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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"Miracles" (Tim Stafford)

TITLE: Miracles: A Journalist Looks at Modern Day Experiences of God's Power
AUTHOR: Tim Stafford
PUBLISHER: Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2012, (224 pages).

Miracles are one of the most vague and misunderstood phenomena among many today. On the one hand, there are those who call anything pretty much a miracle. Things like sunrise/sunset, natural events, unexpected results, or any ordinary thing that just happens. If everything is a miracle, then nothing is miracle. On the other hand, there are those who are utterly sceptical about everything, refusing to entertain any possibility of an unnatural circumstance. Like unexplained healing, incredible physical feats, or anything that defies common or normal understanding. If nothing is a miracle, then where is hope? Compounding the confusion is the presence of confused labeling. From vague definitions to misunderstood events and misreported interpretations, the need to explain the thinking surrounding miracles increases. Enters Tim Stafford with a reporter's view of modern day "miracles." This senior writer of the popular evangelical publication, Christianity Today gives us a first hand look at miracles from a layperson's perspective.

Beginning with Jeff Moore's miraculous healing of his feet, he goes on to argue about the importance of miracles and offers us a guide to "think about them, pray for them, respond to them (or respond to their absence). The purpose of the book is described as follows,

"This book is a guide for how to live in God's world, and how to walk alongside him as he does his work. It's a book about faith and hope and love as they get worked out on planet earth." (23) 
Miracles have both positive and negative connotations. Positively, the author sees miracles as a way to affirm one's convictions about God, and His love. The presence of miracles strengthens faith. The absence produces doubts, albeit in varying degrees. What Stafford argues for is the greater significances are "prophetic words" rather than the actual works of miracles.Many have even used miracles as a way to prove the existence of God. The possibility of miracles has also drawn many people out to seek prayer and in the process build community. Negatively, the absence of miracles poses a problem for many, and often a mini "victory" for atheists and sceptics. For this reason, Stafford includes a chapter to deal with why people do not believe in miracles. Taking a middle ground, Stafford says that while he believes in miracles, he is just sceptical about most "reports" about miracles. What he essentially says is one cannot let a few bad reports of miracles dismiss totally the reality of a miracle. What we don't know does not mean it is not true. Stafford uses many examples from the Old Testament and the New Testament. Of particular interest is his observation that most Old Testament miracles are "public" while the miracles of Jesus in the New Testament are seen by only a small group of people, less "public." The reason for Jesus' choice of limiting the scope of witnesses to his miracles is because his work of compassion, strengthening individual faith, and personally leading people to God, are deeply personal connections in the first place.

Stafford does not end there. He goes into the history of the Church, the meticulous manner which the Roman Catholic Church verifies miracles or reports of miracles.  He even talks about the non-Christian testimonies of miracles. Stafford engages the difficult question of whether miracles still exist after the time of the First Apostles. His three phases of interaction with Pentecostalism are illuminating. On science and miracles, there is no incompatibility, but greater clarity when science is used as a tool to aid the understanding and study of miracles. Finally, Stafford does not leave readers gasping in agony about what to do about miracles. He offers twenty guidelines on how to understand and engage one another about miracles.

My Thoughts

There has been a surge of books that talk about miraculous happenings, testimonies of how people has gone to heaven and back, and so on. This only adds to greater confusion and misunderstanding when individuals ask: "Why them and not me?"

Stafford has done us a favour by using this book as a focusing lens to help us adjust our blurred understanding of what miracles are. He uses his wide exposure as a journalist to talk to leaders, scholars, theologians, Church people, and to interview individuals, especially those who have gone through a miraculous experience. Quietly balancing honest inquiry with a healthy dose of careful criticism, Stafford makes a comprehensive journey through many common stumbling blocks surrounding miracles, balancing naivete and scepticism, openness and reasonable faith. The twenty things to note about miracles are by themselves worth the price of the book. For readers who find CS Lewis' treatise on miracles difficult to understand, why not begin with this book? For others who want to learn about how to explain miracles clearly, this book is a definite read. For Christians, this book brings some rationale explanation for things we do not understand. For non-Christians, may this book help maintain honest inquiry that is fair and reasonable.

I highly recommend this readable volume.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group".

Monday, July 30, 2012

"There's Hope For Your Church" (Gary L. McIntosh)

TITLE: There's Hope for Your Church: First Steps to Restoring Health and Growth
AUTHOR: Gary L. McIntosh
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012, (206 pages).

This book brings massive amounts of encouragement for Church leaders who are feeling jaded and discouraged about their churches. It enables leaders to be more responsive and active when they see a chronic deterioration of their church growth. For pastors feeling that their efforts are hitting a dead wall, they will be rejuvenated with creative juices. For board members, they will be reminded to take a harder look at themselves and what they have been doing, so that they can take another fresh approach at revitalizing the church they love. It reminds us that churches are not meant for self-consumption but for the sake of others around us. Most importantly, leaders will discover (or rediscover) a great sense of hope that it is possible, that it is desirable, and that it is exciting!

Calling it "first steps," McIntosh shares with us his wealth of experience and formidable expertise with Church growth and renewal processes. Beginning with a brief observation of the Church patterns in the recent decades, he notes that in the 50-60s, there is much interest in the Church Renewal Movement. In the 70-80s, the interest shifts to the Church Growth Movement. In the 90s, there is more emphasis on Church Spiritual Formation Movement, followed by interest in Missional movements in the two decades after 2000. In all of these movements, McIntosh feels that the pastor is the key change agent. More specifically, Church pastors needs to be "revitalization leaders" that see God as their client (not the Board), be prepared to encounter resistance (rather than expecting smooth flow), willing to lead without affirmation (trusting God more), and practise "courageous, godly leadership." Such leaders are primarily the Dominant or Influential types who are action oriented on the DISC chart.

McIntosh describes 13 "first steps" for revitalization leaders to adopt. Beginning with "See the Potential," before any work can be done with regards to revitalizing the Church, leaders need to see the potential of revitalization. Leaders who "Commit to Lead," need to be those with the right personality (mostly D and I), the right timing (at least 7 years through 5 levels of leadership), the right action (according to the contexts), the right attitude (willingness to suffer), and the right focus (on Christ). In order to cultivate hope, one needs to "Assess the Situation" by looking out for 8 signs of trouble, to remove the fog, to move fast, and even to engage an outside consultant. The principles of Church growth need to be rediscovered as leaders "Learn the Principles" that growth is a spiritual process, and careful attention is needed to address dysfunctional issues in the Church.  "Discern God's Vision" requires one to know where one is and where one is going. There is hope as leaders "Build a Coalition" to get people to work willingly and diligently in the same direction. The next seven ideas talk about change and change management. This means one needs to "Life the Morale" by showing there is hope.  Leaders need to pay attention the three groups of people (Very Important, Very Trainable, Very Nice People), and learn to be less distracted by the fourth group (Very Draining People). Giving hope does not mean doing nice things only. It means even having to "Make Hard Decisions" to confront sooner rather than later. Once leaders learn to "Refocus the Ministry," one starts to build rather than remain stagnant, look outward rather than inward, and to do something about it instead of passive waiting. New ideas need new skills and talents. This is why "Equip for Change" is critical for revitalization. Through his wide understanding of Church makeup, history, intergenerational changes, and patterns of control, McIntosh gives insights on how to manage Church transitions. With any change, there will be the naysayers and the resistance groups. Revitalizing work also requires leaders to "Deal with Resistance which may lead to loss of identity, control, meaning, belonging, and a future. Here, McIntosh encourages us to take note of five sacred cows to beware of, the different kinds of conflicts and how to manage them, and how to go about managing Church conflicts through transitions. In order to restore hope, one needs to "Stay the Course," make changes where necessary, but keep the flow moving. Finally, the most exciting part is when there is "Breaking Through" into new ground. The thirteen strategies are supplemented by three excellent appendices that talk about "rebirthing the church," "church mergers," and a list of recommended resources for further study and research.

