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Thursday, February 28, 2013

"The Post-Church Christian" (J. Paul Nyquist and Carson Nyquist)

TITLE: The Post-Church Christian: Dealing with the Generational Baggage of Our Faith
AUTHOR: J. Paul Nyquist and Carson Nyquist
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013, (144 pages).

If you have observed that the typical Church is a graying one, or a decreasing number of young people in the Church, you are probably right to be concerned. There is a generation gap, and it is getting wider as the years go by.  People belonging to the Millennial Generation are leaving the Church, and they may not even come back! Enters a book addressed to Millennials, about Millennials, and for all interested in the Millennial generation. Written by two persons, one from the Boomer generation and the other a Millennial generation, this book brings together some of the current thinking surrounding the Church. According the Carson, Millennials think skeptically mostly in terms of:
  • "Following Jesus" instead of "Going to Church";
  • Church that tends to be toeing the line, observing the rules rather than faith and acceptance;
  • Church being more of a 1-day week instead of an all-days week
  • Bad reputation and image, that churches tend to be hypocritical, anti-homosexual, political, judgmental, and so on
  • Creeds, dogmas, and following all the right rituals, instead of freedom of belief
  • Separatist agendas from the world
  • Lack of freedom to mingle with people in the world;
  • An overly black and white culture or "Either you're right or I'm right" attitude;
  • Where belief supercedes belonging; where rules are more important than relationships
  • ...
Paul then responds with a Boomer's perspective, understanding the pains on the one hand, and clarifying the basic importance of Church and Christianity. He asserts that:
  • For all its flaws, Christ still loves the Church and the Church is the chief witness for the world;
  • Just because the Church is imperfect does not mean we simply leave the church;
  • There are Four functions of a Church. First, they gather regularly. Second, they appoint and are led by qualified leaders. Third, they observe ordinances and rituals. Fourth, they maintain Church disciplines.
  • For Church reputation that has been tattered and negative, we do not simply abandon the Church. We learn to be part of the redemptive process through forgiveness, openness, and reconciliation.
  • As part of the redemptive process, we forgive, thank, and engage with people of all groups
  • Dialogue and regular conversations are the biggest needs to bridge the generation gap;
  • Greater understanding of what constitutes legalism and Christian liberty and the different perspectives to both, according to both generations;
  • True freedom is never one without limits
  • Freedom must come under the umbrella of helpfulness, how it frees oneself, how it frees others, and how it glorifies God;
  • ...
Part Three of the book represents the united from by both father and son, to speak to all generations together. Paul attests to the need of the Church to address the growing interconnectedness of the world, the population shifts from rural to urban cities, rising secularization of societies, and pluralism at large.  He suggests five initiatives for the Church to adopt:
  1. Move away from the "country club" image to a frontline mission
  2. Address the perceptions of hypocrisy straight on not with arguments but with authentic living
  3. Affirm the uniqueness of Jesus in the light of securalism and pluralism
  4. Engage and not get immersed in culture
  5. Affirm the next generation and be open to their ideas, even radical ones.
Carson chimes in with hope for the future. He suggest two things. First, for the Millennial generation not to get stuck in their past experiences with Church to colour the Church too negatively. Second, there is an opportunity to create a positive future together. He ends with a powerful quote from Theodore Roosevelt. That is worth the price of the book.

All in all, I find this book an enjoyable read, especially when I can see the perspectives of two different generation looking together in the same direction toward the Millennial and toward creating a common future for the Church. It is an example of how generations can dialogue and work together for a common goal. Both generations cannot continue in getting stuck in their respective paradigms but to move toward understanding one another with openness and love. Both generations need to consider a balanced view from all sides.  The Church is not for any one generation. The Church is for all generations. That is why we need to see the Church with redemptive eyes always. Here is my reflection upon reading this book. One common reason why people are disillusioned with churches is because they see themselves more important than others. Sometimes, they do it in the name of God. Other times, they do it in the name of self. Perhaps, as we see ourselves less as consumers and more of givers, less as being served and more of serving others, less about us and more about Jesus, we learn to see "church" from the redemptive eyes of God. This book shows us a way ahead. A powerful way indeed. Let's join hands to pray, to work together, and to serve together.

Rating: 5 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.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"Romans" (C. Marvin Pate)

TITLE: Romans (Teach the Text Commentary Series)
AUTHOR: C. Marvin Pate
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (368 pages).

Why do we need another commentary? There are already so many different commentaries through the centuries. Moreover, hundreds, even thousands of scholars and theologians have already written on Romans. How does the "Teach the Text Commentary series" add anything more to biblical commentaries? This question is something that has been seriously considered by the editors, publishers, and contributors to this brand new commentary series. Some of the rationale is as follows:

  • Yes, there are already many commentaries, but many are too technical for preaching purposes;
  • Others are written with scholarship in mind, more than from an application angle;
  • More direct help is needed to teaching and preaching the texts;
  • Updating the commentary with the latest and the best of scholarship material for each biblical book;
  • Provide a ready reference for exposition and use of the text;
  • ...

The video below has the general editors, John H Walton and Mark L Strauss who explain it well. They have even said no at first to a new commentary. Then they had a change of heart.

With a detailed plan to have commentaries from well qualified scholars and theologians, anchored by a very credible Christian publisher, the entire Bible will be covered. The commentary on Romans by C. Marvin Pate will kick start the whole series. Boy, it is a treasure chest of goodies to whet the appetite of any Bible reader, to delight any teacher or preacher, and to make readers thirst for more.

In this commentary on Romans, the author uses a five-part framework to deal with each pericope of the book of Romans. The first is a "Big Idea" introduction to the passage listed. It is important to note that it is the big idea from the Bible that drives both the reading as well as the commentary on the text. It reminds readers that the key to interpretation lies with what the text is saying, and not what the author is saying. Second, "Key Themes" are listed to give the preacher or teacher a grasp of some of the essential theological themes to remember. With this, users can put the message in point form, build a preaching framework or a teaching syllabus, and to help their hearers get a better grasp of the message. Third, "Understanding the Text" is the heavy lifting portion where typical exegesis and hermeneutics are employed to understand what the original texts mean. The historical and cultural backgrounds are examined. The structure of the passage is studied. The various interpretive and theological insights are introduced to let readers know about the breadth of understanding from different angles. Four, some of the teaching moments are explicitly mentioned, in case the busy reader happens to miss it. The author has placed this section in easy to read, point form manner, that it is extremely tempting to lift out the entire text in any person's preaching outline. Although plagiarism remains an ethical concern both inside the academy as well as outside, I figure that as long as the Word of God is powerfully preached and taught, it is a secondary concern. Credit goes to the author for making it easy to use and to apply, given the rigorous schedule for most pastors and preachers who need to deal with various demands throughout the week. Having said that, whoever uses this text, needs to find a way to share with their hearers where their material is from. In doing so, not only is one honouring the creators of this commentary series, one also honours God in giving credit to where credit is due. Finally, the illustrations section provides some ways in which preachers and teachers can bring in some real life examples to enliven the applications of the text. Most hearers remember stories and illustrations more than the texts themselves. It is hoped that the remembering of these illustrations will be a memory key toward the biblical text itself.

I find that the book of Romans is an excellent introduction to this new commentary series. Romans has been called the "Gospel of God through Paul." Beautiful in its usage of Greek, deep in its level of insight, and packed with theological truths and historical importance, the 5-part framework used not only helps readers to appreciate the overall flow of Romans, it energizes readers when it sheds light on how Romans is understood and can be applied. Every page is filled with thoughtful planning. Every table and illustration is appropriately placed to enlarge understanding, or to highlight its relevance to the overall flow. For instance, the map printed on the same page as Paul's historical travels not only highlights the different eras of the Roman Empire, it gives readers an idea of the cultural and the religious challenges Paul had to face. There are also links to other biblical books to help readers relate the Old Testament to the New Testament. One example is the table that shows how some scholars have made a parallel of Romans covenant structure and format with the Deuteronomy Hittite-treaty, and how the old and the new covenants are compared and contrasted in Romans.

