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Thursday, September 27, 2012

"Accidental Pharisees" (Larry Osborne)

TITLE: Accidental Pharisees: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of Overzealous Faith
AUTHOR: Larry Osborne
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (208 pages).

This is another book against religious practices that resemble the Pharisaic behaviour, the kind criticized by Jesus in his time. Larry Osborne brings to light that there are many things we often do that resemble the Pharisees of the old times. In the book, the phrase "Accidental Pharisees" is defined as: "people like you and me who, despite the best of intentions and a desire to honor God, unwittingly end up pursuing an overzealous model of faith that sabotages the work of the Lord we think we’re serving." Key to the diagnosis is the detection of any spiritual misalignment of personal zeal with biblical principles. The moment we move out of line with scriptural principles, whether intentional or not, we become "accidental pharisees." Overzealous faith in such unaligned practices will make things worse. It is what Osborne calls "the innocent and dangerous path." 

Osborne zooms in on seven pitfalls that can turn one into "accidental pharisees." For each pitfall, he moves through a three-phased structure. First, he details how a good intention turn from nobility to legality. He points out how a major spiritual experience, a powerful learning, or a vibrant personality, can begin well but ends badly. When holy zeal becomes overzealous, it becomes the very disease Jesus speaks out against. Second, he points out the reasons and processes that turn one's zeal awry. Third, he shows the way to correct or to prevent one from falling into the traps. For Part One, Osborne explains how and why the ancient Pharisees are respected, and marvels why the modern perception of Pharisees are negative. He also zooms in on a much ignored Joseph of Arimathea, offering a refreshing read on Jesus' call for his disciples to give up everything and follow Him.

In Part Two, Osborne directs his cannons at pride, showing how the unholy trinity of "log-eye disease," "self-deception," and "an innocent act of comparison" can turn into arrogance. He observes that it is not the comparison per se, but what we do with the information that is telling. Here his style becomes more evident, that it is not the reading or the obedience to Scripture that is the key, but the "proper" reading and obedience that is crucial. For example, rather than using our knowledge or experience to beef up our own ego, we must always direct all glory and credit to God. Otherwise, pride leads us to self and to self-destruction.

In Part Three, Osborne focuses on exclusivity, something I find increasingly common in comfortable Christian communities. Instead of playing to expand the kingdom of God, such people and groups choose to restrict participation according to people they want. Such "thinning the herd" is not Jesus' idea at all. If Jesus died for all, why do we tend toward choosing only certain people to join our communities? Such behaviour leads to lukewarm states.

In Part Four, Osborne deals with legalism, where grace and mercy plays second fiddle to rules, regulations, and rites. In fact, Osborne boldly mentions words like "radical, crazy, missional, gospel-centered, revolutionary, organic," and other buzz words that appear on the outside to make one's church look superior than the rest. I am familiar with these buzz words, but if the fruits are not forthcoming, the words are mere mists. These buzz words can make Christians busy with their own self-image rather than God's image. When this happens, Scripture is not primary. One's interpretation of Scripture becomes primary. The worst result of this is the disappearance of mercy.

In Part Five, Osborne warns against idolizing the past, where one's sense of reality is clouded by idealism. Some think always of the good-old-days being better. The Church, the leadership, and the culture are all far from perfect. Yet, we often have romanticized image of them. How then do we learn from the past without idolizing them? How can we also learn from the past without condemning the present?

In Part Six, Osborne covers the importance of understanding the difference between unity and uniformity. We need to learn about what are the things that are worth and NOT worth fighting for. Seeking agreement must never be more important than learning to bear with one another.

Finally, in Part Seven, there is an interesting take on giftings. The problem happens when one, especially an influential leader starts to project his or her own gifting/calling on the rest. This is followed by envy of gifts and the way the have-nots are made to feel guilty by the haves.

One of the most interesting points made by Osborne is how many Christians built their discipleship from the gospels and fail to put sufficient focus on the epistles, which are essentially a theological reading and practical discipleship applications of the gospels. Why are some more interested in Jesus' words in red in the gospels, and fail to equally emphasize the words of Paul in the epistles? After all, is it not true that all the Bible is God's Word?

My Thoughts

I read this book with an open mind. Yet, I can sense that Osborne can easily be taken to task for some of his harsh observations, especially the part about the buzz words of Christianity. They can be seen as an effort to nullify the good works of people like Kevin Harney, David Platt, Francis Chan, and many others. This is a fair accusation, but I urge readers to be open about this. It is not the actual practice of renewed vigour and zeal that is the problem. It is to make sure that every revived action, every zealous effort, and every powerful thought be tampered with grace, peace, and mercy. 

We are all susceptible to the temptation to become "Accidental Pharisees " The way ahead is to understand our own sin. Let their be a heightened awareness as well as disgust for them. Then learn to show mercy and grace, the way Jesus has showed mercy and grace. Osborne helps to anchor our basis of Christian living as follows: "Our hope is not in what we do for God. Our hope is in what God has done for us."

Well said, Larry Osborne.

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.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

"When to Speak Up and When to Shut Up" (Michael D. Sedler)

TITLE: When to Speak Up and When to Shut Up: Principles for Conversations You Won't Regret
AUTHOR: Michael D. Sedler
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Chosen Books, 2012, (160 pages).

Do you know when to speak up when needed? Do you know when to keep quiet? Are there practical way to discern when to do either of them? Michael Sedler has given us a book to constructively use and to control our tongues.

This is an old book (When to Speak Up and When Not To) republished under a new title.  Containing principles of conversations, the author aims to provide readers with practical tips and ideas on the merits of speaking and the wisdom of silence, to learn when to speak up when needed, and when to keep silence. With biblical backing, Sedler begins with a personal experience when counseling a couple named Ken and Sandra. Normally, counselors will not project their opinions on their clients. However, for Christian counselors, it is important to learn to provide biblical principles even during the counseling session. This is the approach Sedler takes for the entire book.

Beginning with some Bible examples and real life cases of why silence is not always golden, one needs to confront any excuses for the failure to speak up for the good when needed. When speaking up, Sedler gives four principles on how to confront problems that require speaking up. Self-examination is key prior to questioning others. He also gives four principles to prevent communications breakdown. He cautions readers from adopting any of the six wrong ways to ask questions, and subsequently provides a long checklist on how to ask questions constructively. There are also many tips with regards to self-control, managing our anger or resentment, and avoiding strife and overcoming peer pressure in order to do the right thing.

My Thoughts

Like a wave, Sedler ebbs back and forth the merits and demerits of silence and speaking up, always pointing readers toward practical and constructive ways to build relationships either through the wisdom of silence or the discernment of right words. The last chapter of the book is a personal description of Sedler's own journey, his conversion to Christianity, his interest in social work, and many "final thoughts" on how silence and speaking up can change lives.

If you have always wanted to control your tongue, and yet desire to speak constructively, but not know how, this book is a gift. The steps are very easy to understand and take boldness in order to practise them. If any of the principles you use can save a relationship, this book would have brought you mighty dividends from the cost of the book.

What attracted me to this book is my sense of how important it is for leaders to know when to speak and when to shut up. Leadership is essentially about relating to people, and to relate in ways that are helpful to them, and to the community they serve. I admit that many of the ideas look very much like common sense. The fault is not the author. The problem is in the rest of us in the world who needs reminders all the time. This book is a gentle reminder of our need to communicate well, whether in speech or in silence.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Chosen Books and Graf-Martin Communications (Canadian Leadership Resource Program) without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Rough Road to Freedom - a Memoir" (Neil T. Anderson)

TITLE: Rough Road to Freedom: A Memoir
AUTHOR: Neil T. Anderson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Monarch Books, 2012, (272 pages).

