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Monday, April 29, 2013

"Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World" (Warren Carter)

TITLE: Seven Events That Shaped the New Testament World
AUTHOR: Warren Carter
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013, (192 pages).

How do we read the New Testament? Many scholars will agree that it has to be studied in context, both the context of the Bible texts, as well as the surrounding contexts when the Bible was first written. This book focuses on the latter, the events that influenced the shaping of the New Testament texts, as well as the New Testament world.

The seven events (* indicate the best estimate) chosen are:
  1. The Death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE)
  2. The Process of Translating Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (ca. 250 BCE*)
  3. The Rededication of the Jerusalem Temple (164 BCE)
  4. The Roman Occupation of Judea (63 BCE)
  5. The Crucifixion of Jesus (ca. 30 CE)
  6. The Writing of the New Testament Texts (ca. 50–ca. 130 CE)
  7. The Process of “Closing” the New Testament Canon (397 CE)
My simple summary of the whole book is in terms of three periods: Before Christ; During Christ; After Christ. The first part prepares readers with the contexts surrounding the introduction of the person of Christ. The second part sheds more light into the culture and the circumstances that led to the death of Christ. The third part shows the culmination of the Bible that we have today. All of them necessarily deal with the person of Christ. After all, without Christ, there is no New Testament! The key point that Carter wants to make is that as the ancient world is multicultural, so was Jesus' time, and our modern time. From Greek and Hellenistic cultures, we observe how the New Testament gets transmitted through Greek influence, Jewish traditions, Imperial power, the Roman order, and many more. It explains how the early Christians are considered a minority movement, and suffer much persecution, marginalization, and how powerlessness shapes their identity, their group dynamics, and their way of life. The first event paints the influence of Hellenistic culture that comes with the death of Alexander, one of the greatest emperors on earth.

The first event is essentially about Alexander the Great, whose massive name has been associated with military conquests and the growth of the Macedonian Empire. Carter asserts that Alexander himself is a complicated man, with many concerns not just military might. He tries to create a new economic order. He struggles with trying to get the infrastructure and organizes huge support resources to maintain his mighty military arm. Cultural matters, alliances, people development, cross-cultural relationships, all play a part  in the spread of his influence, through language, city building, philosophical traditions, diverse ethnicities, and religious experiences. What makes him "great" is he manages to get most of this done before he was 33! Not so great was his inability to provide a heir, the implosion of his empire after his death. With Alexander comes the belief that one can only gain, when one gets superiority over all others. This runs counter to the life of Jesus, that instead of seeking power at all costs, Jesus gives up power at his own cost.

The second event looks at the circumstances leading to the Septuagint also known as the LXX. Just the name Septuagint and the LXX represent the enmeshment of four cultures; with the Hebrew Scriptures get translated into Greek, with a Latin name and Roman numerals. We read about the origins that go right to the beginning of Egyptian King Ptolemy II's reign from 285 BCE to 247 BCE, and the imperial order that all the books in the imperial library be translated into Greek. That includes the Hebrew Scriptures. It shows how both Jews and Gentiles came together for a common cause. It marks the beginning of how the Jewish people assert their identity and the preservation of the biblical texts. This helps the Jesus movement through cultural adaptation that keeps the Hebrew Scriptures accessible for the masses at that time. It also presents an opportunity to translate the ancient Hebrew Scriptures through "Jesus-glasses." In case readers are curious about how one can read with Jesus-glasses when Jesus has not even appeared, note that the 250 BCE here is used as a process date rather than an absolute date. In other words, the translation has not been fully completed before the time of Christ, but many years after the Resurrection event.

The third event is about the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple in 164 BCE, where Carter highlights the the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes tries to control the Jewish people, by focusing his control on the temple. Rather than religious persecution, the key point is to remember that the conquest of the temple is essentially a quest for power and domination. The way the Jews defended their temple is a way in which they are defending their very sense of identity. Understanding this point will help Gentiles understand the centrality of the temple, instead of branding them mere religious expressions. In other words, the temple is not merely synonymous with Judaism. It represents the identity, the culture, the way of life, and essentially anything that is fundamentally Jewish.

The fourth event begins smack in the middle of the end of the the superpower of the 1st Century, the Roman Empire. The Jews continue to be struggling under the authority of various superpowers. What they lack for military might, they compensate for the longevity and preservation of the Holy texts, as well as renewed hope and longing for the Messiah. A few takes the path of violence and unrest which unfortunately brings about greater persecution. Interestingly, despite the diversity of perspectives among Jews, we read of how the New Testament describe the Roman power negatively in the gospel of Matthew as well as some positive thoughts through the epistle to the Romans. The significance of this event is the fact that multiple powers are not able to silence the gospel message.

The fifth event is perhaps the most significant of all the seven events: The coming, the crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus. It shows how Jesus prefers not to challenge the Roman political might nor advocates violence. It also tells how significant the challenges are for Jesus. Carter then brings together the many different interpretations of Jesus' crucifixion and its significance. For instance, the use of crucifixion is normally reserved for violent rebels, treason, terrorists, and criminals. Yet, the Romans use it to kill Jesus. It is also used for people who resist Roman rule, yet Jesus has been recorded to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what is God's. Why then was Jesus crucified? Perhaps, that can be attributed to Jesus' non-denial of the title, "king of the Jews," when in fact only Rome can grant that title. Is that not a defiance of Roman authority? Not only do they demonstrate the reality of Christ, it shows how one event can impact the Middle East then, and the world now.

The sixth event covers the writing of the New Testament texts after the death of Jesus. Carter concentrates on Paul's letters, writings by people after Paul, as well as the gospels. Essentially, when we understand the history, the circumstances, and the lives of the writers, we get to appreciate the New Testament writings better. It reveals Paul's theological perspectives. It gives insights on how these writings focus readers' attention on Christ. This is significant because it shows how Christianity continues to thrive via multiple witnesses, sharing the same message, even though they come from different backgrounds.

Finally, the seventh event touches on the canonization of the Bible. Spanning 350 years and ratified by different church councils. Readers are reminded that the Bible is not exactly canonized by the Church within the recent few years. It has been deliberated over the centuries, verified over multiple councils, and formed only after much consolidation and extensive sources of authority. Carter highlights three key points in the formulation of the canon. First, the stages are only realized at the end. In the beginning, no one knows that there is such thing as a canon. Second, there are still parts of the canonization process that remains elusive for modern understanding, pointing to the presence of something or someone beyond ourselves. Third, the Scriptures are canonized with Jesus in mind. From the writing, to the using, to the collecting, to selecting, and the ratifying, Carter adds to these five stages, several important criteria that forms checks and balances over the canon and the canonization process. This adds significance because people in general needs to be assured of the accuracy, the reliability, and the sanctity of the Holy Scriptures.

My Thoughts

Whenever anyone talks about events that shaped any particular world, there are at least three questions that one instinctively asks. What events are they? Why are they chosen? What kind of world are they referring to?  This book is basically about highlighting the multi-era, multicultural, multifaceted, multiperspectival environments from which the New Testament, even the whole Bible comes into being. There are many parts that I agree wholeheartedly with Carter. Things like the process of formulation of the Bible that is over a long period of time, traversing many different cultures, survives various trials, endures difficult challenges, and other particular circumstances that often threaten but fail to halt the advancement of the gospel message. I am convinced about the fact that the New Testament arises out of a multicultural environment, and yet retains a staunchly Jewish flavour. I am also intrigued by the way Carter recognizes the tussle between Jesus-followers and the Roman authorities. Why is a small group of ragtag disciples, lowly educated, marginalized, and despised, still able to carry about a gospel message without the similar might of the Roman military, or the economic resources of the Gentile kingdoms? Despite the complexity of multiple voices in a multifaceted environments, through multiple contexts, it is amazing that the message remains so simple. Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour of the whole world. It is not simply a religious text but texts that are socially relevant. The part that I am a little more ambivalent is the part about reading with Jesus glasses. While it is true that the New Testament is formed through the eyes of Jesus followers, what I am not sure is the extent to which this has happened. Is the entire New Testament written with "Jesus-glasses" at the time of writing? Or is the reading of the New Testament with "Jesus-glasses" more valid for modern Bible readers? Are the writers of the New Testament really that focused on Christ when they write the New Testament? While the overall gist is agreeable, that New Testament is Christ-focused, what is quite arguable is to what extent is the focus. 

