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Saturday, August 31, 2013

"Be the Church" (Caesar Kalinowski and Seth McBee)

TITLE: Be the Church
AUTHOR: Caesar Kalinowski and Seth McBee
PUBLISHER: Exponential Resources, 2013.

[Free ebook available here.]

There is a popular saying that a picture speaks a thousand words. Indeed that is true in many ways. Whether we are talking about concepts, ideas, or plans, the moment we can put them into pictures, more people can connect, especially in an increasingly visually stimulated culture. The book has this one central goal: Making it clear and simple the two most important callings for the Church: Discipleship and Mission. This is what the Church exists for. This is what the Church lives for. Such is the convictions of the authors that they have decided to put these important ideas into 10 pictures. They have kindly made it free for download here. One of them includes Seth McBee's Napkin Theology. Let me make a few comments about the ten pictures.

The first is about Church being a people of God, not a building of bricks. This is something that is often missed in our everyday language. "I am going to Church. Are you going to Church?" Statements like these will give hearers the impression that Church is basically a place for people to gather. No. Theologically speaking, Church is not an institution. It is a living organism. Our language needs to change to reflect what is biblical and accurate. Church is about a people of God coming together. The authors draw out clearly that when the people are gathered together, they become witnesses far and wide.

The second drawing talks about the identity of the Church. Based upon the identity of God as Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), the authors make a parallel to Father as "Family," Son as "Servant," and Spirit as "Missionary." On a modal sense, it is very understandable. It reveals the identity of God through the works being done. Unfortunately, I think it is overly reductionistic, especially on the Personhood of God. God is God, and He cannot be defined simply on the basis of what he can do.

The third drawing is about the purpose of the Gospel. Disciples will make disciples to fill the earth with God's glory. It shows us that Church is not about growing one place or organization. It is about expanding as wide as possible with God's kingdom in mind. The word "exponential" clearly fits the description.

The fourth drawing shows readers the four pillars of discipleship: Bible study, Social Justice, Evangelism, and Fellowship. Unfortunately, it does not explicitly mention spirituality of prayer, worship, praise, meditation, etc.

The fifth drawing again uses a tri-circle Venn diagram to talk about Head, Hearts, and Hands in how to make disciples. The head is about learning; the heart about believing; the hands about experiencing. It is an easy to remember image and will help readers avoid lopsided emphasis on any one area.

The sixth drawing has Christ at the center of all of our lives. I like this because it runs against the oft-glorified idea of "balance." Far too often, I have heard people arguing for a balanced life between work and family; friends and Church; time management; busyness and leisure; and so on. So much so that it seems life is about balance as a final objective. No. For the Christian, Christ is at the center of all.

The seventh drawing is a mission focused on. Called "Gospel communities on Mission," it highlights mission as the #1 priority in being a gospel community. This is what the missional movement is all about: becoming gospel communities everywhere we go; anywhere we can; and influencing everyone we meet.

The eighth drawing compares and contrasts the place of "small groups" versus "missional communities." The former tends to be inward looking while the latter is outward looking. For growth purposes, especially numerical, the authors are right. Churches must learn to be outward looking. Yet, I have a small reservation. What about spiritual growth? Surely, there is also a need for groups requiring soul care and inner nourishment. For every harvesting of the field, there need to be planting, watering, fertilizing, etc.

The ninth drawing looks and compares "proactive mission" with "reactive mission." It is thought provoking and challenges Church leaders to think about and the re-think their own mission strategies. I agree that it is better to be intentional about our mission rather than to scramble when we are asked to do mission.

Finally, the tenth is a realistic look at a "Missional Community Growth Chart." I loved it. Christian discipleship is not one nice bold line drawn neatly upward. It comprises of ups and downs, messy-like meanderings as we search for what is best.

What I like most about the book is that it not only puts ideas into pictures, it spurs conversations. That way, it is not a book that puts concepts cast in stone, but becomes like invitations to discuss and to work on what is most appropriate for each community.


This book is provided to me free by Exponential.org, GCM Initiatives, and VergeNetworks resources without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

"The Evangelicals You Don't Know" (Tom Krattenmaker)

TITLE: The Evangelicals You Don't Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians
AUTHOR: Tom Krattenmaker
PUBLISHER: Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2013, (232 pages).