My Thoughts

Reading this book itself is rejuvenating for anyone, not only the exhausted leader. The chapters on "Commit to Lead," "Deal with Resistance," and the two appendices are worth the price of the book. Beginning with an important emphasis on leadership, McIntosh skillfully teaches us the step by step process of beginning a move toward a hopeful position. Each chapter can stand on its own, and I will not hesitate to recommend that Church leadership conduct 13 workshops over the year, dedicating one chapter per workshop. The ideas are creative and insightful, but the demands are high. Many can be approached to be leaders, but not many can be "revitalization leaders." There is a wealth of wisdom in this book. I appreciate especially the stories of how individual churches manifest the teachings of the book. It gives a sense of authenticity and that the ideas can work. What is important for readers and leaders is to remember that every church is different. Even the same church needs to be aware that it needs to understand itself. As people change, as transitions come, the same church today is different from yesterday. Likewise, the same church today will be different tomorrow. If that is the case, the incentive is even stronger. Make the future version of our church even better. The first steps of change need to start today. It needs to be planted right now. There is no time to lose. We all need the hope of Christ in us. Let us begin planting the seeds of health and hope right now. Pray. Seek God. Find Hope. Then go make disciples beginning with our churches.

I highly recommend this book for Church leaders and pastors.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group".

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

"Seven Truths That Changed the World" (Kenneth Richard Samples)

TITLE: 7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity's Most Dangerous Ideas
AUTHOR: Kenneth Richard Samples
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012, (240 pages).

This book begins with the famous words of CS Lewis's character in the Narnia chronicles, Aslan the lion, that refers to God as One who is powerful and good, dangerous but safe. Using a provocative title to hook readers, the author creatively uses seven different superlatives to describe the how "dangerous" the truth is, from a biblical perspective, and how the world rebels against it, and how the truth can set us free from the bondage of sin and death. First the numbers. There are seven truths highlighted in the book, with each truth taking up two chapters. The first chapter makes the case for the truth, setting it out in a clear manner. The second chapter follows up with some popular arguments against it, and the subsequent rebuttals. Thus, the second chapter provides an interesting discussion that invites readers to listen in. It is important to remember that both chapters when read together provides the best context to understanding the truth claims.

1) Most "Dangerous Idea" - "Not All Dead Men Stay Dead"

With the resurrection being Christianity's primal truth, it is appropriate to make a case for Easter and how there is hope in the resurrected Christ. In contrast to the reductionist and fatalistic manner of naturalism, Samples lists out seven key evidence and arguments for the reality of the Resurrection. He debunks eight popular reasons that deny the Resurrection. This "dangerous idea" changes the world forever because it brings the reality of hope, and the certainty of a future tomorrow that is everlasting life.

2) Most "Distinctive Dangerous Idea" - "God Walked the Earth"

This next idea is about the Incarnation of Christ, where Jesus personally walked the earth and lived among us. Jesus is both human and divine. His identity is cemented in reality and history. Against a backdrop of cynicism and doubt, what makes this idea most distinct is Jesus' exclusive claims. After all, truth itself by nature is necessarily exclusive.

3) Most "Far-Reaching Dangerous Idea" - "A Fine-Tuned Cosmos With a Beginning"

The most "far-reaching" idea is the creation and the creative activity of God evident throughout the universe. From the cosmos to the bottom of the sea, to all four corners of the world both physical and meta-physical, the presence of life begs the necessity to consider the Creator of them all. Despite all the advancements and promises of science, the author lists multiple reasons why the far-reaching cosmological idea is more compelling than any idea of a big bang.

4) Most "Comprehensive Dangerous Idea" - "Clear Pointers to God"

Christian theism explains life more comprehensively and convincingly than many others. Faith and reality comes together reasonably in Christian theism.  Systematically, the author not only makes the case for the reasonableness of Christianity, he claims that life itself is a clear pointer to God.

5) Most "Hopeful of Dangerous Ideas" - "Not By Works"

Simply put, man cannot save himself, no matter how much he try. He may try to be as morally good but never good enough. The universal imperfection arises out of the pervasiveness of sin. The author deals with how other religions and philosophies try to explain away life and its imperfections. Yet, the imperfection remains. So does the worldly explanations of these imperfections. In comes the Christian gospel, through the Hand of God. Samples points out the marks of Christianity, salvation by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone. Christ's atoning work is described through the seven "word pictures" of salvation, the great substitutionary sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, redemption, and justification. I like the way he brings together the three G's of salvation - Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude.

6) Most "Humanitarian of Dangerous Ideas" - "Humanity's Value and Dignity"

Samples takes a hard look at some of the non-Christian motivations for humanitarian work. Many of them stem from a humanistic and overly optimistic view of human good works. Unfortunately, the question of what standard are they based upon begs hard answers. Christianity's motivation for good works stems from a recognition of the dignity and worth of human beings, being made in the image of God. As long as this image is not redeemed perfectly by the work of a perfect God, it will be incomplete.

7) Most "Comforting Dangerous Idea" - "The Good in Suffering"

This question of suffering is left to the last part of the book. Maybe, it is a way of recognizing that suffering is the single biggest barrier to faith. How can a good God allow evil to exist in this world? Samples put the different worldviews to the test. Views such as pantheistic monism (eg. Buddhism) that claims all of life is suffering, and the key is to escape it. Naturalism simply assumes nature just happens to be there. Theism affirms that suffering is tied very much to mankind's act of volition. While Samples cover some of the common arguments surrounding evil and suffering, I find the coverage on the comfort of God most inspiring.

My Thoughts

This book is a bold attempt to survey the seven most popular topics as far as apologetics is concerned. The author is well-read and informed of the classic arguments as well as the theistic foundations of Christianity. The systematic layout of the seven ideas make this book easy to follow. Readers can begin at any idea of interest. The research is more than adequate for the layperson, although for the more well-read, this book only scratches the surface on the area of apologetics. What I like about this book is the provocative title which makes me want to read the book. The arrangement of the book also keeps me aware of where the author is leaning toward. It is a frank discussion of some of the challenges surrounding the Christian faith, and how the seven truths have not only changed the world, it will continue to change the world. This is another testimony that Christianity is reasonable. The personal reflections are worth the price of the book. The main complaint I have is the reflections are too short.

In a nutshell, what is safe now can be dangerous in future. What is dangerous now can be safe in future. Christianity is very much a present danger but a future haven of safety, sprinkled with multiple flashes of grace.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group".

Monday, July 23, 2012

"The Fruitful Wife" (Hayley DiMarco)

TITLE: The Fruitful Wife
AUTHOR: Hayley DiMarco
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012, (208 pages).

What does it mean to be a fruitful wife? What have we to show after all of our years on earth? What if we feel barren in terms of fruits? Are we depending on natural human strength or divine power? Have we become too distracted by work that we forget the Divine Provider of all things? These questions and many more are dealt with in this fascinating book by Hayley DiMarco.

This book is not about the perfect woman, but a woman filled with the Spirit of God to bear fruit. It is about looking and abiding in the Provider of good fruit so that others can be blessed. It is about the work of the Holy Spirit helping us to provide (not destroy), give, flourish, and to honour God. The key point is that any fruit needs to be sustained by God, and not by our own works. This is set against the nine fruits of the flesh: "selfishness, joylessness, conflict, impatience, mercilessness, immorality, unfaithfulness, pride, and self-indulgence."

"So the fruit of the Spirit  isn't about pleasure or pleasing self at all, but about denying self and giving all to the glory to God. It's about needing nothing for ourselves from the fruit we produce. It's truly unconditional, meant to serve the will of God. This fruit comes not only from the goodness of our hearts but from the goodness of the Spirit of God, who lives in our hearts." (18)

The author then dedicates a chapter each to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. On love, the author stresses that this is the foundation of all fruits. Likewise without the other expressions of love, love itself is imperfect. A key point is that love is not a good feel and good response on our part, but a response to the Spirit's prompting our heart. For DiMarco, the opposite of love is not hate, but selfishness. Then there is joy contrasted with joylessness. Joy is reliant on the perfect nature of God. Peace contrasted with conflict, has to do with a reconciled relationship with God. Patience is first contrasted with impatience, and then defined as something beyond simply the ability to wait, but the "temptation to resist playing god." Kindness is contrasted with mercilessness through the description of two categories of "kindness killers" called a warped sense of justice and a fear of rejection. Kindness is grace. The sixth fruit is goodness which is essentially imitating God. Goodness is then contrasted with flesh, evil treasures, fear, and darkness.A life in Christ will naturally yield holy goodness.

Next, the fruit of faithfulness is contrasted with unfaithfulness, the latter is a "major rebellion against the laws of God." Our faithfulness to our spouses stem from our steadfast faithfulness to God. I like the way DiMarco describes faithfulness as the "seed of belief for the faithless." Eight, gentleness in contrast to pride, is a sense of calm and trust that is not easily dislodges by circumstances. Finally, self-control is the anti-thesis of self-indulgence. Self-control is empowered by the Holy Spirit to give oneself the ability to exercise self-restraint and a refusal to indulge oneself in selfish desires.