Carter ends with a call for "reading in community" with reference to the reading of the New Testament, even the Bible itself. Maybe, that can also be applied to the reading of this book. One will certainly benefit more in engaging discussions about the seven events, why they are chosen, and maybe, other possible events in history that Carter has not highlighted. I will put this book in the same category of Mark Noll's classic, "Turning Points." If you are a history major, do not miss out this book.

Rating: 4.5 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.

Friday, April 26, 2013

"Unlocking Your Family Patterns"

TITLE: Unlocking Your Family Patterns: Finding Freedom From a Hurtful Past
AUTHOR: Dave Carder, Earl R. Henslin, John S. Townsend, and William Henry Cloud.
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013, (240 pages).

Is there a link between family patterns and our psychological profile? Most people will agree that there is. The main question is to what extent is that link. In a society that is increasingly fraught with hurt and pain, in particular with families, one can sometimes forget that our path to inner healing for ourselves and our families, lies in understanding our family histories, patterns, and uniqueness. Four friends, a pastor, and three clinical psychologists have come together to combine their knowledge, expertise, biblical insights, and experiences, to help us unlock and understand our own family patterns. Using modern science, ancient wisdom from the Bible, the four authors genuinely believes that healing is possible. All hurts must be given a chance to heal. The introduction of the book tells us upfront that all families are dysfunctional in some way. There is no perfect family. The way forward is not to presume our original selves are perfect, just like the early biblical characters are imperfect. The three things that the authors aim to do are:
  1. Discover the roots of dysfunctional/codependent behaviours and relationships;
  2. Examining family systems in the light of Scripture;
  3. Examining family systems in the light of modern research on family systems, recovery theory, and experience.

Essentially, there is no shame to admit one's family is imperfect, even dysfunctional. After all, the first step to a positive improvement in any family unit is to state reality as accurately and as appropriately as possible.

Part One of the book examines the biblical characters of David and his family tree, of how time does not necessarily heal the broken relationships in his family, especially after the adulterous relationship with Bathsheba. It looks at the life of Isaac and his family tree, of how Isaac is emotionally separated from his father Abraham, his emotional distance from Rebekah, and how it affects his subsequent relationships with his sons. One of the authors even takes a bold stand to say that even Jesus has family problems, though it can be interpreted in more than one way.

Part Two contains the bulk of the scientific paradigms complete with rich insights on family systems theory. It looks at how dysfunctions are passed down from generation to generation. It relooks at commonly missed ares of our past. It gives readers an added incentive to open up their family history books and to take a hard honest look at whether there is a visible link between who they are, and why they are hurting or feeling the way they feel. Readers are also cautioned about the dangers of misappropriating religious beliefs, especially when using them to inflict "religious shame that are not only unhelpful for any healing, it affects one's relationship with God.  There is a chapter to highlight the role the Church can play in the healing process.

Part Three is most prescriptive of the three. We will learn about family bonding through safety, modeling, emotional openness, as well as avoid things that devalue ourselves or our family links. This dual awareness aids in the healing process. At the same time, there is no such thing as a boundary-free bonding relationships. In fact, healthy boundaries are necessary to help individuals retain a good sense of who they are, without becoming dissolved into their own family structures. Healthy boundaries help family members to grow well and mature.

There are many good insights in this book that can persuade readers to look at healing from a family systems angle. Knowing that the biblical characters are not perfect in the first place, and how God's grace carries them through, is encouragement enough for us. There is hope for us as God still moves to this day. The authors have used their expertise well, with each of them harnessing their own unique perspectives and sharing them earnestly for the benefit of readers. I appreciate Earl Henslin's brave attempt to suggest Jesus' family challenges at that time. This may sound suspicious to readers at first, but when we see from the angle of Jesus being fully human, we will recognize that the relationship is multi-faceted. Even if Jesus is perfect, the family that he was born into is not perfect. I applaud Dave Carder's sensitive chapter on "facing life's unfair assignments" because it is such a common human experience to feel that life is not fair. John Townsend and Henry Cloud continue their famous works on boundaries, to remind us that setting boundaries is not only ok, it is deeply healing for all. Their contributions give readers some guide-rails on how to go about growing up well toward healthy adulthood. For me, the biggest reason to read this book is to be reminded it is ok to relook at our own family histories without feeling guilt. Healing begins with inner awareness of who we are and the family we come from.

Do not wait for a family problem before you start to read this book. Pick it up now and learn how to go about honestly learning more about our own selves. The path of learning is long but be encouraged. It is never too late to start learning now.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


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

Thursday, April 25, 2013

"Insourcing" (Randy Pope)

TITLE: Insourcing: Bringing Discipleship Back to the Local Church (Leadership Network Innovation Series)
AUTHOR: Randy Pope
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (224 pages).

Do we really need another book on discipleship? Is there anything new to learn about making disciples? In our busy world, and the many complex ministry models, can we still have a discipleship model that is simple and clear, without being simplistic and impractical? There is one answer to all of these questions. Yes!

Randy Pope begins the book with a contemplative moment about his own Church ministry, Perimeter Church. With his Church on a growing path, with ministry pretty much cruising along, with general satisfaction that programs and people are already a part of the ministry, something still troubles Pope. What is the target? Yes, it is true that the ultimate target is the worship of God and glorifying the Heavenly Father. It is also true that people can worship God through the programs. The question is, is that enough? Is that what discipleship all about? After some struggle with the question of target, the author lands on two words that provide the thrust of his discipleship model: "mature and equipped." Discipleship is essentially about helping individuals in the community toward maturity and being equipped to worship God in every possible way. Pope starts off with a remarkable summary of three common models of ministry. The first model is the "Pastoral Model," which requires a "multi-talented, maintenance-oriented shepherd." If the Church is small, and the needs are few, this model generally suffices. The trouble is, the existing climate has become much more complex and needs have been more varied than before. The second model is that of an "Attractional Model." Beef up the message, boost up the music, and birth new methods so that more people will be attracted to the church. This model of relevance appeals to a consumeristic culture, and is strong in attracting people in, but weak in sending people out as witnesses. The third model is "Influential Model" which is high in social action and community influence. Unfortunately, it may result in churches and Christian organizations becoming another social help group without much of an identity. For Randy Pope, all of these models do not seem to prepare his Church as far as discipleship is concerned. By weaving together the positive elements of each model, and weeding out the rest, Pope focuses on a life-on-life model that essentially reflects the journey of a growing disciple. This life-on-life model is in turned based on a framework credited to Ken Blanchard. Blanchard's four stage leadership model moves as follows:

  1. Stage I - Direct
  2. Stage II - Coach
  3. Stage III - Support
  4. Stage IV - Delegate
An important note is that one cannot jump from stage I to stage IV. Each stage has to be covered. The same goes for the Life-on-Life discipleship model. Pope modifies the above using the acronym TEAMS to describe the five emphases of the model.
  1. Stage 1 - Truth
  2. Stage 2 - Equipping
  3. Stage 3 - Accountability
  4. Stage 4 - Mission
  5. Stage 5 - Supplication (not exactly a stage, but something that covers every stage)

The rest of the book condenses a three-year discipleship journey into six meetings via a fictional journey to incorporate the whole story. The appendices provide key resources for readers and leaders to jump start their own versions of discipleship based on this life-on-life model.

My Thoughts

The book's key emphasis is that every individual matters. Far too often, we have become distracted over programs, and our infatuation with numbers of people. By doing so, in desiring to be more relevant, churches are constantly inundated with greater and greater demands for more flashy and attractional programs that are not sustainable, they fail to equip and help members mature as a community of believers. At the same time, too much inward ministry toward meeting needs of people through chronic care can cause a ministry to implode into self-centered ministries. We are reminded that Jesus spends more than 90% of his time with his twelve disciples. There are no megachurches then. Jesus is focused on lives, one at a time. So should we. Every life counts. If our target is toward a mature community, we need to start working at helping individuals mature. If our target is to equip, we need to let the mission guide our strategies and resources to be used for the purpose of equipping people FOR the mission. It is not the ministry that determines the mission. It is the mission that determines the ministry, and it is a clear understanding of the target of the mission that determines the ministry models required. 

This is no ordinary book on discipleship. Richly insightful and downright practical, leaders will be pleased to have in their hands a book that is marinated with profound ideas and generous in real-life stories, filled with examples of what it means to journey together one-on-one. I like the way Pope reviews the old paradigms and takes care not to throw them all away. Instead, he learns the best from them, adapts where necessary, and infuses some new insights to make it all fresh and exciting. Note that every Church is unique. Every Church is different in its resources, it contexts, and its strategies. This book will not only help Christian organizations to take a critical look at their existing programs, and start making bold initiatives, to breathe life into the old, and to let God build something new out of it all. Great book on discipleship!