The way the passages are selected has less to do with numbers and more to do with the themes of the epistle. At several sections, the author even introduces an additional chapter to highlight important rituals, sacraments, and history that the reader can benefit from.  Commentary texts are professionally matched with different colour fonts and tables. Diagrams and photos give the texts a living reality. Just as preachers and teachers often try to give hearers a memory device or a mneumonic framework for understanding, this book gives readers a powerful grasp of the text through brilliant colour, illustrations, and point-by-point explanation  of the background of the ancient world, and the modern applications possible. Difficult terms are explained, and with the layperson in mind, the book also highlights words that may be unfamiliar to the audience. Words like "parousia," themes like covenant, comparison between the old Jewish and the new Christian thinking, contrasting the curses and the blessings, the chosen people, even the historical development of the Reformation movement!

If I must do a critique, I will say that the diagrams and the illustrations can become a little too distracting. Worse, if it keeps the preacher more on the commentary and less on the actual biblical text itself, it may very well do the earnest Bible reader a disfavour. That said, the responsibility must eventually fall on the reader. Bearing this in mind, I must say this commentary series has very high potential to be a preachers' handbook for preaching and for teaching. Some of the illustrations used may not be universally applicable, but the point is moot. The illustrations themselves are simply examples on how the author will apply it. The preachers and teachers themselves need to do their own homework. After all, while the scholarship and the heavy lifting has been done on the text background, preachers and teachers need to do their own heavy lifting, of contextualizing what they have read for their own congregations or hearers. I look forward to the other volumes of this Teach the Text Commentary Series. The one on Romans is so well done that I cannot wait for the rest to be published.

If you are looking to refresh your Church or organization's library of commentary for preaching, make sure you check out this series.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Monday, February 25, 2013

"Every Good Endeavor" (Tim Keller)

TITLE: Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work
AUTHOR: Tim Keller
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Dutton Press, 2012, (292 pages).

Is there such a thing as "Christian work?" When Christians who band together in a business venture fails, does that mean they have failed as Christians in the marketplace? How do we make sense of work? These and many more are ably dealt with by Tim Keller. Keller takes on work and faith, and engages both of them together within the context of the marketplace. Framed in three parts, Part One talks about the original intention of God for work. Part Two talks about the fall and how our work has become fruitless, pointless,selfish, and idolatrous. Part Three is about how the gospel redeems the world, and in particular, the world of work and how Christians can make a difference in each of their good endeavours. The  way that Keller adopts is to help readers understand the need to cultivate an environment where our contribution in the work becomes a way we can serve God and people. As we work, we also learn to integrate the respective kinds of work we do, the history of the venture, the biblical insights we can apply to the context, so that we can make a fuller sense of what God is doing through us in the workplace. Work, through the many stages and changes of forms and circumstances then becomes a journey toward a specific destination. Like a fully grown tree, as we work through the leaves and the twigs, to the branches and the trunks, to the highest top and the deepest roots, we let our work tell the story of God working through us, and manifested in the daily things we do. The foreword by Katherine Leary Alsdorf sets the stage for a challenging read.

"I learned great lessons about joy at work, patience and hope, teamwork and truth telling, from a people who didn't share my faith. My staff who went away for a meditation weekend seemed to come back more refreshed than those who worshipped together on Sunday at a Christian evangelical churc. I started to see work as a crucible where God was pounding and grinding and refining me, rather than a place where I was actively and effectively serving him." (13)

In typically Keller's fashion, Keller begins with God. Through Genesis, we learn that God creates the world and cares for it. There is a dignity of work right from the start, only to be tarnished and diminished as sin thwarts the original plan of God. Work then becomes a "necessary evil," and degraded into a mere means toward materialistic pursuits. We need then to see all work as culture making. We see work as an important part of serving the community we live in. Work flows out of our love for God, and we minister and serve with competence, that our end product is a result of much gratitude to God.

Part Two hones in on the various ways that sin has destroyed the original intent for work. Having lost the glory of God, work becomes a fruitless and often despite way of life as sin does its destructive influence. Work becomes cursed. It becomes an aimless endeavour with meaninglessness a middle name in world stuck between good and evil.  Using Ecclesiates as a guide, Keller affirms the need for a redemptive element.  Due to sin, work also becomes a selfish endeavour where people work mainly to make a name for themselves, to climb toward positions of power and influence, and unwittingly allows the setting up of idols in the place of work and in the hearts of people. There are personal idols of comfort and pleasure, as well as corporate idols of self-styled secular ideals, or some kind of moral absolutes that place meaning in the accomplishment of them. Idols of self-realization, individual talents, ambition, hard work. There are postmodern idols of human progress, reason, science, or some kind of a "means without ends" idol. These are idols because they become an end in themselves.

Part Three offers hope in God, through the Gospel and how it redeems work. The gospel introduces a worldview that is totally opposite of what the world offers. Against a world that elevates "self-expression, sexual pleasure, and affluence" as meaning makers, the gospel brings us back to help us see that in ourselves or in themselves, we are nothing. For any worldview to take root, three questions need to be asked.

  1. How are things supposed to be?
  2. What is the main problem with them as they are?
  3. What is the solution and how can it be realized?

Keller then helps with several examples on how the gospel redeems the world of work. In journalism, redemption looks at learning to go beyond fact reporting toward reporting in a manner than brings hope and life. In Higher Education, we learn to create people with "reflective" and responsible citizenship. In the Arts, we learn not to let profits be the primary motivator, but beautiful and optimistic. In Medicine, Keller reminds those in the medical profession that it is easy to feel proud and even arrogant in a noble profession. At the same time, medical professionals can feel uneasy when trying to introduce their work in the spiritual realm. The key is holistic health, learning to care for people as people even when they are trained to solve medical challenges. A new concept of redeemed work is one that involves the inclusive participation of all. It is an exercise of common grace that human beings receive. There is no dichotomy of "Christian" or non-Christian work. All work is work, and all work can be redeemed by God. Due to the limitations of ethics, even Christian ethics, we need a new compass for work. Treat people with dignity. Treat people wisely. Serve with respect and fear of God. Let sincerity of heart drive our initiatives. Do not be ruthless. Be calm during moments of failure. Do not be too quick to take sides and divide the organization.

Despite the many publications, conferences, and courses that teach marketplace theology or faith in the workplace, there is still a growing hunger for matters of spirituality and how a Christian ought to live in the world at large, in particular the office and the workplace. From time to time, many in the secular place of work can become confused or disorientated about God's purpose for them where they are. Such people may even feel more fulfilled when in some form of recognized Christian ministry like Churches, parachurches, or mission-based organizations. Still, there are those in the clergy or the familiar "full-time worker" label, who feels that their parishes or congregation needs to be reminded that all good work is in fact, working for God. There is no need to be distracted or irked by labels. What matters is the way we live for Christ wherever we go. The Ten changes that Keller proposes is worth remembering. Every good endeavor will involve one or more of the following.

  1. From individual salvation to a wider understanding that the gospel changes everything, not just our personal lives.
  2. From being good to being saved, that our work is an effective working out of our saved state.
  3. From cheap grace to costly grace, where we are made aware constantly of our sinful selves
  4. From "heaven above" thinking, to Christ present down here on earth
  5. From using God as a value-add, to how we can value add to the work of God on earth
  6. From building idols in our world, to living for God
  7. From disdain for this world to being engage in the world
  8. From doing things alone to working as an accepting community
  9. From mere "people matter" to recognizing the place of institutions, people, and all that matters
  10. From "Christian superiority" to "common grace."

It is hard not to like this book. Keller shines as he distills the wide repertoire of knowledge he has into a powerful reference for understanding God's purpose for work, sin's effect on work, and Christ's redemption of the world, including work. We need to grow in humility, in love, in acceptance, in truth, in justice, and in all things that matter to God. The words, "For God so loved the world," has not, and should not be forgotten. It is because God so loved the world, that we ought to love the world and to live as ambassadors of grace, toward every good endeavour. It is only in Christ, we can bat a good start, make a godly strike, and do a home run. In Christ, all things are possible.

Rating: 5 of 5 stars


Sunday, February 24, 2013

"Draw the Circle" (Mark Batterson)

TITLE: Draw the Circle: The 40 Day Prayer Challenge
AUTHOR: Mark Batterson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (240 pages).

