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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"Effective Staffing for Vital Churches" (Bill Easum and Bill Tenny-Brittian)

TITLE: Effective Staffing for Vital Churches: The Essential Guide to Finding and Keeping the Right People
AUTHOR: Bill Easum and Bill Tenny-Brittian
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012, (176 pages).

What is the purpose of hiring staff? Is it to run programs or to build people up? Is it to meet a need or to prepare people to meet needs and to be missional wherever they are? Is it to delegate ministry to the staff or is it to enable staff to create a positive environment for discipleship in the church? These questions and more are ably dealt with in this excellent manual for hiring people for churches. 

This book is a guide not just about hiring appropriate staff for churches. It is to come up with a big picture about the difference between ministry and equipping, between missional and maintenance, between mere programs vs mission to reach people. The word "vital" represents how urgent it is for churches to adapt and to prepare themselves for growth and effectiveness. Ed Stetzer uses Jim Collins's bus scenario in "Good to Great" to summarize the three things churches generally need. How to get the wrong type of people off the bus? How to get the right people on the bus, and how to get the right people into the right seats of the bus? The challenges of the modern world are making it harder for churches to hire good people and to discern what actually their churches need. Sometimes, we allow the availability of a "good candidate" to drive our hiring decisions, or to be subjected to a desperate situation to force our decision to bring on board somebody, even anybody! The authors give four reasons to justify the reading of this book.
  1. Financially, many churches are tight and they need to hire wisely due to limited budgets and resources
  2. Churches exist in a culture of change. The staff hired need to work with the strategies of the church to deal with this change.
  3. There's a shortage of leaders everywhere we go.
  4. Right staffing facilitates growth.
Originally titled as "Staffing for Missional Church," the authors decided against it because a church is supposed to be missional. Churches are also expected to be heavily involved in missions. The word "staffing" reminded us about churches being about people, not buildings. Easum and Tenny-Brittian begin by setting the context of the book, describing the sea of change happening in the culture we live in. There is a change of attitudes that people do not go to church on their own anymore. They need to be invited. More people are needed to help one individual grow, pointing to a need to be more attentive on an individual scale rather than a mass scale. Trust needs to be gained in an environment where "church" is perceived negatively. With frequent member movement in and out of churches, plus immigration and demographic changes, churches need to keep up with the changing expectations.  What really makes this book stand out is the paradigm shift it offers: 

"So let's be clear from the beginning: staff should never be hired to do ministry! That's right. The less ministry the staff does, the more people who are reached for Christ. An the more the kingdom grows and your church grows. So what's the purpose of staff? Simply put, the role of staff is to 'equip the saints for the work of ministry' (Eph 4:12, ESV). Staff creates an environment in which leaders at every level are equipped and encouraged to replicate the DNA of the church by living out their spiritual gifts. God built the church on the premise that every Christian has a gift and a calling to share with the world. It's called the 'priesthood of believers.' The role of staff is to ensure this happens." (Easum, et al, Effective Staffing.., p23)

So what exactly is equipping? This begins with a core missional identity of the church, and how the paid staff's gifts, skills, and passions go toward four core processes of the equipping the church for missional work.
  1. INVITE: Bring people in via equipping and helping networking, servant evangelism, marketing, and cultural liaison.
  2. CONNECT: Retain people in via equipping and helping worship, follow-up, hospitality, an friend-making.
  3. APPRENTICE: Disiple them via facilitating mentoring, small groups, leadership development, and encouragement champion.
  4. SEND: Sending people out via connecting, gifting, outreach, training.

For each of these core processes, key leaders need to be identified. The rest of the book goes into detail of each process, step by step, example by example, tip after tip, and reminder after reminder.That is not all, the journey steps and the transitions are meticulously laid out for readers to situate themselves.

My Thoughts

This book is a treasure house of tips for church ministry and volunteer work. There is something for anyone in the Church. For the lead pastor, there are many tips on staff management, church strategies, leadership growth, and many more. For the staff, there are lots of tips to remind them that their primary role is not ministry but equipping. For the Board member, it is a reminder that the Church is called to be missional. For readers, it is a fascinating look at the dynamics of Church work and what it takes to prepare a Church for growth. When I read the list of worship do's and don'ts, and the best practices for worship leaders, I find myself nodding non-stop. The authors have also given one of the simplest ways to understand discipleship:
  • "I do; you watch; we'll talk.
  • You do, I watch,; we'll talk.
  • You do, someone else watches; you'll talk." (p59)

This alone is a precious discipleship gem. Clear and simple, well nuanced and biblical, it gives readers an excitement to keep the book pages open and to move straight to practice. I am grateful for the detailed description on leadership multiplication and development. Indeed, if we address the leadership issue appropriately, the rest of the church ministry will fall in place. Not only that, the authors are specific in their application, giving tips and directions for large churches, medium sized, and small churches. They describe the leadership journeys clearly so that readers are able to see and design a plan for their own churches. The authors then conclude with "staffing basics" to remind readers again what this book is all about: "Effective staffing." I am amazed at the amount of material that is packed in a book this size. Great book. I recommend this book highly for anyone involved in staff matters in churches.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Baker Books and Graf-Martin Communications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"Connect" (Nelson Searcy)

TITLE: Connect: How to Double Your Number of Volunteers
AUTHOR: Nelson Searcy
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012, (240 pages)

Have you ever wondered about the 80/20 pareto principle, where 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people? If you're like me, you will probably be familiar about situations whereby there are so much to be done, and so few volunteers to help share the workload. What if there is a way to increase the number of workers in any ministry? What if the harvest is plentiful, and there is an opportunity to help groom many more workers for the harvest? Will you jump at that chance?

Enters this book by Nelson Searcy. Filled with years of hard-earned experience and disappointment, Searcy shares some of the ideas and methods that he has used to increase the number of volunteers in any ministry. There are four phases to this adventure of connecting volunteers with ministry work. First, a ministry mindset must be instilled. Ministry is about servanthood and all ministers serve. If we believe in the priesthood of all believers, than every believer serves in some way. This ministry mindset and servant system is made up of 8 biblical principles.
  1. Ministry means to serve
  2. Serving is an act of putting the needs of others before our own needs
  3. The goal of the ministry system is to help people become more like Jesus
  4. You cannot become more like Jesus Christ unless you learn to be a servant
  5. Serving opens people's hearts to God and therefore is part of worship
  6. If people aren't serving, they aren't truly worshiping and growing in their faith
  7. Mobilizing people for ministry is part of discipleship
  8. The role of the pastor is to equip people for ministry.
In Phase Two, we Create Service Opportunities to mobilize new servers for existing ministries, move experienced servers to newer ones, and not to be too caught up about the need to believe first before we belong. There are several ideas shared in this book, such as the idea of a ministry/volunteer fair, mobilizing new members immediately after membership or baptism, preaching about it, making it easy for volunteers to sign up, and making known all the ministry opportunities available. One of the best ideas is for a personal invitation to volunteer.

In Phase Three, Searcy talks about the Ministry Ladder, which is a clear path that encourages members to grow slowly and aspire toward leadership. After all, service is about discipleship. Knowing how easy it is for volunteers either to fall off the ladder or get discouraged, Searcy provides four structural reliefs.
  1. Ministry ladders are made for growth, not control
  2. Allocate places for stress and release
  3. Measurability
  4. Climbing the right ladder according to giftings.
Phase Four talks about celebration and reproducing servants. It encourages leaders to help volunteers get a Good Experience (GE). Volunteers need a clear idea of the timeline of their length of service (TL). They are to be challenged to reproduce their own ministry areas, to teach a new volunteer (CTR). They are challenged to be accountable for ministry positions and motivated to continue serving with joy (AM). They are encouraged to form good networks of getting new people into the ministry flow (GN). Clarity, consideration, caring, and courtesy are the four ways to empower volunteers.

My Thoughts

This is an exciting book and holds lots of promise for tired ministry workers, wondering when they can pass the baton so that they can take a rest. The story is far too common for people who work so much till they burn out. This need not be so, says Searcy. In fact, as I think about Searcy's model, it is quite a creative way to practice discipleship in churches. Rather than to wait and see, or to sit and rot, we can volunteer. We can serve. We can encourage people to do something as a way to learn and to grow. The role of the pastor is to equip people for ministry, to care and to encourage ministry workers to delight themselves in the Lord. The point about meeting needs in the Church is well-taken. When we fill ministry positions on the basis of needs, it only highlights the lack of preparation and foresight in the leadership of that ministry.