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"The Good Fight" (Drs Les and Leslie Parrott)

TITLE: The Good Fight: How Conflict Can Bring You Closer
AUTHOR: Drs Les and Leslie Parrot
PUBLISHER:  Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing, 2013, (210 pages).

Is all conflict bad? Is there any benefit at all in fighting? When married couples quarrel, is it a sign of a crumbling marriage? In this book, two established marriage counselors give their take about the difference between conflict and resolution. In other words, "It's how you fight, not whether you fight" that is the key point. Dispelling the myth of good married couples as those who live happily ever after, psychologist Les, and family therapist Leslie, come together to help readers distinguish bad fights from good fights, enable couples to grow in authenticity with each other, and to cultivate resilience of the relationship amid adversity. Putting proper perspective in every kind of conflict, we learn how to measure our "conflict quotient" like distinguishing the trivial from the important, learning the rules of engagement, keeping the fight fair and honest, and even uncovering our own "fight" styles. Just like there are rules to any sports or games, the Parrotts put forth three rules for cooperation; two rules of ownership; two rules of respect; and two rules of empathy; as a way to help couples fight well. That is not all. Fighting well also produces another benefit: Learning more about our own selves. For instance:
  • Competitive Fighter: One who is high in expressiveness, and low in flexibility
  • Collaborative Fighter: One who is high in expressiveness, and high in flexibility
  • Conciliatory Fighter: One who is low in expressiveness, and high in flexibility
  • Cautious Fighter: One who is low in expressiveness, and low in flexibility.
In fact, knowing what kind of fighter we are is a tremendous asset in learning how to fight well. Using their knowledge and experience, the authors then teach readers on the various combinations of the fight styles, and subsequently apply them through five big applications: Money, Sex, Work, Parenting, and Housework.

On and on, the consistent message in the book is that fighting is not necessarily a bad thing. It can even save one's marriage like releasing steam to prevent the marriage kettle from blowing up. It creates a deeper intimacy between couples. Ultimately, it brings about greater peace, as couples learn more about each other, about themselves, and more importantly, about the simple things that matter more to any marriage. There is a whole chapter on dealing with anger, a critical aspect of any conflict resolution.

My Thoughts

Drs Les and Leslie Parrott have done it again. Not only have they brought together their own expertise and fighting experiences, they have structured a powerful resource to help all couples deal with their differences, their disagreements, and their disappointments, whenever married couples feel less than "happily ever after." Just because a marriage is not happy or funny, does not mean that it is not a good marriage. In fact, a good marriage is one that is filled with both laughter and tears, joys and sorrows, hugs and fights. It is a myth to think that good marriages are those that are without fights or conflicts. All marriages will have fights from time to time. It is how we deal with each fight as they come along. Avoidance can only make it worse. Untimely engagement will be unhelpful too. What is important is to recognize that when the fight comes, both couples are ready to deal with it fairly, promptly, appropriately, and most of all, lovingly. In keeping up with the times, the authors have also included a free app that can be downloaded and installed in the increasingly common smartphones we have.

This book does not make readers look forward to fights. It gives couples the freedom and the courage to tough it out together, knowing that behind every fight, is an opportunity to learn, to listen, to heal, to relate, to reconcile, and to understand each other better. After reading this book, readers will be reminded again the traditional marriage vow:

"I _____ take thee _____, to be my husband/wife, to have and to hold, for better or for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; .... till death do us part."

Fighting well, is actually within this vow. Remember that in each fight, if we hurt our spouses, we are also hurting ourselves, for couples are in it together. Thanks to Les and Leslie Parrott, we have a great resource to help us maintain a fuller view of what we have first promised our mates.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Monday, April 22, 2013

"Thrive" (Lina AbuJamra)

TITLE: Thrive: The Single Life as God Intended
AUTHOR: Lina AbuJamra
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013, (288 pages).

In this book, readers will find that there are five attitudes to embrace, four obstacles to overcome, three categories of readers, two questions to ponder, with one single objective: Helping single Christians thrive well through the season of singleness, no matter how long it may take.  The two questions to make is whether one ought to marry or not to marry. The three categories of readers are the married, the unmarried, and the loved ones of the author. I will discuss the five attitudes and the four obstacles later.

Beginning with her own personal journey of waiting, AbuJamra reflects on what it means to be single, that one's life is naturally good. There is no need for marriage additive make it any better. Instead of anxiously hoping for a mate to make one's life better, why not remember that one's singleness at any one phase in time is itself a gift? In other words, there is no need to be distracted by an unknown future when one can live gratefully in the existing present state. Using God's Word as a guide, the author points out the sacred value of singlehood as something to be cherished while it lasts. It is a gift from God. According to 1 Corinthians 7, it is personal, unique, and given to us by God. This gift can be understood in three ways.
  1. Singleness by gifting: for the purpose of fervent exercising one's gift for the benefit of God's kingdom;
  2. Singleness by personal choice: for a personal choice of desiring more after God;
  3. Singleness by God's choice: called by God for a purpose that God will reveal in due time.
AbuJamra then recommends five attitudes to embrace. Firstly, learn to be content with our present state. For if one cannot find contentment in singleness, how can one find content in marriage? This may be arguable, but I can see where the author is coming from. It is not the state that defines the identity of the person. It is the person that defines the kind of relationship one brings into, whether single or married. Secondly, there is the attitude of self-control to counter the culture of perverse sexuality, lust, sexual addictions, and all kinds of unnatural relations. The author defines self-control as that "restraint exercised over one's own impulses, emotions, or desires." One important thing that AbuJamra highlights is that self-control is not human control but submission to the will of Christ. She touches on pornography, masturbation, fornication, and any forms of unrestrained sexuality, and warns that they not only hurts other people, it hurts the self. Thirdly, pursue and embrace holiness as a lifestyle. When we are free to embrace the path of holiness, one will realize how liberating this path is from the ways of the world, and from the deceitful desires of the flesh. After clarifying what holiness is and what it is not, she provides practical steps to pursue holiness. Fourthly, there is true freedom as one senses the essence of singleness. There is potential for freedom from anxiety and worry, freedom from pleasing people, freedom financially, freedom of time, distractions, and many others. That is not all. There is also a positive freedom in terms of delighting in God fully. There is the freedom to love people without expecting any obligation of marriage. Most importantly, there is the freedom to embark upon a Christ-love, that only singleness allows. Fifthly, and most powerfully, there is the single-minded focus on God and on serving the Lord. This is exactly Paul's point. AbuJamra also points out the single biggest competitor for our undivided attention: Money or Mammon. 

Having listed the five attitudes to adopt, AbuJamra lists the four obstacles to beware of, that can easily throw us off course. Beware of self-pity that swirls one inward, and sends one heading into implosion. Beware of bitterness that sucks away joy. Beware of idolatry and beware of the lie of loneliness. These four attitudes are not easily separable as they often appear in different combinations. Yet, they come with one goal: To knock out the person away from following God's will and purpose for their lives, whether single or married.

The final part of the book shows readers how to embrace the path of singleness with devotion to Christ, purpose in life, and satisfaction in one's existing state.

My Thoughts

This is a great resource for anyone struggling with their season of singleness. In fact, everyone will experience singleness at various stages of life. This is not just talking about young unmarried individuals. This also applies to divorced persons, widows and widowers, and anyone unable to get married for whatever reasons. One critical point that the author makes deserves attention. If we buy into the idea that marriage is for everyone, how then do we explain God's will to the 45% of the world's population that is unmarried?  After all, Jesus is single. Paul is single. Many pious, humble, believing Christians are also single.

There is a lot of wisdom in this book. AbuJamra has used her own life as a testimony to say that life in God as a single is no less important for the kingdom of God. In fact, it can even be more beneficial as far as serving the kingdom of God is concerned. The points are clearly laid out, with convictions and convincing arguments. This begins only when one is able to overcome self-pity and erroneous thoughts about companionship or loneliness. All things have to be put in its proper perspective. Rather than for singles to be distracted and worried about something they do not yet have, the biggest benefit in reading this book is to be reminded that singles are free people, chosen by God. Free people will freely choose the One who liberates them freely and fully. That is exactly where faith comes in. If you are in a singles ministry, or know of someone who is single and discouraged about his/her singleness, gift this book. It may help lift up a life for God. Even better, it may breath new life to an undiscovered potential.