This book is Neil Anderson's take on life, one that is never easy, often hard, but always possible in God. The title of the book describes Anderson's personal experience through his own journey through life. He describes his humble childhood beginnings being raised in a culture where community and family is the bedrock of society. He shares about his growing up years of hard physical labour, working at odd jobs that many young people nowadays will tend to avoid. Academicaly, despite good high school grades in math and science, and his enrolment in the school of engineering in the University, he fails to do well in College, drops out and joins the Navy. That does not deter him from gaining valuable military experience which forms a strong foundation for his sturdy character and self-belief. More interestingly, it emboldens him to trust God more. His naval experience soon makes him a valuable addition to companies in the military industry. He rises quickly up the engineering ranks. He becomes a supervisor, as well as an adviser.

All of these forms a brief background to the main part of the book, which is laid out in three big phases.

  1. Life in Church Ministry
  2. Life in Seminary
  3. Life in Freedom in Christ Ministries

Throughout the three phases, Anderson weaves in plenty of personal stories and experiences. The ones that really makes this book a gripping read are the ones on spiritual warfare. In seminary, he begins a course on spiritual warfare, something never done before at Talbot. In Church ministry, he is constantly called upon to deal with matters requiring liberating others from spiritual darkness. In his own ministry, he equips people to do the important work of freeing people from spiritual bondage in the Name of Christ. Once I begin, I can hardly put the book down. This is Anderson's most personal book thus far. His story is a reminder to me that it takes a person who has lived through brokenness in order to be able to minister to the broken. It takes one to be freed from spiritual bondage to liberate others. Most importantly, it is a reminder that ministry in Christ is always a tri-party matter: God, the one you are helping, and yourself.

This book is an inspiring book of faith, of how a man of God is able to trust God for every trial. It is a book about spiritual warfare that is utterly dependent on God. It is a book that points us back to the Word of God, that ministry draws not just some but all its inspiration from the Word of God. It is a book to remind us once again that we may fumble with our walk, stumble in our talk, but through the rough edges and potholes, we learn to climb back up again, to try again, and to realize that at the end of it all, God has carried us through.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Saturday, September 22, 2012

"Seeing Through the Fog" (Ed Dobson)

TITLE: Seeing through the Fog: Hope When Your World Falls Apart
AUTHOR: Ed Dobson
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2012, (176 pages).

This book is written by a man dying of ALS (or commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease). In what may be his final publication, the author uses his own life experiences to share with readers how he is able to see through the fog of grief and despair, with the eyes of hope. Ed Donson loves being a pastor. He loves caring for people, praying with them, and simply being there for them. ALS changes all that as doctors estimate him having only about 3-5 years left to live. It is a terrible news from an unwanted diagnosis. This leads to a disappointing decision to quit the pastoral job he loves, and to sink into a time of despair and loss.  It causes him to reflect upon the people he has previously ministered to, who were going through chronic illness and dying situations themselves. Now he has joined the ranks. ALS is one of the worst diseases to have. It is difficult to diagnose. It is incurable. It leads to slow decay and eventual death. Dobson seeks to see life from the eyes of Jesus, grabbing at any straws of hope he can get. Thanksgiving is particularly hard. Yet, he experiences profound understanding of the suffering of Jesus. He learns to connect with other ALS people like never before.  After all, he can still do pastoral care with fellow ALS sufferers. Scripture reading becomes more intentional. Yet, feeling a loss of purpose haunts him constantly.

Dobson does three things to try to live like Jesus. Inspired by the hilarious book by AJ Jacobs, for a year, he tries to live like a Jew. Then, he tries to think like Jesus, using the gospels as a guide. Finally, he tries to obey the teachings of Christ as literally as possible. It becomes a huge blessing for him. His gratitude extends to every simple thing he is able to do. He struggles with the discussion and thoughts about healing. Why is heaven silent? If God so loves him, why is he not healed? Is there life after ALS?

Dobson makes a decision to seek forgiveness from people that he has offended in the past. From Bob Jones University to the Moral Majority movement; from Jerry Falwell to James Dobson, he puts relationship above the level of arguing whether something is right/wrong. The rest of the book covers his thoughts about worry, about healing, about God, heaven, and many more.

What makes this book special is how Ed Dobson lays out his final journey through intentional working out of his relationships with people. Any theologizing or reasoning out the philosophies of life, suffering, fairness, and death, are secondary. Relationships with people are primary. Instead of a question and answer format, Dobson relays his thoughts, his struggles, his questions, and his actions through the book, giving readers a glimpse of his inner life wanting to live meaningfully in his remaining years. Though the book is entitled "seeing through the fog," it is essentially a bold attempt to live meaningfully THROUGH the fog of life. What makes this book very warm and encouraging is Dobson's courage to do his best with whatever that is left. It reminds me of the parable of the shrewd manager, who learns about his master's impending return, seeking to build up relationships at the expense of discounting the monies owed to his master.

Sensitively written, this book will tug at the heart.

Rating: 4.25 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.

Friday, September 21, 2012

"52 Ways to Grow Your Faith"

TITLE: 52 Ways to Grow Your Faith: Connect With God in a Busy, Noisy World
AUTHOR: Gregg Peter Farah
PUBLISHER: Franklin, TN: Carpenter's Son Publishing, 2012, (202 pages).

If anyone wants to grow, apathy needs to go. For growth to happen, intentionality and purposefulness is essential. More importantly, the author wants to encourage readers that it is possible, through more than eight ways. One can seek to grow as individuals or with a friend; with a group or as one travels; methodically and courageously; artistically, or creatively. Gregg Peter Farah puts together 52 ideas on how to do just that. It can be adopted in many different ways. It can be done once a week for a year, or consecutively over a few weeks, followed by a daily debrief; or any pattern of usage that fits the interested. The format of each idea is as follows:

  • Begins with prompt questions and key verse;
  • It continues with a lesson or story;
  • A key quote is used;
  • A practical suggestion;
  • A feedback of the method tried;
  • Prayer.
Written specifically for the busy person, it is a quick pick up, read, and practice that will appeal to anyone who says they do not have time to read. Depending on the need, readers can leaf to the section that best suits them, and to apply the way accordingly.

I am wary of books like these that proposes the practice of growing spiritually without adequate slowing down. It can appear like a 52 fast-food ways toward spiritual growth. Unfortunately, the basic premise is flawed. Spirituality cannot be adopted fast-food style. It simply is not meant to be that way. We cannot rush the Spirit according to the steps detailed in the book. We need to let the Spirit guide our thoughts gently and gradually. Having said that, we do not need to hurry through the steps in order to get some kind of a growth. For the busy professional or person who hardly have time at all to do any devotions, this book can help. I want to caution that this is a temporary way, a stop-gate approach for a fast-paced environment. It cannot be manna for the long spiritual journey. That said, having something is always better than nothing. Pace yourself as you read through the book toward intentional growth. My advice to anyone, take one idea out of the many, and meditate on the relevant scripture verse. Do not rush into the application. Let the meditation guide us. If out of 52 ways, you can benefit from at least one, you will have made a worthwhile purchase.