My Thoughts

There are many wonderful insights in this book that firstly explains what the fruit of the Spirit is. By contrasting it with a corresponding fruit of the flesh, it gives readers an idea of what is and what is not. Such a dialectical argument prepares readers to find out the real deal. The fruit of the Spirit is simply the fruit that comes out of a Spirit-filled individual. The initiative is God's. The benefit is for others. The glory is God's. The chapters have been laid out with a specific fruit and make excellent material for a fruit by fruit study. Groups can benefit from the many wise examples in the book. Individuals can be encouraged. Even though the book is meant primarily for women, there is no reason why men cannot learn from this book.The principles are universal, and any gender specific stuff is minimal.

The main disappointment I have is the lack of discussion questions to accompany the end of each chapter. Perhaps, the author or publisher can include one, with additional references for future reading or research. Overall, this book is a good read with highly practical teachings.

Ratin: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Crossway Publishers and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

"Humilitas" (John Dickson)

TITLE: Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership
AUTHOR: John Dickson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011, (208 pages).

Whenever I read a book on humility, I wonder how qualified the author is. It is a strange paradox. If humility is such an illusive thing where the humble refuse to acknowledge one is humble, can anyone who is not humble ever write about humility? This dilemma is exactly what John Dickson felt right at the beginning of the book. Whether one admits or denies, it is hard to capture the essence of humility. So Dickson takes the approach of learning from history, and to lean on past wisdom and traditions. A historian by profession, Dickson tries to unpack two things: the aesthetic and the practical nature of humility. The key thesis of the book is that "the most influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility." He defines humility as follows:

"Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. More simply, you could say the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others." (24)

In other words, humility comprises three elements: it presupposes the dignity of others; it is a choice; and it is self-deprecation for the sake of others. He then proposes ten reasons in which humility is important. Firstly, humility is the mark of authentic leadership. While ability and conferred authority are also marks, it is the practice of persuasion and example that truly enable humility to shine as leadership traits. Secondly, humility is not about people high up or way down somewhere, but is of common sense heritage.  It holds together a keen awareness of one's limitations as well as one's inherent worth. Thirdly, humility is beautiful, not something to be worn, but something to be appreciated, cherished, admired, and be transformed. Fourthly, not every culture sees humility the same way. During the Roman and Greek era, it is noble to seek good honour, where modesty is preferred over humiliation. Fifth, our modern understanding and widespread appreciation of humility begins at the Cross of Jesus, of how Jesus becomes servant and model of true humility. Six, there is a practical benefit of humility. It slows pride, builds self-esteem and positions one to be ready for growth. Seven, humility can be persuasive through influence and character. Eight, humility is inspiring. Nine, humility is better than tolerance. In fact, far better than tolerance or reactions against intolerance is an intentional work toward harmony. Finally, the author presents six steps to grow in humility.

  1. Allowing us to be shaped by what we love, believing that our actions shape our thoughts.
  2. Reflecting on the lives of humble people, to learn from them.
  3. Conducting thought experiments to put ourselves on a lower rung of society or an underprivileged position
  4. Acting humbly makes us learn from our own actions
  5. Inviting criticism
  6. Forgetting about ourselves trying to be humble
My Thoughts

This is a very unique book that represents not only impressive scholarship and critical thinking, but also self-deprecating humility in three ways. First, the author acknowledges and learns openly from the history, tradition, and various faith persuasions. Second, the author writes introspectively, always aware of the presence of pride even as he writes. Third, he applies his thesis cautiously with very practical steps for modern readers wanting a how-to perspective. In fact, Dickson readily admits he is not humble, and that his steps may not apply to all. The tone is inviting rather than intimidating. What I appreciate is that whenever Dickson writes on topics away from his field of expertise, he is ready to admit he is not the expert, and he proves that with examples and stories of people he respects. This book brings hope to those of us feeling lost about how to go about being humble. His six thoughts above about preparing one toward humble living is worth remembering. I like the way he ends with CS Lewis's thoughts about humility.

"If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed." (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, London: Collins, reprint 1986, 112)

Provocative but brilliant.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"Still" (Lauren F. Winner)

TITLE: Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis
AUTHOR: Lauren F. Winner
PUBLISHER:New York, NY: HarperOne, 2012, (248 pages).

This book is raw honesty littered with sparks of creative wit. It distills the author's search for personal authenticity and divine spirituality by setting oneself in a profound stage called the "middle." Beginning with a painful recollection of events and emotions surrounding her crumbling marriage, she opens herself up with her pen, meandering through rivers of critical thoughts and practical theologies. She experiences the lows of being alone again as well as the highs of being in Church, enjoying the God she loves. She encounters walls of questions that forces her to seek out ways to overcome her despair and doubts. Toward the end, the reader can see a struggling author trying to weld together the broken pieces of her relationships, her religious beliefs, and settles in a resolving-yet-not-resolved "mid-faith" position. Yet, these beginnings and the ends are not the definitive vocabulary of this book. What makes this book especially gripping and enduring is her journey to the middle, around the middle, and from the middle. In a nutshell, this book had me at the middle.

There are three reasons why this book is worth reading. Firstly, it is raw honesty that opens up a can of thoughts that surrounds a person's struggle. Some people use food, fun, and frolic to deal with their breakups. Others venture into new age spirituality to escape from their pain. Not Winner. She lets herself be embraced by the warmth and enduring love of friends. I appreciate her personal struggle through church going.

"Sometimes I cannot say much about why I go to church other than what people who go to the gym say: I always feel better once I'm there; I feel better after; it is always good for me, not good in a take-your vitamins way, in a chidingly moralistic way, but in a palpable way. Perhaps to say this is to turn religion into therapy. But church is therapy, that is one of many things it is, and as my friend Mike once told me, the real problem lies not in recognizing the therapeutic balm in the gospel;the real problem is going through life thinking that the health you need can be found anywhere else." (33-4)

Secondly, she lingers on thoughts of God and her faith, through Church going, through her struggles with anxiety, through literature of John Updike, Emily Dickinson, and Anne Sexton, the Biblical characters, as well as the spiritual masters. She indulges her fondness for spirituality in both her spiritual conversations with her spiritual director, as well as her reflections on the spiritual masters of old. Sprinkled throughout the book, there are snippets of spiritual insights from Frances de Sales, Margaret Funk, the desert fathers, Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, Augustine, and many more. What I find most fascinating is her weaving of her Jewish upbringing and Christian teaching, culminating in a very nuanced understanding of biblical characters and stories. One example is her description of Purim in the book of Esther. Here are some of her very memorable reflection of how the Book of Esther can also be called the book of the hidden God.

"I wonder: when Jesus comes back, when God consummates God's program, when redemption is complete, will it be possible for God to hide? I wonder if the trick is not drinking until you can't tell the difference between Mordecai and Haman, but until you can't tell the difference between God's hiddenness and God's presence, or perhaps until you can't tell the difference between God's hiddenness and God's absence, for that finally is the question, that is the anguish - to abide in God's hiddenness is one thing, to abide in God's absence is altogether something else." (115)

Finally, my favourite part of the book lies in her gentle and firm squeezing out of the meaning of the middle voice. Such a mood effectively counters the impatience of a culture of immediate gratification, and prepares one to enter into a humble spirit that rises in anticipation of God and what God is about to say to us. Such a voice forces us to go through the discipline of the middle, the journey being taken. It makes us question the way we allow ourselves to be locked in by worldliness through easy boredom and frivolous busyness. It pushes us to appreciate the sacraments, the rituals of Church, surprising revelations of Scripture, and the warmth of friends. For a world that prides itself as the main thing, Winner has reminded us again that all of us are small characters trying to make some sense in our small ways what it actually means to live on earth. Most importantly, from a middle position, we begin to realize that we are only a small person in a world made by God, and just like the Jewish day that begins in sunset and culminates in sunrise, believers in Christ who begins their struggles in darkness will see the light more and more.

"If English had a middle voice, I would use it to speak of prayer: I would let the middle remind me that I am changed by this action, by these words, this supplicant's posture; I would let the middle tell me, too, how there is something about me that allows the action to take place - my desire, my endless need. And I will let the middle bespeak the hidden agent, the One who animates my prayer; though undisclosed, though sometimes even forgotten. If I could make English speak a middle voice, I would use it to tell you what little I know about belief, about worship, about impatience, about love." (157)

This book is Lauren F. Winner at her finest.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


Monday, July 16, 2012

"The Jesus Scandals" (David Instone-Brewer)

TITLE: The Jesus Scandals: Why He Shocked His Contemporaries (and Still Shocks Today)
AUTHOR: David Instone-Brewer
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012, (160 pages).