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.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

"Charts on the Life, Letters, and Theology of Paul" (Lars Kierspel)

TITLE: Charts on the Life, Letters, and Theology of Paul (Kregel Charts of the Bible)
AUTHOR: Lars Kierspel
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012, (288 pages).

This is another excellent resource to help students, teachers, and laypersons to appreciate the study of the life, the literature, and the theology of the Apostle Paul. As a Professor and Chair of the Biblical Studies department in Trinity College of the Bible Theological Seminary, this work is a way in which Kierspel manages to incorporate the profound insights of Pauline theology into a professional framework of charts and summarizing tables. The purpose of the book is to provide helpful tips for readers wanting to learn more about the Apostle, his thought and his theology.  There are references to primary as well as secondary sources. There are also brief commentaries and summaries about the different aspects of the letters of Paul to help readers read, understand, appreciate, and to study the epistles with a critical eye together with a careful reverence. The book is structured in four parts.
  1. Paul's Background and Context
  2. Paul's Life and Ministry
  3. Paul's Letters
  4. Paul's Theological Concepts.
In Part A, we read an amazing description of the backgrounds of Paul, his life environment, and the culture he was in. Readers will know about the political, social, philosophical, religious, and in particular, the Jewish and Gentile relationships during his time. From Julius Caesar to the evil Nero, from the Praetorian guards to a full list of descriptions on the Roman military, from the list of philosophies in the regions to the whole potpurri of religions and beliefs, we catch a glimpse of Paul's big challenge when promoting the gospel to a multi-religious, multi-faceted society, that is pluralistic, polytheistic, and politically daunting. If Jesus has lots of opposition from the Pharisees and the Sadduccees, the challenges facing Paul is no less difficult. He deals with the Hellenists, the Zealots, as well as Jews and Gentiles. Kierspel even provides a 1-page summary of Paul's Jewish background.

Part B looks at the chronology of Paul's life from birth to death. Where appropriate, there are biblical references to help readers map out the stage of Paul's life. One helpful reference is how Paul's life in the book of Acts is cross-referenced frequently with his epistles. In doing so, readers are presented a treasure of information that is ready to use and to appreciate the context and circumstances of Paul. This enables any Bible student to better appreciate the reason, the context, and the thrust of Paul's writings. There is even a table that contrasts the life of Peter and Paul. This may not be exactly what the biblical authors would have wanted to highlight, but it sure gives modern readers a fresh incentive to see how the Holy Spirit uses the gifts of different individual for specific purposes. Even Paul's conversion has several different accounts, though I remain unconvinced how useful that table is.

Part C will be of particular interest to biblical scholars, with individual attention given to each and every of Paul's epistle. The full list of manuscripts are listed in chronological order and use. The letters are categorized according to disputed and undisputed, prison, pastoral, and major letters. Extra biblical letters are also listed, without the author being dogmatic about Paul's authorship of them. I find the calculation of words, vocabulary, and pages, less helpful as a theological tool, and prefer to see them merely as interesting information for the modern scientific mind. What is interesting is the way the different figures of speech, number of OT quotations or allusions, and the brief background of each biblical book most helpful from a teaching or preaching angle. The chart on the various interpretations of various key texts and verses is worth the price of the book. Listing down all the popular understanding, readers will begin to appreciate more of what it means to be open to discussion and not become too dogmatic too quickly about any one view.

Part D being the theological survey represents the culmination of any study of Paul. The theological significance of Paul's letters is the most important for any student of Paul. Kierspel gives us a fairly complete list of all the theological subjects like Christology, Soteriology, Pneumatology, Eschatology, Ecclesiology, Hamartiology, Spirituality, Cosmology, and many more. There are segments on ethics, household codes, gender relationships, modern Jewish views, as well as the "new perspective" of Paul.

My Thoughts

Theological books on Pauline theology or subjects about the Apostle Paul tends to be wordy and a little too heavy for the layperson. Sometimes, seminarians, preachers, and pastors find it challenging to summarize the life of Paul. This book is one tool that packs in a lot in a small footprint. I like the book for three reasons. Firstly, one sees the overview of the life and teachings of Paul in just one or two pages. Often, modern readers do not have the privilege or knowledge of the background of Paul in order to better understand and interpret the texts. Readers will be much better equipped with this book in order to do that. Secondly, this book can not only raise greater awareness of the importance of Paul, it can instill interest, even spur readers to want to do more research on their own. A good teacher is not one who dishes out everything for students, but is one who is able to whet the appetite of the student, and let the hunger and thirst of the student guide and motivate the student to want to learn more. Thirdly, personal comments and interpretations are kept minimal and as inconspicuous as possible. Commentaries are intentionally kept brief so that the reader can study the book for what it is. Moreover, Kierspel has delayed giving many of his comments toward the end of the book. This is particularly helpful as we are assured that facts are provided before interpretation. Having said that, one can also argue that the way the tables and charts are arranged and selected are by themselves interpretations in the first place. From what I can read, it is a valid argument but it is in no way crippling in terms of understanding and appreciating the life, theology, and teachings of Paul.

All in all, I enjoy this book and warmly recommend it to anyone desiring to study more about Paul's life, his teachings, and his theology.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

"Introduction to Messianic Judaism"

TITLE: Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations
AUTHOR: David Rudolph and Joel Willitts, (editors).
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2013, (336 pages).

This anthology of essays is written by top scholars, theologians, evangelicals and messianic Jews, with a singular purpose: giving readers a "portal" into the movement of early Jewish believers from the first century to the present age. We all know about the Jewish heritage of Jesus, and the importance of the Old Testament to the New Testament Church. Society has often hyphenated Judaism and Christianity into a singular word: "Judea-Christian." Messianic Jews are people who are Jews by heritage, and Christians by professed faith. What better way to introduce Messianic Judaism than the invite Messianic Jews to write about it. As general editors, David Rudolph and Joel Willitts bring together 27 articles from 26 theologians, scholars, Jews, evangelicals, most of them coming from North America, Europe, and Israel. In this book, the editors attempt to find a link between the early Jewish pioneers more than a hundred years ago to the current 21st Century Messianic Jewish community. The project is one way to help Gentile Christians appreciate the "epistemological" aspect of Messianic Judaism by digging into the roots of early Christianity from Jewish eyes. It also helps one to understand the "ecclesiological" link between Judaism and the modern Church, and how the Church is one with both Jews and Gentiles together. Other reasons include a desire to cultivate a dialogical relationship between Jews and Christians through praying for one another, sharing the gospel, encouraging one another to work together, ministry work, and dialogue. The "Christological" aspect is also studied simply because Jesus himself was a Jew.

Part One comprises articles written by recognized leaders in the Messianic Jewish community. This is the contribution from the Jewish perspective. David Rudolph surveys the history of Messianic Judaism from the first four hundred years in the Common Era (CE or AD) and the 18th Century, to the modern age, focusing on the Matthean community and the Jerusalem community. Rudolph and Klayman look at the distinctiveness of Messianic synagogues from the main synagogues, through their centrality of Yeshua, the use of the New Testament, the presence of Gentiles among the worshipers, and how both Jews and Gentiles work together to build the synagogue. Klayman also writes on the manner of worship and prayer in these congregations that are distinctively Jewish, and yet Christian. Carl Kinbar looks at the interpretation of Scripture, as well as the interpretation of it. There are interesting insights about how Messianic Jews see Scripture less from a technical biblical scholarship angle, but more from the context of an "interpretive tradition" that is soaked with history and tradition. Russ Resnik brings together Jewish ethics and Jesus' teachings to reveal how God is manifested in the working out of good works. Stuart Dauermann shows us that outreach is also very much alive and vibrant in Jewish communities. While missional methods vary according to contexts, the heart of the structure is similar: covenantal participation of past, present, and future, together in a common gathering place. We also learn about how Jewish outreach is different from Christian evangelism. For example, while Christians tend toward "personal evangelism," Jewish outreach prefers the community invitation method, where those who are far out, are invited to draw near. Rachel Wolf makes a contribution on the place of women who have become identified with pioneer work as well as integrating a cultural identity.  Akiva Cohen tells the inside story of Messianic Jews in Israel, their return to Israel, and their relationships with the fragile Middle East climate among Palestinians, Israelis, and others. Mitch Glaser shares about some national organizations that attempt to preserve commitment to Israel, assimilation matters, involvement among Jews, Torah observance and tradition, as well as their vision for the future generations. Mark Kinzer looks at how Messianic Jews relate with the rest of the Jewish world in both directions. He tackles the difficult task of understanding which party is more influential, the evangelical community on the Messianic Jews, or vice versa. Daniel Juster tries to bridge understanding between Gentile Christians and Messianic Jewish community through appreciating how histories shape the way they are. The affirmations in the article help to bring some basis for common identity and understanding. Jennifer Rosner then offers her thoughts about how dialogues can be encouraged between Jews, Christians, and Messianic Jews. She is optimistic that Messianic Jews can be a potent force for building bridges among Jews and Christians.