Who are the new evangelicals?  Are they the movement coming out from Portland, Oregon? Are they people who are hitting back at fundamentalist evangelicals portrayed as "anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-women's rights, anti-science, anti-liberal, pushy and arrogant, judgmental, quick to shout and disinclined to listen?" Are they the younger generation of believers who are tired of old fashioned politicking in the name of Christianity? Using a "big-tent definition," Krattenmaker tries to be as inclusive as possible with regards to who are the new evangelicals. He defines them as:

"Christians who are rooted in the orthodox beliefs of evangelical Christianity and who are fiercely devoted to Jesus—yet are largely free, or becoming free, of the cultural and political baggage that has made evangelicalism appear, often, to be just another voting bloc or culture war army."

Writing as an interested observer, this self-professed non-evangelical tries to journal the emergence of a new movement, a new group of modern evangelicals by focusing on a largely white, male, and young to middle-age segment. It is a movement that is devoted to following Jesus as radically as possible. It is a movement that is geared toward social justice and anti-poverty. It is a movement that is frustrated by the excesses of the past political baggage, the Jerry Falwell and James Dobson era, and seeks to move beyond politics toward actual reaching out to people who have been marginalized. Ten chapters are devoted to describing these new evangelicals.

Krattenmaker makes a powerful start to describe the need to replace any styrofoam Jesus with the real Jesus. Stereotype images must be removed for they mask the real thing. The new evangelical movement represents a strand of hope for the true face of evangelicalism to emerge. He talks of how one of Portland's evangelical churches, the Imago Dei, bucks the trend of churches asking for money by giving away money to the city and for the community. With a $100,000 Christmas gift, the Church surprises the city's mayor and makes Portland "Jesus' favourite city." Jim Henderson bucks the trend of conventional witnessing and evangelism by finding new ways to connect people with Jesus. One way is open bidding for the soul of an atheist on ebay, and then making an honest attempt to be friends rather than to convert the "friendly atheist," Hemant Mehta. Henderson's aim: build bridges of understanding, and then let the person experience Jesus for himself. Krattenmaker also takes issue with the perception of the US as a "Christian nation," arguing on the contrary that it is more unChristian. Rather than to be entrapped by arguments on how Christian is the US, the more constructive question is: How do Christians participate constructively in the affairs of nation building?

In a movement that sings to the same tune of "Blue Like Jazz," there is also a group of new evangelicals boldly putting up a "confession booth" in the middle of a raunchy public festival. That is not all. Instead of telling the skimpily clad individuals who entered the booth to confess and repent, the volunteers at the booth actually confessed to the sins and the historical wrongs done by people who wreak havoc and violence in the name of Christianity!

One key to bringing about change to negative public perceptions of evangelicals is to divorce religion from political party platforms. The Religious Right does not represent all of evangelicalism. Neither should they crusade for Christ under the platform of political votes. Phrases like "Reclaiming America for Christ" movement needs to be carefully reconsidered, in a manner that is less politicized, and more inclusive of various points of views. One example is to avoid pitting labels of "Christians" vs "non-Christians," but to have common labels to reflect common goals and desires. The vigour of evangelical youth can power the next generation toward these ideals.

Then there is the homosexuality debates. Using the example of a gay campaign (oneWheaton) in the premises of a conservative theological school, the new evangelicals are less quick to condemn homosexuality, choosing instead to find ways in which they can be accepting of the homosexual person without condemning them as persons.  Young people do not want to be forced to choose between their faith and their friends. They want greater love and acceptance. They do not want old-style condemnation but new style openness. These people believe that one does not have to compromise their beliefs even when they accept the homosexual community.

From homosexuality, there is also the age old abortion debate. Again, the politicizing of the issue has caused many problems. The new evangelicals see the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice debates as a dead-end issue. It can never be resolved. Instead, the focus ought to be on the larger issues that CAN be resolved. For example, greater access to birth control, better sex education, etc. There is also the issue of terrorism, secularism, culture making, and other issues which many will be familiar with.

So What?