Rating: 3.75 stars of 5.


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

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Devotions from the Greek New Testament"

TITLE: Devotions on the Greek New Testament: 52 Reflections to Inspire and Instruct
AUTHOR:J. Scott Duvall and Verlyn D. Verbrugge (editors).
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (160 pages).

This book will be a great incentive for students studying Greek to see truths come alive as they study the Greek New Testament. As someone who has studied Koine Greek, or biblical Greek, I attest to the hard work and sometimes mundane process of digging through the various inflections and memorizing tail endings, and to determine the multiple nuances of the language. The scientific aspect can be easily mastered, just like memorizing formulas and steps. The artistic aspect is not so easy to see. It takes someone not only with a strong understanding of the Greek language, able to deconstruct the small details of the Greek, but also to reconstruct and make sense of both the ancient meanings and the contemporary applications. This book attempts to do both.

With 52 devotions drawn from a pool of 31 top language scholars, the editors have compiled devotional writings from exegeses of selected texts from nearly every New Testament book. The main purpose is to bring some meaning and purpose so as to encourage anyone aiming to study the Greek of the New Testament. It is a reminder that it is a living Word that leads to real life applications. This also helps to keep interest and motivation high. Hopefully, by showing the way, students will also learn to do their own devotions on the Greek text. Designed with a devotion a week in mind, each chapter begins with a title and a corresponding New Testament verse. Only the Greek text is used, possibly to challenge the Greek student to try and exegete the text first. The contributor of the article then brings out some interesting nuances of the Greek, and compares it to the normal English understanding. It also compares and contrasts the ancient contexts with contemporary times. We can see biblical theology coming alive before our eyes. We begin to notice the subtle meanings in the text. We see the importance of the verbs, nouns, participles, and the basic tenses of the grammar. The brevity of each chapter is also an advantage because it prevents any reader from rushing through the book. Instead, one learns more with less. One is able to still the hurried soul in order to sip, to contemplate, and to let the Word take root in our hearts.

When I was doing Greek, I remember looking forward to the introduction of the class where my professor will tell a story and the background of the texts concerned. The Greek textbook I use also contains a small application story which I appreciate, as it illuminates how the dry texts can come alive with real applications. I have longed for a book that gives more of such stories. This book fills the gap. It is full of such applications and will be a great encouragement to students of Greek who may be going through a dry process of Greek studies. If only, I had this book when I was a seminary student.

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.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth" (John C. Maxwell)

TITLE: The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth: Live Them and Reach Your Potential
AUTHOR: John C. Maxwell
PUBLISHER: Center Street, 2012, (206 pages).

Potential. More specifically, how do we achieve our potential in life? This question is dealt with by the popular leadership guru, John Maxwell. His first two books that deal with "laws" cover leadership and teamwork. While he has 21 laws for leadership, and 17 laws for teamwork, he proposes 15 laws for individual growth. Maxwell calls his leadership laws "irrefutable," and his teamwork laws "indisputable." Now, his third book, he uses the word "invaluable." Focusing on achieving one's potential through growth, Maxwell focuses on 15 essentials for growing.

  1. Intentionality: That growth does not happen at random. It needs a plan and a purpose, through the practices of closing 9 gaps. 
  2. Awareness: Self identity helps determine a sense of direction. He suggests various ways in which one can recognize one's passion in life. 
  3. Mirror: This law aims to help see one's sense of value, and to be true to self, and develop positive self-esteem and self-image.
  4. Self-Reflection: Everyone needs to take a pause at periods of their lives to take stock, to investigate, to illuminate, to incubate, or to illustrate. 
  5. Consistency: Growth needs consistent growing, not just the initial start. The discipline to continue is as important as the initiation to start.
  6. Environment: Where we are can be a big factor in personal growth. We need to learn to assess ourselves, to make decisions for change whether in present or in future circumstances. Learn to find out the best kind of soil to grow, the best air to breathe in terms of purpose, and the best climate in people relationships. 
  7. Design: One also needs to learn to develop strategies for maximum growth through systems.
  8. Pain: Learning to manage bad experiences is a key part of growth. Whether it is inexperience, incompetence, disappointment,  conflict, change, bad health, hard decisions, financial loss, relationships, and many others, one can turn pain into gain.
  9. Ladder: How high one grows depends on the how one cultivates one's character. People, passion, perspective, and principles matter.
  10. Rubber Band: Learning to stretch oneself is critical to growth. Tensions are not necessarily bad. They can help one to grow, especially the part about stretching from the inside out.
  11. Tradeoffs: Growing requires us to make decisions about compromise and constraints. Learning to give up where appropriate is better than pushing ourselves silly for little gain. 
  12. Curiosity: Learning to ask why helps us avoid mental laziness. It is a core part of the learning process.
  13. Modeling: Learn to model your growth with someone better than yourself. Choosing a good mentor is key.
  14. Expansion: With growth comes capacity for learning. Whether it is thinking or doing, working or playing, growth is empowering and enlarging one's tent of personal growth.
  15. Contribution: Finally, growing always means bringing blessings to others. 

My Thoughts

Maxwell has a way of communicating his ideas that are compelling, convincing, and also uplifting. After all, he is not a leadership guru by chance. What makes him such a popular author is that his books are filled with stories and real life examples. He does readers a favour by compiling an easy to read collection of ideas, backed by some of his learning from other experts. The "15 laws" that he has put together are packed with theory and practice, illustrations and steps for personal applications, put together in easy to remember acronyms and communication devices that enable readers to remember. The part about how to "Apply the law" is a valuable exercise for readers to put theory into practice.

Yet, for all the accolades he has won, and the powerful ideas he has put together, I cannot but feel a sense of arrogance in the way that he has described the laws in the first two books. Are his laws so "irrefutable?" Is his take on teamwork so "indisputable?" Is he that perfect in the first place, even considering the years of experience and expertise he holds? Thankfully, his third book has toned down a little bit when he titles it as "invaluable." Maxwell can be a little more modest, though. My problem with the labeling is that Maxwell by using such pounding words, he may have unwittingly hemmed in the minds of readers to think that there are only these numbers of laws. This is the unfortunate result of having such grand sounding titles. It attracts attention, but it can also create negative impressions. Moreover, is it really a "law?" Maybe, it will be better to tone down the rhetoric.

That said, this is still a very readable book, and readers will be challenge by the laws, or at least, some of them.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


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

Friday, September 14, 2012

"Who Is This Man?" (John Ortberg)

TITLE: Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus
AUTHOR: John Ortberg
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (222 pages).

One question drives the quest of this book: Who is this man? From the pen of one of the the Christian world's most prolific writers, we are invited to travel along with John Ortberg in a biblical quest for the Person of Jesus Christ. The simple question begins the book with wonder, about how a man who has lived more than 2000 years ago, with little earthly titles or professional qualifications, are still immortalized in the minds, in the architecture, in literature, and in the history books of mankind. For one who comes to the world without much dignity afforded by the world, the humble Jesus gets mistreated, bullied, and not even given "equal rights" by the society then, despite him being totally innocent. He begins a revolution not with power and might but with humility. He defies common wisdom known to man. Instead of talking about compassion, he shows it. Instead of chatting about righteousness, he lives it.

