Today, I have the distinct honor of interviewing Simonetta Carr, whose book, “Weight of a Flame: The Passion of Olympia Morata” was recently released by P&R Publishing. Her book is the fifth in what is known as, “The Chosen Daughter Series” which features the lives of ordinary women who, by God’s grace, accomplish extraordinary things. Simonetta is also the author of a series of biographies published by Reformation Heritage Books in which she introduces young readers to some of the most famous Reformers of the Christian Church such as Augustine of Hippo, John Calvin, Althanasius, and John Owen. Born in Italy, Simonetta lives in San Diego with her husband and eight children. She has translated the works of several Christian authors into Italian and written for numerous newspapers and magazines.
Her publisher (P&R Publishing) has graciously offered to give away three books to our readers. Please leave a comment if you would like your name to be entered in the drawing. To increase your chances, share this interview on your blog, or Facebook and let me know you have done so. I will enter your name for each “share”. The contest will close at 9pm EST on Friday, December 16th. Providential winners will be announced Saturday, December, 17th, 2011.
1. Can you tell us a little about your background and how you came to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ?
I was raised in Italy as Roman Catholic. As a child, I was very serious about religion. In fact, I was determined to become a saint. I would buy books about saints to see how it was done. Most women, however, became saints by being killed or raped, so I started to lose interest. Still, I was terrified with hell. I used to write down my sins so I wouldn’t forget any at confession, until I realized that we sin with every thought. Finally, I solved the problem by telling the priest that I broke every commandment but didn’t kill anyone. In reality, I knew very little about God and Christ.
When I was eighteen, an American woman gave me a Gospel of John and told me about salvation in Christ. I understood her message, but she didn’t direct me to a church, so for many years I was still very confused. This is one reason why now I have a passion for sound, orthodox theology and a desire to teach it to children.
God faithfully led me to understand the importance of regular church attendance and membership and, by His grace, brought me to a Reformed confessional church where the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered week after week.
2. How did you start writing Christian biographies for children?
As a homeschooling mother, I liked to base my children’s curriculum on history. Soon I realized that while there were some good biographies for young children about presidents, artists, musicians, and scientists, comparable books about important men and women of church history were scarce. I had a clear idea of what I wanted: simple but informative books emphasizing God’s preservation of His church and doctrines throughout the centuries and not just a set of moral samples to follow. I wanted illustrations to capture the imagination and photos to help the children to realize that these stories are true.
There was a young church history graduate in my church, and I tried very hard to persuade him to take on this project. I even made up a mock-up book to show him what I had in mind. He thought it was a good idea, but he never took action. Finally, someone encouraged me to do it myself. It was almost Calvin’s anniversary, and I thought that a biography of Calvin for children was a good way to start.
I actually wrote the first book with my children. I did the research and wrote a first draft, but then we discussed it together and they came up with many helpful suggestions and corrections. We planned the illustrations and looked for photos. Then I sent the proposal to many publishers and waited. It was fun and I didn’t really expect much to happen, but Reformation Heritage Books liked the idea and produced the books in a format which is even more beautiful than I had ever imagined.
3. Why is it important for young people to study church history?
To borrow a slogan from the White Horse Inn radio program, a study of church history helps children “to know what they believe and why.” It’s important for our children to realize that what we believe today has been proved and confirmed by godly men and women throughout history. It will help them to stand against the accusations that Christian doctrine was made up by a few men, or that the church hasn’t been willing to question and examine its beliefs.
There are of course many other advantages, which I listed in an article I wrote for Modern Reformation and reprinted on my blog. http://simonetta-carr.blogspot.com/2010/11/church-history-for-children.html
4. Your most recent work, Weight of a Flame: The Passion of Olympia Morata is unique in that, while based on research, it is historical fiction. Can you tell us about this book and what compelled you to take on such a challenge?
I guess you mean it’s unique when compared with my other books, which are straight biographies. When I was looking for a publisher for my first book (John Calvin), P&R was very interested but took much time to decide, and when Reformation Heritage accepted my proposal I chose to go with them. It was then that P&R asked me if I wanted to contribute to their series “Chosen Daughters.” This is a series of historical fiction books for young adults (particularly girls), with four titles in print before mine.