The chorus throughout the book is about becoming more accepting and more open about people as people, rather than people according to their declared political, ethical, religious, or social stands. It is about learning to live well in a pluralistic society. It is about the efforts and desires of a new generation who are tired of old-style politicking and religious debates that seem to head nowhere. It highlights the need to be more accepting of the younger generation of believers, especially those who have rebelled against the excesses of fundamentalist behaviours and tactics. Gone are the days where one can thump their Bibles and expect people to just obey. Such tactics are ill-advised, and will be swiftly rejected, even condemned by society, especially the young. It will be interpreted as insensitive, intolerant, and inappropriate. Unfortunately, in its haste to discredit the radicals from the "Christian Right," there is a danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. The newer and younger generation risks alienating themselves from the wisdom and the biblical faithfulness that the believers of old have kept. It is fair to say that while we acknowledge that some things said are bad, we cannot say that ALL are bad.

I reflect on the book and understand that the author is essentially questioning the need to even draw the line when it comes to controversies and religious disputes. Why can't we all get along? Why can't we be more open in another way, instead of becoming locked in closed ended issues. The New Evangelicals present a new hope for a new era. I applaud this optimism and I sincerely look forward to seeing great things and ideas that will draw people closer to Jesus. However, I have one caution. In attempting to bring others into the common fold, we must be careful not to lose our own identity in the process. No matter how open or how accepting we are, we need to know ourselves and our relationship with God. We need to know what is honourable and what is not honourable to the Word of God. Being nice is not a command of God. Being true and faithful is. I will recommend that readers read this book with an open mind, but not to be too quickly swept away by the ideas in the book. Yes, there are fresh ideas. There are good initiatives that are well intentioned. Just like they say we cannot throw away the baby with the bathwater, we too need to understand that we still need to do something about the dirt and the grime in the water in the bathtub. How to go about doing that requires the wisdom that comes from God and people with wise spiritual counsel.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


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

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Film: "CAMP"

DIRECTOR: Jacob Roebuck
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Word Entertainment, 2013.

[Release Date: August 27, 2013] [Movie website link]

What can one week away at camp do for foster kids or for children who suffer from parental neglect or abuse? How can anyone help kids who have been hurt to embark on a path of recovery and healing? Send the kids to a week long Summer camp! Based on the filmmaker's personal camp experience at a Royal Family Kids Camp years ago, this film brings together various stories and shows how relationships formed at camp can change lives. For the better.

The film begins with shocking scenes of child abuse, neglect, and violence. Eli grows up in a family devoid of love and care. The mother lives in a world of her own, often choosing to drown herself in narcotics and take out her frustrations on young Eli. The father is not any better. One scene shows how he angrily hits Eli upon suspecting that Eli had not told him the truth about the money in a tin can. Eventually, the mother overdosed on heroin, and the dad got arrested and put behind bars. Hurt, confused, and angry, Eli was at a loss at what to do. At a tender age of 10, Eli gets fostered out to a children's home in Locustwood. The film moves quickly to smooth out Eli's entry to a camp experience. The story then sets the stage for various confrontations between reluctant participant, Eli, and an inexperienced new counselor, Ken. Just when the relationship reaches a breaking point, thankfully, things start to turn for the better. When Ken learns of Eli's broken past, he begins to appreciate Eli and the reasons for his behaviour. Samuel shares his expertise in handling rebellious teens, skillfully infusing enthusiasm into those who appear lethargic and uninterested. Tammie plays her role brilliantly as an encourager as well as an inspiring leader.

Gradually, the different characters of the film are added, each with a personal story to tell. There is Tammie the camp director, and also related to a rich lady tycoon. There are several encouraging camp counselors like Samuel, the ex-military man whose own life was changed as a result of a camp he had attended as a kid. Then there is Ken, a cell-phone hogging investment professional who became camp counselor in order to impress one of his rich clients.

So What?

The movie has many points of hope and grace. It tells of how God works out right through people, in spite of wrong motives.  There is Ken, the shrewd financial guy who drives a Porsche and lives a successful career, forcing his way into the camp just to look good before a rich client of his. This wrong motive turns out for the better, as he becomes not just a close friend of Eli, but a trusted man that Eli's father eventually asked to be custodian of Eli. Ken then breaks one of the camp's rules by bringing and using a cell phone in the camp premises. Eli manages to make a call to his dad who then intruded and created a nuisance at the campsite. All things turned out for the good as Ken becomes more aware of Eli's terrible family past. Viewers understand the importance of camp rules and the need to strictly enforce the rules. Toward the end of the movie, as the credit rolls on, there is a not to be missed, touching series of interviews of real life camp counselors, workers, and camp organizers making the point that camp is a powerful opportunity to change lives.