This book may very well save your ministry from collapsing. For churches that are not sure of a discipleship model, perhaps, this book can be a start to your discipleship program. As I reflect on this book, I can offer up these three thoughts.

  • If you want to grow but do not know how for now, then serve.
  • If you want to serve but do not know what, then ask.
  • If you do not know what to ask, then pray.
Richly practical and moderately theoretical, the ideas in this book are not only tried and tested in Searcy's church, it will excite leaders in other churches to try at least some of it. Great resource!

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Baker Books and Graf-Martin Communications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Monday, January 28, 2013

"It Is Well With My Soul" (Shelly Beach)

TITLE: It Is Well With My Soul:Meditations for Those Living with Illness, Pain and the Challenges of Aging
AUTHOR: Shelly Beach
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 2012, (240 pages).

This book takes the same title of the world famous hymn by Horatio Spafford. Like Spafford who struggles a lot with the loss of his loved ones, the author struggles a lot with the loss of her mental faculties. Reflecting on her own neurological condition, whether it is stroke, aneurysm, or cancer, the author enters into a time in and out of hospitals, in and out of consciousness and unconsciousness, and face to face with the deep personal loneliness, and yet still able to experience the divine presence of God. Through her process, Beach encounters grief, anger, depression, joy, grace, and the role of advocates. She plumbs the deepest valley of despair and also experiences the high mountains of hope. The book parallels the hymn, "It is Well with My Soul" through six reflections.

The first reflection is about "Devastation, Doubt, and Deliverance," of seeing how Spafford grapples with the reality of loss and pain, and how Beach personally experiences physical pain, and how it affects faith and doubt. Each brief reflection comprises a personal journey through a particular emotion, followed by an honest appraisal of her spiritual walk with God. There is a prayer to surrender to God's mercy. Each chapter ends with two questions to grapple with the hard questions of life.   The second reflection is on the trials of pain, the temptation of doubt and denial, and the triumph of faith and belief. The third section deals with searching for meaning amid the depression, stretching one's prayer and faith as the trials are extended, and realizing the significance of hanging on to God in prayer. Life seems so unfair when after her earlier discharge from hospital in 1999, her long distance travel, her parents' health all increase her stress level, leading her toward anger and being overwhelmed. The fourth section deals with family, forgiveness, and freedom. She learns that it is only through forgiveness and gratitude that one can shape relationships. She relates how her faith in God helps her to forgive others because she had first being forgiven. Prayers of desperation are also called "Fed-Ex Prayers."

Beach learns several spiritual disciplines as well. Such as learning to notice the ordinary people placed before her each day, or the opportunity to give away material goods to bless people, or to renew past connections, and many more. Section Five talks about "help, heartache, and heaven," which is a journey trust from despondency to dependency, from feeling alone to experiencing the presence of heaven. Section Six concludes the book with the need to avoids lies, to begin legacies, and to learn to let go.  The Appendices at the back of the book offer great tips on prayer, resources for help with regards to healthcare, a bibliography of books about physical and spiritual health, how to cope with stress and tips on hospice.

We will all age one day. Each of us has to carry our own cross, travel our own journey, and experience our own ups and downs. There is no short-cut in the reality of life. To go through the trials and at the end of it all, still able to say, "It is Well With my Soul," is not simply a brave attempt to keep up a stoic front. It is a posture of quiet trust, of growing faith, and of eternal hope that is anchored on the One and Only Saviour of the world, Jesus. A book of this nature is not an easy one to write. Readers can easily sense the agony and the pain the author goes through. At the same time, there is a strong desire that believes that one day, it will all be over, and it will all be revealed that it is God who will make all things news, and all things whole.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


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

Saturday, January 26, 2013

"The Outsider Interviews" (Jim Henderson, Todd Hunter, and Craig Spinks)

TITLE: Outsider Interviews, The: A New Generation Speaks Out on Christianity
AUTHOR: Jim Henderson, Todd Hunter, and Craig Spinks
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010, (198 pages).

Do you want to have a strategy to reach the category of people called, "Young Adults?" Is your Church facing an exodus of young people? Are you baffled as to what is going on in this unique age group who grew up with you when young, and now preferred to grow up independently instead? If your answer is YES to all three, then you may want to consider this DVB, which is a clever label to denote a book and a DVD package. The DVD comprises videos of interviews conducted with young people in their 20s to 30s. Conducted with young people from four cities, the DVD shows the responses as they are, with questions from the audience as well as facilitation by some of the researchers. The book on the other hand presents the reflections on these interviews by three seasoned researchers on the Young Adult situation in the church today. Jim Henderson, Todd Hunter, and Craig Spinks give their take on the contexts of the new generation, the perception of Christianity having an image problem, the clash of tradition with modernity, the nature of diversity in a pluralistic environment and many more.

The authors are keen to find out the stories behind the grim statistics that show the demise of many churches' young adult groups. What I find most illuminating is the need for leaders to learn how to listen attentively, to learn humbly, and to love these people passionately. There are basically four cities that the interviews have been held, namely Denver, Kansas City, Phoenix, and Seattle. Generally, four persons are selected in each city location. Half of them profess the Christian faith while the other half are either atheist or agnostic. Care is also taken to have equal representation from both genders. What is lacking perhaps is the multi-racial component, as the interviews are based on people who are predominantly white, though there is a Muslim and a Jew somewhere in the mix. The topics covered are very wide. From homosexuality to same-sex marriage, internal Church conflicts to external perceptions of Christianity, from Republican to Democratic politics, hypocrisy to image problems, the young people highlight a diverse range of issues that cover culture, politics, social awareness, cultural nuances, and of course the Church. The DVD gives readers and viewers a first hand look at the actual interviews and feedback concerned. There is also a segment from the perspective of the authors.

In the book, the authors reflect on what they have heard and each of the three authors pick a topic to discuss in greater depth. As Jim Henderson is the main interviewer and facilitator, he contributes the most, covering at least six out of nine chapters. He presents the case for readers to take the initiative not just to talk about the gospel, but to live out the gospel of love through care. Some of the observations are as follows:

  • Christianity has an image problem
  • Many Christians do not listen to the inner longings of the young people
  • Many Christians tend to elevate doctrines and principles more than loving people.
  • There have been too much politicizing of Christianity in the political arena
  • Christians do not know how to handle differences maturely
  • One can to be intentional but not manipulative
  • Learn to notice people and care for them
  • Dialogue is actually easier than most people thought
  • Many young people do not just want to be invited to come. They like to serve.
  • ...
Finally, Craig lists six lessons to learn.
  1. Do not take things too personally. Most of the time, people just want to disagree rather than judge a particular belief;
  2. Give others the permission to be different.
  3. Speak less from absolutes and more from personal stories. For example, rather than saying "All churches are irrelevant," say "In my experience, the church I have attended has not been relevant."
  4. Debates are natural reactions to disagreements about something. Learn to turn debates to respectful dialogue
  5. Do not jump to conclusions. Do not be too quick to label people.
  6. Ask lots of questions.
Todd affirms that styles can change but evangelism boldness never goes out of style. Nice.

Henderson shares five take homes with regards to constructing a bridge between generations.
  1. Obtain a list of things to be researched, for clarity, and for understanding different viewpoints
  2. Obtain feedback all the time, in conversation and dialogue
  3. Adopt skills of bridge building
  4. Be open to changes to be made as each opportunity arises
  5. Do not be too easily intimidated by people questioning you on your lack of experience, or age, or anything.
Henderson's words are worth remembering.

"From my point of view, Boomers have an activist streak and Millenials an optimistic one. When these differences intersect, a unique force field is created that can facilitate the building of a bridge not only for themselves but for all the outsiders who are trying to find their way into the Kingdom. When intergenerational activists and optimists collaborate, innovative practices and unpredictable acts of love emerge." (165)

See the book video below or click the link here.

For more interviews, click here

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

DNA (D. A. Horton)

TITLE: DNA: Foundations of the Faith
AUTHOR: Damon A. Horton
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2013, (128 pages).

