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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"52 Little Lessons from Les Miserables" (Bob Welch)

TITLE: 52 Little Lessons from Les Miserables
AUTHOR: Bob Welch
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2014, (208pages).

The musical has been seen by more than 65 million people in over 42 countries. Written by Victor Hugo in 1862, it continues to fascinate and enthrall audiences the world over. In 2012, it even won a Golden Globe award for best picture. The question, is there something more than simply a show? Are there important lessons to learn from as far as lay people are concerned? Are the lessons in the 19th Century story still relevant for today? Welch gives an emphatic YES! Fifty Two of them.

For Les Miserables is not simply a brilliant play that entertains. It is also a story that is big on spiritual themes, life struggles, and according to author, speaker, and adjunct professor of journalism at Eugene's University of Oregon, it contains "52 little lessons" that we can all learn from. What makes the writing of this book interesting and challenging is to be able to select only 52 out of a very complex tale of betrayal, mystery, joy, forgiveness, despondency, suffering, political and social reforms, and many others. For us as readers, we can enjoy the fruits of the author's labour, with the many stories of the characters, the places, the plots, the history and many other interesting settings. Most of the lessons are spiritually inclined because the author feels that the novel is spiritual in nature.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"Atlas Girl" (Emily T. Wierenga)

TITLE: Atlas Girl: Finding Home in the Last Place I Thought to Look
AUTHOR: Emily T. Wierenga
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014, (288 pages).

This book is a three-in-one memoir. It is a travelogue that journals the author's travels across several continents. It is a personal memoir that describes the ups and downs; the hurting and healing; the break-up and reconciliation; the joys of pregnancy and sorrows of miscarriage; and the surprising twists of life. It is also a spiritual journal that gives intimate details about the author's faith and doubt; belief and unbelief; despair and hope; personal and impersonal relationships with God. In a nutshell, that is Emily Wierenga, a journalist, a wife, a mother, an artist, blogger, writer, and so much more. Calling herself an "atlas girl" which is also the title of this book, at first the book appears a little bit like Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat Pray Love" that became a bestseller across three continents as well. Although the countries visited are different, Wierenga's story stands unique from the rest.

Each of the forty chapters in the book is summarized with a theme and a country location. Although each chapter is dated, it is not arranged in chronological order. Part of the reason is because the book was started in 2007 when Wierenga started her blog when she returned to Canada to take care of her mum. What is really captivating about this book is the depth of honesty and authenticity the author fills throughout the book. She questions whether her dad actually cared for her. She rebels against her parents' rigid faith. She struggles to make sense of death, disease, and dying. Other setbacks include her eating disorder, miscarriage, and the death of her mum's nanny. At the same time, she shares about the joys of children, the beauty of family, the power of reconciliation, and the reality of hope. Parts of the book contain her mum, Yvonne's writings which made this book a shared work.

Monday, October 20, 2014

"James the Just: Presents Applications of the Torah" (Dr David Friedman)

TITLE: James the Just: Presents Applications of the Torah
AUTHOR: David Friedman
PUBLISHER: Clarksville, MD: Messianic Jewish Publisher, 2012, (152 pages).

There are many commentaries on the New Testament book of James but very few from a Messianic perspective. Come to think of it, it does take one to know one. If James is Jewish, the context of the book is Jewish, would it not be appropriate to have a Jewish commentary on the book of James (Ya'akov)? That is exactly what the author of this book aims to do. He does it historically, culturally, grammatically, and also contextually. The author is a Jewish Rabbi, scholar, and author. In this book, he argues that:
  • the book of James is consistent with a specific style of Rabbinic writings
  • it is collected by his disciples and distributed to believers beyond
  • it is about applying the Torah to everyday life.
  • Most English translations miss the Jewishness of the letter
  • James reflects upon the subjects covered in Leviticus 19-22
Friedman asks three chief questions. 
  1. Who was Ya'akov?
  2. Is this book a "rabbinic yalkut'?
  3. What are the main points?

Friday, October 17, 2014

"Made in the USA" (Alisa Jordheim)

TITLE: Made in the U.S.A.: The Sex Trafficking of America's Children
AUTHOR: Alisa Jordheim
PUBLISHER: Oviedo, FL: HigherLife Publishing, 2014, (288 pages).