[This review is part of a Kregel Publications book tour from 16-20 July 2012.]

What is so shocking about the Jesus scandals? It is simply this: The very evidence that tries to shut down the authenticity of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, actually proves Jesus. This is the key thesis of the book.

"Scandals are our best guarantee of historical truth in the Gospels. When disgraceful, embarrassing and shocking details about Jesus are recorded by his friends and supporters, it is much harder to disbelieve them." (11)

In three parts, David Instone-Brewer tries to show how the Jesus Scandals through his life, his friends, and his teachings. Part One contains 12 short chapters about Jesus' life on earth and his interactions with various people. His very birth, coming in such a humiliating manner, is in fact a demonstration of God's power to use this person to save humanity. Against the norms of Jewish society then, Jesus chooses a life of simplicity and singlehood. His working out of miracles come across more as compassion. In trying to disprove Jesus, the Pharisees have unwittingly confirmed the authenticity of his miracles. Each chapter then describes the Jewish norms and how Jesus lives counter-culture to them. It points out how a law-based society becomes upended by Jesus who lives to show that there is something much better than mere laws. Even the arrest of Jesus is scandalous, that when men try to prove Jesus otherwise, instead, they prove Jesus' status as divine, as kingly, and as a prophet. The resurrection proves once and for all, that what Jesus has said is true.

Part Two focuses on six groups of people, Mary Magdalene, Judas Iscariot, the disciples, the chosen, the cursed, and the prostitutes. Instead of a girl next door maiden, the outcast, Mary Magdalene becomes a key follower of Jesus, and is mightily used by God in many gospel events. Judas Iscariot, for all the wrong reasons, end up becoming a facilitator to speed up the arrest, the trial, and the crucifixion of Jesus. The "second-rate disciples" who all forsake Jesus during the greatest moment of need, end up becoming first rate martyrs and witnesses for Jesus. The "unchosen" ones are also given the chance the hear the gospel, even though they continue to remain stubborn in their set ways. If Jesus shows mercy on prostitutes in showing grace to them, how about us? Is that not scandalous?

Part Three is the chapter that deals with twelve contemporary issues. Child abuse has been admonished by Jesus, and the word "stumble" owes its root to scandalion. where the word scandal is derived. We are cautioned about applying too many rules, for the latter facilitates the practice of hypocrisy. On polygamy, Instone-Brewer asks why people in general like to spend time and resources in the wedding, and in divorce, but fail to spend enough time in between to cultivate the marriage. There are teachings surrounding oaths, taxes, divorce, relationships, and also about disasters and calamities, all of which are interpreted not from worldly wisdom, but from the viewpoint of God, which is scandalous to the world.

My Thoughts

This book is plain and simple counter-cultural. It informs readers about how bold Jesus had been in countering the law-based society during his time, and the obstacles that are extremely discouraging. Yet, Jesus overcomes them. There are impossible situations in the eyes of man, are impossible to overcome. Yet, Jesus shows us the way. There are crucial contemporary issues that remain unresolved to this day. Yet, there is a way out. Instone-Brewer masterfully shows readers the way into the first century, and bridges the contexts to our modern world. By showing a counter-cultural lifestyle and happening of Jesus, he illumines the path for modern disciples to follow. Scandals shock us. Scandals create headlines. Scandals come about because falsehood tries to cover up the truth. It is in Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, who has come to earth, to give us the Truth that will set us free.

Delightful to read, be prepared for your existing presumptions to be blown away as you let Instone-Brewer brings life to ancient texts, and purposeful living in modern contexts. Do not be deceived by the short chapters. They are packed with insightful observations and practical considerations. My view of Jesus in the first century has been given a fresh illumination. Thanks Dr David Instone-Brewer!

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Kregel Publications without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

"Modern Parents, Vintage Values"

TITLE: Modern Parents, Vintage Values: Instilling Character in Today's Kids [Paperback]
AUTHOR: Melissa Trevathan and Sissy Goff
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 2010, (256 pages).

This book is written for parents to guide children in a digital age. Ever feel like a parent feeling increasingly analog in a growing digital world? Ever feel hopeless about technology leaving you behind? What about the modern addictions, the fears of growing up in an adult world, the dangers of entitlement, and many more? Trevathan and Goff brings together a whole list of relevant modern issues that young children face. They explain clearly the six technological issues (cell phones, gaming, Internet, social media, chat, online communications), the need to move from entitlement to gratitude, the instilling of respect to learn to treat others the way we like to be treated ourselves, addictions (alcohol, drugs, sex, eating disorders, self-harm), emotions (anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, high stress, anger), and many more. Each issue comes with a list of do's and don'ts for parents, complete with a delightful "Sunday Drive" activities that the whole family can participate in.

Part Two goes into "Vintage Values" where the virtues are defined, exemplified, understood, and practiced. The nine virtues are kindness, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, integrity, responsibility, patience, confidence, and manners. There is also an accompanying "Sunday Drive" on how to incorporate these values into the lives of the whole family. There is a helpful section with each chapter that deals specifically with obstacles surrounding the teaching of such values. This is important because very often, the virtues are a no-brainer, but the practice of it seems most challenging to implement.What is also helpful is the specific instructions given not just to parents, but also to children, teenagers, and older adults.

Part Three covers "timeless truths." In "Take Heart," the authors begin to summarize the impact of the book they have written thus far, even self-convicting. They urge readers to look at their own lives as well as they stuff they accumulate. In other words, they remind us that kids are watching not just what we say but how  we behave.  In "Have Life," parents are urged to carve out time to be alone themselves. Parenting is hard work, but not always all the work. "Seek hope" is a reminder that hope does not disappoint, for God wants the best for us and for our children. Finally, "Give Love" encourages us not just to give and give, but to love unconditionally, love continually, and to love extravagantly.

My Thoughts

Will character be instilled just by the reading of this book? Maybe. What if the book is put into practice? Possibly. What if the book is prayed and practiced? Most definitely. Parenting is a strange thing. We can try our best, and sometimes it works, other times it does not work. Children grows all the time. Adults too. Parenting techniques have to keep up with the different phases of growth. Parenting is challenging. It is always heart-breaking at times. Yet, I am reminded too, that it is better to have tried and failed, than not to try at all. Trevathan and Goff has given us a really helpful manual for parenting children in a modern world. They have brought into focus very important timeless values. At the same time, they have incorporated hope using biblical ideas to help us to achieve that.

I like this book for its clarity and a no-holds barred addressing the challenging issues of our time. Though the peripheral package of issues are changing, (like technology, types of addictions, external devices, etc), the core behavioural matters are similar. The values and the virtues of good faith have to be inculcated and taught rather than assumed. This book enables parents to do just that. Perhaps, the authors will also prepare a supplement for this book, like a teen version. That will enable both parents and children to read and to understand the issues on the same page. If the book can cause parents and children to start talking, that is already worth the price of the book.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by B&H Publishing and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"Christian Apologetics"

TITLE: Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources
AUTHOR: Khaldoun A. Sweis and Chad V. Meister, (Editors)
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (560 pages).

Why re-invent the wheel? How about learning from 41 different contributors who have walked the paths before us? This book is a treasure chest of information and intelligent engagement for the Christian faith. It is an anthology of top quality writings through 2000 years of history. Comprising of ten parts, the editors have brought together a wealth of expertise.

Part One begins with history, method, and engagement. Beginning with the Apostle Paul, the editors have compiled a whole range of Christian responses for various intersections with the Christian faith. The responses are culled from key eras throughout the 2000 years after the death and resurrection of Christ. Beginning with Origen, Athanasius, and Augustine, to modern apologists such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, CS Lewis, and Francis Schaeffer, the book is rich in both breadth and depth. Beginning with a brief survey of the history of apologetics, the editors compiled a list of different ways in which apologetics have been done. Each contributor goes into historical survey themselves, comparing and contrasting the different apologists, according to their fields of expertise. For example, John Warwick Montgomery highlights four biblical ways: miracle, fulfilled prophecy, natural revelation, and personal experience. He traces the pattern from metaphysical explanations before the 20th Century, to more "tough" and "tender" minded apologetics that are more down to earth. In doing so, he is able to give readers a grand overview of the historical contexts.

