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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

"The Hope Quotient" (Ray Johnston)

TITLE: The Hope Quotient: Measure It. Raise It. You'll Never Be the Same.
AUTHOR: Ray Johnston
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2014, (240 pages).

Many believers say that faith is the only thing we need. Others echo along with it that "All you need is love." What about the other aspect of 1 Corinthians 13:13, Hope? Why is faith and love relatively more talked about that hope when hope is the very thing the world needs more and more? Founder and President of Thriving Churches International, Ray Johnston aims to up our "hope quotient" (HQ) and inject this necessary attribute for the world at large, and for people from all walks of life. Johnston, an inspirational speaker and life coach had spent seven years researching the material for this book. It all began with a conversation with his daughter who told him that the greatest thing she can ever have is to be encouraged. Johnston in turn saw through it all, and learned that the greatest gift indeed is the gift of hope. This is because hope liberates one from the past; motivates one to bounce back from despair; initiates one's freedom to dream; and activates the making of the world into a better place. On the opposite end of the spectrum is discouragement which Johnston calls a "disease" that discourages, depresses, and destroys. The main thesis of the book is: "Raising these Seven Factors raises Your Hope Quotient which creates Fresh Vision which unleashes a Whole New Future."

Monday, September 1, 2014

"How Can I Be Sure?" (John Stevens)

TITLE: How can I be sure? (Questions Christians Ask)
AUTHOR: John Stevens
PUBLISHER: Purcellville, VA: The Good Book Company, 2014, (96 pages).

It is okay to doubt, but it is not so okay to leave it unaddressed. As a way to spur the search for truth, it is good. As a way to indulge in ignorance, it is bad. Based on his experience with seekers, searchers, and believers who doubt from time to time, author and former University of Birmingham Professor, John Stevens, seeks to assure us that questions about faith are not necessarily bad. Drawing from his personal encounters with various believers, he helps us look at questions such as:

1. What is doubt?
2. Why is doubt dangerous?
3. What do I have to believe to be a Christian?
4. How can I overcome doubt as a Christian?
5. How can I develop a confident faith?

He begins with a gentle assurance that doubts are hidden struggles among many Christians, and that it is alright to ask questions. In fact, we can let these questions lead us and not to be too worried about the questions dumbing down our faith. On the contrary, these doubts are authentic desires to search for truth. For example, one may know the truth but still unable to experience it. Stevens provides us various examples of why doubt exists. For even the biblical heroes of old experience moments of doubt. At the same time, he cautions us from crossing the line toward trusting in ourselves more than God, especially when we move from faith to unbelief. Learning to see it as a way to spiritual growth is quite different than seeing it as a way to dumb down faith. He uses the engagement metaphor to show us that like the commitment to marry our fiance/fiancee, we do not let doubts tempt us to work things out with a third party. We let doubts help us work out our questions directly with the one we are engaged with.

Stevens also has some words of assurance for those who doubt their own salvation by listing down some of the basis of our faith. That saving faith is our trust in Jesus who had already done everything for our sake. He reminds us that believing about Jesus is different from believing IN Jesus. He also tackles the age-old dichotomy of faith versus experience. Gradually, readers will be led toward practices in which we can grow in increasing faith in God.

Written in a very accessible manner, Stevens has assured us once again that not all doubts are bad. He helpfully defines the difference between doubt and unbelief, saving faith and experiencing faith, and other essentials that a Christian will need. For those of us who are in a position of questioning our own faith, or know of people in that state, it is helpful to let this little book crystallize our own questions and be guided toward an assurance in God alone. Questions are often more useful than answers. Open doubts are better than closed faith. The latter tempts us toward unbelief. The former leads us toward deeper and more authentic faith. May readers be guided toward greater faith and authentic experiences.

Rating:4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of The Good Book Company and Cross-Focused Reviews in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Friday, August 29, 2014

"Truth Matters" (Andreas KÖstenberger, Darrell Bock, and Josh Chatraw)

TITLE: Truth Matters: Confident Faith in a Confusing World
AUTHOR: Andreas KÖstenberger, Darrell Bock, and Josh Chatraw
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: B and H Publishing, 2014, (208 pages).