This is a 40-Day Prayer exercise to help readers and Christians to cultivate a more intentional and deeper devotional walk with God. Based on a best-selling book, "The Circle Maker," this book draws out selections and places them in 40 brief chapters for quiet reflection, meditation, and focus on God. Batterson begins with this conviction: "Preaching may move the hearts of men, but praying moves the heart of God. And that's where revival comes from."

He spends sometime explaining why the number 40 was chosen, and how it reflects Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness and the way many Churches observe Lent. He even proposes to coin the project for Lent as an "ExperiLent." Some of the virtues of this book lay in how the author tries to promote the practice of prayer via:

  • Regularity and Routine;
  • Reflection and Focus on specific Scripture each day;
  • Short story or illustration to guide the meditation;
  • Exhortation;
  • Ending with a Promise to keep.

The book reads like a 40-day devotional and presents some interesting observations of the Christian life. He brings in familiar stories like Honi, his Ebenezer Coffeehouse project, his National  Community Church and outreach programs. He also draws in some notes from his previous books.

Personally, I think Batterson's "The Circle Maker" is a much better read in terms of understanding what it means to draw the circle of prayer. This book sits awkwardly between a devotional and a prayer book. The main advantage here is that it provides a systematic 40 day journey from readiness to obey toward growing in abiding trust in God. It is helpful for at least three groups of people. The first is busy people who needs some framework to pray. Each day, the short chapters enable the busy person to read fairly quickly and learn to pray according to the short guide each day. The point of focus helps especially in a world of multiple expectations and constant distractions. The second group will be those who have read "The Circle Maker" and wants some kind of a refresher or way to implement them. Those who love the first book will certainly want to pick up this book. The last group of people will be those who simply want to develop a prayer life themselves. People are creatures of habit. There is no magical solution in the number "40" or any other number. The key thing is regularity and intentional. Once this routine is cultivated, readers are free to extend beyond 40 days themselves, or to form their own program based on the Bible. If that eventually happens, people will not need external guides like this book to draw their own prayer circle. They will let creativity and joyful desire help them draw different shapes of prayer.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

"Christianity and World Religions" (Derek Cooper)

TITLE: Chrisitianity and World Religions: An Introduction to the World's Major Faiths
AUTHOR: Derek Cooper
PUBLISHER: Phillipsburg, NJ: P and R Publishing, 2012, (242 pages).

What do people do when they go to a mosque, a temple, a synagogue, or other places of worship? How can we be more sensitive to religions that are different from the ones we hold? If you are looking to learn more about religions, or if you are a Christian wanting to understand more about the 6 major religions of the world, this book introduces you to "six rival stories" to Christianity. At the same time, it provides "six Christian responses" to them. The six religions covered are Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Judaism, and Islam. Concerned about how little Christians in general understand the other faiths, Cooper prepares this volume for the purposes of informing Christians about the basic tenets of these religions. At the same time, he helps Christians to understand their own faith and how different it is from the others. For example, not all Muslims are the same. There are Sunni and Shite Muslims. There are also many different types of Judaism, such as Orthodox and Reformed, Conservative or Reconstructionist.  Each emphasis is explained with charts, comparisons, and illustrations.

The six part framework is used for describing each religion. Part One talks about the beginnings of each religion, with stories of their origins, founders, and religious sources that come into existence. Sometimes, there is a brief comparison with Christianity. Part Two dives more in depth into the historical origins, and surveys how the religions evolve through the centuries. Often, the author brings its inter-religious interactions during its evolution, like how Hinduism and Buddhism evolve parallel to each other. Part Three comprises descriptions of documentation and holy books, revered by the religion being discussed. Islam has the Quran. Judaism has the TANAKH. Hinduism has many sacred writings such as the Vedas, Sutras, Brahmanas, etc (Shruti, heard writings) and the Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, and others (Smrti, received writings). Buddhism has the Buddhist Scriptures, while Confucianism and Daoism reveres the teachings of Confucius and Tao Te Ching respectively. Part Four describes the beliefs and the key religious propositions and doctrines. This section is perhaps the most illuminating part of all. Part Five talks about the specific practices and applications of the religions, and Part Six is about how the Christian can begin a conversation with the respective religious practitioner, using some common concepts that both parties understand.

The second half of the book is more Apologetics in nature, not only describing what Christianity is, it also describes the biblical as well as theological responses to all of the above religions. Chapter 6 is about how the Bible has responded to other religions. Like in the Old Testament, there are already warnings for the Israelites to heed, with regards to avoiding other gods and idols, the warnings and the punishments. It touches on the questions of whether these idols are mere gods in themselves, or are they a manifestation of the devil and demonic forces. Are they imaginary or real? It also brings in the New Testament examples, like Paul's message at the Areopagus in Acts, as well as the Apostles teachings against idolatry. The author feels that there is a direct link between other religions and the human tendency to create their own religious systems. In other words, they are inclined to make gods into their own image. Chapter 7 brings in a theological response to help Christians navigate the culture of pluralism and to distinguish the diverse religious concepts and differences. Cooper brings in some tough discussion on inclusivism, whether anyone can be saved outside the realms of Christianity, on exclusivism such as Christ's claim as the way, the truth, and the life.  On pluralism, the author discusses on how a Christian can interact with others of a different religious persuasion. Universalism and particularism are also discussed. Cooper concludes with Richard Niebuhr's classic thesis on the five major approaches to culture and religion. Readers need to decide for themselves what approach to adopt.

My Thoughts

When Paul preached the gospel at the Areopagus, he was also inviting listeners to consider what he had said. Three possible responses to his message. One can reject it outright. One can consider the message first. Finally, one can accept it, and take the step toward getting baptized.  In the same manner, Derek Cooper aims to equip readers with a fair understanding the world's six major religions. This is even more important especially now where pluralism is widespread and religious tolerance is required, even demanded in many places. That said, the best way for Christians to be equipped is to know what others believe, and to know what they themselves believe. This is what education is about. Pluralism is nothing new. In Paul's time, there were many Greek gods and rival deities. Note too that the religions chosen are of particular interest to the author and the place where he teaches. Around his seminary are "booming Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim populations." So what Cooper is writing has a very personal relevance for him and his students. What is important to note is that the book's primary audience are Christians, and the book's purpose is to equip readers with a knowledge of these six major religions, and how different they are from Christianity. It is viewed from a Christian worldview.

The book is clear and highly informative. There is a fair amount of details that the author has clearly outlined for anyone desiring a quick appreciation of the six major religions of the world. Cooper presupposes the reader is Christian, and thus, skips a chapter that describes Christianity like the rest of the other six major religions. Instead, he puts Christianity as a lens to see the other religions, in the second half of the book. I think it is a good idea to incorporate Christianity as a "seventh" religion, as it is a major one. That said, doing it will mean making the book much larger. The intent is an introduction, and readers with an understanding of Christianity in the first place will benefit most. Having said that, casual readers can easily understand more of the differences between Christianity and the rest, through the multiple points of references and comparisons with Christianity throughout the book. This I believe is the strength of the book.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


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

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"A Year of Biblical Womanhood" (Rachel Held Evans)

TITLE: A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband "Master"
AUTHOR: Rachel Held Evans
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2012, (326 pages).

For 368 days, the author tries an experiment on herself, namely, to live as literally as possible, the role and the way a woman must behave, as according to the Holy Bible. She begins by setting the stage to explain to readers why she is irritated, albeit with wit and humour about her own growing up years of conservative Christianity. She challenges herself with this.

"What if I tried it all? What if I took 'biblical womanhood' literally?"

So she did. Using her own set of "Ten Commandments" for biblical womanhood, she sets out to be the biblical woman, such as a dutiful wife waking up early every morning, devoting herself to the household duties, dress modestly, covering her head in prayer, not cutting her hair, not teach in Church, not gossiping, and most importantly, submitting herself to her husband.