Part Two's framework adapts part of Aquinas' classic five philosophical proofs of the existence of God, Anselm's ontological arguments, and place them broadly into the cosmological, teleological (design), ontological, transcendental, and moral reasoning approaches. There is even a section on religious experiences. Part Three goes deep into theological defense against the classical heresies, and make affirmations about the Trinity. Part Four incorporates three articles, from Athanasius, Anselm of Canterbury, and the modern scholar Thomas V Morris, that defends the Incarnation of Christ. Part Five defends the authority, the canonicity, the gospels, and the archaelogical reliability of the Scriptures. Part Six argues about the reality of miracles. Part Seven covers a very important part on the Resurrection. Part Eight is a very interesting collection of articles that deal with the highly popular problem of evil. Part Nine will be of interest for people of science and technology, and how faith and science do not contradict but can co-exist meaningfully. Part Ten relates how Christians through the ages have engaged the world in defending the faith.

My Thoughts

What I really appreciate is the care and deliberation in selecting the best available sources for each topic. A judgment call has to be cruelly made to decide who gets included and who does not get included. It must have been a painful decision for the editors to make, for there are many more high quality apologists. For example, in the section on Miracles, why have the editors excluded CS Lewis's classic reflection? What about the Julian of Norwich when it comes to religious experience? On the Bible, where are the defenses for the epistles of Paul, Peter, and John? On the modern engagement with the world, there are a lot of high quality theologians such as NT Wright who only gets two or three footnote mentions! What about a history of engagement with prominent atheists through the ages?

That said, I appreciate the discussion questions and additional resources at the end of each part. Thankfully, some of my concerns above are partially addressed in the section under "further readings." There are some brilliant interactions with some modern apologists, like how John Warwick Montgomery brings Stackhouse and Josh McDowell together as conversational partners in his article. I like the way this book expands apologetics beyond simply arguing against atheistic non-believers, but also heresies, and modern science.

Apologetics can only go so far. Even if it can remove some barriers to faith, the unbeliever will still need to take a step of faith to accept Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. This anthology provides a spectrum of possible responses offered by very eminent theologians, scholars, philosophers, and able thinkers. One may convince the head, but the work of the heart belongs to the Holy Spirit. I have always believed that conversion is God's responsibility, while conversation is our responsibility. Even if the unbeliever does not want to commit to the Christian faith, at least, we have reasons to debate and to demonstrate that the Christian faith is believable, thoughtful, and absolutely relevant to all areas of life. My overall feel for this book is that it has not only avoided re-inventing the wheel of apologetics, it has given us a stepping stone to learn from the past, to engage with the present, and to use them as effective springboards to prepare for the future of apologetics. This book is a must-have for the avid student of apologetics. For the layperson, just being blessed by any one article would have been worth the price of the book.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Monday, July 9, 2012

"Four Views on the Apostle Paul"

TITLE: Four Views on the Apostle Paul (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology)
AUTHOR: Michael F. Bird, (editor)
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (256 pages).

This book brings together four conversational partners coming from four broad angles with regards to their perspectives on the life, the teachings, and the theology of the Apostle Paul. Like many of the counterpoints books, the four perspectives selected are, the evangelical, the Roman Catholic, the mainline protestant, and the Jewish. The focus is on the understanding of what Paul means back then in the past, and what the teachings mean for us now in the present. Helmed by a very able moderator, Michael F. Bird, all the contributors are given the following four topics to kick start their discussion.
  1. Salvation
  2. Significance of Christ
  3. Pauline theology
  4. Paul's vision for the Church
After reading through the deeply divergent views amid the pleasantries, the general editor helpfully brings to a close a reminder of the following common understanding that:
  • Paul's contribution to history is immense; 
  • Paul helps in firming relationships between Christians and Jews;
  • Paul's teachings matter tremendously for both Christian believers as well as the Church;
  • Paul matters greatly for the theological understanding of all communities;
  • Paul's perspective matters with regards to understanding Jesus and the Messianic theme;
  • Paul's views are essential with regards to unity and edification of the body;
  • Paul matters.

A) The Evangelical Perspective according to Schreiner

Thomas R. Schreiner provides a Reformed perspective, that the Old Testament provides a pointer to the person of Jesus Christ. Christ is the fulfillment of the prophecy, the mystery, and the revelation of God. Essentially, Paul's perspective is about Jesus being the culmination of the "new exodus, the new covenant, and the new creation." On the significance of Christ, Jesus is the "heart and soul" of Pauline theology, and that the Old Testament references to God have a clear focus on Christ.  On salvation, there is an "already" and "not yet" mystery and revelation that Christians hold TOGETHER. It means that while the Old Testament prophecies are fully fulfilled in Christ, there is also an element of mystery that will be complete in the future. With regards to the Church, the Church is the "true Israel," with unity a core theme throughout.

Responding to Schreiner, Johnson argues from a Roman Catholic standpoint that the evangelical view has overstated the link between Old Testament prophecy and New Testament fulfilment in Christ. He says that Schreiner's views are almost totally based on only Romans and Galatians, rather than all of Paul's writings.  As a result, Schreiner's views tend to promote an overly "individualistic" reading. Douglas Campbell adds in some of his disagreement from a "Post-New" standpoint, saying that Schreiner's essay is not as Christ-centered as he had claimed to be. Instead, the evangelical view is more "Melanchthonian" than "Lutheran," and at some point, even "Arian!" He makes three key observations to explain how Schreiner's essay is incoherent with the Christ-centered perspective Schreiner has set out to do. In summary, Campbell agrees on the conclusions but disputes with the specifics to get to the conclusions. Equally strong, Mark Nanos comments from a Jewish perspective, and calls Schreiner's view more "ideological than historical." He accuses Schreiner of eisegesis (reading his views into the text) rather than exegesis (reading the meaning out of the text).   It does not take long to see Nanos driving a sharp disagreement with Schreiner's perspective of the church as being the "true Israel." For Nanos, it remains undisputably clear that Israel is Israel, and Gentiles are Gentiles. There is no mixing of identity. 

B) The Roman Catholic Perspective Luke T. Johnson

While Schreiner writes his essay from non-interactive standpoint, Campbell takes the other angle, in making his essay more of a "conversation among standpoints." He takes a "both-and" perspective in order to be more inclusive. How one interprets Paul depends on the sources, the level of abstraction of the sources selected, and the degree of attribution of importance among the different letters of Paul. Here, Campbell distinguishes the epistles into disputed and undisputed (Romans, 1/2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) letters. That said, he views Paul's letters as being "occasional," "official correspondences," "least favored responses," "diverse," and "complex." In other words, one cannot "homogenize" Paul on the basis of these letters, simply because there is more diversity rather than centrality of Paul's thoughts. Finally, he settles for three unique perspectives of Paul. Firstly, Paul has a deeply "personal religious experience." Secondly, Paul has a religious experience with the communities he served with. Thirdly, there are a host of different traditions and practices at that time. Of salvation, Paul uses several metaphors based on Graeco-Roman and Jewish culture, in "diplomatic language," "economic language," "forensic language," "cultic language," and "kinship language." He asserts that for Paul, salvation has a"distinctive temporal dimension." As expected,  Johnson spends considerable time on the Church, how Paul is chiefly concerned with the formation of the "community ethos," and that the Church according to Paul is tasked with the sacred call to "be a sacrament of the world's possibility."

Responding, Schreiner takes a while before he contends with Johnson about the latter's "historical-critical" approach and the focus on social contexts. He critiques Johnson for his failure to explain Jesus' death also as propitiation (appeasing the wrath) on top of expiation (removing the wrath). There is also little talk about the law, in particular Paul's negative assessment of the law. Campbell takes issue with Johnson's lack of sensitivity to Judaism. The essay has made the distinction of Graeco-Roman believers and Jews into "binary opposition." Such binary thinking especially with regards to the "Household Codes" makes the interpretation of Paul not only inconsistent but problematic for the unity of the contemporary community. Mark Nanos continues to zoom into trying to distinguish who Israel is. There is no mixing of identity. Jews are Jews. Gentiles are Gentiles.

C) The Post-New Perspective According to Douglas A. Campbell

For Campbell, the new perspective is a two pronged understanding of Judaism as well as Paul's response to Judaism. The first is to learn to read Paul according to the Judaism view, like EP Sanders. The second is to understand Paul's response as not against "legalism" but "covenantal nomism."  Campbell sees Paul's perspective in terms of God revealing Himself through the Triune God, that we can participate in God's mission with the help of the Holy Spirit. He brings together wide ranging matters such as the rescuing of humanity, the brotherhood realised in eschatology, ethics, and others. In summary, Paul's perspective is more "revelation" rather than "human reason or reflection." He concludes with four descriptions of how the community looks like, eschatologically.