What happens to their faith when churchgoing kids go to college? How do they respond to the vicious attacks, skepticism of Christianity, and the challenges of secularism? Will they fight or flee? Will they faith be weakened? Not necessarily, as long as one knows the truth. For if we know the truth, when we know what we believe, we can go forth boldly without fear. Authors and Professors Andreas KÖstenberger, Darrell Bock, and Josh Chatraw have come together not only to help readers and college bound students to defend the faith, they also believe that people like Bart Ehrman are dead wrong in their attacks on the Bible. They point out the four ways why such skeptics and atheists are so effective in casting doubts on Christianity.
  1. They speak in "our language" using stories and captivating narratives to win our hearts
  2. They know the audience had not "contemplated these ideas before" and uses skepticism to instill doubts
  3. They entertain and affirm a climate of "disbelief" through the popular tolerance philosophy; such as every one is entitled to their own opinion or there is no superior faith
  4. They argue that faith and reason are at opposite poles of life.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

"Dynamic Women of the Bible" (Ruth A. Tucker)

TITLE: Dynamic Women of the Bible: What We Can Learn from Their Surprising Stories
AUTHOR: Ruth A. Tucker
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014, (318 pages).

Another book on Bible women? This is the same sentiment the author posed when asked if she wanted to write about this "marginalized minority" in a patriarchal ancient culture. Writing with an angle of appreciation, Tucker feels that there is still lots more to learn from these "dynamic women." Careful of not turning these women into her own image, Tucker compiles 24 chapters detailing the lives of women in the Bible from both the Old and the New Testaments. She begins with Eve and Noah's wife, calling them "mothers of us all." Instead of Eve merely being the one who gave the bad apple to Adam, the former Calvin Theological Seminary professor probes Eve's relationship with God, and suggests the critical role she plays in being the mother of the rest of mankind. The unnamed wife of Noah is rarely featured in modern commentaries, mostly because she had often been portrayed negatively. Overshadowed by the man who was used by God to save the world through the building of the ark, we are reminded to take the time to contemplate her position and imagine perhaps, that she may very well be a "pitiful character." Sarah is a bit of an "enigma." While many would point a finger at her for even suggesting her husband sleeping with another woman, Tucker points out that the contexts at that time had placed Sarah in a particularly traumatic position. Being barren with no descendants versus letting her husband father at least some hope for the future is like comparing between having no children vs having some. The story of the slave girl Hagar, can also be symbolic of how we all are afflicted in some way. Lot's wife and Lot's daughters had also received very negative reviews. Being the woman who turned into a pillar of salt, perhaps Lot's wife is also a reminder of how human we all are. For the plight of Lot's daughters, maybe, we ought not be too quick to judge what happened to them from modern eyes, but reflect on how they need to survive in an age where "boys are prized." Tucker makes a connection personally with Rebekah. Being on the receiving end of a manipulative friend, Tucker sets aside momentarily Rebekah's manipulative moves against Esau, and brings to the forefront her love as a mother for her son Jacob, even willing to pray sacrificially: "let the curse fall on me." Readers are even given a choice that if any of us were to be stuck in a tent with either Sarah or Rebekah, who would we choose? Rachel and Leah are not simply "rival sisters" but ordinary women desiring love from their husbands and dutiful women in a culture where men are recognized heads of households. Dinah and Tamar are characters involved in consensual sex. Tamar's example is a form of prostitution while Dinah is a victim of sexual desire in a "male-dominated system." Yet, God cares for them. Tucker also deals with lesser known characters like Jochebed, Miriam, Zipporah, and the five daughters of Zelophehad. Despite her direct role in David's adultery, Bathsheba is David's most "prominent and influential wife." Other Old Testament women include Vashti, Esther, Abigail, Michal, Delilah, Rahab, Naomi, Ruth, Gomer, the Proverbs 31 woman, plus several unnamed women. For the infamous Jezebel, wife of Ahab, can anything good come out from her character? Tucker surprisingly chooses to say that their crimes are no worse than the wickedness of the evil kings of Israel. In other words, do not judge these evil women like Jezebel, Athaliah, and Huldah any worse than wicked men.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

"Organic Mentoring" (Sue Edwards and Barbara Neumann)

TITLE: Organic Mentoring: A Mentor's Guide to Relationships with Next Generation Women
AUTHOR: Sue Edwards and Barbara Neumann
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2014, (224 pages).

Imagine a community without women. Society would be impoverished. From non-profits to charitable organizations; from churches to various religious institutions; women form a sizeable portion of the community of care and help. Imagine further what an empowered community of women can do to change the world. That would be awesome indeed. Since the days of Jesus and the Early Church, women have played a critical role in society, both at home as well as in society. They have created an immense impact in many places. Yet, like so many things, past successes are no guarantee of the future. If women of the next generation can be mentored and discipled, society gains as a whole. This book is an effort to mentor and cultivate mentoring culture for the next generation.