Beginning in the month of October 2010, she cultivates gentleness, biting her tongue from her usual verbal release of irritation at her husband's football interest in the middle of a frantic football season. She has to put up with bewilderment from friends, about her desire to be "different" from what she usually is, like strong-willed, independent, and assertive. She tries her hand at the "jar of contention" where she has to do penance when she has any contentious spirit in her.  This she does literally according to Proverbs 21:9, by sitting on the rooftop for all the contentious emotions in her. The focus for November is Domesticity, where she becomes an overnight housewife, describing huge chunks of her time in the kitchen. December is about obedience to her husband, submitting to him, even calling him 'master.' She begins January with a new resolution to be a woman of valor, to be the Proverbs 31 woman, albeit with some cynicism whether it is really possible in the first place. February marks a tough challenge for the author, as she focuses a lot on beauty, despite her admission that the Bible talks a lot more about sex than beauty. Nevertheless, she forces herself to give her husband a "Sex Anytime" coupon, in accordance to 1 Corinthians 7:4-5). She spends much of March 2011 with the Amish, learning modesty, and finally admitting that like wearing clothes, modesty is different for each woman. April is about purifying her body according to the Levitical laws on purity, eating kosher food, experiencing Sabbath, and even camping out for three days of "impurity." May is a month to think about parenting and motherhood, to be fruitful and multiple as according to Genesis 1:28. She reads, researches, writes, and goes on social media, even buying a toy baby online as a way to nurse her mothering nature. For June, the author forces herself to submit to her husband in "everything" according to Ephesians 5:22-24, with hilarious results. July is a month of justice, and caring for the poor and needy. The closing two months are months that the author begins to quieten down to silence and to grace.

My Thoughts

Like it or dislike it. Love it or loath it. Rachel Held Evans has given a treat by comparing the ancient and the modern, contrasting the literal and the figurative, and commenting on her own way of interpreting the Bible, amid adopting a as-literal-as-possible lifestyle. She seems to have accomplished several of these literal exercises in letter but not exactly in spirit. The truth is, she is very much antagonized by groups that places hierarchy above equality, complementarianism over egalitarianism, and more particularly, literal over genre. She begins with very clear objective to pursue the goal of being the most "biblical woman" as possible at the start of each month. Unfortunately, she often ends on a critical note, describing more about her own views over and above what the biblical writers are saying at that time. The research and applications she does are also selective, not only on the Bible passages, but also on how, when, where, and who to practise them on. She admits the importance of selecting the most appropriate English Bible translation.  There is a lot of pick-and-choose that Evans does. She justifies this by saying that opponents do the same as well. 

Contrary to what some reviewers may say about this book, I find this book a hearty look at Bible interpretation. It is a lived out version of what it means when we apply the Bible as-is, without paying too much attention to the differences between the ancient and the modern contexts. Inspired by AJ Jacobs's book "The Year of Living Biblically,"  irked by the complementarian's views of the roles of manhood and womanhood represented by the CBMW association, "Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood," encouraged by egalitarians such as Scot McKnight, John Stackhouse, and other theologians taking a view of "Discovering Biblical Equality," Rachel Held Evans unleashes her unabashed support for egalitarianism.  It is a humourous attempt to show readers, especially those hyper-literal interpreters, that the Bible is not meant to be taken out of context from their ancient times. Literal reading of the Bible does sounds weird, even ridiculous. Reading like a journal, the author offers some objectives at the beginning of each chapter, describes her ongoing struggles about the very things she disagrees with, and makes her own insights about what it means to interpret the Bible in our modern contexts.

How do I read this book? Certainly, it is not to be treated as a theological treatise. Neither is it something that scholars need to take it too literally. It is also not a book to argue for or against either complementarianism or egalitarianism. It is more of an attempt by the author to combat the use of biblical injunctions to make women submit to men. It speaks out against any imposition of hierarchical obedience that is based on gender. More importantly, it reminds readers that the Bible is to be read in its original contexts and to be applied wisely in our modern contexts. Just because we follow the Bible literally does not mean we are biblical. Likewise, just because we do not follow the Bible literally does not mean we are not obeying the Bible. For me, the way to use this book is as a reminder that times have changed. At times, I do feel that the author ridicules more rather than reverence the biblical texts.

We need wisdom to know how to contextualize ancient texts with modern contexts. We need grace to understand the nuances of culture. We need a light-heated spirit not to be overly critical of any one view, but to see the differences each view brings out. The more open we are, the more we learn to appreciate the scope of Christian living and biblical applications. That said, the Bible does carry a serious message, even though we are clumsy in our application of it. While this book does bring out more laughter than spiritual enlightenment, it is a good reminder that living biblically is not something easily practiced, literal or otherwise. This is because we cannot do so on our own strength. We need one another. More importantly, we need God's help.

I highly recommend this book for anyone concerned with Bible interpretation and Christian living.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Monday, February 18, 2013

"Renovation of the Church" (Kent Carlson and Mike Leuken)

TITLE: Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation
AUTHOR:Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken
PUBLISHER: Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011, (192 pages).

This is a book about how a large church moves from seeker-sensitive perspective toward a seeking-Christ-more perspective. How it 'repents' from focusing on means to a message, and re-orientate toward the Message rather than the means. Methods may change, not the message.

The way the book begins, is a reminder that most churches face a similar challenge. Dallas Willard begins with a sharp diagnostic question that laments the state of the modern church: "How do we present the radical message of Christ in a church that has catered to the religious demands of the nominally committed?" It is a tough question that demands tough answers. The answer is a thorough renovation of the Church from the inside out.

With a title that is reminiscent of Dallas Willard book, what Willard has done in spiritual formation for the individual believer, Carlson and Lueken attempt to do the same for the Church community. The cover of the book shows a pomegranate above and the juicy seeds below, and the subtitle cheekily asks the question, "What happens when a seeker church discovers spiritual formation." Two pastors, having experienced amazing church growth and vibrant church life since 2000 at Oak Hills Church of Folsom, California, still feel a sense of responsibility for the spiritual formation of their church members. Moreover, they are dissatisfied despite all the "success" in the church. Their Church started in 1984 with 17 members. They had phenomenal growth, "Willow Creek" style, and each week means pumping away hard at the tried-and-tested formula that attracts people to their church. The problem is, has these people been changed from the inside out? Have they become growing disciples of Christ? This realization did not come easy for Carlson and Lueken. After years of numerical growth, they realize the "monster" they have unwittingly created. The monster of trying to keep up with the "success" experienced the week before. The monster of expectations that have been mounting with each "amazing" weekend. The monster of consumerism, of the Church kind. It takes Lyle Schaller's chapter on consumerism in the book, "The Very Large Church" to stop the leadership team at their tracks. It takes Dallas Willard's teachings to orientate them toward the need for spiritual formation, instead of mere performance. The decision to change from the seeker-sensitive focus to be attractive to people, to a renewed drive on spiritual formation is not an easy one. There are discouraging signs too.

  • Numbers are plummeting;
  • Giving is reducing, and the financial conditions are worsening;
  • Staff salaries are cut; some staff are let go;
  • Midweek services are terminated and moved to the weekend instead.
  • The risks are high.
At the same time, there are barriers to overcome on the way to authentic spiritual formation. Barriers such as:
  • the focus on productivity over faithfulness (former is measurable while the latter is not quite measurable)
  • ambition placed in the wrong way
  • consumer mindset in the culture at large
If there is one ambition, it is to walk on the path of decrease. First, recognize the problem. Second, develop a healthy fear of ambition. Third, work with other ministries humbly. Four, affirm the pastor not on the basis of what they do, but who they are. Five, remember the purpose and the mission of the church. Six, reduce one's public exposure, and finally, to continue the path of insignificance for self, and significance for Christ.