Schreiner calls Campbell's essay "fascinating" and that it is more "hyper Calvinist." He says that Paul is relatively more concerned about the final judgment than what Campbell thinks. He accuses Campbell of painting the past responses of Christians toward Jews with too broad a brush. He cautions anyone about blaming events like the Holocaust on the theology of Paul. History is far more complex than any one attribution. He even says that Douglas Campbell is painting Paul after himself! Johnson critiques Campbell for being too fixated on Romans, without sufficiently using the other letters. Nanos continues to separate Jews from non-Jews. The main dispute is about how Jews and non-Jews are seen under the Law. This includes circumcision, ethics, and Jewish dietary norms.

D) The Jewish Perspective

Nanos begins his essay with an explanation on why Paul has been viewed negatively by many Jews. The main reason is that Jews disagree that Christ is the fulfillment of the law. More offensive to Jews is the view that Christianity has been trumped by certain quarters as being a "replacement" to Judaism. The positive takeaway for Nanos is that Christians can increasingly learn to read Paul more from Jewish perspectives. In that way, Nanos' essay is more a treatise of Judaism rather than a perspective of Paul. He concedes that Paul has been misunderstood not only by Christians, but also by Jews. Key to reading Nanos is the emphasis of separation between Jews and non-Jews. This includes the distinction of the Torah, that the identity of Jews are unique, and the nature of good works. The main reason is that to be under the Torah, one must first be Jews. That is why non-Jews cannot be deemed to be under the Torah in the first place. In that manner, there is no reason to expect non-Jews to be freed from a law that they were not under in the first place!

In response, Schreiner appreciates Nanos's Jewish perspectives, but disagree when it comes to understanding whether Paul "always kept the Torah." The road to Damascus is clearly evidence of Paul converting from Judaism to Christianity. He maintains that the road to salvation is through Jesus, even for Jews. Luke Johnson prefers to maintain the Jewishness of Paul, and the focus on Jesus. He asserts again that any view of Paul has to be drawn from all the epistles, not only selected books or portions of them. Douglas Campbell calls Nanos re-construction of Paul, "unfair." It is important to see the "law" as "teaching" rather than to equate it to the "legalistic" framework. This frees one to see the practice of the law as "ethical and instructive" rather than "mercantile and legalistic." He proceeds to use a "historical-critical" approach that understands Paul's teachings in the light of the historical contexts.

My Thoughts

I admit that it is more beneficial for readers who have had a prior understanding of Pauline theology, or be familiar with at least one of the four views. Certain views require more involved understanding. For example, Schreiner's views will be very familiar to evangelicals, and Johnson's high ecclesiology will appeal to Roman Catholics. To understand Campbell more, one may need a fair dose of biblical criticism knowledge. Nanos may seem the most different among the four. Admittingly, different views raise more questions for readers.

There are certainly more than four views over here. Each view provokes three additional sub-views, which make this book fascinating reading. The primary focus of the discussion centers around Soteriology, Christology, Pauline Theology, and Ecclesiology. Thankfully, the contributors freely weave in thoughts on sin and man (Hamartiology), the Holy Spirit Pneumatology, Epistemology, and many others. Some of these topics, especially sin and the Holy Spirit deserve to be covered in greater detail. Given the nature and size of the book, it is understandable that a compromise has to be made with regards to the selection. Perhaps, a Part II can be planned for the future to give justice to such a broad area of study. Thus, this book is meant to whet the appetite of readers for more, rather than to be an end in itself with regards to Pauline thought and theology. This book is heavily tilted toward theology, and will be of greater interest to seminarians, theologians, and laypersons with a keen interest in theology. For the general reader, it can be heavy going, and if read with someone as a guide, the learning can be more pronounced. Michael Bird is one such guide. Make sure you read his introduction and conclusion.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Friday, July 6, 2012

"Redeeming Church Conflicts"

TITLE: Redeeming Church Conflicts: Turning Crisis into Compassion and Care
AUTHOR: Tara Klena Barthel and David V. Edling
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012, (254 pages).

This book is not about Church conflicts. It is about redeeming people. It is about restoring one's focus on Christ. It is about learning the biblical way of becoming a united body of Christ. Based on Acts 15, the authors give readers a 'why' as well as 'how-to' manual for implementing a biblical peacemaking process. As an ekklesia, a called-out people of God, we are warned against submitting to two extremes of the "slippery slope." The first extreme is to escape from conflicts through denial, through flight away from the problem, or suicidal methods that essentially deprives oneself of any reconciliation, and in the process, denying the Church of a valued member. The second extreme is through "attack responses" like assaulting the other party, going the way of litigation that bogs down the entire Church testimony, and in the worst case, murder of one another, especially character assassination. The authors define redemption as follows: "Redeeming church conflict means intentional dependence on the humbling and heart-changing grace of Christ's Holy Spirit by turning relational crisis in the church into compassionate care as you take every thought and deed captive to him" (17).

Barthel and Edling use four core principles to help turn crisis of conflicts into opportunities for compassion and care. The first principle is "perspective," which is to cultivate a clear understanding of who the Church is, and what it means to trust God. This means keeping a firm grip of the ways of God instead of the ways of the world. It means learning to seek counsel from the wise among us and outside of us. It means learning biblical peacemaking resources. It also means honing a sharper focus on eternity purposes, God's attributes of love, and letting them all apply to our actions, our desires, and our deep-seated beliefs.

The second principle is "discernment," which is primarily about being honest with our heart's motivations, and being earnest about conforming ourselves with God's perspectives. This means continued discussion and debate among people in question. Ask about the purpose of our talking. Is it to change others, or to change ourselves? Or is it to be humble to acknowledge we are not as right as we think, or others as wrong as we made them out to be? It also means learning to ask the "best questions," not just the right questions. This requires substantial reframing of every concern into a beneficial, eternal, and most appropriate question. Questions like:

  • How does it best serve the people of God, and not personal interests?
  • What is Jesus' first priority among many other priorities?
  • Is this the best use of the limited resources we have?
  • How can we ourselves be changed to think, act, and behave more Christlike?
  • Have we listened carefully, fairly, and humbly?
  • Have we loved our brothers and sisters the way God wants us to love them?
  • Have we become spiritually blinded by self-concerns that we fail to see God's concerns?

The third principle is "leadership" which means recognizing any spiritual idols of self, and learning to lead by providing appropriate responses that are biblical, accountable, and sacrificial. This principle also involves learning to fulfill our God-given duty and not be enslaved by self-love or personal selfish desires. Leadership means caring for the flock, like a Shepherd for the sheep. This section can be really hard to read for leaders, emotionally speaking. It is a chapter for serious self-examination for moral failure, immaturity, failing God's expectations of us, personality differences that fail to honour God, and many more. The authors warn us against four dangerous and harmful kinds of leaders. Failed leadership has often lost sight of the main purpose of being a leader. They adopt a "hired-hand" mentality that forgets the holy duty in favour of one's position and status. They lack leading by example. They have no long term vision. Most importantly, a leader needs to lead by following Christ. This leads on naturally to seeking out accountability to one another.

The fourth principle is "biblical response." Though this has been interspersed among the earlier three principles, this principle has to do more with the whole church, together. It is the summary, the ultimatum of the church. It means confessing to one another our wrongs, our sins, and our unforgiveness. It means forgiving one another unreservedly. It means loving even those, our harshest critics. This fourth principle is demonstrated through overlooking one another's weaknesses, being reconciled to one another, willing to negotiate for the better of the Church, desire to mediate or be a part of the mediation process, and to be willing to be accountable to one another, even to our worst of friends. For more serious, we may need to seek arbitration help.

My Thoughts

There are many goodies and tips to take away from this book. I like the 4Gs of Peacemaking:

  1. Glorify God: focus on our purpose
  2. Get the log out of your eye: resist judging
  3. Gently restore: inner reflection
  4. Go and be reconciled: outer action

I also like the frank manner in which the conflicts are approached, like the "slippery slope" responses, the case studies of LCC, and the four promises of forgiveness. The authors do not mince their words when it comes to grabbing the bull of conflicts by the horns.  They know that letting the bull loose is risking the fragile glassware and china in the shop. Once broken, it may never be repaired. The key is redeeming in the light of God's Word, God's love, and God's direction. Far too many leaders say and think all the right ideas, but fail to put them adequately into practice. This book takes away any excuse not to practice forgiveness. It restores the need for us to recollect God's perspective. It sharpens our need for discernment. It increases the importance of leadership by example. It boldly calls for a biblical responses as individuals as well as as a body. Very importantly, conflicts are here to stay, which is why it is critical to cultivate long term character change instead of short-term magic steps. The former grows in loving growth while the latter treats conflict management like a disposable diaper. The problem with diapers is that it forgets that babies poo/urinate all the time. If conflicts are never ending, make sure our works of redeeming church conflicts never end as well.