The authors have a mentor-mentee relationship via a supervisor-student relationship where Barbara was a doctoral student and Sue her supervisor. Both had similar passions: to help bridge the modern and postmodern women through appropriate mentoring. Before introducing new ways, they point out the differences and the reasons why the outdated models and paradigms need to be changed. Based on their research about women and mentoring in a postmodern era, Edwards an Neumann make a compelling case for change, for adaptation, and for hope.

Friday, August 22, 2014

"Jonah" (Kevin J. Youngblood)

TITLE: Jonah: God's Scandalous Mercy (Hearing the Message of Scripture: A Commentary on the Old Testament)
AUTHOR:  Kevin J. Youngblood
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014, (192 pages).

This commentary is a part of Zondervan's series on "Hearing the Message of Scripture" to help readers in contemporary times hear as best as possible what the ancient audience are hearing. It helps readers go beyond word-for-word or technical analysis. It enables readers to sense the rhetorical orientations and the theological underpinnings of the biblical author. That is why "hearing" is a significant posture, considering that the ancient books are meant to be read aloud and received audibly. The three principles used are:
  1. What theological points are taught?
  2. How did the biblical author communicate these points?
  3. How does the message connect with the overall thrust of the Bible?
Using a standard format for the series, each commentary is helmed by an "expert" who has studied or taught the text in a significant way. In this commentary on the book of Jonah, it is the Professor of Bible & Religion at Harding University, Dr Kevin J, Youngblood. Since one of the purposes of this book is to help preachers, I will review this from a preacher's standpoint.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Facing Leviathan" (Mark Sayers)

TITLE: Facing Leviathan: Leadership, Influence, and Creating in a Cultural Storm
AUTHOR: Mark Sayers
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014, (240 pages).

Mark Sayers is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. His "The Road Trip That Changed the World," has become my go-to book for cultural engagement and analysis. Now, this latest book will be my goto book for leadership in our rapidly volatile cultural climate. Using the biblical sea monster described in the Old Testament book of Job, Sayers crafts this leadership guide that shines light on the cultural changes of this age, but penetrates deep into the forces that make or break a leader. Readers will slowly but surely be forced at some point to deal with their own "Leviathans."

Using the French Revolution and Paris as a metaphor, Sayers shows us how a society of power and glamour in 19th Century Paris that looks good on the outside can spawn the rise of a cruel and wicked person like Adolf Hitler. He points out the two popular forms of leadership: Mechanical (Enlightenment values) and Organic (Romanticism values). The former is based on power, task-driven, traditional, conventional, etc, while the latter is based on creativity, radical, relational, spiritual, imaginative, etc. Sayers admits that for the most part of his life, he has tried to evolve from the mechanical to the organic form of leadership.Gradually, he gets swamped by "surprising fruitlessness," "cultural splits," as well as his own bipolar condition, making him even more determined to find out the root cause of it all. He begins by meeting the Leviathan and the dangers of the sea. He observes with much fascination how poets like Jules Verne live out the Mechanical style of leadership while Rimbaud represents the organic form. Both had one thing in common: Both abandoned their Christian faith. Both the cultures of Enlightenment and Romanticism grow out of a "society of the spectacle" where leaders become celebrities; activists become spectators; creators become consumers; focus gives way to distractions; etc. This calls for urgent encounters with the Word of God. The concern is that the worries and distractions of the world can tempt leaders to abandon God's calling and embrace the cultural deceptions of comfort, entertainment, distractions, sensuality, and rising disobedience. Leaders soon forget that obedience to God often means disobedience to self.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

"Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus" (Nabeel Qureshi)

TITLE: Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity
AUTHOR: Nabeel Qureshi
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014, (304 pages).