One of the ways in this journey of reduction of self-pride, is through co-pastoring, which requires the need to relinquish power and control. Once the impediments are removed, the church will be ready toward spiritual formation. Some suggestions include teaching spiritual formation, refusing cheap alternatives that prefer consumerism over formation, intentions that are implemented rather than just talked about, develop "one thing" groups that focus on spiritual formation in a laser-beam manner, and many more, with the pastor as spiritual director. The journey is not without its problems. Oak Hills learn the perils of:
  • impatient leadership
  • Lack of praying
  • Too much talking
  • Spiritual elitism
  • Too much deconstruction by focusing on the negative rather than working on the positive

My Thoughts

The first thing needed before anything can be changed is the awareness of the need to change. This happened to the leadership team at Oak Hills, who has essentially run out of steam, exhausted about maintaining a formula that feeds on their energies. The seeker-sensitive formula can takes its toll first on the leadership, and gradually on the rest of the church. Despite its numerical success, the authors realize something is missing. This book is a brave description of a bold move toward something that is tough, risky, often demoralizing, easily misunderstood, and sometimes, baffling to people who are unfamiliar with what spiritual formation is all about. It is important to remember that this book represents a work that is still very much in progress. Oak Hills Church is not there yet. They are pointing toward the direction of drawing nearer to God. Instead of focusing all their energies, their people, and their resources, to develop and run attractive programs to draw in people to their church, they are turning their ship to be more Christlike in their programs. When fully developed, the vision is to have Christ as the main draw, not the programs. That Christ be the main Person, not the well-polished stage shows. That spiritual formation be the main program, not the weekly performance of the spiritual professionals.

I remember again the key idea that Max de Pree has said. The first task of a leader is to define reality. Carlson and Lueken have tried hard to define their current state of their church, and have openly shared their journey with the rest of the Christian community so that they can learn from and benefit from their learning. This is an important book for leaders of small churches to read, in order to avoid the pitfalls of ambitions that puff up the leadership, or create unhealthy consumer demands within the Church. It is also an important book for leaders of big churches, so that they remember that the means cannot be the message. For all readers, it reminds us that spiritual formation is a must have program in any church. Don't go to church without it in mind.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book review has been kindly provided by a local library.

Friday, February 15, 2013

"Coffee with Calvin" (Donald K. McKim)

TITLE: Coffee with Calvin: Daily Devotions
AUTHOR: Donald K. McKim
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, (112 pages).

Many theologians have had many wonderful theological conversations over the table, like Martin Luther's "Table Talks," CS Lewis's and Jesus teaching his disciples during the Lord's Supper. Having a meal is usually a nice respite from the busyness of life. It is a time where people tend to be more relaxed and casual about things. It is also a time where people can have coffee and chat about things very personal and especially matters of faith. This is not a book about Apologetics. Neither is it a manual about drinking coffee. In fact, there is nothing to suggest any caffeine-laced beverage, apart from the cover of the book itself. It is essentially a devotional written to engage one of the greatest Christians classics ever written: The Institutes of John Calvin.

As a Calvin scholar, the author prepares 84 devotions that draw references from all four volumes of the Institutes. These devotions are categories under 8 sections:

  1. Basics of Christian Belief
  2. Life in the Church
  3. Following God's Ways
  4. Helps for the Christian Life
  5. Living as a Christian
  6. When Times are Good
  7. When Times are Bad
  8. Anticipating the Future
McKim covers a wide range of theological subjects and makes them palatable for the layperson. Each devotion begins with a short passage from the Institutes, followed by a brief commentary on Calvin's thoughts. The title of the devotion, the essence of the passage, is then condensed into a short devotional to urge the reader to think thoughts of God and to desire the things of God, as they train themselves unto good works to glorify God. A devotional must always lead the reader closer to God. A good devotional will make one long even more for God, without compromising the integrity and the essential message of the Institutes. 

Though the writings are a little too brief, it meets the purpose of engaging the reader with less words and more reflection. This is the mark of a good devotional. Whether one is comfortable with Reformed theology or Calvinism, this book is not intended to convert anyone closer to Calvin. Neither is it a marketing tool to promote the Institutes. It is simply a sharing of one who loves the works of Calvin, who desires to let the teachings draw one closer to God. That way, anyone desiring to keep pace, to think thoughts of God through the day, can easily pick up this book, open a chapter, and sip coffee gently while the thoughts of "Coffee with Calvin" slowly refreshes one's thoughts of 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, February 14, 2013

"Out of Context" (Richard L. Schultz)

TITLE: Out of Context: How to Avoid Misinterpreting the Bible
AUTHOR: Richard L. Schultz
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012, (160 pages).

How will you feel when the powerful book of biblical promises, or the highly encouraging book about marriage, or the beautiful applications of biblical principles by your favourite Christian authors, are good on the outside, but on the inside, have quoted Scriptures out of context? Shocked? Surprised? According to Richard L Schultz, far too many popular Christian authors are misinterpreting the Bible when they write their books. Schultz begins his crusade by first dismantling the interpretive paradigms of Bruce Wilkinson's "The Prayer of Jabez," questioning the way Wilkinson picks and chooses translations, adding material that was not originally there, and turning a descriptive verse into a prescriptive application. Wilkinson spiritualizes what should not be spiritualized, and implements the prayer in a way that is simply out of the Bible's original context. Schultz studies the six reasons for bad hermeneutics based on erroneous assumptions. Some authors believe that there is a 'hidden message' in all the Bible. Others claim that individuals are free to take a general verse and turn it into a specific application. Some turn all the Bible into a giant command manual. After listing down some of the erroneous hermenuetics, Schultz highlights some popular authors who have unwittingly committed the error of quoting the Bible out of context. Schultz questions,

  • Henry Cloud and John Townsend's use of Isaiah 1:18, that fails to appreciate that the verse is not about a father wanting to hear the reasoning of a son, but God's call to Israel to repent;
  • Anne Ortlund's use of Scriptures to justify cosmetics and beautifying oneself, instead of explaining what the original contexts of Psalm 3:3, 2 Sam 15 says;
  • Larry Crabb's use of Ezekiel 24 on marital communications instead of explaining the mourning practices of ancient Israel;
  • James and Shirley Dobson's use of the book of Esther to depict a loving wife to a husband, and pays little attention to that of a queen being subjected to a king;
  • Jay Adams's use of Numbers 14, reading modern development to add meaning to an ancient context;
  • Frank Minirth and Paul Meier's use of Isaiah 43:8 to talk about depression;
  • Richard Young's using the Scriptures to find out whether God is himself a vegetarian!
Schultz also lists some common mistakes made with words. "Anachronism" is how modern readers read a "later meaning" into an ancient word, like the use of Proverbs 29:18 to talk about church vision and mission statements, instead of understanding that the context is about a nation's future, not individual guidance. "Root fallacy" goes deep into word studies and its etymology, to the point that the word itself becomes more important than the way it was used. "Overloaded meaning" is when people packs too much meaning into a word. The lack of contextual understanding, of literary genres, of cultural usage, etc, often lead to misuse.

Schultz boldly critiques many other well-known authors like Gary Smalley, John Trent, John Eldredge, Joshua Harris, Rick Warren, and many more. Even well respected authors like Eugene Peterson and James Houston are not spared. He points out the five common fallacies of failing to respect the contexts of narrative texts.  He speaks out against the fallacy of people trying to find "Christ everywhere in the Old Testament." He also accuses authors of either misinterpreting the Bible or misapplying the lessons. He warns against "prooftexting," the art of finding a verse in the Bible to prove our own purposes. He cautions readers against "textjacking" that lifts verses out of their original contexts. 

Schultz knows that by his wide critiques of many popular authors, he himself will be criticized for one or more of the following.

  1. That he is judgmental;
  2. That he is promoting professional scholarship 
  3. That he is quenching the Holy Spirit
  4. That he is ignoring the diversity of interpretation
  5. That he is letting "interpretive correctness" replace things that edify
Schultz is prepared for all of the above accusations, saying that it is important to be skilled and wise interpreters of God's Word, and that those who teach must be examined more sharply, and for the sake of upholding truth, he needs to speak out against all kinds of biblical misinterpretations. He suggests that all readers of the Bible need to:
  • Care about understanding
  • Catch nuance
  • Clarify context
  • Check terms
  • Consider genre
  • Consult experts
  • Correlate application.
My Thoughts

Christians often say that they believe and revere the Bible. For various reasons, people do misinterpret and misunderstand what the Bible is actually saying. Personally, this book is meant for two groups of people. The harshest critiques are for those in positions of influence, whether he is a popular author, writer, blogger, teacher, professor, or any position of teaching authority. This is because God's Word needs to be studied and researched well. There is no excuse for shoddiness, plagiarism, or utter misuse of the Bible. These acts do not bring honour to God.