The problem is not overseas. The problem is very much closer to home. In fact, it is right at our backyard! If we do not see the vulnerability of children to sex exploitation, traffickers will anyway. This is the underlying concern that leads to a passionate fight against a global epidemic: Sex Trafficking, Exploitation, and Child Abuse. From Asia to Europe, Africa to the Americas, the problem is the same that cuts across racial, ethnic, gender, and all classes. Right from chapter 1, readers will be shocked by the African, East European, Asian children coerced into the sex trade at a very early age. Gradually, the problem moves closer to home where young girls are lured into the sex industry as pimps and traffickers use their expert hunting skills to rein in the vulnerable. Jordheim does not mince her words. In fact, page after page, the message screams out that the problem is right at our door step, so much so that according to one, the only way to miss out is not to look for it. According to Founder and Executive Director of Justice Society, Alisa Jordheim, there has been lots of attention given to overseas concerns, but little toward domestic areas. She writes with this in mind, beginning with descriptions of the sex trafficking problem far away, and then drawing readers to recognize the problem close by. She highlights the problem in a highly sexualized culture that blurs the line between adults and children, and makes commercializing sex seems ok. She blasts the rise of pornography, the sexually explicit materials in public, loose language, that these simply grooms the local culture to become very similar to what is happening elsewhere. In fact, Jordheim maintains that the problem at home is no smaller than the problem far far away.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"The Psalm 119 Experience" (John Kramp)

TITLE: The Psalm 119 Experience: A Devotional Journey You Will Not Forget
AUTHOR: John Kramp
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 2014, (256 pages).

It is the longest psalm in the Bible. It is also the longest book in the entire Bible. Comprising 176 verses divided into 22 sections, this psalm is one of the world's most loved and most quoted and has William Wilberforce repeating the psalm by heart in great comfort. According to author John Kramp, it is possible to remember all 176 verses in the psalm. More importantly, it will be an unforgettable "a devotional journey." He notes that Ps 119 is based on the 22-alphabets of the Hebrew language. Each eight-line section would be linked to the next via a literary device "bridge." It needs to be simple with memory tunes. Very soon, for the busy executive, one song leads to five, then twelve, then fifteen, and soon covering the entire psalm. Themes start to form and the ancient psalm becomes very relevant, very enriching, and deeply personal. He is experiencing what the Psalmist then was experiencing. What started as a song stuck on as a powerful instrument of faith. Each chapter comprises five days of devotions followed by a review of the particular section of the Psalm called "Lyrics." There are themes of righteousness, seeking to live purely, appreciating the Word, Truth, joy, the goodness of God, faith and faithfulness, and many more.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"Abraham" (Charles R. Swindoll)

TITLE: Abraham: One Nomad's Amazing Journey of Faith
AUTHOR: Charles R. Swindoll
PUBLISHER: Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2014, (288 pages)

The Bible is not a book of fairy tales or ideal characters. It is very much a book about reality and real life. Right from the first patriarch of Israel, we learn about a biography that is not simply showing the positive sides of a person, it reveals warts and all. The popular writer, Charles Swindoll uses the story of Abraham to drive home four points about a good biography.
  1. That they translate truth into life
  2. That they develop "closer kinship" between people then and people now
  3. That they offer modern readers a closer identification with the characters in the story
  4. That they help us maintain a "divine perspective on life." 

Monday, October 13, 2014

"Gospel Centered Teaching" (Trevin Wax)

TITLE: Gospel-Centered Teaching: Showing Christ in All the Scripture
AUTHOR: Trevin Wax
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 2013, (128 pages).

In Churches and Christian communities around the world, many groups meet together as Bible study groups. In order to sustain and to enable these groups to flourish, the leader is critical. Whether one calls this person a facilitator, a Bible study leader, or a coordinator, the fact remains that one or more persons are needed in order to lead the discussion. Recognizing this, author Trevin Wax has put together a guide to enable such leaders to lead in a "gospel-centered" way.

Five chapters comprise this guide to "Gospel-Centered Teaching." The first points out the deficiencies happening in many groups. There are groups that are so inward-focused in their studies that Wax calls them, "missional apathy." Such groups do not give members a sense of mission toward outside causes. There are also those that smack of "biblical illiteracy" in which even after years of Bible study, members do not seem to grow. This leads to a third concern which is "shallow" Bible studies. Wax also makes an interesting observation about how young kids in Sunday School learn all the "do's" and when they reach high school levels, they start learning all the "don'ts." The cry for depth sometimes lead people to think that it is more information or more application. Wax disagrees. It is actually more of the gospel. This is further developed in chapter 2 which moves away from Bible studies that focus on information gathering or theological discussions that one misses out the Person of God. I like how Wax summarizes what the Bible is about via a particular Baptist leader's words.

"The Bible has one central theme: God’s redemptive purpose. It has one central figure: Christ. It has one central goal: God supreme in a redeemed universe. The Old Testament sounds the messianic hope. The Gospels record Christ’s incarnation. Acts relates His continuing work through the Holy Spirit. The Epistles interpret His person and work. Revelation proclaims His final triumph and glory. The Bible points forward to Christ, backward to Christ, and again forward to Christ in His glorious return and reign. Forward, backward, and forward. Everywhere you turn, there is Christ."