Jesus also has a heart for the women of the biblical times. Ortberg sensitively highlights a culture where men outnumber women on a ratio of 140 to 100. He tries to maintain respectability for women too, for He is not interested simply to follow Jewish customs. He is tasked with the creation mandate, to care for all creation. He values the women in a culture that treats women second or third class.

Jesus is also a distinguished scholar without the public distinction. He is a teacher, a rabbi, a prophet, a priest. Ortberg traces the education process through the ages, from Jesus to Cicero, from monasteries to modern universities, from the Renaissance to Postmodernism. Yet, Jesus is a great man, not because of what he has done, but because of his purpose of doing it all for the sake of the Father in heaven.

The question "Who is this man?" becomes the lens that Ortberg uses to see relationships Jesus has with the people he meets daily. Jesus deals with both the religious leaders as well as the despised, friends as well as enemies. Jesus epitomizes a counter-cultural icon as He deals with the Jewish and Roman authorities, not only with wise statements, but also controversial ones. His boldness to enter into tension shows us how difficult it is even for the son of Man to engage the world. Jesus comes to show us not about the good life, but a "good person." For that, I will think it is more accurate to say that Jesus does not come to make bad people good, but dead people live. From philosophy to relationships, from acts of compassion to teachings of God and life, Jesus is there leading the way. He points us not just to have compassion for this world, but to have the conviction of the heavenly kingdom.

At the end, the answer lands on the Person of Jesus Christ. All that Jesus has done, all that He has taught about God the Father, and all that He has tried to help, all boils down to reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ.

My Thoughts

This book by John Ortberg is a sharp focus on one person.  Instead of just saying "Jesus is the answer," he shows it through more than 200 pages of questions and observations about the life of Jesus, the teachings of Christ, and the hope of the kingdom. By comparing and contrasting earthly concerns and heavenly ones, Ortberg often makes readers sit up and ponder about things we often take for granted.

  • If Jesus is able to live mightily for God despite the gross disadvantage, what about us?
  • If Jesus is persecuted for doing the right thing, why is anyone complaining now when we are bullied and cursed for trying to obey God?
  • If Jesus has given adequate value for all people, should we not do the same?
  • Are we constantly reminding ourselves that the greatest miracle is Jesus rising up from the dead? 

So, "Who is this man?" is not just a quest or a plain question. It is a search for truth. It is a search for the Giver of Truth. It is an honest reflection of this person who has come to earth, lived and died for our sake, and who deserves not just to be debated, but accepted as He is. I like the way Ortberg calls heaven and earth not as two separate spheres, but two overlapping and intersecting into one common space: The temple of God. In Jesus, we have a meeting of heaven and earth. In Jesus, "Who is this man?" becomes not just a question. It forms a desire to want to have a relationship with this Son of God.

Rating: 4.25 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.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"The Space Between" (Eric O. Jacobsen)

TITLE: Space Between, The: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Cultural Exegesis)
AUTHOR: Eric O. Jacobsen
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012, (304 pages).

Is there a link between physical buildings and human relationships? What is the connection between geography and community? Why is it so hard to get Christians to care about the physical environment? After all, with all our technology and communication devices, does physical space still matter?

These questions and many more are considered in-depth in this book. Written with the Christian in mind, Jacobsen makes some reflections on the physical buildings in our neighbourhoods of work and home, offline and online interactions, and what the built environment is and is not. The key thesis is that an "enacted space" we are living or are designing is a place for a particular purpose and time. We are urged to see built environments as places in which God's salvation plan is being played out, and then Christians have a vital role to play.

A) Thinking Theologically About "Enacted Space"

Thinking theologically about such physical spaces and geographies, whether it is a rural garden or an urban city, or mixtures of both, requires us to recognize God's purposes in it all. Creation's mandate is to steward what is given to us. Rather than living out a false dichotomy of two kingdoms, one world, and the other heavenly, Jacobsen argues for a united kingdom of one care and concern. In other words, we cannot be too heavenly that we are of no earthly good. Neither do we be too earthly that we fail to have a heavenly perspective. How Jacobsen does this is via three thrusts. Firstly, he begins with orientating our perspectives according to who, what, when, and where we are. Pictures of a "public realm" environment indicate to us what we value or what we are capable of. Like a fast-food restaurant in our neighbourhood that fills our need for filling our stomachs, or a huge multi-storey parking lot for a convenient place to park our cars. How do we bring about a "shalom" we get in gardens and transplant it into the concrete city? Together we string this with four gifts:

  1. The gift of "embodied existence"
  2. The gift of a place to thrive
  3. The gift of community
  4. The gift of time.
Even designing roads can demonstrate the priorities of the city designers. Small curbs are for pedestrains. Big curbs are for large automobiles.  In city planning, designers have to grapple with at least six considerations. 
  1. Where should the center be?
  2. How to design amenities for the maximum number of people within a five minute walk?
  3. How to design street networks for maximum flow and efficiency?
  4. Which streets are to be more neighbourhood friendly?
  5. Which streets are mixed?
  6. Any special sites for special buildings?

Secondly, Jacobsen talks about the purpose of "participation" of family, politics, and the Church with regards to living in such built environments. Any community comprises of two components, a "hardware" (eg buildings, cars, houses), as well as the "software" (eg. people, activities). The role of the family, the politics involve in the society, and the purpose of the Church need to go toward the welfare of the city or community. All three are agents of shalom.

Thirdly, Jacobsen describes how "engagement" can happen in these spaces between. Two critical components are needed. First, it needs to have a sustainable culture. Designers and planners have to consider ways to maximize the use of limited resources, avoid wastage, and develop "social stability." Second, it requires love and care. A key idea is that a sense of belonging or an appreciation of beauty in a built space is not something accomplished, but something that is happening. In other words, it is not an achieving of some static goal, but the living out of dynamic life. A key application is how we treat strangers, or care for strangers who visit our neighbourhood. This can mean having common shared areas where people can interact safely and casually. Hospitality is key. Having a space to build friendly relationships will help better the life.

My Thoughts

This is a very special book that talks about something we normally take for granted: Our built spaces. There is a lot of wisdom in Jacobsen's book as he takes on the uphill task of helping readers see meaning of the design of cities and neighbourhood spaces. With brilliant cultural analysis and theological engagement, Jacobsen gives us a piece of work that is not only very original but very practical too. The perceptive reader will be able to see that there is a sense of movement in and out of both time and space in the book. While there is ample description of the physical space, there are many references to the age of time and timelessness, especially in the segment of Sabbath rest.

Jacobsen helps us trace the biblical narrative as well. By beginning with the garden to the city, from the city to the built initiatives, and finally to Sabbath rest, Jacobsen is essentially telling the biblical story from Genesis to Revelation through the lens of "The Space Between." Space is important. People do not simply need space. We need to make space for one another. This is an essential component of neighbourliness, toward the Christian duty of loving one's neighbour. The lesson on the Sabbath rest indicates to us a hope of profound rest in the future, what Christians call the eschatological moment. Having the availability of hospitality and the care for common shared spaces, and to design structures to be more personal, living will become more beautiful. Relationships will be more bountiful. We can all be more restful. That is the goal, even as we live in the space between the corridors of Genesis and Revelation.

Ratin: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Baker Academic, a member of the Baker Publishing Group and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"Buyer Beware: Finding Truth in the Marketplace of Ideas"

TITLE: Buyer Beware: Finding Truth in the Marketplace of Ideas
AUTHOR: Janet Parshall
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publisher, 2012, (208 pages).

