior  

"This book was written to help you see and understand that God is the Giver of life. You are his child. He cares deeply about you. When you hurt, he hurts with you." —from the Introduction

Infertility is the profoundly wounding experience of many couples, often leading to feelings of despair and shame as they grapple with shattered dreams and unanswered questions. But God does not leave them alone in their pain. The Creator and Redeemer of life has not forsaken the infertile, but has called and equipped them to participate in his church, kingdom, and mission.

Overflowing with warmth and sensitivity, this book explores what the Bible says about infertility, helping the church walk alongside couples struggling with infertility and assessing the ethical issues surrounding common fertility treatments and reproductive technologies.

(Publisher's Website)

Among the practical helps of this volume are moral assessments of therapies and treatments recommended to couples (20), the comforting truth that childlessness is not a punitive judgment (41), encouragement toward contentment as a child of God (59), comfort in Christ in the Church, a family (73).

I found this title to be of good Christological comfort, by an informed, compassionate author.

Even so, I found the following two titles to be more specifically theologically and practically helpful for Lutheran Christians.  

He Remembers the Barren is a title from Emmanuel Press, now in its Second Edition. It is not just a book for women. See our review of the First Edition.

He Remembers the Barren is a tender conversation with women in the church who wrestle with the issue of barrenness in marriage. Addressing questions frequently asked by those struggling with infertility, Schuermann examines the source of conception, control of our bodies, family planning, and adoption through the lens of the theology of the cross, always pointing the reader to her identity in Christ.

This revised and expanded second edition boldly confesses the author's growing understanding of barrenness and related life issues. With Psalm readings, beloved hymn texts, and prayers at the conclusion of each chapter, He Remembers the Barren resonates on a devotional level that offers comfort not only to those who ache under the cross of barrenness, but to anyone who knows the grief and shame of suffering. It is a valuable resource for family members, friends, pastors, and anyone seeking to better understand and empathize with the childless experience of a loved one. Schuermann gives voice to those who are barren but not broken, drawing the reader away from the temptation to despair and always bringing the focus back to the Gospel and the peace that only Christ can give. (Back cover)

Concordia Publishing has recently released Never Forsaken.

Many women don't talk about miscarriages. They feel a heavy weight of sadness, shame, and fear. And yet, many women close to them - sisters, mothers, friends, coworkers, neighbors - experience the same silent grief.
Author Kathryn Ziegler Weber wants to break the silence about miscarriage. Through vignettes from real women, she and the brave women who shared their stories bring God's Word into reader's unspoken story of grief, providing comfort and reassurance.

Answering questions like "What if my baby wasn't baptized?" and "Why doesn't my husband understand?", Never Forsaken wiill give comfort to grieving mothers and understanding to those who haven't experienced miscarriage themselves. (Publisher summary)

Even though we've been using LSB for long enough that it is old enough for confirmation classes, I still remember the Janzow translation of Gerhardt's hymn of cross and comfort from LW 423:2, where the Christian is speaking and praying to the Lord: 

Under burdens of cross-bearing,
Though the weight
May be great,
Yet I'm not despairing.
You designed the cross you gave me;
Thus you know
All my woe
And how best to save me


This review (and others published near it in time) was delayed because of family and congregational vocational responsibilities. I apologize for the delay. 

Rev. Paul J Cain is Senior Pastor of Immanuel, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School and Immanuel Academy, a member of the Board of Directors of the Consortium for Classical Lutheran Education, Secretary of the Wyoming District of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and a member of its Board of Directors, Wyoming District Education Chairman/NLSA Commissioner, and Editor of Lutheran Book Review. He has served as an LCMS Circuit Visitor, District Worship Chairman and District Evangelism Chairman. A graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Rev. Cain is a contributor to Lutheran Service Book, Lutheranism 101, the forthcoming LSB Hymnal Companion volumes, and is the author of 5 Things You Can Do to Make Our Congregation a Caring Church. He is an occasional guest on KFUO radio. He has previously served Emmanuel, Green River, WY and Trinity, Morrill, NE. Rev. Cain is married to Ann and loves reading and listening to, composing, and making music. 

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