This is a book of systematic theology for the layman. The title itself expresses the conviction of the author, that the Christian faith is based on foundations of God, the Bible, and lived out through life in Jesus, and outreach to the world with the gospel of Christ. Horton goes through a primer with regards to:

  1. The Bible
  2. God
  3. Sin
  4. Salvation
  5. Church
  6. Angels and Demons
  7. End times
  8. Personal Evangelism
  9. Living It the Christian Life
On the Bible, Horton briefly describes the word 'Bible,' what it means, how the Bible came to be, God's revelation, the inerrancy of the Bible, how to study the Bible, and many more.

On God, the emphasis is on Theology, Christology, and Pneumatology, which is essentially the study of God the Father, Son, Holy Spirit respectively. On Salvation, The chapter on sin gives an overview of the creation and the fall of mankind, how sin enters the world, the consequences, and the three types of sin, namely, the inherited, the imputed, and the personal sins. It ends with a call to believers, encouraging them to say no to sin. The study of salvation touches on G.R.A.C.E, faith, assurance, justification, sanctification, and glorification. On Church, or Ecclesiology, Horton explains the definition of the Church, her mission, leadership, and ordinances like the Baptism and the Lord's supper. The chapter on angels and demons unpacks who they are, how they relate to humans, who Satan is and the topic of demonic possession. Chapter 7 is about the end times, what Revelation says, on death, and how the judgment will look like.  There is also a useful summary of all the different interpretations of the Millenial times. There is a short chapter on evangelism, the Great Commission, and how to share the gospel. The last chapter challenges believers to engage the world, the culture, to live the spiritual disciplines, to understand and to connect our theology with everyday living. 

My Thoughts

It's amazing how one can pack so much into a little book for a mini-Systematic Theology survey. All the basics are covered, from God the Trinity, Christology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology, Eschatology, Soteriology, Hamartiology, and many more, the purpose of the book is to give laypeople a quick and concise overview of basic foundations of faith. It makes theology enjoyable to learn. Horton is clear about making sure he explains any theological terms and concepts. With ample spaces and questions to prompt readers, it is a self-guided tour for individuals who like to know a little more about theology in general. It is also designed for group study, so that people can be reminded of the basic tenets of the faith. Easy to read, it is also practice oriented, with many tips for readers to apply, like evangelism, spiritual disciplines, and how to read the Bible. In summary, this is a light-weight overview of Systematic Theology. While those of us trained in theology will find it too basic, it is important to know that there are many others who are too busy or unable to pursue a theological education for various reasons. This book whets the appetite and gives laypersons an opportunity to learn.

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.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"The Call to Work" (Robert H. Erdmann)

TITLE: The Call To Work: A Biblical Perspective
AUTHOR: Robert H. Erdmann
PUBLISHER: Brownstone Books, 2012, (100 pages).

Is there meaning in secular work? Why since the Middle Ages are we still stuck in the secular/sacred divide? Recent work has sought to shed light on the meaning of work and marketplace ministry, and yet, many people are still unsure of their vocation and what it means by work per se. There is a deep disconnect between what we want to do and the current jobs we are doing. We want our work to be significant but we often feel less than significant. The author attempts to use this book as a launchpad to "explore" the place of work God has for us. Though there has been several articulation of faith and work recently, by people such as Dorothy Sayers, Larry Peabody, Lee Hardy, Paul Stevens, John Beckett, and several others, the author feels that what is lacking is a "simple articulation of the biblical roots of the theology of work." The continuing dichotomy of sacred vs secular realms of work is a result of such a lack, so says Erdmann. Erdmann first sets down his own context. He has work experience in both engineering and sales. He affirms that God is interested in his work. He believes that God has equipped him to do specific work. He then works out a brief survey of the history of the Church from Genesis to the Middle Ages, from the Dark Ages to the Reformation, from the Second Reformation to modern times, preferring to sacrifice details for simplicity. Written in two parts, Part One touches on the history of work. He begins with creation, the fall, and the curse of Adam. He argues that productive work is a legitimate call that still applies to this day. He talks about how work has been corrupted, using the examples of biblical characters such as Lamech whose skills are corrupted by moral decay. He also makes an interesting observation of how the polytheistic religions begin to flourish almost immediately after Israel's apostasy. Work is then corrupted farther in many other ways. In Greece, work is seen more as a curse. In China, women are disqualified from imperial examinations, which is an essential step to serving in the public systems. In India, the caste systems segregated people into the different ranks. In Christ, all these barriers are torn down as Christ redeems the world. Despite the coming of Christ, the Post-Apostolic believers continues to be attacked by heresy and all kinds of dualistic beliefs. It takes the Reformation to spring the movement back to the right track. Then comes the Industrial Revolution which many of us are familiar with, the Protestant Work Ethic and the continuing struggle between meaningful work and survival.

Part Two is a little more prescriptive in talking about the future of work. Here is where Erdmann begins building his case in the Call to Work. This is linked to the list of "universal calls" that applies to all jobs. The call to to serve humbly and worthily. The call to love and to show integrity. The call to witness, to be responsible to family, and to glorify God. His key idea:

"The solid ground, by the way, is not really in the marketplace. It’s in your heart that knows God made you to be doing what He’s equipped you to do. When that happens, you will know that God is sending His Holy Spirit to work alongside you, and yes, you will see miracles happen through you." (72)
After touching on "work," Erdmann works on "call," distinguishing it from "stations," "vocations," and "giftings." Stations are functions, vocations are specific sets of skills for which we are trained, and giftings are all of these plus specific representations of our beings. As for call, it is integral in the personhood, equipped by the gifts, and energized by a sense of purpose. Erdmann then ties the call back to the Church and the community of Christ.

My Thoughts

The whole "Call to Work" essentially revolves around the spiritual health of a person. A healthy sheep will reproduce healthy offspring. They make up a healthy church that will encourage, nurture, and equip one another. Erdmann does a good job of keeping things simple, especially the history of work and the Church. Part One constitutes the bulk of the book. It is the second part that contains more of what Erdmann is trying to drive at. In fact, if I can put it simply, Part One deals with the idea of "work," while Part Two deals more specifically with the Call and how it ties back to work. I find the second part more enjoyable and relevant. Perhaps, the job of condensing so much history into an extremely light historical survey has removed many stories and pivotal moments in history. Moreover, when surveying history, a difficult choice has to be made with regards to which particular event to highlight. Every simplification always results in reductionism. In Erdmann's case, this is even more acute as he simplifies and even more simplified survey. For students of history, this may very well mean removing much contexts from the texts. Part Two contains more concrete ideas on what a call is. With the discussion questions at the back of each chapter, and the supporting appendices, this book can be a little guide to finding our call to work. That said, this book is to be treated more as an introduction or a mini guide to the call to work. For the busy professional, this book should be delightful read on the basis of its clarity and brevity. For those who are looking for something meatier, this book will not satisfy you.

Rating: 3.5 stars of 5.


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

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"Personal Jesus" (Clive Marsh & Vaughan S. Roberts)

TITLE: Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls (Engaging Culture)
AUTHOR: Clive Marsh and Vaughan S. Roberts
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012, (256 pages).

Can music really shape our souls? This fascinating academic inquiry is an attempt to shed light on that. Music shapes us by providing a common interface. This common interface is where ideas, hopes, dreams, emotions, spirituality, and all manner of human expressions can interact. Further understanding of how music shapes us can be appreciated through the use of a host of other academic disciplines like sociology, psychology, cultural studies, anthropology, media, musicology, philosophy, communications, theology, and many more. All of these show the far reaching influence of music. On a personal level, music is able to help express the human being's personal, social identity, and relationship that is not mere religious or non-religious, but helps to express a deeply authentic experience. The authors claim that the place of music as a medium of human expression is becoming more and more crucial as religions and traditions take a back seat in modern Western society. Music expresses us well through "spaces of meaning." Some of the questions being asked in the book are:
  • Why do people choose certain music?
  • Why do they prefer certain ways to listen to them?
  • What is the meaning behind the choices?
  • What messages or societal themes are communicated in the music?
  • How do we understand the messages in music?
  • How do we think Christianly about music?
The authors' key contention is this:
"Ensuring the critical study of religion in relation to how people listen to contemporary popular music will foster appropriate understanding of the music itself. It will help us understand how religions do (and must) work in society today. More fully exploring the function of music as a form of popular culture will be good for society as a whole." (xv)

A Summary Review

The framework of the book comprises of three parts. The first part deals with music in general and how it is intrinsically linked with religion, no matter how secular one claims their music to be. The second part looks at pop music and the everyday lifestyle it impacts. The third part looks at music from a more philosophical and theological angle.