Part Two contains a wealth of knowledge from Christian leaders which forms the contribution from the Christian perspective. We read of Daniel Harrington's description of Matthew's version of the community of believers. After all, Matthew is most Jewish of all the gospels, and is also written primarily for a Jewish audience. Harrington proposes that it is Jesus that brings all things together. Darrell Bock gives his take on the unity of Luke-Acts, claiming that the church is the New Israel. Richard Bauckham examines early participation of Gentiles into Jewish communities, and how the early apostles help to bring them into the fold. Craig Keener argues for the need for both communities to be inter-dependent so that they can mutually bless each other. William Campbell writes about Israel and the Church both theologically and dialogically. Scott Hafemann sees a huge redemption motif in the relationship between Israel and Gentiles, using the book of Romans for his theological base. Justin Hardin reflects on what it means to be one in Christ while Todd Wilson takes a look at something that the Jews hold strongly: the Law. Others like renowned New Testament theologian such as Markus Bockmuehl looks at the gospels, the Son of David, and the genealogical records in order to make sense of the lineage of Jesus in the light of Christian faith today.

What is lacking for depth in any one individual topic, is more than compensated by the breadth of coverage of Messianic Judaism matters. The articles are relatively short, and resemble more like brief papers given at conferences rather than full-blown treatises. David Rudolph sets the framework with an introduction that gives readers an idea what to expect. I appreciate Joel Willitts's patient summary of each essay, giving apt and pithy statements to describe the main points of each contribution. Both of them offer their personal encounters with Jews, Christians, as well as Messianic Jews, and have given the Church, the Christian community as well as Messianic Jews, deeper insights not only on the different backgrounds of both Judaism and Christianity, but also the common heritage of being one in Christ. They have arranged the essays intelligently, moving from historical past to the contemporary era, touching on a rich tradition and describing how the tradition has evolved with the times. For the second part of the book, they have carefully compiled the essays and placed them with rough theological themes such as biblical theology, ecclesiology, soteriology, Christology, eschatology. The book appears to be a convergence of two worlds in two ways. Firstly, there are more similarities than differences between Judaism and Christianity. This is most evident in the Person of Christ from whom all blessings flow, all covenants are fulfilled, and all identities grafted into one. Secondly, there is also a meeting of like-minded people, whose interests converge not only in their areas of study, but also in the friendships that they have cultivated over the years. Willitts's concluding chapter weaves together the many positive strands of Jewish-Christian dialogues and areas of agreement. Perhaps the biggest value that I find beneficial for both Christians and Messianic Jews is the way Willitts has answered the question of "What does Introduction to Messianic Judaism has to say to us?" There is unity of faith. There is a faithful reading of the Scriptures according to tradition. There is a strong ecclesiological emphasis that respects the traditions of Judaism as well as the tenets of evangelicalism. There is a necessary reminder that Christians do not grow out of a vacuum of faith. Just like Jesus who was born into a Jewish world, and ministers in a Jewish environment, so we need to be sensitive to the common heritage. Indeed, this book will be a positive resource to bring about greater understanding between Jewish people and Christians, providing platforms for cooperation and teamwork, in a world that has increasingly become secular and materialistic. If there be any partnership, let the focal point be the common covenant in God. Let the focal person be Jesus Christ.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5


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

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"At the Still Point" (Sarah Arthur)

TITLE: At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time
AUTHOR: Sarah Arthur (compiler)
PUBLISHER: Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2011, (256 pages).

This book is poised to become a collector's item. The Christian calendar begins at Advent and four four weeks right through to Christmas, Christians commemorate the birth of Christ. Then comes Lent, which is 40 days before the crucifixion of Christ, and after the resurrection is the Easter season which normally lasts about 7 weeks after Lent. The periods between Christmas and Lent; Pentecost and Advent are understood to be Ordinary Time (Epiphany). This book is written with the objective of letting readers appreciate Ordinary Time using good literature and prayer guides. The 29 weeks of readings are designed for use during the period from Pentecost to Advent. Readings such as prayer guides, meditative readings, provoking thoughts and literary masterpieces, are compiled from writers, philosophers, theologians, from the Early Church to the modern era. Arthur has selected the pieces that tend to focus on helping readers to be worshipful in the reading, meditative on the praying, and to cultivate a more reflective and contemplative mood in a society often thought to be busy, distracting, and downright confusing. She calls the anthology a kind of "moonlit garden" to invite readers to walk the long Ordinary Time period, traversing the full range of spiritual experiences "from conviction to calling, quarreling to awakening, dark nights, redemption, and everything in between." The title of each week's readings is a good reference point on where the author is attempting to invite into. Each week follows a similar structure. There is an opening prayer and Scriptures to be read. There are choice readings from various writers and poets, most of them considered classics or masters of spirituality. There are opportunities to pray and reflect upon the readings. At the end of it all, there is a closing prayer, chosen from some of the best worshipful prose and poems.

Each week, there is a focus on a certain spiritual experience. There is intimacy of grace, calls for persistent praying, as well as cries for mercy. There are also moments of dark despair and pleadings for strengths to endure the harsh middle way. There is also a borrowing of Philip Yancey's title of one of his books, "Rumors of another world," which brings together some glimpses of eternity. What I appreciate is the level of detail and care that Sarah Arthur has put in to remind readers about the Holy Week experience, which is the very core of the Christian faith. It teaches us that even though there are distinct seasons of the Christian Church calendar, all of these remembrances are linked to one another. More importantly, all of them point back to the Person of Christ. This structure roughly parallels the journey of the early disciples who walked with Jesus, watched Jesus suffer, died, and resurrected, started the Church, and maintained the hope for a glorious future kingdom.

I am also amazed by the huge collection of materials that dovetail so well into the theme of each week. Arthur brings together the different writers from different eras, selects their literary pieces, and let them speak for themselves. At the same time, she lets them converse with one another through the minds of the reader. One can read slowly or pace steadily. One can also select a few to read at a time, or to read one large passage in a single sitting. Some of the readings are intentionally brief so that the words are given time to sink in and to initiate ripples of creative thoughts. Many of the writings are from 15th to 21st Centuries. There are the Medieval spiritual writers such as Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, John Donne, and St Francis of Assisi. There are famous 17th to 19th Century writers such as Madam Guyon, George Herbert, Christina Rossetti, Richard Baxter, and Leo Tolstoy. The modern era is also well represented with familiar names like CS Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Luci Shaw, Frederick Buechner, Wendell Berry, Chiam Potok, Mary Oliver, Marilynne Robinson, and many more. With such a collection of well-known writers and the high quality pieces, readers are often challenged to remain at the "still point," to reflect upon life. They are invited to ponder the words and the powerful imagery it paints. They are persuaded not to let the world around us mold us into its hurried and non-stop busyness frame of mind. Instead, the reflective reading and contemplative praying is an antidote that helps us move into an unhurried disposition, and a readiness to stop or pause every once in a while without feeling guilty about it.

Let me give an example of how one can move from activism to reflection. In the chapter on "Growing Good," Arthur begins with an opening prayer that reminds us once again, that "all is done for us." There is no need to worry about things undone, for the most important thing has already been done for us. God has given us life in the Spirit, and has empowered us for goodness. The readings in Romans 5 for example affirms this fact that those in Christ has already been justified by faith through grace. The readings are then placed to help us focus on this act of God accomplished by God already at the cross. Christina Rossetti's prayer reminds us about God having prepared a resting place for our "happy soul." John Keble reflects upon the triumphant glory of God. Richard Crashaw points to the greatest goodness of all: Love.  George Eliot's story tells about how one can accomplish great things for God, even when living a life of obscurity.

I recommend this book highly for people who wants to be refreshed in their prayer life, for people who desire opportunities to reflect upon life in God through the most ordinary of circumstances, for those who want to be more contemplative as they live day to day, meet person to person, and to let the book accompany them as they progress through a spectrum of emotions.