The second group of people are the rest of us. For that, there are questions at the end of each chapter to think more critically about, followed by additional tips for further research. This books should not be an end in itself. Instead, it ought to spur others to do their own critical reading and not swallow wholesale what popular authors are saying. Sometimes, due to time pressure or publishing constraints, authors can fail to do the adequate research to help them understand the original texts and contexts. Here, this is where good biblical scholars and theological resources are helpful. Sometimes, I feel like Schultz is more sympathetic to the academia and less so for the writers of popular literature. It makes me feel like Schultz himself may be a little too harsh on popular writers and less critical on his fellow scholars and theologians.

Having said that, this book is not meant to belittle Christian authors or popular Christian books. It is a challenge to authors to do their homework properly. It is a call for Christians to read their books with a Bible in hand. It is written by one who cares about right teaching, good biblical understanding, and hard work that honours God. Read in this light, there are more positives to remember in this book. Read this book with an open mind, and if you are a casual Bible interpreter, I warmly recommend this book for you to take time to learn with scholars and research more before you turn anything in the Bible into an application. Good application must come from good interpretation. Good interpretation comes from good guidance. This book is a good guide.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


Book has been provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications and Baker Books in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"Lent For Everyone - Luke Year C" (NT Wright)

TITLE: Lent for Everyone: Luke, Year C: A Daily Devotional
AUTHOR: N.T. Wright
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012, (140 pages).

Today is Ash Wednesday 2013. It is fitting to introduce a book devotional for Lent. NT Wright has based his meditations on the Church liturgical calendars of Years A, B, and C, with meditations on the gospels. Typically, Year A is for Matthew, Year B for Mark, and Year C for Luke. This 3-year cycle than repeats. For most laypersons, it does not really matter which specific year is for which reading. Year C for some Church groups is in 2012. That said, there is nothing to prevent anyone from restricting themselves from meditations on the book of Luke for 2013. After all, it is God's Word.

With daily readings from Ash Wednesday right through to Resurrection Sunday, popular writer and theologian NT Wright provides a series of reflective thoughts and meditations to help readers remember the journey of Christ to the Cross. There is a meditation on a passage of Luke every Monday to Saturday, with specific attention to particular verses. On Sundays, the focus shifts to worship through Psalms. On Easter week, Wright leads readers from Luke 24 to Acts 5, helping us to look back at the critical events of the death and the resurrection of Jesus.

Wright prepares each devotion with a personal translation of the text. The non-inclusion of any specific year or date means that the devotional can be used and re-used any year. He then makes an observation of everyday life before bridging our world to the ancient times. Finally, after explaining the contexts, he helps readers with a Lenten thought for today, with gentle guidance for the readers to pray more, reflect deeper, and to live more contemplatively throughout the Lenten season. Sometimes, he closes with questions for the reader to think about. Other times, he closes with a prayer, a confession, a or on Sundays, he gives an exhortation for the reader. One important consideration for any Lenten reading is that it is not too theologically heavy or intellectually heady. It needs to help readers ease into a more contemplative mood toward a hope for tomorrow. It needs to help us be more aware of our sinfulness, and to be led toward godly sorrow. It needs to be grounded in Scripture and allows readers to sense the Spirit guiding them in their thoughts, their words, and their actions. Known for his theological brilliance, Wright has shown us again that theology is not for theologians in seminaries or Bible schools. Theology is for everyone.

If you want a book for this Season of Lent, I warmly recommend this book for your reading, your praying, and your meditating. Use this book with your Bible or your hymnal. May this season of Lent be one that helps you to pray, to reflect, to think thoughts of Christ, and to remember that while in a way it is our sins that nail Jesus to the Cross, it is the love of God that resurrects Christ from the dead, to give us life.

Rating: 4.75 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.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Till Faith Till Us Part"

TITLE: 'Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America
AUTHOR: Naomi Schaefer Riley
PUBLISHER: Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013, (248 pages).

What happens when people of different faiths marry? Is there any reason why there is a rising number of inter-faith marriages? Do such marriages last? How important is a common faith in a marriage? What are the complexities of an inter-faith marriage? While people can choose their own marriage partner, they will often have the bear the consequences of that choice, especially if it is an inter-faith one. More importantly, how affected is one's faith in such an unequally yoked relationship? These questions and many more are boldly covered in this book that seeks to put some meaning and understanding into the data.

The statistics are there. Of couples in America who married in the past decade, almost 45% are inter-faith marriages, compared to 20% in the sixties. The numbers suggest that that American society is more accepting of inter-faith unions. Riley observes that such a trend actually reflects "American individualism" in contrast to community based preferences. Others simply prefer to work on the basis of most basic commonality, like "same God," or preferring a stance of openness in order to embrace a greater variety of faith beliefs. There is also some evidence to support that the older one gets, the more likely one is prepared to marry someone from another faith. There is also a rising numbers of people who choose "common values" above common religion. 

Riley begins the book by looking at what marriage entails from the eyes of the different religious perspectives. Some religions like Islam has a gender bias when it comes to the status of women. Some religions like Mormonism or some Jewish sects is more hardline than others. Others like some Catholics or certain Protestant quarters tend to be more liberal. The author suggests that part of the reason for more inter-faith marriages is because couples are taking a longer time to date and to let differences ease from the relationship. They drift along rather than being intentional, like what some religions teach. In fact, past strong religious adherence is no guarantee that one marries within the faith.  Moreover, when children see the differences in religious practice among their own parents, it makes them feel there is not much difference anyway to marry someone outside the faith.

However, when it comes to marriage vows, couples do struggle about which faith to adopt. There are differences in rituals, format, place, time, and which God. Even religious leaders and priests come under fire if they officiate in any inter-religious marriage ceremonies. Some try to use secular officers and formal vows. Others take a long time in inter-faith counseling. There are other implications for inter-faith unions. How do couples bring up their children? How do parents guide their children in religious upbringing? What about "common front" parenting styles? What about special religious occasions? How do families celebrate as one?

When interfaith couples divorce, things can get very ugly. Certain interfaith marriages are more vulnerable, such as Catholics marrying Protestants, as well as non religious couples. Jews marrying Christians have a 40% chance of divorce! In general, there is a trend that the a tolerant society is fodder for interfaith marriage.

Finally, Riley pays special attention to the Jews and the Mormons. The former has a high percentage of people marrying people of other faiths. The latter has the least. Yet, in terms of numbers, they are similar. Riley seeks to find out why, paying special attention to the differences in how these two groups prosyletize. The more aggressive faith will tend to eventually make the couple of the same faith, namely, the more active one.

My Thoughts

This is a book that tries to interpret the statistics of a very complex problem. In fact, the data at best is a snapshot of a sample size. The trouble with this is that it changes rapidly. Given the fact that many interfaith marriages take a long time before couples decide to marry, it is also entirely possible that it will take a long time before they can find agreement after the marriage ceremony. The author has also conceded that there are multiple variables and complexities that have not been studied in detail. What is best done is a general guess of the trend, of how people are shaped by secular and societal values. One key factor is tolerance. The rise in interfaith marriages corresponds to the growing level of tolerance. Perhaps, this is a counter-reaction among the young generation when they see their own parents' strict adherence to their religions as not making much of a difference in the first place. Does love wins? We really do not know, for divorces are common too, if not more so for interfaith couples.

That said, the complexities that stem from uncommon faith is far-ranging, and makes any relationship tricky to begin with. Faith is a very personal thing, and yet also very communal. As long as interfaith couples stick to their guns and not impose their religions on each other, it is generally ok and peaceful. What if there is a clash of ideals? What about the religious stability that the children needs? How then do parents pass godly upbringing to their young?

For me, interfaith marriages hold much more complications for any couple. This is because faith matters cut deep through relationships, religious perspectives, parenting, traditions, and especially, truth claims. If two truth claims clash, and if both parties do not budge, not only are they in for a serious theological debate, they are putting their very own marriages on the line.

I must commend Riley for the scope of research as well as the summary of the results. That said, the book raises more questions than answers. The biggest value this book has for me, is that it raises up very relevant implications for interfaith couples to consider. Maybe, the title of the book is already a giveaway. It is not "'Til Faith Do Us Part," but "'Til Faith Do us Unite."