This book is based on a central question, "What message will you buy?" It takes a leaf out of the classic work by John Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress, which contains many forks in our journey of life, each forcing us to make a choice. How we decide determines the state of our spiritual journey. Parshall relies heavily on Bunyan's allegory and updates it with a modern look at the world of contemporary temptations and deceptions, called "Vanity Fair." Written in five parts, the gist of the book is that we are to follow Jesus in seeking truth whatever the fork we face. The book is essentially about following and obeying God. We are in a battle for truth. Section One deals with the reality of the world that we are in, that while we are not of the world, we are still in the world. This calls for two critical decisions. First, we are to learn to recognize the differences between the false and the true. Second, we are to boldly choose what is truth. If we are serious about sin and avoiding sin, we are to be serious about being laughed at by the world for the choices we make as exiles, just like the prophets of old who were ridiculed. Yet, we are to remain citizens of two worlds, like Augustine's "City of God" and the "City of Man." A compelling chapter lies in Parshall's call for Christians to live in the world and not be isolated from the affairs of the world. Christians are not to be only evangelizing in the world. They are to bear witness in all aspects of life. We need to learn to see that while there is conflict of worldviews and ideologies, as far as living out our faith, there is no conflict. We bring the whole gospel to the whole world.

Section Two asks readers about the spiritual things of their journey, and provides tips about how to recognize falsehood in the marketplace. Here is where the navigation gets a little tricky. In some chapters, Parshall places two quotes at the beginning of each chapter to challenge readers to make a choice. Often, the first quote is about an ideology that is not Christian. The second brings home the choice Christians are to obey. She points out the seductions of materialism. She highlights the lifestyle choices we need to make with regards to housing. Is bigger necessarily better? Are we knowing our neighbours better? Are we prepared to move out of our comfort zone? What kind of decisions we ought to make with regards to money?

Section Three moves toward decisions with regards to people. Beginning with marriage, Parshall talks about the sanctity of marriage, that God has instituted it as good. Unfortunately, the marketplace has been flooding our minds with all kinds of erroneous ideas about marriage. Such as an overemphasis on equal rights over responsibilities, about conditions, that it is ok to have premarital sex, about personal fulfilment are all confusing young minds about the true nature of marriage. People even joke about marriage. There is also a concern about the ease of divorce, that instead of it being the last resort, it often has been a frequent course of action over other options. Parshall also highlights the horrors of abortion, and how modern rationalizing has diminished the silent screams of the unborn child. Another issue is the growing debate over homosexuality. There is widespread "perversion of the truth" not only in cultural propositions regarding gay rights, but also how some people justify homosexuality through their interpretations of Scripture. Finally, coming back to marriage, Parshall argues strongly for the case of marriage. In a culture that embellishes individual rights and freedom to live their independence, that marriage is good for society. She affirms for us that our goal as Christians is not to make converts of people to our opinions, but to make Christ known to all. Great point!

Section Four sets forth some practical steps for readers to take. We need to be actively involved in serving the community, either through welfare or neighbourliness. While we pray for spiritual help, we need also to be involved with practical needs. Section Five is used to summarize and to remind us again that the dangers of deception and treachery in the world is real. Beware of wicked wolves using witty words. Grasp the Word of God. Be sure that Jesus is well represented. Beware of psychic experts who base their ideas on narcissism and mysticism that have no firm basis. Finally, Christians are to live free from the bondage of slavery, yet bound to the calling to witness for Christ.

My Thoughts

Christians often pray that God's will be done in heaven as well as on earth. Such a noble intention can be easily wiped out through falsehood and naive living in the world. This book is a strong reminder of how dangerous the world of ideas can be, and how treacherous the journey is to our spiritual life. Having said that, the danger should not discourage us from living actively in the world. Instead, it ought to push us nearer to God, to depend on the Holy Spirit for guidance and for boldness to stand up, to speak out, and to shine forth for the Truth of Jesus Christ. As we cultivate a "buyer beware" mindset in the world, we are also to develop a Christ-aware and a Word-and-Prayer disposition. There is no substitute for letting God's Word guide us through life. What we feed upon determines how well equipped we are to live in this world. The more we know of God's ways, the more we can discern the truth from the false things in this world. The more we can make decisions for life. The more we can stand up for responsible living, rather than mere arguing for human rights. If there is one reason to read this book, it is the ever needed reminder that we live in a very dangerous arena of ideas, and Christians are to be constantly armed and ready to firstly recognize the truth, and secondly, the courage to stand up for the truth.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


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

Monday, September 10, 2012

"Understanding Biblical Theology"

TITLE: Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice
AUTHOR: Edward w. Klink III and Darian R. Lockett
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (192 pages).

This excellent work highlights the diversity of understanding of the theology of the Bible according to the Bible. The editors set the stage by distinguishing the five broad perspectives through the frameworks of "descriptive" vs "prescriptive" forms of biblical theology. This is not a book that lets various contributors debate, agree, or rebut one another's viewpoints, the editors of this book . It is part of their research work toward their thesis project. Two chapters are made for each biblical theology perspective. The first explains the concept while the second describes the application. The editors will contribute the conceptual framework of each view, and then selectively study prominent and leading theologians and scholars on how the respective biblical theology is practiced. Biblical theology understood via,

  1. BT1 As Historical Description - James Barr
  2. BT2 As History of Redemption - D. A. Carson
  3. BT3 As World-view story - N. T. Wright
  4. BT4 As Canonical Approach - Brevard Childs
  5. BT5 As Theological Construction - Francis Watson

The editors explain it detail enough for the reader to appreciate the nuances of each type of biblical theology. At the same time, they leave the door open for readers to make their own interpretations and conclusions about the various perspectives of biblical theology. There is no strong arming by the editors. Rather the focus is on understanding. The book is planned to begin from a more descriptive and historical perspective (Type 1) toward a more prescriptive and theological view (Type 5). Each view will attempt to shed light on:

  • the connection and relationship between the OT and the NT;
  • the "historical diversity" vs the "theological unity" of the Bible;
  • the scope of biblical theology
  • the sources (Bible only? or Bible + other material) to be used for biblical theology;
  • about what subject matter should biblical theology deal with;
  • about whether biblical theology is for the Church or for the academy.

BT1 has been introduced by J.P.Gabler back in 1787, and championed recently by Krister Stendahl in 1962. The purpose of BT1 is to "affirm the exegetical or descriptive nature of biblical theology and deny the theological or normative nature of biblical theology." In other words, it attempts to let the Bible speak for itself rather than to allow external theological lens to judge it. Yet, the problem with extreme BT1 view is that Biblical Theology as a concept itself is already a foreign device. BT1 is said to be the most "descriptive" of them all, of how it is actually used by the originators. This contrasts with the "prescriptive" mode which suggests what or how it OUGHT to be used, something attributed to modern readers of the ancient texts. BT1 proponents claim the Bible as the main, if not the only source. It is also independent of outside theological influence focuses on the meaning of the Bible texts themselves. BT1 builds theology based on the Bible's own terms. One of James Barr's key contributions to BT1 is that the connection between the OT and the NT must be one that is driven by faith, and not theological constructs to bind the two. Unfortunately, Barr's main weakness is his reductionistic definition of biblical theology. His carefulness is noble, but unwittingly dismisses others.