If you are planning to go on a spiritual retreat, and wonder what you need to bring, let me recommend at least three things. First, bring a Bible. Second, carry along a hymnal or a book of spiritual songs. This book is a strong recommendation for the third. It is that good.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Monday, April 15, 2013

"Look Before You Lead" (Aubrey Malphurs)

TITLE: Look Before You Lead: How to Discern and Shape Your Church Culture
AUTHOR: Aubrey Malphurs
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (272 pages).

Before anyone attempts to shape an organization, one needs to understand its culture. Before anyone can re-write or change the culture, one needs to read it for what it is, why it is that way, and to discern what kind of change is needed for its future. Just like we need to look before we leap into any abyss, we need to look before we lead in any organizational change. Malphurs, an experienced leadership guru in the area of Church strategy and leadership, has provided a three-part guide to help us do just that. He borrows widely from different leadership and management sciences, as well as his own learning and experience to help readers understand culture as comprehensively as possible, to read culture as intelligently as possible, and to shape culture as wisely as possible. More importantly, this book's strategy is largely borrowed from Howard Hendricks's method for inductive Bible study, the OIA approach to Bible reading.
  • O = Observation of the text (culture)
  • I = Interpretation of the text (culture)
  • A = Application of the text (culture)
Just like many Bible students will learn to exegete the biblical text in order to understand and apply the Word, in the area of organizational change, leaders will need to learn to "look" at organizational culture before one "lead" in organizational changes. This crucial idea is often left out in many change efforts, which lead to results that are often discouraging, even unhelpful for both the organization as well as the people. In this review, I will be using "church" and "organization" interchangeably.

The first step in understanding culture is to define what culture is. Malphurs gives readers a helpful metaphor using the "Culture Apple." Borrowing from Edgar Schein's understanding of culture, Malphurs defines culture as follows:

"The church's congregational culture is the unique expression of the interaction of the church's shared beliefs and its values, which explain its behavior in general and display its unique identity in particular." (20)

The "Culture Apple" is understood in three layers. Layer One, the apple's skin or peel is the behavior of the church or organization. This is the external layer  like demographics, language, facilities, communication style, ministries, symbols, worship manners, leadership, etc. This layer is often most visible to the guest or visitor to the church. It is very much about what people in the organization do and visibly seen on the outside. Layer Two is the flesh of the apple, or the values of the church. This is the layer that defines the ministry distinctives, core importance, leadership choices, ministry character, etc. Malphurs argues that at this layer, a value is something that is constant, passionate, shared, a core belief, drives and guides the church. Such values can be consciously or unconsciously practiced. It can also be mixed with personal as well as community values. The value of a Church can also determine whether a Church ultimately is more education-heavy (classroom church), evangelism-strong (soul-winning church), worship focused (experiential church), or relational-strong (fellowship church). Layer Three is the apple core, which is about what the church believes. Malphurs points out that it is not mere doctrinal or theological beliefs. It is about what a congregation holds true about the church and the world, and how believes effects behaviour. Aware of the possible confusion of beliefs vs values, Malphurs takes pains to describe the differences between the two. Simply put, a belief is one of conviction, while values is one of being a guideline that acts on a belief. Only after understanding the three layers can one learn to explain and to adopt appropriate strategies to engage the world. Strategies that question one's organization like:
  • Have we isolated ourselves from the world to avoid any influence inside and outside the church?
  • Have we accommodated too much of the world into our church life?
  • Have we contextualized our ministries in order to influence the world?
Part Two is about "Reading the Church." Here Malphurs integrates the OIA paradigm into the Apple Culture using the following:

Apple Culture Exegesis
Peel Behavior Observation
Flesh Values Interpretation
Core Beliefs Application

The two main application of this paradigm is to read both the organization culture as well as the pastor as a person. The assumption is that the pastor is the key change advocate. Reading the church is about understanding the organization's complete culture picture through the three layers of the Apple metaphor. We can observe the organization simply be noticing what are the external symbols, the way things are done, and the many movements of activities. Interpreting the culture requires discovery of values through questions, interviews, and other exercises that ask to probe a little deeper beyond the external facade. Application of the culture means asking what is unique about the church, its strengths and weaknesses, and its relationships inside and outside. In reading the pastor's culture, Malphurs is more interested in the leadership aspect of the organization. It takes leadership to make changes. Knowing the organizational culture is not enough. It is necessary to know the people in the culture, who may be called upon to make changes. In the same manner, Malphurs applies the OIA paradigm in helping to read the leadership culture.

Part Three of the book will be of great interest to anyone desiring positive change strategies. Once the heavy lifting of understanding and reading have been done, the organization will be ready to make changes where necessary. With the key change champion in mind, Malphurs gives tips on how to create a new church culture for church planters as well as "culture sculptors" for existing churches. He identifies some barriers to change such as refusing to slaughter sacred cows, vested interests in preventing change, personal agendas, distrust of leadership, and so on. He talks about the spiritual gifts in the church and thoughts about some modern scientific methods of discovering temperaments such as the Myers-Briggs Temperament indicator (MBTI) or some personality profiles testing. He even gives tips about the scenario where the pastor in charge do not feel like he/she is the one to be the "turnaround" person! Going through the preparation, the process, and the personnel issues, Malphurs packs in lots of material to ensure that the reader will be helped with clear practical steps on what to do. On top of that, the appendices are provided for church leaders to take and do their own audit to know what and where they are, and to discern the how in moving forward.

My Thoughts

A good book is one that not only wows the reader, it shows the reader how to go about making changes in their own lives or the life of the church they love. With theory backing up the application, Malphurs has given us a vital resource on how to go about making positive change for any organization. I have long enjoyed Malphurs's teachings and this book certainly does not disappoint. Culture is so much a part of us, that often, we are not aware of how much culture is influencing our work in any organization. Misunderstanding or misreading culture is one sure way to destroy any change strategies. Like looking into the mirror before we first decide whether we need a facelift, or to look at the rear end mirror before we change lanes when driving, we need to know where and what we are, before we can decide to go to where we want to be. Then, and only then, we can exact the change that we discern we need, and more importantly, to change to what is best in order for God's Church to flourish even more as the salt and light to the world. Malphurs's book touches on something very simple but extremely important. Knowing who we are. Culture is a huge way to know who we are. For example, even though many churches want to say they are very balanced and that they emphasize all aspects of Christian living, it takes a leader to boldly identify and state themselves for who they are. Before any organization can make the next leap, they got to know where they are, what to do, and how to go about any changes. This book shows us the way.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"To Sing Frogs" (John M. Simmons)

TITLE: To Sing Frogs
AUTHOR: John M. Simmons
PUBLISHER: Salt Lake City, UT: White Knight Publishing, 2012, (376 pages).

[Note: From time to time, I will review books from independent publishers. Today's review is one of them. Even though I do not share the Mormon faith, there is a good message in this book that deserves to be told.]

There is love and compassion. There is a hunger to do the right thing. There is a deep conviction that amid a world of badness, there is still a chance to bring about goodness. In fact, the company founded by the author, White Knights, is specifically created to help alleviate poverty worldwide in whatever small ways possible. This energetic memoir tells the story of one man and his family, bringing hope through adoption of six children. In the process, Simmons learns not only to bring blessings to others, but through others,

The story of compassion and the sharing of hope, especially to people who begin this life thinking that "the world is a bad place." Yes, there are terrible places in this world. Where there are terrible people, there will be terrible situations. After all, the most biggest challenges in the world are often not technical or philosophical. It is relational. For many orphans in Russia, the world is a gloomy place. Refusing to be discouraged by the mountain of challenges, John Simmons seeks to give at least some of them hope through adoption. With his wife Amy, they have three biological children and have adopted six others. After having four boys, the couple was hoping to adopt a girl within the country. Without much success, they shift their focus overseas, in particular, Russia. Here is where the adventure really begins. Through the memoir, the Simmons describe their adoption experiences, their international travels, their strength to overcome administrative challenges, their observation of life in Russia, and their untiring efforts to make their dream of adopting the girls come true.

This is a very personal memoir, written with much energy and passion. Readers will be amazed to read about the mountain of challenges faced in international adoption. It is so difficult that only the most determined can maintain the high levels of optimism to overcome the different kinds of obstacles placed. If local adoption is difficult, international adoption is even more difficult. Words cannot do justice to the experience of the Simmons. For all the difficult times, just looking at the photographs of smiles and family, I can tell that as far as the author is concerned, it is all worth it. This book helps the author to bring back powerful memories for him, his family, for readers, and for many people who have gone through the adoption experience. Not everyone has the resources or the opportunities like this Simmons. Not everyone can overcome the challenges as well as John and Amy.  Yet, with love, it is always worth a try. Be encouraged as you read this memoir that reminds us that when science and intellectual know-how seems impossible, faith takes over. Even though the world is full of challenges, it is also full of the overcoming of challenges.