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


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

Monday, February 11, 2013

"Medicines That Kill" (James L. Marcum, MD)

TITLE: Medicines That Kill: The Truth about the Hidden Epidemic
AUTHOR: James L. Marcum, MD
PUBLISHER: Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Publishers, 2013, (192 pages).

This book is a remarkable testimony of a doctor about the dangers of medicine. It is a clarion call to all to remember the wise maxim from Dr William Osler, who has said, "The person who takes medicine must recover twice, once from the disease and once from the medicine." It is a reminder that there is no free lunch with regards to health and medication. What we put into our bodies do have side-effects and the more informed we are, the better it is for our general health. Writing as a physician, Marcum shares the many stories of how many patients have been more hurt and harmed, rather then helped or healed. The crux of the author's conviction is that we need to know medicines are not miracles. They come with side effects. The more aware we are, the better it is for us to learn not to put undue faith in modern pills and medications.

Marcum begins with a disclaimer, that he is not against medication, just against the blind faith many people attached to medicines. He calls it the "hidden epidemic." Whether it is malpractice on the part of physicians, erroneous labeling by the pharmicists, wrong dosage given by nursing staff, incorrect instructions given by the manufacturers, or misguided conclusions done from the research, or problematic test situations in the release of the drug, it is critical to understand the economics, the sciences, the whole process from the lab to the public, as well as the ethics of modern medicines. The beginning of the book is startling. Marcum highlights how some medicines like "Fen-Phen" has contributed to heart valve failures, how heparin solves one problem and creates another, how chemotherapy kills not just bad cells but good ones too, how some drugs are rushed to market, insufficient testing and research, and how many deaths occurred with frequent mentions of the diseases, but little confession of the medications that have contributed to many deaths. Marcum often thought: "Which is worse: the treatment or the disease?" Not only that, the same old patients seem to come back with the same problems again and again despite the prescriptions. Marcum soon learns that being a physician is not just keeping people alive, or making people well. It is also to help patients protect themselves from clever marketing by the pharmaceutical industry, and to remember as far as possible that the natural way is often the best way. Health is a by-product of a love relationship with God, and observing God's ways for mankind.

The first part of the book is so negative about the state of use of medications and prescriptions, that Marcum has to put in a disclaimer, that he is not against the use of medications, but the uncritical and often blind faith in medications. In a chapter called the "Misuse of Medications," Marcum warns against slow poisoning, suicidal use, addictions, and how the misuse of medications has led people to do bad things to themselves and other people. Worse, these abuses are increasingly more common and pervasive, especially with the easy availability of online purchases of drugs. Combined with the lucrative trade and economic windfall, warnings about medications tend to be subdued by authorities and the pharmaceutical industry.

The second part of the book offers not just the redemptive perspective of using medication through practical wisdom and knowledge, it provides guidelines on thinking before consuming medication, on recognizing both the benefits as well as the dangers of the pills, and ultimately to remember that God's plans are still valid for mankind's health and good. First, begin with a relationship with God, seeking wisdom and trust. Second, learn about the medications, what they are, and why we are using it. Third, depend less on medications but on the natural created things God has given, like drinking lots of water, exercise when possible, and rest. Four, exercise is key. Five, rest well. Six, improve one's diet, and finally, be happy through trust and confidence that God knows best. Marcum also provides a chapter to describe the different kinds of medications, on acid-blocking medications, chemotherapy, weight-loss medications, sleep, diabetes, diuretics, cholesterol lowering medicine, blood pressure, antidepressants, and many more. My favourite part of the book is how Marcum describes the Bible as the "greatest health journal ever written." The key idea is that God has given us the best garden of health. The nearer we are to this, the healthier we will be. The farther we are, the less healthy we become. Uncritical trust, abuses, and the erroneous expectations about  medications are very much the latter case. Using the seven days of creation, Marcum proposes a brilliant health plan.
  1. On the First Day, God created the heavens and the earth, and the light, with the Spirit hovering over the surface of the deep. Modern man needs this light, an illuminate mind to recognize that it is not your doctor, but God who knows what is best for us.
  2. On the Second Day, God created expanse of the water and the sky. Drinking lots of water and a healthy dosage of fresh air does wonders to our general health.
  3. On the Third Day, God created plants and vegetables. Here, Marcum argues for consuming more fruits and vegetables. 
  4. On the Day, God created the light. Our bodies are made for rhythms, for day and for night, and we are not to violate this by mixing the time to rest during the night through overwork. Technology can be a bane for health, like keeping man awake longer than necessary, leading to increased stress and lowering body immunity.
  5. On the Fifth Day, God created livestock, and animals for man to take care of. Instead, man has grown to eat these animals! He notices that in places where there is low meat consumption, there is a corresponding lower occurrences of heart disease and cancer.
  6. On the Sixth Day, God created human people, both male and female, for companionship. Marcum says that it suggests harmony and goodwill toward fellow people will bring about health benefits too! God created love. 
  7. On the Seventh Day, God created the Sabbath and rested. Marcum besides talking about the need to rest, also suggests it as a day for us to look out for the needs and interests of other people.
Marcum summarizes the health benefits through the seven laws of health, namely, good nutrition, exercise, water, sunlight, air, rest, and sabbath to focus on others.

My Thoughts

As a cardiologist, Marcum writes with passion, preferring to debunk the myths of medicines as the sole avenue of healthcare, toward a holistic health that incorporates God's design for health. As an observer of much medical abuses by many different parties involved, from the pharmaceuticals to medical personnel, from misguided trust in drugs to abuses of medications, from human errors to insufficient research of medicines, Marcum is burdened by the high number of people who died not because of their disease but because of the medications. Not only that, it is common to see deaths as a result of a "disease," but few due to the use or misuse of certain medications, for whatever reason. For Marcum, medicines can be used as a healing product, and equally potent as a poison too. Thus, taking medications is always a risk, and doctors are constantly managing that risk. It is the author's belief that the threat of medications and the misuse of it is larger than what most people have thought. He writes: 
"I believe that medications are the number one cause of death. Do I have statistics? No. Will others back me up? Probably not. Yet in my medical practice I have seen over and over the dangers." (107)

With this conviction, Marcum is on a journey to inform, instruct, and to inspire people to look beyond the pharmaceutical industry for salvation. God's plan is the best. He is not encouraging readers to avoid medications altogether. He is calling for greater education of what the medication is, what it does, how it is prescribed, why we are taking it, and what are the side-effects of taking it. The reason why he writes so strongly and negatively against the uncritical use of medicines is because far too many people have taken for granted the modern availability of medications. There seems to be a medication for nearly every kind of ailment. Such a situation can easily trick people into thinking that it is the medication that heals. More often than not, medication solves one problem and creates another. Prescriptions normally take on a 'lesser-evil' approach, that the recovery from the disease is a greater benefit than the side-effects. Marcum questions what if our presumption like this is wrong, that we are eating a poison over the long run?

More importantly, Marcum is calling for a sustained health level through obedience to God's original design. Modern medicine can do a lot, but its benefits are limited. What happens in the lab is not necessarily the same in the real world. This book is an eye-opener for readers who lack knowledge about how medicines work, and gives a glimpse of what the pharmaceutical industry is about. I enjoy this book. Those of us who desires a more holistic health book must read this book.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Thursday, February 7, 2013

"Everything" (Mary DeMuth)

TITLE: Everything: What You Give and What You Gain to Become Like Jesus
AUTHOR: Mary DeMuth
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2012, (206 pages).

When we agree to follow Jesus, we are actually agreeing to give all we have, in order to gain all we can, to be like Jesus. There is nothing less important than to hold on to earthly possessions that do not last. There is nothing more precious than to hang on to Christ, who promises us things that will last throughout eternity. More importantly, when we give to God our everything, amazingly, God supplies us our needs beyond what we can ever imagine. In fact, at the end of it all, we will realize that there is nothing more important than Christ.