Peacemaking is not a one-off project. It is a life-long endeavour. As long as sinful people are around, be prepared for conflicts. As long as love is present, there is hope for redeeming church conflicts. As long as we let God be at the center of all our lives, grace will be present abundantly. This book is a bridge to help readers see exactly that.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group".

Thursday, July 5, 2012

"Relentless Pursuit" (Ken Gire)

TITLE: Relentless Pursuit: God's Love of Outsiders Including the Outsider in All of Us
AUTHOR: Ken Gire
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2012, (176 pages).

This book is a marvellous exposition of how much God desires us, that He will do everything possible to pursue us. Relentlessly. Beginning and ending with references to the classic poem, The Hound of Heaven, by Francis Thompson, Gire explains that the pursuit does not stop at the moment we become the children of God. The pursuit continues on and on. The author goes into some detail about the background of Francis Thompson, of how he as a drug-addict experiences grace. Even when he tries to pursue the things of this world, God continues to faithfully pursue him, like how He leaves the other 99 sheep in the pen, in order to seek out one lost sheep. That one lost sheep is us.

Gire draws images of the Pursuer through Jeremiah 3:19-24, where the chosen one finally relents to recognize that the only One left for him is God. Jeremiah's and Anne Lamott's experience of being pursued by God resonates with Gire. It is the same with the popular children's storybook by Margaret Wise Brown, The Runaway Bunny.  He shares about the conversion experience of CS Lewis who eventually gives in reluctantly to become a believer, and subsequently from "believing in God to definitely believing in God."

The good news of God pursuing us gets even better as Gire shows us how the pursuit moves from "search and rescue" to "search and restore." The beauty of this pursuit is that it restores one to wholeness. It flips us from lost to being found. It creates in us a zest for life so much that we will want to share the good news with others. The pursued soon becomes so much a part of God's mission that one gladly pursues the Great Commission.

My Thoughts

Story after story, Gire weaves in a beautiful image of God the pursuer, loving the pursued so much that the ones loved, will end up becoming part of the hound-force of heaven. One becomes whole. One gets excited about the kingdom of God. One sees the love of God that is beyond simply a microscopic view of personal salvation, to a macroscopic perspective of the world at large. What makes this book truly encouraging is the way Gire helps readers to recognize that all the good news, all the wonderful hounding by God, and all the benefits, promises, and gifts offered are not for someone out there, but for the person reading it.

Each chapter are filled with biblical images and teachings, supported by stories of characters both old and new. The discussion questions are extremely helpful for group discussions. Most of all, the book reminds us all over again that God is not done with us yet. He is still pursuing us to make us who He has intended us to be. And He is going to walk with us all the way.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5


"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group".

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"Messy Church" (Ross Parsley)

TITLE: Messy Church: A Multigenerational Mission for God's Family
AUTHOR: Ross Parsley
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2012, (208 pages).

We need each other. In particular, we need each generation to be a part of the Church. Written by a worship pastor, associated with the same Megachurch led by the disgraced Ted Haggard, the author shares his journey toward making the family of God a Church family in identity as well as in practice. With frequent flashbacks to his own family of 6, he sees more similarities than differences about how families need to learn to stay together and to see their messy lives as a "Beautiful Mess." Messy in terms of the craziness going on with five growing children. Messy in terms of their frequent change of houses. Messy in terms of his changing portfolios, and ups and downs, in his service in Church, from being asked to be lead pastor, to not being selected. More importantly, he shares his vision of how despite the messiness all around, a family is a family. This means regardless of age and generational differences, it is possible to worship as one body.

"Families aren't perfect and neither are churches." (19)

A family shares in growth, change, pain, joy, and suffering. They see both the best as well as the worst of people. More importantly, they see the true person. They enable one another to be the best generation they can be. The muddy and the messy is the price to pay for honesty and authenticity.

Against a culture of "purpose-driven, power-driven, culture-driven, and seeker-driven," many churches have missed out the family component of Church. The two problems of modern American church is the "ultracritical" attitude, promoted by the unwitting stance of becoming too seeker-sensitive, and the postmodern mindset of questioning everything rather than acceptance. Why not learn acceptance as a family? This means learning to live honestly with one another, warts, darts, and all. Parsley makes several contrasts and making choices.

  • Like a family, Church is not so much about shopping for one, but being chosen into one. 
  • Like a family, dinner time is family time, not individualistic moments of ignoring one another.
  • Like a family, dinner time involves everyone, not just adults.
  • Like a family, we acknowledge the pains and hurts of brokenness, and seek to accept one another.
  • Like a family, we need to learn to live and learn together, despite all the mess.
"Our families are God's first classroom in life for learning about selfishness and love, fighting and sharing, disappointment and justice. This is one of the purposes of family: to learn to fight fair, to share what we have, and to root selfishness out of our lives." (56)

He then argues that the Church worship service needs to be all-inclusive, without separation of people into their age groups or specific needs. We let the young participate actively in the running of the worship and singing. We encourage the old to participate. Sunday is "culture-creation day!" Using worship as an example, the author urges the inclusion of young worship leaders, generous overlap of songs for all generations, use creative input from the young, and also include an "older element" in the services. Grow a "David generation" in which the identity and legacy of the Church can be passed down from one generation to the other. Use the five smooth stones of Family, Cooperation, Respect, Humility, and Innovation to keep building the family. Learn actively on the job rather than wait passively to be trained. Beware of the seeds of a consumer like church that comes from using relevance as a key operative word. Use the "twenty-year influence" to connect, to influence those within 10 years above and within 10 years below us. Let love be the tie that binds. Recognize the brokenness. Share the joys of a final result of joyful blending. Finally, the author shares his painful experience and struggles over leading the Church over a public storm, after the Ted Haggard scandal, and his personal struggle of dealing with not being selected to be the lead pastor beyond the interim position. He ends with the 5Cs of how to run an intergenerational Church service:

  • Creeds: They reinforce key beliefs that under-gird the traditions, history, and heritage of the church.
  • Confession: In an atmosphere of grace and forgiveness, one puts people above the messiness of doing church.
  • Communion: We keep the worship service centered on Christ and what Christ has done.
  • Canon: We remember and retain the gospel, the Word of life.
  • Connection: We connect with God, we help one another connect with God, and we in turn also connect with one another.
He has some wisdom to share with regards to the 4Cs of Mentoring.
  1. Coaching for life
  2. Caring for Needs
  3. Challenging for Improvement
  4. Cheering for Confidence.

My Thoughts

This is an important area for pastors and leaders of churches not to miss: How to bring about greater togetherness among the different generations in the church. I like the idea of a family connection. Just like a family that embraces one another, warts and all, the Church needs to learn to model after being family to one another. In fact, the goal is to make the Church more like the family, and the family more like the people of God. I am glad that Parsley provides some helpful practical tips with regards to how to make the intergenerational worship service a reality. It is so true that worship underlines the entire community building aspect that is Christ-centered. Any organization can connect with a family as a focus. Yet, it takes a common identity in Christ that cements our reasons for doing so. NewLife Church has paved the way to show the rest of us that it is possible. I like the part about how to care for one another both personally and corporately. I particularly appreciate the idea to move intentionally and incrementally, for people need time to change, and a good way is gradual change, especially for a Church the size of NewLife. I think the vision casting and teaching is so important for any church. This is another way of gearing every generation's perspective to look in the same direction. By modeling and discussing on the way, churches can learn to lead by example, and not be bogged down by the oft-used excuse that they have not been trained before. Too many people are too busy to be trained formally. More often than not, the best training is the learning on the job, the listening to wise mentors on the job, and the dependence on God, while on the job.

This may be a book about the messiness surrounding the efforts to galvanize the Church to move as one. It is in spite of this messiness, that when the Church truly and finally move as one, they will be showing the world what it means to live as one body, one people, one family.