Christians are not the only people who evangelize. Muslims do too. In many cases, Muslims are better trained in casting doubts on the Christian faith in order to influence more to believe in Islam. Sometimes, I have found Muslims to be relatively more prepared in winning any debate between the merits of Christianity vs Islam. Reading this book reminds me once again that Muslims are quite formidable in their religious heritage, in their arguments against Christianity, and in their knowledge of the New Testament. Sharing about his own religious search, Dr Nabeel Qureshi gives readers a glimpse about the inner workings of the upbringing of a Muslim child, the way Muslims are trained in their honor and authority observance, and the differences between the Eastern and Western perspective of things Islam, religion, and culture. After describing his pious upbringing and a background of devoutly seeking Allah, he reveals how he had a change of heart after being stumped on several occasions by his best friend David, who had not only defended key tenets of the Christian faith, but also exposed the fallacies of the anti-Christian arguments used by many Muslims. As his eyes become opened to the weaknesses of the "swoon theory" and the problems underlying the substitution explanation. More importantly, as he becomes open to the reality of the gospel, he soon takes on a new perspective: Finding Jesus. Qureshi turns from obstinate opponent to passionate proponent for the gospel of Christ. He notices that the arguments he had adopted, the apologetics used against Christianity were all "polemical," that is, they all started with a conclusion. He then attempted to use Western methodology with Eastern passion, and slowly discovers that Christianity is more water-tight than he had previously argued against. One by one, his walls of resistance crumbled.  He learned to see both sides of the picture. It was the Resurrection debate between the Muslim Shabir Ally against Michael Licona and Gary Habermas that tilted the balance. While Ally won the rhetoric and stage presence, Qureshi acknowledged that from the argument standpoint, Mike and Gary were far more convincing. With incredible detail of his journey from Islam to Christianity, Qureshi finds his initial resistance melts away, his doubts grow into faith, and his U-turn from skeptical disbelief to fervent faith.

Monday, August 18, 2014

"A Christian Survivor Guide" (Ed Cyzewski)

TITLE: A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth
AUTHOR: Ed Cyzewski
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2014, (208 pages).

Some books skirt the important issues of faith. Others dig so deep and lose the audience. Still, there are those that managed to point out the key matters and raise important questions but fail to adequately address them. How then do we grow in the midst of questions and doubts about the Christian faith? When the facts of life conflict with the faith we profess, which goes? Refusing to give into easy doubt or simplistic answers, author Ed Cyzewski takes the bull of questions by the horns and helps readers join the doubts toward reasonable faith. Called a "lifeline to faith and growth," the freelance writer uses this guide to help us navigate the paths to various Christian theologies and practical working out of such beliefs. His core belief is that "surviving as a Christian depends on having the right beliefs, putting them into practice in community with other Christians, and most importantly, meeting with God regularly." After identifying the marks of two groups of Christians that falter (messy and happy), he goes on to list down what it takes to move from milk-to-meat Christians.

He tackles nine beliefs in Part One. Prayer is not a monologue but a dialogue. Even when we feel God is distant does not necessarily mean God is far away. He mentions the Bible and the various interpretive angles Christians groups have, such as the conservative/liberal, and how important it is to avoid letting our past experiences or knowledge twist the interpretation of the Bible. He helps us see the biblical context behind the "violent Bible stories." He highlights the problem of dealing with the "problem of pain and evil" saying that many of us fail to discern between hot and cold cognition when dealing with situations of pain and evil. That is, those suffering in pain (hot) do not want some kind of a theological or chilly (cold) explanation about the pain. On hell, we read about the tendency of our modern culture to "erase hell" and at the same time, bring back a nuanced understanding of the Bible's references to "sheol, gehenna, or hades" as well as four different "instances" in Jesus' use of hell. He addresses the objections to the reliability of the Bible. He shows us some cultural uniqueness of various biblical events. He affirms that part of growing up is to learn to let our doubts shine light on our growth journey. On Revelation, Cyzewski's view is that the last book of the Bible essentially points to events already happening at that time rather than a futuristic view of what is ahead. The way Christians can apply that is to learn how to live well each day rather than to worry about the apocalypse.

Part Two of the book comprises five chapters that deal specifically with our Christian life matters. The first is about addiction, how the seven deadly sins can unravel our spirituality. The author suggests that restraint from such addictions and a commitment to break free from sinful acts is key to survival. Second, we learn about money as an idol, and how we use money. Third, in looking at community, we read about what to do when caught in a "bad church" environment. He reminds us that when we point a finger at the "church," we must not forget that you and I are very much the church. Fourth, evangelism is much talked about but less acted upon. Why not try to "embrace, ask, and act" in sharing the gospel? Finally, he looks at spiritual gifts, the charismatic movement, and what it means to trust in the Holy Spirit.

So What?