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

Saturday, April 13, 2013

"Imagining the Kingdom" (James K. A. Smith)

TITLE: Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Cultural Liturgies)
AUTHOR: James K. A. Smith
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013, (224 pages).

Worship is something many Christians do week after week. Each weekend, churches all over the world will be filled by people desiring to worship. What is worship? Is it just about music and song? Is it simply going through liturgy and rituals, based on tradition? Or is there something more? Perhaps, if one has cultivated a desire for the kingdom, how then is one going to do about that? How do we desire after the kingdom? In other words, how then do we worship? This book helps us do that through the auspices of imagination and "How worship works."

This is the second of three volumes of works called the "cultural liturgies." Following the format and style of "Desiring the Kingdom," James Smith has decided to shift away from his initial plan of a scholarly monologue, toward something more accessible by the general reader. Nevertheless, he is aware that this volume may still be too "too scholastic for practitioners and too colloquial for scholars." He provides fodder for both kinds of readers. For the scholar, he is more at ease with providing philosophical references, scholastic thought, as well as inviting them to notice what is written and not to be distracted by what is not written. For the practitioner, or the rest of us, he maintains that the book is primarily for us, that we be patient with the academic foundations while getting ready to pounce from that toward action. In other words, the academics form a necessary foundation for any works.

The thrust of the book is about what worship is, how it works, and what it means for us as practitioners. Two words crystallize the essence of the book: Incarnation and Perception. Through the art of imagination, both can be practiced. Through action, imagination of the kingdom in worship will lead to a powerful working out of the kingdom in good works. Smith poses a good question right from the start. "What is the end of worship?" He convincingly shows us that the end of worship is truly the end of worship, and the start of being sent out into the world, after being empowered by the Word through the Spirit. Just like theory needs to lead to action, the end of worship is to be sent out into the world with a mission. Worship is not an exercise in self-sustenance of spiritual activities. Worship is a powerful response to the vision of the kingdom, encountered during worship. The story of "reading Wendell Berry in Costco" is an extremely effective way of describing the limitations of worldview, and makes us hunger for something more kingdom-view. Smith even urges readers to move from "mindful" to "mindless" so one one can allow imagination to take over any predetermination of activities during worship. It is not abandoning our intellect in worship, but to situate them appropriately. This is an important corrective to a world that has often over-emphasized the importance of "thinking." This is primarily because we worship not out of what we can do. We worship out of the basis of our created being, that God has made us to be. We are liturgical creatures and we who want to worship need to do so liturgically. Thinking and wide use of intellect hem us in on the informing domain. Imagining moves us into the "forming" and the "transforming" domain. The book then shows us how to do just that. The three key things to note are:

  1. Recognizing the "nonconscious" drivers in us that aid imagination
  2. Accounting for how our physical bodies are wired as we orientate ourselves to the world around us
  3. Appreciating the centrality of storytelling our "bodies of meaning."

In Part One, Smith goes into social theory and the study of human perception, trying to navigate between a search for meaning (kinaesthetics) and an expression of imagination (poetics). Believing that one's imagination drives one's action, stories become a powerful vehicle to do just that. Our actions, our behaviours, our thoughts, are all interconnected through the living out of our stories. That is why worship is like telling a story, in particular God's story in our lives. Smith puts into practice this aspect by inserting interesting stories after each treatise segment. He uses film to engage our imagination. He uses science and statistics to capture the motor intellect. He uses physical postures not just to make things interesting but to keep readers interested. He points out the makeup of our being that we are both erotic and social creatures. "Erotic" in the sense of what piques our physical senses. "Social" in the need for relationships. He makes a keen insight into our conventional way of "putting theory into practice" that it tends to be too "intellectualist." The problem with such "intellectualist" approach is that it reduces ourselves to mere objects. Theory put into practice is to recognize that we are bigger than me. We need to cultivate a "habitus" to help us live as participating members of a community, of communal living, and to be a community both through institutions and elsewhere. Just like "mindless" living, we need to be social creatures without a disposition of "conscious aiming." The more we learn to do it as naturally as possible, the more incarnate will be our acts. Worship is exactly the cultivation of that!

Part Two goes farther on how to move beyond "mindless" or any overly aware states of intellectualism. If we are created in the image of God, we need to ask beyond what we are created for, but Who we are made for. That is the purpose of worship. In "sanctified perception," Smith helps readers to live intentional lives of telling their life stories to live worshipfully. We use narratives and poetry to chart our journey of life. We utilize metaphors and aesthetics to enhance our understanding of bodies of meaning.We learn to perceive life not as segregating the world or breaking life down into different components, but to consolidate the many aspects of life, and to weave them together with our knowledge, our experiences, our thoughts, and our stories. In other words, we are wired to tell stories, and stories are there to aid our telling of our own lives.

I marvel at the wide intersections of anthropology, neurological sciences, literary criticisms, theology, liturgies, and many branches of higher learning, all brought together under the umbrella of human perception and interpretation, expressed through art, through science, and whatever the human faculties are capable of. Written with much care and critical thinking, the book is packed with insights from many different disciplines. At some point, one starts to wonder which discipline is the author from. What is the author doing with the constant oscillation of theory/practice, intellect/action, science/non-science, the mindful and the mindless? This is cleared up toward the end where Smith focuses on the Christian call to mission. Just like man has been redeemed to do good works, like in Ephesians 2:10, where we are created in Christ to do good works, this book reminds us that we have been created in God to worship God in our words, our thoughts, and our deeds. The more we know how we are wired, we will learn how to live as naturally as possible. We will grow to be more worshipful and more aware of what we are created to do and to be. Most of all, we begin the journey of going beyond the "what-to-do" but toward "who-we-live-for." Though this book can be a little hard to read at times, the diligent and persistent one will find it richly rewarding. After all, the more we realize how empty we are, the more we will long for something more fulfilling. The more we realize how much we need God, the more we will long for Someone most High, most Loving, and most Worthy of our worship. Let me close with this great quote from the book:
"By equipping the people of God to reflect on worship, we can change how we enter worship — change the “angle of entry” into the community of practice that is the worshiping congregation. The angle of entry to worship seems to be a determining factor in the formative power of worship." (188)
This book can potentially prompt readers to begin the move from mere worshiping once a week to become worshipers all days of their lives. It's time to start imagining the kingdom in us, about the kingdom for heaven, and for all of us. Did the book achieve its purpose of helping readers imagine the kingdom? Yes. Even though the going at times may be hard, each pause at a concept, a crossroad of understanding, or an intersection of perspectives, presents to both scholar and practitioner a simple choice: Wait upon the Lord. Such a disposition will be a great beginning to imagining the kingdom by letting the Spirit guides us.

Rating: 5 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.

Friday, April 12, 2013

"Tough Topics: Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions" (Sam Storms)

TITLE: Tough Topics: Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions (Re: Lit Books)
AUTHOR: Sam Storms
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2013, (352 pages).

Culled from his 40 years of Christian ministry, Sam Storms has distilled the many difficult questions of faith down to 25 top questions that demand answers. It is the author's earnest effort to bring about some light for people seeking understanding, even among Christians. This book aims to reduce the level of anxiety, and also be a helpful resource for future research. The ultimate aim of the book is to help readers reach a point where they desire not answers, but to worship the one true God who has all the answers. The questions can be roughly categorized according to their different theological emphasis. There are questions about the nature of God such as "Does God ever change his mind? (Immutability of God). There are questions pertaining to the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology), about the sinlessness of Jesus (Christology), about salvation (Soteriology), Bible, about Christian living, and other practical concerns such as legalism, tithing, death of infants, healing, and others.

The 25 questions are:
  1. Is the Bible Inerrant?
  2. What is Open Theism?
  3. Does God ever change his mind?
  4. Could Jesus have sinned?
  5. What Did Jesus Mean When He Said, “Judge Not, that You Be Not Judged?”
  6. What is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit?
  7. Does the Bible Teach the Doctrine of Original Sin?
  8. Are Those Who Die in Infancy Saved?
  9. Will People Be Condemned for Not Believing in Jesus though They’ve Never Heard His Name?
  10. What Can We Know about Angels?
  11. What Can We Know about Satan?
  12. What Can We Know about Demons?
  13. Can a Christian Be Demonized?
  14. Does Satan Assign Demons to Specific Geopolitical Regions? Are There Territorial Spirits?
  15. Can Christians Lose Their Salvation?
  16. Does Hebrews Teach that Christians Can Apostatize?
  17. Will There Be Sex in Heaven?
  18. Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?
  19. What Is Baptism in the Spirit, and When Does It Happen?
  20. Should All Christians Speak in Tongues?
  21. What Was Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh?
  22. Is There Healing in the Atonement?
  23. Why Doesn’t God Always Heal the Sick?
  24. What Is Legalism?
  25. Are Christians Obligated to Tithe?