Part One basically gives a tour of music and religion, and how they interact in the music space. The journey begins with an exploration of what music does. It helps people break life's monotony. It offers opportunities for commercialization. It offers an avenue for escape. Both demanding and undemanding, music can become a tussle between conformity and creativity. Marsh and Roberts traces three conceptual developments with regards to music and culture. Firstly, there is a shift from mass culture to popular culture, of how a monopoly spreads its influence to wider domains. Economic concerns and secularism are some of the push factors for this shift. Secondly, there is a shift from "transmission view to ritual communications" where convictions and faith are infused into the message and the medium. In other words, music is no longer just about the content. It is also about the convictions behind the content. Thirdly, like the shift in reading from author to text and to reader, music and culture is going through a shift from "production to reception," on how music eventually becomes a commodity for consumption.  For all the three shifts, the authors interact with the works of Gordon Lynch, Pete Ward, and Kevin Vanhoozer, arguing that the religious realm and the popular realm are much more integrated. With a focus that lands back on the laps of the recipient, the reader, and the receiver, the authors aim to define "affective space" which is what people in general are people's responses to music's influence. Here is where Marsh and Roberts introduce the fascinating model, the Magisteria-Ibiza Spectrum to map the consumption of music. What this model does well is as follows:
  • They show that every participant are located in multiple social settings
  • There are both voluntary as well as involuntary social contexts
  • People are not as individualistic as they may think
  • There are authority figures at work
  • Making a choice of which authority to be subjected to is a dynamic exercise
  • Enjoyment and the influence of music happen very much at the same time.
It is no easy matter to separate religion from music. Some have tried to do so with embarrassing consequences such as certain pious individuals, who in the name of God seek either to flatly oppose or to try to wrestle back music from the "devil." Such attempts not only show their ignorance of music per se, it numbs their awareness that music is very much a legitimate expression of humanity.

Part Two goes deeper into what music does for people and to people, and how it links to cultural behaviour. Marsh and Roberts also point to several studies that link religion to consumerism and capitalism, as people flock to "consume" stuff like music. On the other hand, there are instances where the flow is reverse, like some songs of U2 that begins with a religious text and appeals to the people's hearts. There are also several reflections over how technology has changed the way music is enjoyed. From MP3 players to file sharing on the network, to modern research of how originality of the music pieces affects popularity among the receivers. Interestingly, moderate originality brings about highest popularity ratings, according to research by Dean Simonton. The discussion between the tensions of stability/innovation and tradition/imagination suggest that all are interrelated to the extent that they shape each other. Music can also be both physical as well as symbolic, social as well as metaphorical. The study of the hit song "Thriller" can only be appreciated more if we study the physical life of the famous singer too. There are embodied meaning in the music. 

There is also a transcendental element in music in at least four ways. The authors call it "Four forms of Transport." The first is to create an experience of wonder that can help them escape from normal life. The second form is a communal dimension where people sing along with one another, through participation. The third form is the "physicality of transcendence" of getting caught up in the music. The last form is about the "power of lyrics" to evoke feelings and yearnings, especially love songs. Transcendence matters because it forms a crucial part of human experience, that combines humanity with spirituality.

With the ecstatic high, music can also be a channel to walk one through the low periods of life, like deaths and funerals. The authors make a case that even in secular circles, religiosity is never totally cut off. On the one hand, singers like Madonna expresses negative opinions about things Church or religion. On the other hand, they gravitate toward a meaning that is beyond themselves.  There are songs in the secular realm that are based on Biblical themes, such as "Jacob's Ladder." What is significant is that music provides an arena for the overlapping of many themes, both human and divine, secular and sacred, present and the future. Rituals are part of human behaviour. They are part of human expression. 

On technology and music, the authors observe that the technology used often express the personality of the user. For instance, the playlist is an expression of the individual choices and nature. Many songs are also written based on real events of the writers, like the Paul McCartney's "Yesterday." Just as there are four forms of transport in transcendence experience, there are four hallmarks of devotion in terms of "intensity," "meditative," "repetitive," and "authority."  All of these are noticeable in songs of worship. 

Part Three of the book is of special interest for Christian audiences as it has more familiar content that is connected with worship and spirituality. It looks at the way we listen, the content of the pop music, and how readers can think theologically about it all. A theology of engagement essentially requires the listener to interact and to engage either by "assimilation, resistance, and overhearing." They even provide seven functions of music. Finally, some basic theology is introduced, on the image of God, sin, human nature, salvation, and eternal life, using the works of Cobb and Levitin to compare songs.

Finally, the author ends with some implications for the Church, for Christian theological education, the academic life, and everyday listening. Both educational and entertainment aspects are carefully considered and explored.

My Thoughts

Written primarily for Christian seminaries, colleges, and those studying Christian theology, this book is also meant for anyone interested in the study of religious themes in the music environment, and how it impacts people.They have broadened the selection of music beyond mere "Christian music."

The title of the book is a clue to the big idea of the book. What is "Personal Jesus?" It gives us an idea of Christ's humanity and divinity manifested in one person of Christ, not separated but unite. Likewise, music is not something we separate easily. Music is not only an integrated device, it integrates both matter and persons. It combines the physical with the spiritual, the emotional with the intellectual, the highs and the lows of life. With such an understanding, it is not wise to separate music into Christian or non-Christian music, secular or sacred music. Taken in itself, it music is to be authentic, it is to be able to be an authentic expression of oneself, of choice, and of honesty. This book is an academic work and is thus written for readers at an intermediate to advanced level of social and cultural engagement studies. It can be quite difficult to follow the book piece-meal, as the way it is written tries to flow and capture the essence of what music and theology represent.  Music and theology cannot straitjacket each other. Instead, they built one another up. Theological expression can be given a musical element. Likewise, music can display a rich theological tradition. Any attempt to dichotomize them will be futile and less than authentic. Perhaps, there can still be one distinction: Good music vs Bad Music. The ones that are good are those that create not only the ecstatic or aesthetic appeal, but able to capture the essence of the human experience, hope, transcendence, and spirituality. This is truth. When the theological truth is embraced by the beauty of music, we have an impressive work of art that is insightful, meaningful, and inspiring.

One more thing. Even though religions are generally pushed to the sidelines or background in many parts of society, that does not mean people are less religious. Music making is not a matter of religiosity or not, but very much a part of being human. Overall, this is quite a comprehensive work and it requires a fair bit of patient reading in order to get a hang of it. For those of us music lovers and are keen to engage music a little more philosophically or theologically, this book is a feast.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


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

Monday, January 21, 2013

"From Twilight to Breaking Dawn" (Sandra L. Gravett)

TITLE: From Twilight to Breaking Dawn: Religious Themes in the Twilight Saga
AUTHOR: Sandra L. Gravett
PUBLISHER: St Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2010, (112 pages).

This book interprets Stephanie Meyer's popular book and movie series from the angle of religious themes. Amid the hype, the smashing of box office records, and the astronomical sales of books and merchandise linked to the hit Twilight saga, the author highlights the themes with respect to Stephanie Meyer's Mormon background, how it has been overtly infused into the stories, and significant themes that make the whole series so captivating, and also thought provoking. This book begins with the basics, briefly describing what the movie is about, the main characters, the key themes, and provides simple storyline for readers unfamiliar with Meyer's saga. It also appeals to fans as it provides glimpses of the delightful plots.

Three key characters are studied. Firstly, the character of Edward has been described as a "Christ figure," with lots of positive association of goodness, life-giving blood, spiritual presence, transfiguration, and many good attributes that the Bible has spoken about overcoming temptation, life and death, sacrifice, love, and many more. Secondly, the character of Bella, which helms the entire saga with her being the sole narrator. She represents the Eve figure, innocent and weak, falling to temptation, being a temptress, lover to Edward, often displaying a parallel to Mary in the Bible. Thirdly, Carlisle as leader of the Cullen family, symbolizes a spiritually authoritative figure, chief guide, procreation figure, fatherly position, and a uniting patriarch. After dealing with the three key figures, Gravett moves toward the theme of "Determinism and Moral Choices," with themes of good vs evil, the choices we make, the shifting from mortal to immortal worlds, and Mormon perspectives on morality. Mormon theology on salvation is different from Christian theology. For example, Satan seeks human salvation for Satan's sake, rather than humanity's sake. In that aspect, as Meyer fuses in this into the story, it adds in complexity in spiritual themes as the different Mormon, Christian, and moral themes are intermixed. At some point, it is difficult to tell the themes apart, which makes any interpretation rather challenging.