I had mixed feelings about this idea. I liked the challenge of writing fiction, especially since English is not my first language, but I had always taken great care to make my other books as accurate and precise as possible, and the idea of imagining scenes and situations that may or may not have happened in that particular way was frightening. All the dangers of writing bad history seem magnified when one writes historical fiction.
On the other hand, I knew exactly the perfect subject for my story. The P&R series is about young girls, and while the life of most women in church history became more interesting as they aged, Olympia Morata was the equivalent of a modern-day child prodigy and lived a very adventurous life from the time she was twelve.
Besides, she was Italian, and everyone knows that it’s easier to write about familiar places. I could relate to the sights, flavors, and smells that surrounded this young girl. I was also quite familiar with the culture and the time period, as Italian schools teach extensively about the Renaissance. What motivated me most, however, was the idea that I could familiarize my readers with the Italian Reformation, which is still largely unknown but very interesting. It’s this desire that kept me going when I fully understood the magnitude of the challenge I had undertaken.
5. Having homeschooled for many years, what encouragement would you offer to homeschooling moms who recognize the benefit of studying church history yet feel less than equipped?
The importance of teaching church history to children is increasingly recognized, so there are now more books out there on this subject. My denomination (URCNA) made it part of their Sunday School curriculum, and they have a guide for teaching church history to junior high students. Brandon and Mindy Withrow also have a good series of books to give a general idea of the progress of church history, and I heard of others who are planning to write something similar. My books focus more on key individuals, their times, and their contribution to Christianity. I think it’s pretty obvious that they are written by a mother with some experience in homeschooling.
I am actually planning to write Study Guides for these books and post them free of charge online. So far, I have written four out of six chapters of a Study Guide on John Owen. Please pray that I can write them for all the books within reasonable time.
6. What advice would you offer to a local church wanting to incorporate your series into their curriculum for children?
I would probably offer the same advice I gave to families – incorporate the books into a church history curriculum. The teachers can read them to the all children, or they can assign them to some for homework. If the Sunday School curriculum is not including church history, the books can still be used to reinforce theological teachings. For example, if a teacher is talking about salvation by grace alone through faith alone, he or she could read or assign Augustine as supplementary reading. The debate between Augustine and Pelagius can also act as a springboard to learn more about the original sin. I was very impressed when I learned that Augustine had to think very carefully when someone asked him if faith was also a gift from God, because a positive answer carried tremendous implications. Finally he had to admit that’s in fact what the Bible teaches, whether our sinful nature likes it or not. I think it’s wonderful if children can understand these struggles of our Christian forefathers and follow their biblical reasoning.
7. Many churches keep children away from public worship. I read on your blog, in a few places, that you believe children should be in the main worship service. Can you explain why?
It would be best for your readers to see the full article I wrote for the Outlook http://reformedfellowship.net/articles/children-worshiping-carr-jan-feb11v61-n1.htm. It all boils down to one’s view of worship. For most Christians, worship is a time to express our praises to God and learn more about him, and if that’s all, well, yes, children can be taken out where they can do the same at their level. In the Reformed and confessional tradition, however, worship is a time when God comes down to meet His people and imparts them his grace through his appointed means (preached Word and sacraments). In the same tradition, children are heirs of God’s covenant, children of a holy nation nurtured and preserved by God, and not pagan “vipers in diapers” (as someone nicknamed them) to be converted. You can see then that, if that is the case, they need to be with the rest of God’s people and be nourished by God together with them. It’s just a different perspective.
8. Recently you traveled to Indonesia where, among other things, you shared on teaching catechism to children. Can you tell us why you think that is important?
Again, I am going to refer you to another article I wrote: http://simonetta-carr.blogspot.com/2011/11/practical-tips-for-teaching-catechism.html. In Indonesia, I was asked to speak about the importance of teaching theology to children, and the first thing that came to mind were the catechisms. After all, they were written prayerfully and carefully by some of the best theologians of the Reformation (and post-Reformation), specifically for children and new converts, and they have been used by Protestant churches for centuries. I’d say they are tried and proven.
9. Recently Heavenly Springs hosted a series entitled, “Women of the Reformation” in which several prominent yet lesser known women of the Reformation were featured. You also have written articles on Olympia Morata, Renee de France, and you are currently working on a biography for Lady Jane Grey as part of your series. What do you think Christians, particularly women, can learn from these women of faith?