Are we content to simply survive? Or are we looking forward to thrive? The title of the book bugs me initially as it seems to be simply helping us to stay afloat rather than to journey to a particular destination. Only after reading the introduction do I realize that the objective is to move from surviving to thriving. He begins with the basic assumption that our Christian living must not be content about mere survival although survival is crucial to staying alive in the first place. Instead, we need to survive first in order to go somewhere later. Written for a lay audience, for the general church member, Cyzewski is perceptive about the nagging concerns and typical struggles behind some basic beliefs and Christian practices. Underlying each question and answer is the sensitivity to the quest for authenticity and truth. Written in a very accessible manner, he hooks readers in with an initial explanation of the problem, before giving some brief examples of what we can do about it. As a guide, it asks questions that we feel but seldom ask. It gives us some perspectives to consider. Most of all, it affirms once again that our Christian faith is not some old-fashioned religion that is applicable only to ancient times, but is very much practical and relevant. While the book is not intended to give us all the answers, it does point us to various resources that we can refer to. The "For Further Reading" section is a useful guide for readers who want to know more about the different topics covered in the book.

If you do not know how to verbalize the inner questions that you have in your heart, perhaps reading this book can not only jiggle some inner concerns but also bring out more concretely the inner feelings that demand a biblical verdict.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Kregel Publications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"Loving Jesus More" (Phil Ryken)

TITLE: Loving Jesus More
AUTHOR: Phil Ryken
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2014, (176 pages).

Everybody talks about love. It is often used but one wonders what exactly does it mean. What does it mean to love? More specifically, in this book, what does it mean to love Jesus more? Spurred by a crude comment directed particularly at him for writing about love inside his office and not doing enough of loving people outside the office, Ryken admits that he needs more love for Jesus. At the same time, he also affirms the great commandment as necessarily beginning with the mind. Rather than to see the commandment to love with all our heart, mind, soul, and will as four different things, the Wheaton College professor prefers to see it as four different ways to do the same thing. He then builds his case from the beginning that we love because God first loved. us. We receive our love essentially through the Holy Spirit. If we are truly in love with Jesus, we will naturally find ways to overcome any obstacles in order to share the love of God with all. There is a logic that not many people realize. Those who can love Jesus "more" are those who love Jesus "less" in the first place. This book takes this thought and works through what it means to love Jesus more.

With lots of New Testament references and examples from the gospels, Ryken encourages us not to be waylaid by doubts, but to let doubts help us find the way to deeper faith. Like the witty words of Frederick Buechner, "Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving." Whenever we doubt, keep going back to the gospel story and the teachings of Jesus. This is where Ryken shines. Love in Christ comes in many places. There is the love that is prepared to forsake the glories of heaven for the ordinariness of earthly life. There is the deep suffering of Christ for our sake. There is the crucifixion as the ultimate demonstration of God's love. He points out that love is not something compartmentalized into intellect, emotion, physical, or whatever human will. They are all legitimate ways toward loving God. We love with our mind. We love with our delight and admiration of God's creation. We love God with the best of us. We love God with our "affectionate intellect."

Loving Jesus more means extravagance, brilliantly summarized by the moving act of the woman with the alabaster jar. It means obedience to what God had commanded or taught us. It means growing in affection for Christ. It means finding unlimited ways to love. It means mercy and grace. It means loving those who are difficult to love. It also means loving the Church, warts and all.

Ryken also deals with the common question of what if we do not feel like loving Jesus? One clue is our understanding and awareness of how much we have been forgiven. Another clue is whether something else has usurped the throne of our allegiance? Yet another clue is to find out how much we have become molded by the culture around us. The author ends with a call to love Jesus perfectly, that our desire to love God will be multiplied over and over again when we see the perfect beauty and Person of Jesus. Like the true story of Lap Vi Ho, locked up in a Vietnamese prison, whose love for his family enabled him to endure many hardships, believing that one day, he will be able to see his wife and children in a refugee camp in Thailand.

The idea is simple but the message is so necessary to our entire Christian living. Without love, all the spiritual disciplines, all the theological knowledge, all the strategies and the methods of doing church will fall to the ground like a dull thud. With love, whatever we do, whether it is a melody, a chorus, a rhyme, a strophe, a crescendo, or just a note, they can all be brought together to produce a musical masterpiece, for the ears and enjoyment of the God we love.

The study guide at the end of the book provides further opportunities to discuss this topic. If you are feeling a little jaded about what it means to love God, maybe this book is a breeze of fresh air to rejuvenate and to renew our love for God.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Crossway Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.