There is also a chapter on Renesmee, the daughter of Bella and Edward, and Gravett carefully compares the pregnancy of Bella with the Bible story of Mary and Jesus. This straightaway evokes questions about theological significance, with references to some biblical and some heretical teachings about the nature of Christ. The final chapter compares the conclusion of the saga with the Kingdom of God.

My Thoughts

The author, Gravett tries very hard to view the Twilight saga from a biblical angle. I feel that she has overplayed the biblical significance. In fact, it can very well be a misinterpretation of Meyer's intent. While the book and the religious themes represent Gravett's ideas, I think Meyer's books are more Mormon than Christian. It would have been more beneficial to approach this book by using three lenses. Firstly, from the lens of the ordinary book reader or movier goer to connect viewers to the story. This is the general perspective for people who love stories. Secondly, it can be approached from Stephanie Meyer's Mormon outlook, to connect Meyer's Mormonism with direct instances of the saga. I say this because Meyer's version of Mormonism is quite different from the mainstream. This will give a better angle instead of speculating what the stories mean. Thirdly, we can compare and contrast the Mormon themes with Christian themes, instead of risking the application of biblical themes out of context of both story and Bible. In doing so, this book can do both Meyer and the Bible, and Gravett herself a disfavour by quoting both of them out of context.

This book pales in comparison with Elaine Heath's "The Gospel According to Twilight."  The intentions are good but the mechanism is flawed.

Rating: 3 stars of 5.


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

Thursday, January 17, 2013

"The Sacred Search Couple's Conversation Guide"

TITLE: The Sacred Search Couple's Conversation Guide
AUTHOR: Gary Thomas, Steve Wilke, and Rebecca Wilke
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2012, (160 pages)

This book is a guide to stimulate discussion between couples and their counselors, pastors, or facilitators. Designed to accompany Gary Thomas's new book, The Sacred Search, it is a tool that focuses on guiding couples in pre-marital counseling. Written together with a couple that one pastor had previously counseled NOT to get married, it is a testimony of God's grace on the one hand, and the folly of human impatience on the other. Ultimately, to help other couples avoid the same traps, the Wilke's join forces with Thomas to come up with this "Couple's Conversation Guide," designed to ask tough, probing questions in order to reveal the purpose, the desire, and the wisdom of couples wanting to get married in the first place.

For pastors, this book is to give them a way to implement nine sessions of pre-marital counseling with couples wanting to get married. It is especially helpful if pastors do not have prior materials available. While the questions are helpful, they do not in any way replace the conventional methods of pre-marital counseling.

For couples, this nine sessions or nine weeks course can be most effectively completed when couples come with an open mind, total honesty, in courage, to actively discuss, and be prepared to work through issues, and when necessary, work with a trained professional.

For readers, these sessions provide an informative look at:

  1. Pre-Engagement Check list:
    Here, we see six checklists that probe far beyond the material and procedural things that most people worry about. The questions force couples to ask hard questions about their perceptions of their potential spouses.
  2. Doubt-Free Wedding Day
    The session aims to cultivate a reality check among couples and at the same time, encourage them to move forward in faith. 
  3. Marriage as a Covenant
    As a covenant, it is more than a human promise because it is a commitment made before God and people. Each is not just answerable to one another, but to God.
  4. How Two Become One
    Here, couples are taught that marriage is not a 50-50, 60-40, 30-70 or some ratio. It is a 100-100 commitment that is applied regardless of how the other party behaves. Everything is in.
  5. Building a Family
    Parenting issues are openly addressed.
  6. Be constructive during conflicts
    All marriages have their conflicts. So the best way is not to avoid or deny them, but to learn how to constructively manage and resolve the conflict. Forgiveness, teamwork, maturity, attitude are all important.
  7. Developing and maintaining sexual intimacy
    The session looks at both short-term and long-term sexual intimacy, how to anticipate changes, and a discussion on gender differences and perceptions.
  8. Finance
    Money can become a major source of stress. The three basic questions revolve around how to make, how to spend, and how to save.
  9. Spiritual Intimacy
    This session touches on one's devotional time alone and together, family devotions, participation in a Church, a Bible study, and how couples receive spiritual nourishment and encouragement. 
Each of these sessions ends with a devotional to help bring the issues discuss further with biblical background and spiritual insights. I like this book for its simplicity and the light reading portion before each session. While they are easy enough to understand, they are not simplistic. It is the questions at the back of each session that  make up the real deal. Tough, probing, and sometimes humbling, the questions require full honesty and openness in order to move couples into a deeper understanding of each other as individuals, and a better idea of how together they will look like as a married couple.  This is an invaluable tool for marriage counselors, pastors, teachers, as a resource pool, and a powerful tool for anyone contemplating marriage. It gives couples a better idea of what they are getting themselves into, so that when they do decide to get married, their eyes will be fully open, and their faith be fully aimed toward God. 

I highly recommend this book as a companion guide to Gary Thomas's "The Sacred Search."

Rating: 4.75 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.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"The Sacred Search" (Gary Thomas)

TITLE: The Sacred Search: What If It's Not about Who You Marry, But Why?
AUTHOR: Gary Thomas
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2013, (256 pages).

This book is an exposition of Matthew 6:33 with regards to the 'why' of marriage that is more important than the 'who we marry.' In other words, before we get married, we need to ask the question of why do we want to marry in the first place. Many people are discouraged just to see how the statistics are skewing divorces and unhappy marriages more as a norm rather than an exception. It has even deterred people from seeking out getting married. Others are too concerned about who they should marry. For some, marriage is a cross, while for others, marriage is a test of faith. While it is true that there are pains and heartaches in marriages, Thomas wants to point out that there is hope. Rather than to marry and then regret the decision, the key task in this book is to search from the perspective of seeking God's Kingdom and God's Righteousness first, and to trust God to provide for our marital answers. The search begins with the ones who claim that their marriage situation is more an exception rather than a rule. In other words, God is faithful in everything except when it comes to their own marriage future or a happy marriage. The problem with this culture is that far too many people see happiness as the first priority in marriage. That largely explains the falling out of love and the failing marriages among many. Being in love just is not enough. Finding a 'right' partner is also insufficient. Mere romantic attraction as a reason to get married is also foolish.  The problem is that romantic love is "involuntary," hard to "control," and temporary. In order to start well, we need a spiritual redemption ourselves. Regulate both sexual passions, physical and psychological attractions with spiritual clarity toward wisdom and vulnerability. Thomas then speaks to both gender. First, he addresses the women, and challenges them to be more concerned for their boyfriends or husbands' spiritual conditions, especially godliness. In fact, godliness must be a higher priority than emotional connections or romantic skills. For the guys, avoid succumbing to gorgeous looks or sexual chemistry as a primary criterion. Find a wife who is seeking God's kingdom first! If both husband and wife are placing God's Kingdom first, they will get the answer to the "why" that helps them find the 'who."   Thomas makes some interesting observations, like why many girlfriends who are ready to defend their boyfriends before marriage, are more likely to complain and be critical of their husbands after marriage! For guys, the best chance at sexual fulfillment is not the appearance or act but a woman of virtue, who models Christlikeness and noble character. Thomas urges readers to look for "soul mates" rather than mere "sole mates." Rather than looking for one particular person to "complete us," seek to be the most complete biblical wife or husband that the Bible teaches. Far too many people are taking "short cuts" by using the idea of God's will to speedily get to their ideal wife or husband, when what is needed is the hard work of spiritual discernment, testing, and searching themselves whether they are seeking God's Kingdom and Righteousness first and foremost. There is also the danger of putting our marriage search into some kind of a "marriage lottery." Only in wisdom can we learn to discern the sacred search and the reason why we should or should not marry. 