In eighteen chapters, Mary DeMuth distills her learnings through her very personal trials, and provides a spiritual perspective of it all, guided by a very able theological grasp of biblical principles. Beginning with the head, of what we think, readers are urged to cultivate a "Discipline of Astonishment," to be less sensitive to what we or the world make of ourselves, but how the gospel enables us to see what God makes of us. We are urged to surrender our destructive personal vows to justify ourselves, and to let God transform those through the eyes of love. We need to let God be bigger than our problems, bigger than our relationships with people, and allow a high view of God, to guide our love for people. She makes a strong case against worry, and I like this particular description.

"Worry involves both omission and commission. Omission because we forget God's faithfulness. Commission because we actively believe our abilities supercede His." (46)

In order to be resilient through the trials and elements of life, DeMuth suggests ways in which we can build rhythms into our lives, and to believe that God can lift us out of the deepest pits.

If the head is about what we think, the next part of the book moves to the heart, which is about who we are. The key idea is that an authentic life flows from the inside out. Healing needs to happen from the inside out. Forgiveness, recovery, and renewal flows richly from a negative past to a positive future. "CONTROL" is the seven-letter word that destroys, discourages growth, and depresses our spirituality. Just look at the way she warns us about this word.

"Control satiates me. It calms me. Nursing it helps me make sense of my world. When trials inevitably knock on my door, my response is to clean my house, align the cans in my pantry, create order from chaos. When God asks me to risk for His sake, I create lists in my head about why it's not logical to do so. I'd rather live a controlled life than let Jesus take me on unfamiliar roads." (76)
From the need to relinquish control, DeMuth moves toward unleashing our heart to the workings of the Holy Spirit in eight ways. We are urged to exercise our choice for healing instead of swimming in self-pity and self-destruction. There is beauty even in brokenness. There is grace we can share with others. There is forgiveness we can extend to ourselves. All because we can give Christ everything.

The final part is about hands, and how we live. We learn to say no to money's control over us. We get tips on how to embrace the learning from failures. We see the importance of connecting well with a community. In living for God, we learn to serve God through loving people, respecting differences, following disciplines, and many more.

My Thoughts

This is perhaps one book that appears to be DeMuth giving her everything, to make sense of her own brokenness in the light of God's grace. I love the way DeMuth describes her pains, details her struggles, and in Christ, determines to let go, and let God take over. Having said that, the book looks more to me like an orientation toward the direction of God. It does not mean that DeMuth has rocketed out of the gravitational pull of earthly living and daily struggles. It does not even mean that she has it all wrapped up in nice packaging. She has given us a roadmap with regards to what we think, finding out who we are, and learning to live for God beyond mere rhetoric. This beautiful book needs to be read over and over again by people who are down and out, and for people who are caught in the rat race of doing things for themselves. Spirituality is learning to keep the head, the heart, and the hands working as one. More importantly, it is being sensitive to the movement of the Holy Spirit on us as a whole person, so that we can be wholly sensitive to a holy God, who has told us time and again that we are to be holy, just as God Himself is holy. God has given us the finest roadmap, the greatest model, and the Person who deserves our everything: Jesus.

Thanks to DeMuth for gifting us with such an important reminder, that has breathed new life to the words of this popular chorus.

"He is my everything He is my all 
He is my everything both great and small 
He gave His life for me made everything new 
He is my everything Now how about you 
Like honey in the rock 
Like honey in the rock 
for he tastes like honey in the rock 
Oh taste and see that the Lord is good 
For he tastes like honey in the rock. "

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Thomas-Nelson and the Booksneeze Blogger Program without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Of God and Games" (Kevin Schut)

TITLE: Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games
AUTHOR: Kevin Schut
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012, (225 pages).

How do we think Christianly about gaming? Is there a "balanced approach" to computer and video games? How do we make sense of video games? Is the purpose just an escape from life? How true is it that violent games are psychologically harmful? How real is the threat of addiction? Should Christians avoid playing games because of occultic or controversial themes they present? If so, what are the guidelines for what can be played and what cannot be played? How do we think critically and constructively from a Christian perspective on electronic games? These questions and many more are meticulously covered and passionately considered by a Professor of media and communications at Trinity Western University. As a gamer-enthusiast himself, Schut covers a lot of ground with regards to the range and the depth of understanding of how games work, why gamers play, and what it means for Christians.

For Schut, gaming is a legitimate form of play, a leisure that human beings need as part of life. With Sabbath keeping, and work, play is a way to help us be healthy people emotionally and mentally. He helps readers to see that games and gamers themselves have been more misunderstood and misrepresented. For instance, most people do not know how to read video games, so Schut goes into some detail on how to understand the purpose of video games, what role the medium plays, and what messages are they communicating. There are games that are simply aim-shoot-conquer, while others enable gamers to tell a story, form a narrative, or to cultivate a whole new gaming experience through innovative play and creativity. Called "alternate realities," games work differently from what we see from day to day. "Angry Birds" is that eternal struggle between birds and pigs. "Tetris" challenges gamers to be quick with their senses and strategic in their playing. "Age of Mythology" may adopt religious figures from the Ancient Near East, but they represent a kind of modern spirituality, using old worlds to represent new media. Other games such as "Farmville," "Super Mario," "Mindcraft," "League of Legends," and "Street Fighter," are interactive and engaging.  More importantly, it frees gamers to do things online, what they often are forbidden to express offline. The trouble is how do we distinguish and keep them separate in the light of some research that appears to support a direct link between violent games and actual violence.

Schut prefers to take the non-committal stance. In a work that is more descriptive than prescriptive, the overall flow of the book urges readers to be more open with regards to critiquing video games in general. For every accusation of addictions, there is a corresponding argument about how legitimate that accusation is. For every remark that the game is an escapist's tool, there is a counter of "why-not," "what's wrong," and "is there any conclusive proof?"

Before one can understand the gamer, one needs to learn to read games. The strengths of this book are summarized as follows.
  1. It invites skeptics and opponents of video gaming to reconsider their stance, to question their sources, and to look at games from a fair angle.
  2. It educates readers on the purpose, the types of games, and the legitimacy of game playing.
  3. It asks tough and honest questions that many Christians have often not gone beyond simply saying games are good or bad.
  4. It probes into the religious domain and makes a case for games that may look religious on the outside, but on the inside, they are not exactly that religious.
  5. It calms people's nerves by saying that the more we understand games, the less we will resist it. 
  6. It raises good questions for us to think more intelligently and more fairly as Christians.
  7. It shows us how to be well-minded Christians by learning how to critique well and fair, ask reasonable questions, and distinguish virtual reality from real world situations.
  8. It points out pros and cons in a manner that readers can learn.
The strengths outweigh the weaknesses of non-committal answers. After all, teaching professors ought to cultivate critical thinking rather than dishing out pet answers. Schut has done this very well. Games cannot be easily classified into "Christian" or "non-Christian" categories. In fact, I will argue that such a notion of "Christian gaming" is itself misleading. What is "Christian?" What is the purpose of sticking in a "Christian" label and sanitize it from real life? Maybe, better than just the label, is the effort to engage people where they are and who they are. There is a place for escape. There is a place to relax and forget about life. There is also a place in which one can just hang loose, be free, and enjoy the liberty of safe online play, without the threats of control and suppression. God has created us to be free people. We are indeed free to play. It is only in love that we play, and only in love that we choose not to play. Such a journey toward knowing how to play, what to play, who to play with, and the contexts of our play, will be a constantly evolving part of us. Do not dismiss games outright without understanding what it all means. Do not criticize just on the basis of some partial research or inconclusive news. Truth is to be earnestly sought after. Do not curtail the pursuit of truth, by clamping down on things that reflect more of our personal preferences. Instead, adopt Paul's guideline.

“Everything is permissible for me”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”—but I will not be mastered by anything. (1 Corinthians 6:12)
Those who have played the games described in this book will be most intrigued by the thoughts of Professor Schut. Those who do not know the games will find it harder to grasp what the author is trying to say. This rare book is worth reading for anyone desiring to understand a little more of what games is about, and how to connect better with gamers. Perhaps, by that, we can understand more of what the younger generation in society are doing. With understanding comes maturity of thought. With maturity of thought comes greater and more meaningful acts of love. Is that not what loving our neighbours and our gamers all about? Maybe, the uninitiated reader may want to try out some of these games themselves?

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


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