BT2 can be understood as God revealing Himself and His redemption plan progressively through history. It focuses on the parts with an eye of the whole bigger picture of the total Bible story. Its emphasis is more on unity rather than diversity. By trying to keep the whole Bible as a progressive narrative, the whole Bible can be inductively analyzed  for key themes that can be used to form a biblical theology of the Bible. Some schools are highlighted. First, the "Dallas school" exegetes deeply the individual parts of the canon to build a big theological picture. Its strength is in its inductive work. The "Chicago school" on the other hand, is similar to the "Dallas" counterpart except that it is less dogmatic about straitjacketing biblical themes across the ENTIRE Bible. Another school, called the "Philadelphia school" combines biblical theology with systematic theology to make their version of BT2 more integrated than the rest. Strong in exegesis and sensitive to historical contexts, BT2 remains a very influential part of the evangelical world. The popular evangelical DA Carson is used as a case study example, and his influence within a popular blog, The Gospel Coalition.

BT3 attempts to balance the historical and theological matters using narrative and the storying worldview. The key assumption is that there is a central story coherence throughout the entire Bible. Simply put, instead of adopting BT1's way of analyzing smaller portions of the Bible that leads to the grand picture, BT3 attempts to let the big picture direct the reading of the smaller parts. A key question arises. Who is best suited or equipped with the task of BT3? The practicing pastor or the academic scholar? The authors also give an insightful explanation of the difference between "narrative" and "story." The latter assumes a sequence of events leading up to a eventual picture. The former represents the story within the text. Thus, in a way, BT3 also works from the basis of a big story and reads it into individual narratives in varying degrees. Using NT Wright as a case example, it is fascinating to read about Wright's distinction between "story" and "worldview," which resembles the way BT3 distinguishes story from narrative. The authors feel that while Wright's views are comprehensive and coherent, it lacks systematic theology propositions.

BT4 comes into play as we see more diversity of opinions and the struggle to bring about some kind of unity of the historical and theological contexts. Its chief distinctiveness is its unwillingness to be locked down by historical authority. Instead of the interpretive authority of the canon in ALL the Bible, BT4 proponents prefer to adopt a more open "some convictions." Brevard Childs is a champion in this approach. Instead of the biblical text that forms the framework of Biblical theology, it is the "canonical context" that moves back and forth the meaning of texts and traditions, historical and ahistorical, canon and community, and sets itself up as a "dynamic canon" of interpretation. The "form and function" of the Bible rather than the texts form the key driving conviction.

BT5 appears almost as the antithesis of BT1. Instead of letting history and biblical texts inform the reader, BT5 proponents lets theological convictions inform the reading of the biblical text. It is an "all theologically motivated interpretation." It works on the basis of biblical theology as something in the present rather than been trapped in the past. Using Francis Watson as a case example, any biblical interpretation must be primarily concerned with the "theological issues raised by the biblical texts." This neccessitates the work of both biblical historians as well as systematic theologians. Watson uses the genre approach heavily.

My Thoughts

It is important to note the editors's reminder about the book being "a starting point" for anyone interested in the study of biblical theology. They are also wary about the book being used to "pigeon-hole" their positions. We ought then to read this book with the perspective or "orientation" rather than total adherence to the views set forth. More likely than not, there will be combinations of each view at different phases of our biblical understanding.

There are benefits as well as risks as far as comparing and contrasting the various forms of biblical theology. As a benefit, we get to appreciate the other viewpoints, that can enrich our understanding of other perspectives as well as to shed further light on our own way of understanding biblical theology. The risk is that we label people too quickly. Like many different approaches, it is common knowledge that there are strengths and weaknesses in each of the views. For instance, BT1 is strong in its exegesis and inductive reading of the biblical texts. It is most conservative in its keeping to historical contexts and strong textual scholarship. Unfortunately, it unwittingly sets aside other theological viewpoints that can inform the work of biblical theology. BT2 is slightly less rigid, but tends to restrict the overall story into all the biblical texts. BT3, while it plays a convincing narrative bridge of the historical-theological contexts and the overall Bible story, its key weakness lies in genre analysis. How do we know the limits and the extent of each genre with regards to its contribution to the whole Bible narrative? BT3 is also problematic when one sees the theological conviction as both literary as well as philosophy. How do we know which is which? Then, there is also the problem of method. Which is best? BT4 is promising as it attempts to make good sense out of texts and contexts, but here is where confusion reigns. Which authority is more authoritative? Does it not make biblical theology a more complex exercise for the practitioner? BT5 is strong in methodology but when compared to BT1, it is weaker in inductive exegesis. The work of biblical theology needs to lie in the church instead of merely in the academy. Its strength lies in its conviction that biblical theology must be done by the church as its most natural "social location." Unfortunately, the methods and the concepts of BT5 are more commonly available in the academy!

Finally, I will close with three reasons why I like this book. Firstly, it offers the clearest and most comprehensive description of the nuances of biblical theology. Secondly, it offers a platform for readers to appreciate the many different viewpoints, and increase the arena of understanding among evangelical scholars, theologians, and the Church. Thirdly, students will find the work as a great 5-tools-in-1 to let them read the Bible with greater resourcefulness. There is a need for unity in diversity. There is also a need to let the diverse community demonstrates its creativity. This book is a valuable addition to the library of scholars. Laypersons will benefit more if they are guided by a more experienced mentor, or seminarian. For anyone who is interested in the theology of letting the Bible speak for itself, this book is a generous gourmet meal.

Rating: 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.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

"Adventures in Churchland" (David Kimball)

TITLE: Adventures in Churchland: Finding Jesus in the Mess of Organized Religion
AUTHOR: Dan Kimball
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (224 pages).

This book is a personal journey of the author's trip to Christianity. Before his eventual discovery of grace in the Christian faith, he has to navigate the treacherous terrains of "organized religion" and negative perceptions of Church.The author's key dilemma is that he like Jesus but not the Church. Like the musical plays, much of Christianity in churches appear to be play-acting, artificial, or does not manifest the true spirit of Christianity the way Jesus has represented from the beginning. There is a messy spiritual climate in churches simply because people are messy. Worse, many are simply content in the present state of mess. Kimball is determined to change that, and to use his own personal journey to do something about it, and to bring hope and encouragement to those who may be traveling the same paths he has trod. In a nutshell, it is POSSIBLE to find grace in Jesus even in messy organized religion. Kimball shows us the way, several ways. His passion is as follows:

"I wrote this book to offer them hope that there is more to the church and Christianity than they have seen or experienced. I wrote this book to encourage them not to give up on the church. I will be encouraging you to join in (if you haven’t already) and be part of the change so that we can truly represent Jesus to the world with passion, integrity, humility, creativity, and love." (14)
Written in three parts, Kimball works through his reactions to popular versions of Church and Christianity. He begins with a humourous retelling of his experience in a church musical, how he get embarrassed about the play-acting scenario. He shares plainly how uncomfortable and weird he feels in his first encounter with an evangelism experience, where the focus seems to be on hell, salvation, and avoiding punishment. The strong sense of judgmentalism continues to haunt his perception of certain strands of Christianity. His core dislike happens to be in the Church itself. His three main peeves surround the way Church is presenting, or misrepresenting the gospel of Jesus. Firstly, new people feel a sense of being a misfit when they are not able to fit into the subcultures of evangelical churches. Secondly, many of the practices appear "weird" to people unfamiliar to church. Thirdly, and most disappointingly, churches tend to avoid tackling the difficult questions of life, even the Bible. From "creepy pastors" to difficulties in understanding the ancient cultures in biblical texts, there are many things that are downright uncomprehensible. If only churches and Christian people are able to address them honestly and intentionally.  Despite his discomfort, Kimball offers us a way forward, that the church despite all its flaws, is still worth our time and attention, and our love.  