Gary Thomas is no stranger to all things marriage. Known for his bestselling "sacred" titles, like Sacred Path, Sacred Marriage, and Sacred Parenting, Thomas extends his list to include the search for a marriage partner for singles and those contemplating marriage. Despite the many marriage related books and articles Thomas has written, there is still many glittering insights of his wisdom on marriage. Coupled with his ability to weave together ideas with words, stories with persons, and spiritual wisdom with biblical insights, Thomas has again provided readers with a guide on how to think properly on marriage, especially for singles and those yet to be married. A good beginning may not be absolutely essential in any good marriage, but it sure helps. What I appreciate is the way spirituality is discussed with the basic spiritual disciplines of believers. Like the heart that motivates the actions, the spiritual inspiration ignites the desire to make a marriage work. For me, his biggest gem in this book is a reminder to us that people are not things. We can find things like finding a phone to purchase, an idea to implement, a car to own, or a school to attend. Not people. Spouses are not people that we find in order to become perfect matches for us. Instead, a spouse is someone that we make, that we groom, that we encourage to become more like Christ, to seek God's Kingdom and God's Righteousness first. Do not marry because someone has all the aesthetic qualities or exceptional abilities, for they will slow down one day, or their skills will diminish. Neither should we marry someone simply because we show mercy or feel pity for that person, for soon we have to grapple with feeling pity for ourselves. Asking who we should marry is the secondary question. The primary question is "why" do we want to marry, which is a question that is intimately tied to Matthew 6:33. This is the sacred search.

Kudos to Gary Thomas again for an excellent book for singles and for those considering marriage. Pastors, counsellors, teachers, leaders, and even married couples will benefit greatly from reading this book.

Rating: 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.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"Dear Deb" (Margaret Terry)

TITLE: Dear Deb: A Woman with Cancer, a Friend with Secrets, and the Letters That Became Their Miracle
AUTHOR: Margaret Terry
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2012, (222 pages).

This book reads like a part-memoir, part-letter, and part-retrospective writing. Addressed to a friend called Deb, who is struggling with Stage 4 terminal lung cancer, the author tries to walk with Deb as a friend, a confidante, a fellow pilgrim, as well as a spiritual counselor. Within a span of six months, Margaret Terry pens 102 letters, of which only 55 are published here. If you were to count the number of envelops on the cover, the number is even less, 52. In this short time, Terry and Deb moves from mere acquaintance to deep friends, joined together by honest sharing of their lives and a common faith in God. What is most inspiring is that while doctors call Deb's cancer "inoperable," and cancer continues to torment not just her lungs but also her brain, Deb is still able to form a close bond with Terry, through letters.

It all begins with Terry joining a prayer group specifically tasked to pray for Deb. Gradually, the focus progresses beyond mere praying for Deb toward caring for Deb. Terry makes herself vulnerable with open sharing about her own life events, and her corresponding emotional attachments. Each letter begins with a retrospective look at one story or incident in Terry's life, progressing with thoughtful reflection and ending with a Bible verse, that sums up God's pronouncement on all that have happened. Terry shares about her encounter with a homeless man, and gradually learns that charitable giving on her part may very well be impeding on the homeless man's "work." She shares how her son, Michael taught her how to view the sky from underwater. He reveals the painful moments of the day when her husband asks for a divorce, and how the Lord is close to the brokenhearted. Terry also writes with flashbacks on her younger years with her mother, her church, her family, her work, and many of her daily encounters with life. By revealing herself more, she hopes to encourage Deb, and in the process, finds in Deb not just a listening ear, but a healing moment. There are questions of faith, how her non-church-going lifestyle was rocked by her sons' strange desire to want to go to church. In doing so, she learns how church has changed through her 25 years of absence. Terry also reflects on how Anne Lamott's thinking of faith and gratitude shapes her own beliefs, that God cares less of what she does, and more of what is in her heart. There is a progression from matters of reflecting events and incidents, toward matters of reflecting deep faith and emotional questions in the heart. Thanks to a captivated audience of one, namely Deb, Terry's letters to Deb become a literary healing center for both of them. Publishing the letters has invited the rest of the world to listen in and be touched. Terry's deepest desire can be summed up in this.

"Freedom. My heart wants the freedom to be a writer without restraints, the freedom to love again without fear, and the freedom to hear God without my insecure self getting in the way. Yup, freedom would feed my heart and give me peace." (Margaret Terry, p204)

Sometimes, I feel that the strongest people emotionally and spiritually are precisely those who are going through deep physical challenges. This book is not simply about one who is strong trying to reach out to another who is weak. It is the sharing of vulnerability on the part of Terry that brings companionship and meaning to a dying cancer patient, Deb. "Dear Deb" reads less of an instructive manual of how to help one cope with cancer, but more of a journey of what it means for two persons to share their lives, regardless of their physical ailments or emotional conditions. This is what friendship is all about. This is how what relationships can become. This is how faith can shape and grow, to make two distant lives become a meaningfully shared journey. This book is a perfect example of how ordinary lives can be made more extraordinary with openness, adequate reflection, sprinkled with humour and lighthearted cheer. Most importantly, it is a testimony that even the most down and out can find hope and faith in God, and people, through God and through one another.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Thomas-Nelson and Graf-Martin Communiations in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Monday, January 14, 2013

"The Decalogue Through the Centuries"

TITLE: The Decalogue Through the Centuries: From the Hebrew Scriptures to Benedict XVI
AUTHOR: Jeffrey P. Greenman and Timothy Larsen, (editors).
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, (224 pages).

This is an anthology of articles that traces the understanding of the Decalogue (also known as the Ten Commandments), from the ancient beginnings to the modern age. Is there really any difference in the interpretations of the Decalogue through the centuries? It is common to have thought that the commandments are so clear-cut that there is little ambiguity about understanding it. Should we read the Ten Commandments as a dogmatic instrument? Can it be read devotionally? What about Jewish and Christian understanding over the years? For New Testament believers, what about the tension between law and grace? For every similarity in understanding of the Decalogue, there seems to be nuances that not only illuminate the scope of applications, but also enlighten our understanding of these classic laws. All of the scholars and theologians agree that the Decalogue is still critical for our modern living. What differs is the extent and the ways we apply our understanding.

This book is a result of a series of seminars organized by Wheaton College back in November 2008. I am surprised it has taken four years for the lectures to be published in a book. Thirteen contributors, both Protestants and Jewish, Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals, provide insights into the Ten Commandments. Daniel I. Block begins by agreeing that the Ten Commandments are the most well-known, and also "ignored at best and rejected at worst," and hones his article on the basis of Frank Crusemann's rejection that the Decalogue is a summary statement of the Torah. By tracing the various ways the Decalogue have been affirmed, reduced, redacted, analyzed, and applied, Block concludes that the number 'ten' is primarily used as a mneumonic device rather than a dogmatic treatise, that the Decalogue provides a framework, not a total encapsulation, that the Decalogue is more a covenantal document rather than a legal code. He gives a helpful paraphrase of the Decalogue in terms of basic rights for human people, that the purpose of the Decalogue is more "care and responsibility toward others," and less of "power and authority" over people.

Craig A. Evans studies the references the New Testament makes of the Decalogue, listing down the commandments that are directly and indirectly cited in the New Testament.  He looks at the different ways the laws are summarized, ordered, arranged, and applied by either Jesus or the disciples. The goodness and truths are consistent, but the application of them varies according to the contexts. Alison G. Salvesen looks at the "Early Syriac, Greek, and Latin views of the Decalogue"in the light of the destruction of Jerusalem, and the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles.  His key point is that the intent, the attitude, and the ethical conduct is a higher bar from the legalistic treatment of the Torah. The "Epistle of Barnabas" teaches the difference between rigid adherence vs ethical application. Justin Martyr focuses on the nature of non-Jewish audiences and the Latin writer Tertullian grapples with how Jewish laws can be comprehended by both Jews and Gentiles. Salvesen helps readers to understand the deep struggle of how Gentiles try to obey the law more in spirit rather than the letter. Matthew Levering looks to Thomas Aquinas for guidance, and the view that the Decalogue was given at a time when "human pride" was essentially "deflated." Thus, the Decalogue is an avenue toward "friendship with God". He puts forth four main points for discussion. Firstly, natural laws as well as the Decalogue are supposed to be naturally compatible and easily comprehensible by man. The reason why people resist or refuse to accept the laws is a measure of how sin has obscured man's real sense. Secondly, Aquinas maintains a high view of the Sabbath in that the Sabbath command is both a ceremonial as well as a covenantal command. It promotes fidelity. It advocates reverence. It instills service. Through the Sabbath, one sees how the understanding of creation and new creation are bridged. Thirdly, Aquinas affirms that both Christ and the Torah testify to the grace of God. Fourthly, Aquinas denies that God himself has 'broken' the Ten Commandments. David Novak studies the great Jewish theologian, Moses Maimonides who points out that the Decalogue contains parts that are universally relevant, while some others are unique for Jews. He poses an interesting question: "Did God command us to believe He exists?" The meaning of the Ten Commandments can only be comprehended more fully in the context of the existence of God. He then probes into Maimonides's psychological, philosophical, and theological questions, to eventually argue against the two kinds of atheists in the world. The first view underestimates the human condition, preferring a life of hedonism, while the second believes the world belongs to mankind. Both in denying God, will eventually contradict themselves.