Very practical, very important, and very necessary.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5


This book is provided to me free by David C. Cook Publishers and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Monday, July 2, 2012

"Abraham's Children: Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict"

TITLE: Abraham's Children: Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict
AUTHOR: Kelly James Clark (editor)
PUBLISHER: Yale University Press, 2012, (312 pages).

This book is a bold defense of religion as a force for good and tolerance rather than a source for violence and intolerance. Triggered by the persistant rants of the New Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, the author goes back to the origins of the monotheistic religions, that owe their beginnings to the Patriarch Abraham. Fifteen contributors are invited to contribute to the main thesis of the book, that it is possible to retain the religious identity, beliefs, and practices, and at the same time, affirm tolerance and respect for other faiths. The five Jewish advocates are Einat Ramon, Dov Berkovits, Leah Shakdiel, Arik Ascherman, and Nurit Peled-Elhanan. The five Christian representatives are Jimmy Carter, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Ziya Meral, Hanna Siniora, and Miroslav Volf. The five Islamic respondents are Abdurrahman Wahid, Hedieh Mirahmadi, M. Fethullah Gulen, Rana Husseini, and Abdolkarim Soroush.

The editor first highlights the three major caricatures that the New Atheists and many people point their fingers at. Firstly, the Jews have been accused of their religion as violent, based on their historical destruction of the Canaanites, saying that the Jews are intolerant because of an intolerant God. Secondly, many have accused Christians of violence, using the Crusades as an example. Thirdly, many accuse Muslims of terrorist behaviour because of their Islamic links. The purpose of the book is thus to debunk all of these three caricatures, by letting these fifteen contributors argue two ways. Firstly, that their religion has been misunderstood. Secondly, true practice of the Abrahamic faith by all three religions actually promote tolerance and goodwill toward all people. There are three common underlying beliefs by all these three faiths.

  1. The religion teaches mercy.
  2. That the human race is created in the image of God, and are to be respected and cherished.
  3. Humility is a mark of the true religious practitioner.
These three common distinctiveness do not spread violence or intolerance. Instead, it will create space for all faiths to co-exist freely. The rest of the book shows how that is so.

A) The Jewish Perspective

Dr Einat Ramon, the first woman rabbi, argues in her essay that the Jews remember their humiliation and persecution in the past, but do not "dwell" in them. Their firm belief that they are the ones to bring hope to the world, undergirds their desire to bring goodwill to all. The biblical basis of respecting humanity, pluralism, and human solidarity remains consistent to this day.Using her family's example of moving from persecution to independence, she says that Jews respect freedom even more because they themselves have experienced freedom from slavery.  As for the Palestinian-Jewish conflict, the issues are more complicated than mere religious differences. Rabbi Don Berkovits say that Judaism has more to do with the love of life, and the Torah gives shape to this. He too sees Jews as victims of many persecutions, mainly due to the practice of idolatry in the history of Israel. He says that only "mutual trust" can help turn one another into a "mutual other." He argues that violence, if any, is never the problem of one group, namely the Jews. It is far more complex.

Leah Shakdiel argues similarly that the Jews have been victimized more than being the oppressors. They are the "ultimate victims." In fact, he argues that both Israel and the Palestinians have a common concern: Identity. He admits that there are some radical sects who operate in the name of Zionism who are giving Judaism a bad name. They need to be "corrected."  The important exercise is to read the religious texts carefully and "challenge dangerous readings" and "leaders." Arik Ascherman argues that Judaism promotes "universal human rights and social justices." The truly mighty is the one who is able to turn an enemy into a friend. Nurit Peled-Elhanan's essay laments the problem of some "Israeli Education" that has become intolerant. The key problem lies in the definition of "others" or those outside the Jewish people. Judaism teaches welcoming the "other." Textbooks that teach otherwise must be corrected to reflect the true teachings of Judaism. Again, religions texts need to be read and interpreted from the Torah, and not from the eyes of sinister people.

B) The Christian Perspective

Jimmy Carter begins by saying that Christians can embrace all other religions in the pursuit of peace and alleviating human suffering. Christians are in the forefront of peace and women's rights. A key observation Carter makes is that fundamentalistic behaviour is not a religious behaviour but a human tendency. The very well respected Nicholas Wolterstoff is a strong advocate for justice and peace. He argues that to be intolerant to others is to wrong God.  He then defines the nature of tolerance and how it can be practised. Intolerance is unjust. Intolerance violate the dignity of the other. Intolerance wrong God. He goes back to Augustine to highlight a state of weeping for others, and that love is the way to derive true happiness. He also takes the Calvin's position that "to inflict injury" another is to "wound God." Love, justice, and the practice of the image of God are key tenets of the Christian faith. The third contributor, Ziya Meral, goes on the offensive, that instead of religions being the source of violence and intolerance, it is the reverse. In fact, the denial of religious freedom is the "most widespread" problem. Several reasons point to this sad state. Firstly, media, and human rights organization may fight for freedom, but "shun religious freedom." Secondly, many leaders are plain ignorant about what religions mean. This create blind spots regarding religions, which further aggravates the ignorance. He argues that there is a need to speak up for practitioners of ALL religions, from a pragmatic, ethical, and a theological perspective. Like Christ, one needs to share the pain and suffering not only with fellow believers, but with all people suffering or in pain. The fourth contributor, Hanna Siniora is a Palestinian Christian who speaks as a "minority within a minority." He accepted a call to participate in the peace talks, giving readers insights into the various complexities between the various groups. His life is a testimony of advocating peace at the risk of personal safety. Miroslav Volf preaches universal respect, reconciliation and peace. Growing up as a victim of a land of intolerance, he criticizes those who accuse Christianity of advocating violence when the truth is, the world is a system of interconnected groups, rather than a single religion. Of all the contributors, Volf comes most direct in defending the religions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The true mark of the Church is tolerance, freedom, love, and honouring one another. In fact, honour is a better emphasis than mere tolerance. After asking who wins the prize for "intolerance," Volf admits he is unwilling to judge who.

C) The Islamic Perspective

Abdurrahman Wahid believes that God does not need to be defended because "nothing can threaten God." This straightaway dispels anyone who fights for God in order to defend God. He says that religious understanding is a process, and that the true Muslim is one who is "content to live in peace with others, whose paths and views may differ." Hedieh Mirahmadi says that Islam is moderate, and promotes the "middle way." It advocates a universal principle of accepting one another. He blames extremists for the negativity surrounding religions. If God accepts us, why can't we accept one another? He urges patience from others to let the Islamic world struggle to "reclaim the image of Islam as a religion that is equitable, just, and socially responsible." M. Fethullah Gulen says that Islam embodies  divine mercy and tolerance. It is because God is inclusive, Muslims need to be inclusive. Islam means submission to God. He says that the dichotomy of the world into Islamic world and non-Islamic is wrong. War is not an essential. Peace is. Rana Husseini decides to focus on the subject of "honor," or violence against women. He blames the Western media for erroneous coverage of "honor crimes and women." Many of these killings are not religious but cultural. The essay is complex and needs careful reading in order not to misunderstand the content and the intent. The key response is to speak out against violence in a consistent way of "uniformed denunciation." Finally, Abdolkarim Soroush talks about the Islamic perspective of tolerance, and that it is POSSIBLE for Muslims to keep their Muslim values as well as live in a democratic society. Tolerance to him is "an extra-religious virtue," worthy of practice.

My Thoughts

All of the fifteen contributors put up outstanding defenses of their religions. I find their arguments a lot more reasonable and convincing than the rhetorics of the naysayers, especially the New Atheists. Clark has given us a compelling look at the inner workings, thinking, and theological background of three major religions. Granted that there is no way to totally eradicate religions, or secularism for that matter, why not make the best of it? More importantly, readers are encouraged to be open to let the religious practitioners, theologians, scholars, and experts shine the way forward to peace, goodwill, true tolerance, mercy, and to show humility to one another in dialogue. This book does a great job in dispelling the three major erroneous caricatures of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. It is a book that needs to be written. It is a book that needs to be read. It is a book that bridges the gaps between different faiths. 

What I find lacking is the intensity of engaging the accusations that religions are the source of violence and intolerance. Most of the contributors adopt a conservative stance of sharing personal stories and their understanding of what their religions mean and not mean. In general, they are more positive in their religious outlook than their secular counterparts. They may have argued their points well, I am not sure how well others will receive it. Although the book has only scratched the surface of a very complex topic, nonetheless, it has scratched the right itch in the right direction. 

Kudos to Clark for a good job.


This book is provided to me free by Yale University Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.