Friday, October 10, 2014

"Vanishing Grace" (Philip Yancey)

TITLE: Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?
AUTHOR: Philip Yancey
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014, (304 pages).

Evangelicals are taking a bad rap nowadays. Just like the first century believers, the name "Christian" is being used more as a derogatory term. It is label that some people would even utter in the same breath with words like "bigot," "hypocrite," "intolerant," "homophobic," "anti-science," and other nasty terms. Of course, this is a sweeping statement that unfairly generalizes the Christian community. For the author who wrote one of the most popular books about grace, the question is: What happened? Why is the Church failing in her mission in dispensing grace? Are Christians who are supposed to be bearers of good news becoming stumbling blocks that prevent others from hearing about God's grace? These questions and more are tackled by one of evangelicalism's favourite author, Philip Yancey.

This book is a compilation of four short books. The first is a survey of the current attitudes against Christianity in general. What is most disconcerting is that Christians are perceived more and more unfavourably rather than good news bearers. He shares about how a fellow book club member said Christians being "anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-women - probably anti-sex" and so on. This is not helped by the exodus of young people out of the Church. What shocks Yancey more is the dramatic shift of perceptions between the West and the rest of the world. In his travel to Africa, Asia, and South America, Christians were generally seen respectfully as doctors, lawyers, pastors, teachers, nurses, helpers of various sorts. When he returned to North America, Christians seemed to be judged very harshly, so much so that Yancey felt he had to write this book to diagnose the problem; to reflect on the past journeys of pilgrims, activists, and artists; to ponder about the theological, the sociological, and the human issues surrounding the perceptions of grace; and proposes a way forward. At the heart of his concern is this: "How can we communicate truly good news to a culture running away from it?" He uses the Quaker saying aptly: "An enemy is one whose story we have not heard." Spot on!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

"Vision Map" (Joël Malm)

TITLE: Vision Map: Charting a Step-by-Step Course for Your Biggest Hopes and Dreams
AUTHOR: Joël Malm
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014, (112 pages).

What is life all about? What does God want me to do with my life? The first question is a quest for significance. The second is a desire for meaning and purpose in life. This book affirms the point that there is nothing more rewarding to see God's will be done in our own lives. Recognizing the many people who struggle with their self identity as well as their purpose in life, Malm brings us back to the drawing board to help us discover and draw out our vision maps. Do not be deceived. Mapping is only the first step. There are other elements needed such as time, diligence, tweaking from time to time, and "total dependence" on God. Malm comes from the standpoint of an ordinary guy, just like you and me. It must first begin with the assumption that God had given each one of us some purpose, message, or vision in life. This vision needs a captivating "one-liner" that is clear, concise, and communicable, that tells us what our destination is. It also needs time and patience to formulate it. If necessary, find advisors who are knowledgeable and who can assist through asking good questions and provide guidance. Then comes the mapping or the visualizing of the message, which essentially tells us HOW to get there. Drawing out the plan becomes interesting when the details are slowly fleshed out. What makes it more exciting is to see ourselves being in the part of God's overall picture. This means prayer and more prayer in order to discern the whole journey and to be alert about how it meanders through the ups and downs of life. His section about "Big Asks" is risky but is also considered a big step of faith. It rides on the mantra: "Fortune favours the bold." I like that.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins" (Dennis Okholm)

TITLE: Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks
AUTHOR: Dennis Okholm
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2014, (240 pages).

The latest psychological advances are not rocket sciences. In fact, they are based on principles already discovered previously in ancient practices. Modern psychotherapies are not new. They are based on fundamental truths discerned and practiced long time ago. This is the key point of this new book that argues against what CS Lewis has labeled "chronological snobbery," a term that describes the modern infatuation with all things latest and greatest. Here, Okholm shows us that things new are often not as new as people boast them to be, especially in the realm of modern psychology.

Taken from presentations given to Churches and universities, plus articles published at American Benedictine Review, books like Care for the Soul, and interactions with other travelers in spirituality matters, Azusa Pacific University Professor of Theology, and ordained Presbyterian minister, Dennis Okholm takes a look at the traditional seven deadly sins. He argues just like how John Cassian and Evagrius saw it, that the list of cardinal sins are all connected in more ways than one. Evagrius categorized the sins into three fundamental thoughts: "gluttony, avarice, and vainglory." Cassian connected the vices in pairs, like gluttony/lust; anger/envy; and so on. How serious is each vice depends on the context. Recognizing the way these saints of old had connected the vices with the associating passions, Okholm pounces on the key idea that our modern psychology of linking science with sociological behaviour may not be rocket science. In fact, rather than researching forward (that is, predicting a future discovery), go back to the ancients to learn how they had first discovered this link. This book expands on this by showing readers how a "deadly sin" is connected to a "dangerous passion," or what the author also called a "specific pathology or addiction."