On the Protestant front, Timothy J. Wengert studies the great Reformer, Martin Luther, that through the law, we know sin, and through grace, we know God. Every command has a positive and a negative application. The highest good is still faith demonstrated in good works. Susan E. Schreiner looks to John Calvin, on how Calvin tries to instill the Ten Commandments not as a religious belief but a modus operandi in the culture and society. In Christ, the law reveals the level of sin in people, restrain unbelievers and unrighteous behaviour, and to help believers to grow. Carl E. Trueman looks at the 17th Century Puritan, John Owen, who sees the Decalogue in the light of general realm as well as specific relevance, that only two commandments have wide "ecclesiastical, political, and social significance," namely, the second against idolatry, and the fourth on the Sabbath. Owen's approach is interesting because firstly  it connects the Decalogue and natural laws in a way the Reformers can appreciate. Secondly, all creation has a moral structure. The Decalogue when understood in these two ways will highlight the gravity of sin and the need for repentance and corrective behaviour. Jeffrey P. Greenman highlights the 16th Century Anglican clergyman, Lancelot Andrewes, and how his theological views have helped shaped Christian teachings in England, the liturgy, and the need for self-examination. Andrewes bring out the devotional aspect of the Decalogue and how the moral law is so applicable to daily life, combining learning and devotion with faith and practice. D. Stephen Long argues that John Wesley's view of the Ten Commandments are so antihumanistic that it is wrong to say he advocates postmodern Enlightenment. What Wesley posits is that there is no true humanism without God, and the law together with the gospel forms one whole, and that Christ is the Light and the fulfillment of the Law.  Timothy Larsen studies one of the finest English poets in history, a woman named  Christina Rossetti, examining the gender bias of the Decalogue. Rather than to interpret the laws according to the domain of the masculine gender, she argues that the law assumes that the man and the woman are one person, which does away with any exercise to distinguish which gender is superior or inferior. George Hunsinger studies the contemporary German theologian, Karl Barth, who has a laserlike emphasis on the first commandment, that it is the "fountainhead" to understanding and applying the entire Decalogue, and sees the Decalogue from Reformation views.With the first commandment as the "theological axiom,"  he affirms together with Paul that in Christ, all things hold together. Providing a Roman Catholic theological view, William E. May studies Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and highlights the different ordering of the Decalogue in which the first three commandments are in the first tablet and the next seven in the second tablet of commandments. In contrast, Protestant circles generally see the first four as vertical commands while the latter six as horizontal. Love, responsibility, and catechism are the hallmarks of Roman Catholic interpretation. The latter seven commands are "absolute moral norms," and the Church as the sole authority to interpret both divine as well as natural law. The Decalogue, the Church, and the ecclesiastical authority are tightly knitted in the Roman Catholic thinking.

My Thoughts

This fascinating anthology has given readers a glimpse of how different the understanding and interpretation of the Ten Commandments. While the general understanding is accepted, it is the nuances of contexts, culture, and interpretive authority that distinguish one group from the others. The main way to benefit from a book like this is to be open to learning from each group, without feeling a need to abandon one's initial views. Just knowing that there is an alternative view keeps readers humble and open to understanding another view. This attitude helps us to understand both the letter, the spirit, and the practice of the Decalogue without diluting the contexts or importance of who the Decalogue is written for. All the writers as well as the subjects studied have agreed that the Decalogue is still important and very relevant for moral law and structure of human living. The difference is in the depth and breadth of application. Some like David Novak and Moses Maimonides prefer to maintain that parts of the law only applies to the Jews, while others like Thomas Aquinas sees a more universal application via natural law. The Roman Catholic prefer to retain its interpretive privilege while many Reformers argue from the basis of connecting law and grace and how Christ is the fulfillment of the law. This book will be of interest to anyone interested in a multidimensional understanding in a pluralistic world. In fact, with the increasing diversity of many cultures around the world, this book casts new lights to an ancient document. Instead of being the last word in distinguishing law and grace, ceremonial or covenantal relationships, it points us to the One who truly has the last word: God.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"J.R.R. Tolkien" (Colin Duriez)

TITLE: J. R. R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend
AUTHOR: Colin Duriez
PUBLISHER: Oxford, England: Lion Hudson plc, 2012, (240 pages).

This book traces the life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, most popularly known as J.R.R.Tolkien. While his novels, "Lord of the Rings," "The Hobbit," and several of his writings have achieved worldwide fame, not many people know the background of the fantasy novels, much less the author's life. With vivid flashbacks of the life of Tolkien, and the revelation of the origins of Tolkien's fictional characters, readers essentially get two stories for the price of one unique biographical sketch.  Much of Tolkien's writings are drawn from his life as an orphan seeking to make sense of purpose in life, friendship, hope, learning, love, war, and his passion for the English language. In particular, the Gothic dialects and old English cultures (especially the 14th Century language) that Tolkien has fallen in love with, helps to spawn a whole new philological (Philology simply understood is a study of languages) culture that has influenced his story and characters of the Elves, the Hobbits, and his many poems. His LOTR and Hobbit novels took him 50 years to write, many of the stories a direct result of his own life happenings. In his early years, the Scouting movement had just begun to be pioneered. Duriez surmises that this scouting background may have helped tolkien to incorporate the natural scouting skills of Sam Gamgee the Hobbit when he cooked rabbit for Frodo and himself in one incident at LOTR. The idea of the 'Fellowship of the Ring' comes about from his own inner club called the TCBS (Tea Club Barrow's Society) that comprises himself and his three very good friends, Christopher Wiseman, Rob Gilson, and Geoffrey Bache Smith. His rich imagery of Middle Earth comes from his early exposure to places and events in Switzerland. The world wars in Europe strongly shape his overall plot of the novels, that a great war is coming, and there is a big struggle between the forces of good and evil, and one needs to fight when the time is right.

Like many aspiring writers, Tolkien has his fair share of rejections and discouragement. It takes friends like CS Lewis to encourage him to finish his book. It takes tremendous discipline as his careers switch for one place to another. What is the major push toward the completion of the famous works is his love for language. Like many young lovers, Tolkien has to struggle with issues of faith and marriage (his wife Edith was an Anglican before she converted to Catholicism). Like young men who enlisted in the army during the war, he is well aware of how uncertain life and death can be. He endured the painful loss of his bosom buddies as well as his wife Edith in his later years.

My Thoughts

Colin Duriez has given readers a unique insight into the life of Tolkien and the background of the now famous characters and plot of LOTR and the Hobbit, as well as the uncompleted the Silmarillion. It is the love of language and the encouragement from friends that have enabled Tolkien to write, and to tell stories in a way that is so 'Tolkien,' that is to say, to marry real life with fantasy, to express himself through storytelling, and in the process, invite readers to journey together, wary of hell below and heaven above, while we all live on Middle Earth. He teaches themes of courage, betrayal, love, faith, good, evil, and many more, which many people around the world are now familiar with.  There are also many things that Tolkien himself is passionate about that has given form to many of his writings and his living. Like the need for self-control, to pursue a relationship with his girlfriend Edith, be obedient to both his guardian as well as his passion. Or the theme of courage, where he stands up for what is right, even when his own life is at stake.  There are several instances which look as if his literary career will be shortlived. Yet, for the blessings of friendship, of a love for language, of a vivid imagination, and an ability to connect fantasy with reality, Tolkien's completed works have enabled the world to catch a glimpse of what one person can do. This book is a tremendous encouragement in three ways. Firstly, we all have a need for fellowship. We are not meant to live alone. The TCBS high school club that Tolkien is a part of, helps keep his interests alive. Secondly, love and sacrifice come about together. His love for Edith, for country, and for his unique desire to learn 14th Century culture, comes with a sacrifice. Thirdly, for writers and those involved in creative work, Tolkien is a testimony of passion that comes alive through story telling and publishing. Nothing is ever easy, and no one goes into publishing for the sake of trying to be famous. It all comes from a passion. A passion that needs to be driven from within, though it can be encouraged from without.