The second part begins his path of recovering from his weirdness and confusion through finding the beauty of Christ amid all the mess. Being judged by others is a horrible feeling. Seeing hypocritical behaviour among Christians is equally horrible. Yet, the Bible speaks out against such things and behaviours. What makes all the difference is to be able to recognize that we fall short ourselves, and we need forgiveness more. If we are to judge, we need to be up in arms against any forms of hypocrisy. More importantly, church people need to judge themselves first and foremost, before any criticisms from outside the church. When this is addressed, the Church is ready to be a positive agent of change for the world beyond. Instead of condemning the church practices, Kimball offers a different path, an alternate way to see the church. In his take about "organized religion," Kimball plumbs the Internet audience about perceptions of organized religion. The common strand is the church being seen as a place that tries to control people. Such a thinking is more often a misunderstanding of church people. Kimball does some research and points to differences between the early church and the modern church. In fact, the biblical church has a rich history and diversity. The modern flavour of the church does not necessarily represent the biblical church. This will immediately dispel concerns from people that to be a Christian, means to follow exactly all the modern church dictates. No. Being a Christian is in following Jesus according to what the Bible says, not what the church subcultures or the worldly culture dictates. If churches are able to continue to let the Bible influence their subcultures, there is hope. Some of these influences include:
  • Freeing people in worship
  • Not segregation but unity and beauty in worship
  • Not judgment but forgiveness and grace
  • Humility in theology and practice
  • Boldly confront pet answers for the purpose of seeking truth
  • Good "organized religion" serves God through people.
  • Good "organized religion" extols the hope of God in Jesus.
Part Three expands on this renewal of "organized religion." There is no substitute for reading the Bible and practicing it from the inside out. We need to substitute the negative perceptions of churchland with the positive renditions of graceland. In order to avoid being trapped in churchland, we need to constantly manage our time with one another. Make sure that we spend adequate time with non-church people too. We need to grow in the knowledge and love of Jesus, and not simply being content with superficial readings of Jesus. We are not to put our faith in ideas about Christianity. We put our faith in the person of Jesus.  After working through the fantasies and fallacies of churchland, Kimball begins to piece together a hopeful picture of a Church living in the grace of Jesus. Church is a gathering of God's people. It is impossible to "go to church." Instead, we become a church as we come together in the name of the Lord. He makes it clear through a comparison on page 184 about the differences between "go to church" and "be the church."

My Thoughts

Kimball has done the church a favour by taking the church to task first.  Having Christians admonishing fellow Christians is far better than having non believers judging and condemning Christian people. We are called to bring out the best of fellow believers, and in the process, also become a witness to the world. The way Kimball does it is admirable because he does not come across as a "fire and brimstone" preacher who speaks down on us. He shares his own personal story and battle. He invites us to see from his point of view. He offers us hope and a different perspective to see Church. Most of all, learns to see "organized religion" and "judgmental" churches from the eyes of grace. That is something we can all learn from. It is far too easy to condemn and to criticize churches and the way they practise their Christianity. It is more difficult to admonish them in grace and in humility. The church is messy because people are messy in the first place. We are hypocrites by nature. We are judgmental by nature. It is only when we allow ourselves to be changed from the inside out by the Holy Spirit through the gospel of Jesus Christ, that we are able to be the church that God has called us to be.

For many, this book may be an excellent opportunity for some of us to re-think the way we do church. It is also a reminder for us not to insert modern concepts or to modify the Church into a Hollywood facade. It is an invitation for us to go back to the Bible, to build the church from biblical ways. Let that be an adventure of grace.

Ratin: 4 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.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

"Everyday Church" (Tim Chester and Steve Timmis)

TITLE: Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission (Re: Lit Books)
AUTHOR: Tim Chester and Steve Timmis
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2012, (192 pages).

The current church model needs to be re-tooled. New vocabulary needs to be introduced. Old models of Christendom need to be changed. For Christianity to survive in a post-Christendom culture, it needs to wake up to three realities. Firstly, it must wake up to the new reality that Christianity is no longer in any privileged position. Secondly, the Church and Christians, especially in the West are to assume themselves as marginalized and dis-empowered by the world as a starting point. Thirdly, there is hope, in that the formation of a post-Christendom gospel community is going to be the new shape of things to come, as far as the Church of Jesus Christ is concerned. The key thesis of the previous book, "Total Church" is that the gospel and the Christian community needs to be central in both one's life and mission. In "Everyday Church," the thesis builds on this idea, that church is not simply one day a week in a four-walled religious environment, but to be central everyday each week, in all environments. The authors in this book make a passionate call for Christians and the Church communities they represent to learn to witness for God, regardless of positions of privilege or marginalization. Using the first epistle of Peter as a framework for the book, the authors describe how the modern church has become increasingly marginalized, just like the early church. They make a case of how the modern culture has become more religious rather than secular. They describe the church's critical need to move away from a Christendom worldview toward a post-Christian context. Using research from Peter Berger, Barna group, Stuart Murray, Philip Richter and Leslie Francis' "Mission-Shaped Church" reports, and many others, the authors make two observations.

  1. Church growth models in the US cannot be assumed to work in Europe
  2. Parts of the US are becoming more like parts of Europe.
The faster Christians move away from the presumptions of a privileged status or rights to political influence the better it is for building credible and effective gospel communities. For the authors, they argue that the new face of mission is not in terms of "attractional events" but incarnational living everyday. This can be done even when Christian are living at the margins. 

Chapter Two explains further how applicable 1 Peter is to our modern world, that the post-Christian church needs to live as "missionaries in a foreign land." What is needed is for the Church to rediscover the culture.

Chapter Three goes to the core of self-identity, that caring for one another, and caring for the people in the communities we live in, provides opportunities for witnessing and living through pastoral care. They provide "five principles of community-based, gospel-centered, mutual pastoral care."
  1. Pastoring one another daily
  2. Pastoring one another in community
  3. Pastoring one another over a lifetime
  4. Pastoring one another in grace
  5. Pastoring one another with the gospel.
Four liberating truths are used to weave in what it means to be an everyday Church. This is based on the 4Gs, that God is great, God is glorious, God is good, and God is gracious. Knowing these attributes of God helps us toward spiritual formation through pastoral caring, everyday mission, and everyday evangelism. At the end, the authors propose many different ways of doing everyday church. Some of these ideas include understanding the four points of intersection, proclaiming the four liberating truths, questions to ask ourselves or our hearers, and the four modes of conversations we can adopt. Finally, just like Peter, the authors encourage readers in a post-Christian world that there is hope even when living in the margins. 