This book could have easily become another theological treatise, weighty in scholarship and hard for the layperson to read. Storms has wisely refrained from doing that. Instead, he approaches it from the angle of seeing where the seeker is seeing, looking at how the questions are pointing, and most importantly, accompanying the questioner patiently and gently. Using questions to guide the logical flow, Storms is able to present his answers to difficult questions with simplicity and clarity. At appropriate places, he inserts in biblical support as well as scholarship. Key theological words are italicized to help readers take special notice of its importance. The author is also able to touch of the many threads in each question, giving the reader an opportunity to decide for himself the logical flow and the rationale behind each thought. I like the way Storms anticipate questions to a particular point. For example, when talking about inerrancy, rather than beginning with a biblical verse, he lets the arguments lead readers toward a biblical verse, lest the answers become circular, that is, using the Bible to talk about the Bible. Circular arguments do not impress non-believers, doubters, or the skeptic.

I appreciate the contemporary debates Storms has included, like open theism, spiritual warfare, as well as the evergreen questions which people never seem to get tired of asking. Are these questions really tough? Maybe. Surely, there are tougher ones. That said, Storms have gotten most of them in this over 350 page book. I am quite curious about why the topic of suffering is missing. While there are snippets of references to suffering in various chapters of the book, personally, I think the topic of suffering deserves one full chapter itself, even two. For pastors and teachers, this book can easily be a set of 25 ready made sermons. For the rest of us, it can be another resource that helps us explain the faith in a clear, logical, and simple manner. One does not need a theological background in order to understand this book. Storms will guide you along.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


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

Thursday, April 11, 2013

"Inked" (Kim Goad and Janet E. Kusiak)

TITLE: Inked: Choosing God's Mark to Transform Your Life
AUTHOR: Kim Goad and Janet Bostwick Kusiak
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2013, (208 pages).

What do you do when you meet someone with a tattoo on his body? Do you roll your eyes or brighten up with excitement? Do you pass negative judgments inside your head or do you demonstrate a desire to learn more about the tattoo? Or do you simply appreciate the individual's bold self-expression on his skin? Or like the authors, have you ever thought that the tattoo itself can be a great conversation starter? This book probes into these and offers up a fresh perspective on how Christians can understand people with tattoos, tattoos on people, and anyone involved in the creation and designs of tattoos.   Tattoos reveal a lot about the person. It can be a sign of solidarity or a revelation of some pain. It can be an expression of love or a remembrance of someone. It can also be a message of hope or a statement of faith. All in all, tattoos reveal more than meets the eye. It is a window into the world of the person wearing it. For the authors, it is also a window of opportunity to care and to understand more of the interesting people in this world. While not all tattoo stories are pleasant and heartwarming, some of the stories shared reveal a whole load of honesty about the brokenness of the world we live in. This is a book into the inner world of tattoos, personalities, art, self-expression, and things pertaining to the tattoo culture. Key to understanding tattoos is how it encapsulates the essence of a person's perspective of life, their dreams and their hopes.

The Book
Each chapter begins with a Bible verse and a quote from a person with tattoo, that sets the tone for the pages to come. Historically, tattoos have been used since the American Civil war days where soldiers were tattooed. The 1940s were said to be the "golden age" of tattoos. What makes this book most compelling is that it is not simply about tattoos but about the stories behind the tattoos. It is not about the inked art on the body but about how it diagrams the life of the person. Like Josh Hamilton whose highly successful baseball career was curtailed in a car accident, and how him being a showcase for his tattoo artist, plays a part in his slow but sure recovery of faith in himself, and more importantly in God. Or like Ricky, who struggles with a mother who seems to put her own interests above the children, and a broken family, and how he tattoos on himself a quote from Fight Club: "It's only after we've lost everything that we are free to do anything." Yet, not all tattoos are intentional works of art. Others like brawny looking Pete and petite sized Lilly have been scarred by life so much that the tattoos are about what life has done to them instead of what they have wanted out of life. Still, Lilly manages to find some revelation of God's glory through her gashes, and how the gentle engraving of images on the skin is a whole new learning experience of how God is gentle on people. As prayers can bring about an experience with God, so can tattoos. Chapter after chapter, page after page, the authors painstakingly weave in stories of God's redemption of people, even as people seem trapped in the harsh world of broken reality and dashed dreams.

My Reflections
Five things strike me as I read this book. Firstly, there is a painfully honest dimension with regards to tattoos. From the first tattoo experience, to the stage where they "kick into third" gear of engraving more permanently the ink, the tattoos personalizes their experience, and in some unique way, allows them an honest expression of their personal pain and gain. Pain in the engraving. Gain in the explaining. The honesty in the tattoos fully deserves greater understanding from the public. Christians can learn to ask open questions with keen interest to know the person more. They ought to show genuine care and to avoid casting statements of judgment. Like what the authors have experienced, readers can use the world of tattoos as a great conversation starter, and in the process, engage in a warm conversation leading to friendship that heals people.

Secondly, it is a bold step of faith to personalize their own struggles. Tattooing is a painful experience for novices. Many of the persons describe have a childhood struggle or a traumatic experience to share. It tells us about how broken the world is, and how deceptive the devil can be in deceiving us or making us hide from reality. The tattoo is a way in which many people express how the evil one has tried to crack an innocent life. In tattooing, real struggles are depicted in flesh and for some, in pain.

Thirdly, there is a strong element of redemption through Christ. This is not just about the bible verses in the front of each chapter, or the bible stories weaved in each tattoo story. It is about how God redeems people in the past, and how He is still redeeming people in the present. In God, we can overcome any harsh self-critic in us, by learning to see ourselves from the loving eyes of God, instead of cursing ourselves to oblivion.

Fourthly, we can move from self-expression to expressing ourselves more holistically in God. Tattoos can do so much to represent personal history or human hope.  There is only a limited leap of faith in any element of human spirit. As we are all made in the image of God, only when we reflect the image of God more fully, can we present ourselves more completely. In other words, tattoos may represent us partially, but it takes God to be about to help us be the persons we are made to be. After all, we are in many ways, "works in progress." When we learn to move beyond self-expression, we start to notice that the world is bigger than our world. There are the other people and different characters in the tattoo shop. There are many different artists and skills in the tattoo industry. There are also thousands of stories waiting to be told. Most importantly, what counts is a "new creation" that only God can provide, above the mini-acts of creative works of art humans try to engrave.

Finally, we do not let the tattoo define us. It is God who defines us, aligns us, and refines us in our journey called life. We cannot frivolously judge people with tattoos with any preconceived mindsets. For Christians, yes, I understand that the Old Testament do have words of warning against graven images, or the New Testament teachings about preserving our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. Learn to see the tattoo for what it is, and not to see too much into it. Learn to see from the eyes of Christ, to see that underneath the inked mark is a person that Christ has died for. Underneath the skin is a person that God loves very much. Underlying the picture or engraved words is a story that is being told or waiting to be told. 

Final Words
This is a very unique book that looks into the world of tattoos from a very redemptive angle.  In fact, I feel that tattoos have often been cast unfairly in a negative light. Through the insights gained in this book, readers will certainly learn that there is more than meets the eye. We need to learn to withhold judgment and to embrace an openness like Jesus toward people, regardless of their looks or their lifestyles. Just knowing that many people with tattoos are also people with genuine struggles should help us maintain a level of empathy and understanding to want to hear more of the stories. One big disservice any Christian can do to the gospel is to brush off people with tattoos with any of their preconceived ideas about tattoos. Next time, if you look at a person with a tattoo, do not cringe or feel embarrassed. Be interested, and ask questions. For all you know, you will find that the person is just another ordinary person like you and me, coping with the cruel reality of life, in the best possible way. Thanks to authors Goad and Kusiak, we not only have a book that puts some perspective to an often misunderstood world of tattoo, we have a guide on how the gospel shines regardless of the effects of sin in this world. After reading this book, you'll see tattoos from a new perspective, largely positive.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


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