The novels, poems, and writings of Tolkien when read with Tolkien's life story in mind, usher in a whole new perspective of the Hobbit and the LOTR. If you love the works of Tolkien, this book is a must read.

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.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"Great Evangelical Recession" (John S. Dickerson)

TITLE: Great Evangelical Recession, The: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church...and How to Prepare
AUTHOR: John S. Dickerson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (256 pages).

The Evangelical Movement in America is not progressing well. In fact, there is a coming Great Evangelical Recession, so says John S. Dickerson. Listing six major factors that many Churches are suffering from, Dickerson paints a grim picture of the struggling Church. It is a Church that is struggling with both internal and external challenges. It is a movement whose strategies are one generation behind. It is a greater problem when leaders continue to remain in denial of what is happening.

In a work that borrows heavily from the Great Recession in the 30s, Dickerson gives us a spiritual version of this and applies it to the Evangelical movement. Borrowing many ideas from the physical effects of the crash, the key idea in the book is that a wise man will see the dangers ahead and make plans to deal with it. Using the next 15 years as a foreseeable future, Dickerson pointedly highlights six factors that can derail the evangelical mainstream.

  1. Inflated: Are we guilty of overestimating the size and the assets of our evangelical churches? Are we complacent about its finances, the number of church goers, and bloated structures? Are churches that are growing doing so at the expense of other churches? Are we losing our influence?
  2. Bankrupt: Our budgets are falling rapidly. The danger is that churches may use fund-raising tactics from the previous generation and apply it wholesale to the new generation. Seemingly invincible institutions from the past are now struggling, like Crystal Cathedral, D James Kennedy's Center for Redeeming America, and seminaries are losing ground. This is aggravated by dichotomous worldviews that divide the Church into paid vs unpaid staff; secular vs sacred calling; pastoral vs laypersons; sending vs goers; and so on. What is most troubling is that for the younger generation, not only are there lesser people who are giving, their giving is also lesser than the previous generation.
  3. Hated: The evangelical world and its proponents are increasingly despised. People are flocking to other religions more and to traditional churches less. Evangelicals are viewed less favourably than before. Often, people are more willing to criticize the Church. The culture is increasingly more intolerant of anyone speaking out against homosexuality and loose sexuality. 
  4. Dividing: The Church is not as united as thought. There is a battle line drawn to distinguish the political right and the left. Gregory Boyd, pastor of one MegaChurch saw his Church dwindle by 1000 members after he preached against Republican politics, despite his personal declaration of loyalty to America. What is worrying is that this example is just a precursor to something worse for the rest of evangelicalism. Instead, there is a growing segment of social justice proponents, against the pool that are staunchly political right. The problem is that this two different emphases are splitting the Church, despite merits on both sides.
  5. Bleeding: Like the leaves of an old tree, evangelicalism is losing its limbs and branches in alarming proportions. Two factors are accelerating this bleeding. One is external, the growing persecution by the world outside, and the other is internal, the growing discontent and unhappiness from within. There is the lost generation who refuses to follow their parents' tradition. There are the disillusioned singles or divorced. There is the problem of disciple-making that is out of step with the changing culture around. 
  6. Sputtering: Like an old car, the engines of the church are deteriorating. The Church has failed to measure up well to the important measure of Church health: Making NEW disciples. While evangelicalism is shrinking, secularism is soaring.
What is most troubling is that the leaders of evangelical churches are oblivious to the culture that is growing increasingly antagonistic to whatever the evangelical front puts up. Technologies are gaining prominence. Old regimes around the world are loosing their footholds. Change is becoming more rapid and its effects are more pervasive. Just like the Great Recession has cost many people their stocks, their pensions, their jobs, and their homes, the Spiritual Recession may cost us our resources, our financial situation, our membership base, and our churches. Worse, leaders who shrug, ignore, laugh at, or adopt some kind of a denial, are not only doing themselves a disfavour, they are risking the future of the Church. The key advice is this: Ignore these warnings at our own peril. Radical changes need to be made if we are to learn and adapt well for the next 15 years and beyond.

Thankfully, there is hope in six recovery propositions.

  1. Re-Valuing: Timely action is critical. Be humble and recognize the symptoms of the problem. Be nimble, be prayerful, and to revalue ourselves on the basis of being available for the work of the Holy Spirit in a new era. 
  2. Solvent: Learning from the fossil fuel crisis, ministries need alternative fuels. Four practical alternatives are offered. First, a hybrid kind of ministry that comprises both paid and unpaid volunteers. Second, be extremely conservative when incurring debt. Third, prepare people to give well, and to teach on giving. Four, to teach the Church on what it means to surrender and to live a life of abandonment for God.
  3. Good: In a culture hostile to Christianity, how then do we conduct ourselves? Instead of waiting passively for things to happen, we are to intentionally and proactively reach out to the needy. Moreover, many prominent and proming students at top Universities are growing anti-Christian and ever ready to dismiss any Christian claims that are contradictory to their deeply held beliefs. The example of Christopher Yuan, whose very position of maintaining traditional marriage, immediately unleashes all kinds of accusations of him being antigay, a bigot, and an intolerant individual. The point is that Christians are not to be easily discouraged by the overwhelming opposition. Instead, respond to all manner of evil with good and good works.
  4. Uniting: Unity is always in Christ, in worship of the King, and in proclaiming the Gospel. Strong, courageous leaders are needed to lead the way, to focus on the core essentials of faith, to be united in the common foundation of Scripture, and to be gracious when it comes to things peripheral to the faith. The more diverse we are, the greater the call for unity.
  5. Healing: This part is revealing. In churches where young people are leaving in droves, church leaders often try to mitigate the outflow by putting out attractive programs and putting up with some of the young people's preferences and desires. Such reactions are only limited steps. What is needed is far more, that churches must instill in themselves a culture of making disciples. Shepherding, discipling, and relating, all of these are part and parcel of what it means to disciple one another. Authentic, relational discipleship is key to healing. We cannot disciple our children until we disciple their parents. We cannot disciple their parents until we disciple their leaders. Leaders cannot be discipled unless we are disciples ourselves. This means individual discipling efforts. Public discipleship stems from private spirituality with God, both both informs each other.  Spiritual leaders are called to do three things. Love God. Love God's Word. Love God's people.
  6. Re-Igniting: This is about evangelism and to reignite the fervour that has first brought the previous generation to Christ. Adopting the "Long Tail" strategy, churches need to move away from a one-hit wonder to a multiple touch strategy. A whopping 79% of new people in Church are there because a friend has first invited them. Attractive programs or fanfare comprise the rest. 

My Thoughts

Most of us have heard of the Great Recession in the 30s. While some will see economic recession as times of opportunities, there are also others who suffer from emotional setbacks such as depression, despair, and discouragement.  Ronald Reagan has famously said that if our neighbours lose their jobs, it is a recession, and if we lose ours, it is a depression. This book is written more as a wake-up call rather than a doomsday prediction. Using examples from the world's economic and business front, Dickerson highlights how the most successful businesses and the most powerful figures in society, can succumb to the elements of recession, especially when they are ill-prepared for them. Sometimes, our present successes can blind us from factors that lead to future failures. At the same time, we may be overly busy with our short term present commitments that we fail to pay sufficient attention to critical matters for the longer term.

For the evangelical world, it needs to either evolve and adapt to change, or dissolve and sees its influence declines. Yet, for all the language it uses, this book is not a depressing book, but a wake-up call to the church sleepy in its status-quo. Hope comes when one recognizes the six potholes and then makes plans to do something about them.

Another interesting observations that Dickerson makes is that "distance often brings perspective." Indeed, for all our good intentions, and our good works, when we become too short-sighted, exchanging the importance of the long-term commitments for short-term conveniences. It requires us to take a step back, to reflect, and to put perspective back to what we are doing, asking ourselves the why and the purpose of the what. I admit that I feel a little discouraged at the first part of the book, with the doomsday scenario at nearly every page I turn. Fortunately, after the storm, there are rays of hope as the six factors for recovery come afresh with glimpses of a turn for the better. The author has hit all the right notes and played the right chords. What is needed now is for the spiritual orchestra to wake up from its slumber, and to practice the music score of discipleship and Gospel centeredness. As the Church becomes more open to change, and the young becomes more receptive of the Church, and when discipleship becomes a way of life, may we see instead a new Great Evangelical Awakening.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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