My Thoughts

This is a really good book to read and to put into practice. The wake-up call for the Church to move away from its Christendom presumptions toward a post-Christian world reminds me of Craig Carter's critique of Richard Niebuhr's classic book on Church and Culture. In "Rethinking Christ and Culture," Carter essentially lumps Niebuhr's work as a work laced with Christendom images. In this book, Chester and Timmis puts in more practical pointers, not just in recognizing the shift, but in adapting and living in a way that makes the best opportunities of this shift. The three big reasons why I like this book is this. First, it is a wake up call for the Church to arrest its decline by recognizing that old paradigms of Christendom need to be dropped as soon as possible. Otherwise, church programs and efforts will only be targeted at a shrinking audience. Moreover, it will be good money being thrown foolishly at the non-existent! Second, it acknowledges that the Church is not marginalized, just like the communities that Peter was writing to in his epistle. This is not necessary a bad thing. Chester and Timmis encourage readers through their call to hope. Witness is possible on an everyday basis. Third, it provides lots of practical tips on everyday mission and evangelism.

"It is not simply that ordinary Christians live good lives that enable them to invite friends to evangelistic events. Our lives are the evangelistic events. Our life together is the apologetic. There is a place for meetings at which the gospel is clearly proclaimed, but let us affirm and celebrate ordinary Christians living ordinary life in Christ’s name. This is the frontline of mission." (89)
I like that. Thoughtful and practical. Well-researched and readable. This book is poised to become a must-read for anyone keen on missional living, building gospel communities, and caring for people with or without a church building. I savour each page. You probably will too.

Rating: 5 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.

Monday, September 3, 2012

"A Grace Revealed" (Jerry Sittser)

TITLE: A Grace Revealed: How God Redeems the Story of Your Life
AUTHOR: Jerry Sittser
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (272 pages).

This book is a sequel to the earlier book that launched the writing career of Jerry Sittser.While the bestselling book, "A Grace Disguised" talks about how the author grieves and takes on a perspective of seeing God's grace amid his personal tragedy, "A Grace Revealed" begins where that book left off. There are at least three main things that Sittser is trying to do. Firstly, realising that the first book tends to be a theological treatise to readers on how to think about loss and grief, Sittser begins by story-telling the entire life event to make it more personal than the first book. Secondly, he wants to move away from any fixation on the tragedy, toward a more helpful eye of redemption. What has happened has happened. What remains to be done is to learn to live on toward a future with hope. Thirdly, Sittser invites readers to story their own lives as they read about Sittser's own story. Rather than concentrating on the works of Jesus in one's life, it is even more redemptive to focus on the PERSON of Jesus Christ.  Such a move is God's initiative, not ours. The four key components of redemption are:

  1. "Redemption involves a story."
  2. "God is the author of the redemptive story, from beginning to end."
  3. Settings and circumstances if submitted to God, can liberate us.
  4. "The goal of redemption is not immediate happiness .... but holiness of life..."
By telling lots of personal stories, the author is able to show readers the path he has been traveling. We read about how the deaths of loved ones have been continually used by God to hone his personal understanding of redemption. He shares further intimate details about how his first moments of his infamous tragedy becomes to moot point in learning. We are all in a way, a work in progress. We are characters in search of a story. Redemption comes when we are able to see our own stories and to connect them closely with the story of Jesus dying on the Cross for us. Christ redeems us by freeing us from the bondage of sin and unhealthy grief. A story is also truth with us as a major player in it. It is important because our past stories determine our future stories. It is even more important that we let God be the main influencer. In other words, we need to see our stories in the light of the bigger story of God and His relationship with creation. Redemption is always a recognition of our small in relation to the big. When God redeems us (small), it is always part of the wider picture of redemption of the world (big).

Redemption is not about happy endings on earth. It is about seeing Heaven. Adversity exposes our weaknesses and humbles us. "Without adversity we remain spoiled children." Whether in good or in bad, we all need to learn to be "spiritually ambidextrous," able to grow in God whether in prosperity or in adversity. God begins where we are. Even marriage can be one of "God's workshops."

It is interesting to see how Sittser's book resembles Donald Miller's "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years." Like Miller's book, Sittser's deal with plots, characters, story, authorship, the end, the beginning, and the middle. Similarly, Sittser weaves in many personal anecdotes and illustrations even as he invites readers to write their own stories as they read. There is a small difference. While Miller's attempt is about telling us what storytelling means, I think Sittser's effort shows us what storytelling means. I am not trying to say which book is better than the other. I am merely highlighting some personal observations.

Thankfully, Sittser goes farther to mention the need to see redemption from the perspective of God's timing and timelessness. As far as the past is concerned, it is not merely the capacity to remember, but the MANNER in which we remember. Redemption is learning to see the past from God's eyes. As far as the future is concerned, we can only trust and hope that God be merciful. The final few chapters add in additional fodder for spiritual formation, working out the three Christian virtues (faith, hope, love), supported by four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude), to help us recognize the redemptive path. While Sittser tries to show us the beginning and the end, the most interesting part is the middle. What do we do in the present? In the story of Tricia face to face with the murderer of her good friend Susie, we learn that God will always have the last say to all of life's problems, pain, and suffering. We need to allow enough time in order to make sense of things. This time is not ours to determine. The earlier we learn to trust God for the unknown, the better we are able to deal with the known. This is the key learning I gain.

Ratin: 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.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

"Special Intentions" (Claire Coleman)

TITLE: Special Intentions: Remembering Others in Personal Prayer
AUTHOR: Claire Coleman
PUBLISHER: Bloomingdon, IN: Westbow Press, 2012, (226 pages).

Big hearts come in small prayers. Gracious hearts go out to others more than self. The dual pronged approach laces this unique book on prayers for others. In a delightful display of Philippians 2:4 in action, Coleman puts her prayers into writing, her care for others in praying, and her love for God through caring and sharing for a world in need.

This is not a book of prayers. Neither is it about prayer or how to pray. It is about keeping others in our thoughts, and in our care. It is about remembering the oft ignored, and caring for others. As sinful people, we all have a tendency toward selfishness, toward self-seeking endeavors. This book seeks to buck this trend intentionally. Instead of "good intentions," the title of the book is geared toward seeing people as unique and precious. The front paints a very meaningful reflecting of needs as best as we can. The more we can observe with our various senses of the needs around us, the better we can pray. The little drop of water at the end of the leaf resembles a tear drop. For me, it means authenticity and a deepening connection with the people being prayed for. I love this image.

There are reflections of life and of prayers about loving one another. There is an empathetic ear toward listening for the burdens for others. There is a growing awareness of gratitude and an encouragement to persevere when the times are tough. Coleman remembers the very public figures like politicians, the law-enforcement officers, the public servants, to the very private moments with personal friends. She observes buildings and structures with gratitude. She echoes the cries of people in dire straits. She prays over the ups and downs of people from different walks of life. She even covers the emotional turmoil over the dying of pet animals. From people in hospices and hospitals, to busy executives in the office, from the school classrooms to prisoners in a lonely cell, Coleman's capacity to think deeply and care widely is amazing. It takes an observant eye to see beyond the obvious. It takes a meditative heart to pray continually. Above all, it demonstrates a love for people, the way that God loves people. Thank God for authors like Claire Coleman, who shows us through "Special Intentions," that it is not only possible to love beyond ourselves and our own needs, it is a delight and a privilege to do so.

The biggest benefit in reading this book is to learn from Coleman a very unique way of plumbing human needs and emotions beyond the superficial layer of a Hi-Bye society. It will cause us to pause our busyness, and to remember a higher cause for good. For Christians, this cause will always be love. Use this book for group prayers. Use it for personal praying. Not only will it be a small step to make the world a better place, it is a big step to grow our inner hearts to be a more loving grace.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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