It’s interesting to see how Christian women have impacted the church. They were particularly active and influential during the Reformation, when in many cases they brought the men to faith. It’s very inspiring to see their eagerness to learn correct theology, something that has been in some ways lost in the course of centuries. It’s also exciting to meet Christians from other eras, and observe their choices and reactions to various situations, some similar to ours and some completely alien.
This is the thrill you get when you read any biography, but for women there seems to be a particular affinity with their sisters in Christ who lived some time ago. The greatest inspiration comes of course from realizing how God has strengthened and kept their faith until the end even in very different and difficult circumstances.
10. I read that your book on John Owen was nominated as finalist in the 2010 San Diego Awards. Additionally, it is now in the San Diego County Library, and the San Diego Public Library (a separate entity) is considering it for inclusion in their catalog. Congratulations! Right after you shared this news, you stated, “I am now more convinced than ever that accurate books on the history of Christianity are a must for children in all types of schools.” Why did you say this?
I mentioned in that post that it was a quote by Dr. Diarmaid MacCullogh, professor of the History of the Church at Oxford and author of several books on the history of Christianity and on the Reformation, to spur this thought in my mind. He wrote, “It seems to me that the history of Christianity is absolutely essential to talk about because there is so much bad history about it, and arrogance, conceit, dogmatism are all based on bad history.”
Sadly, this “bad history” includes not only books written by unbelievers who have not taken the time to deepen their knowledge of Christianity and often succumb to popular notions, but also books written by Christians which are not taken seriously because they lack objectivity. There is a sense in which some Christian authors seem to write defensively about their past, or turn biographies into inspirational messages. So the problem is on both sides.
For example, I saw a sixth-grade history textbook once describing in a few paragraphs the birth of Christianity. It explained that Jesus’ main message was that people should forget the Jewish laws to have a relationship with God and love each other. I am quoting it pretty much verbatim because I kept the email I sent to the school teacher who was using it. A more serious study of the Christian religion would have helped the author to recognize that Jesus came to solve a much more serious problem of which the Jews were very much aware – which is the enmity between God and man because of the original sin (the only type of relationship we all have with God in our natural state).
As I said, I wrote the teacher and she sent my message to the school district, taking this matter very seriously. In our pluralistic age, I found people quite open to listen to the message of Christianity and the history of the church if it is related in a well-informed and respectful way. Since Christianity has played such a vital role in shaping the Western world, I think it’s imperative that everyone studies its history correctly, and I believe we are finally producing very valuable books in this respect.
11. Can you tell us what other projects are in the pipeline?
For the Christian Biographies for Young Readers series, Lady Jane is pretty much done so I have suggested Anselm as the next title. I think the children can relate to a man who asked deep questions. “Cur deus homo? Why the God man?” Why did God become man? Did he have to? Plus, Anselm lived a very exciting life and it gives me the chance to talk about a different time period (the eleventh century).
My publisher liked the idea, but I don’t have a contract yet, so we will see. Actually, his son had just asked him if my next book (after Athanasius) was going to be about someone whose name starts with a “J”. When the publisher said yes (Jane Grey), the boy replied, “It’s a pattern! John Calvin, Augustine, John Owen, Athanasius, Jane Grey…” well, Anselm should be next, right?
I don’t know if I will write any more historical fiction. I will wait and see how this book is received. If people think this type of books is useful, I might write more. On the other hand, Evangelical Press has asked me to contribute to their series of “Bitesize Biographies,” simple biographies of men and women from church history for everyday readers. I chose Renée of France, a very interesting woman. That’s also almost done, and the next title I will write for them, D.V., is Peter Martyr Vermigli.
I know I sound very busy, but I only write when I can – mostly in the evenings. I also do a lot of “pre-writing” as I go about my tasks. I rarely sit at the computer thinking about what I want to say. If a subject requires some thinking, I get up and start cleaning the house, and think as I go. Overall, I am definitely a lot less busy than when I had a baby in my arms and a bunch of little ones pulling my skirt!
Thank you, Simonetta for taking the time to interview at Heavenly Springs! May God bless you and your labor of love for the body of Christ.