The film also reminds me how important the core family is to children. While we can build the best foster homes, the most conducive campsites, the best professional children's workers, or the most comprehensive facilities to house troubled kids, there is no substitute for a family that is loving and caring. There is no justification for child abuse or neglect. Much attention has been given for foster care and the care of children. What about the parents and the supporting network in the first place?

The film itself has a powerful story of how hurts can be turned to hopes, and how the most troubled kids can turn out for good. Unfortunately, there are parts of the movie that seem to be either out of place or under-developed. For example, the opportunities for romantic encounters between Ken and Tammie are many, but the love plots appear under-developed. Attention could also have been given to bring out the lives of the other camp counselors and their motivations to serve at camp. That said, the overall quality of film is above average. More importantly, if there is one message the film is sending that viewers need to take home with, it is this: There is always hope. If God can help the lowest of the low, and the poorest of the poor, surely he can do the same for the rest of us?

Links of Interest


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

Monday, August 26, 2013

"Wounded Women of the Bible" (Dena Dyers & Tina Samples)

TITLE: Wounded Women of the Bible: Finding Hope When Life Hurts
AUTHOR: Dena Dyers and Tina Samples
PUBLISHER:  Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2013, (248 pages).

In times of trouble, do we fight or take flight? When wounded, do we turn inward or look outward? How do we find hope amid hopeless situations and broken relationships? Written by two authors who have personally experienced what it means to be wounded by people close to them, this book looks at more than 14 women in the Bible, all of whom have one thing in common: Woundedness.

The different facets of hurts are meticulously highlighted. Beginning with the famous story of two prostitutes who shared a close relationship, living together, bearing their child together, and eventually fighting each other for the custody of a living baby. With astute observations, Dyer and Samples show readers how both women experience the joys of being a mother and the sorrows of losing a child. The first woman discovered the dead child she had personally smothered. The second woman discovered the horror of a dead baby next to her before realizing that it was not her baby. Both knew what it means to lose a child.

Abigail suffered the abuses of bad tempered Nabal, who later on went on to irreverently anger King David. Dinah was sexually violated, and that one incident led to tragic consequences not just for the perpetrator, but also the evil that her brothers were led to commit. Ruth's grief at the losing of her husband continued into an unknown future as she voluntarily chose to stay with her mother in law. Hagar was brought up as a slave, treated like a slave, and eventually expelled like a slave. Jochebed at great personal risk, chose to protect the baby Moses, and had to battle any emotional attachments by letting the baby escape the clutches of Pharaoh in a papyrus basket. The two sisters of Bethlehem had different ways of serving Jesus, and at the wise words of Jesus, were taught a great lesson of what devotion means. There is the story of the blame game played by Adam and Eve. There were several cases of women who struggle with barrenness, and how they overcame. Sarah's desire was fulfilled because of God's promise. Rebekah and Hannah drew strength from God through prayer.  All these and many more assure us in the modern world that we are not alone in modern troubles, loneliness, barrenness, isolation, or trials. There are many cases in the Bible that ordinary men and women in the Bible struggle as much, if not more.

So What?

I remember fondly the words of Helen Keller: "All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming." This book contains testimony after testimony that it is true in biblical times, and it is also true in modern times. There are five things that I take away from this book.

First, we are never really alone in any suffering. Just look at the wounded women in the Bible and we will get lots of examples that there are many who have suffered. The story of Mary and Martha also reminds me of how Jesus himself cried when the sisters cried at the loss of Lazarus. Every time we think we are suffering alone, read the stories of the women who have gone through pain and grief. See how they throw themselves at the feet of Jesus, or prostrated themselves in the temple of the LORD. Not only that, Dyer and Samples make it very personal and contemporary with many stories they have encountered through their friends and loved ones. Take the story of Nichole who suffers from Crohn's disease at the age of four, and how the mother anchors the whole family with faith in God. Eventually, God gave them the faith to have faith.

Second, we may not be free of problems in this life, but we can maintain a faith in God that can set us free. Whenever we face a problem, we almost always have a choice. Either we face it boldly to overcome it, or we retreat from it and let it overwhelm us. In Christ the Rock we can stand, for Jesus can overcome. There is the story of Amy who encourages desperate women to persevere and not quit.

Third, great helpers are often people who have endured hurts of their own. Dyer and Samples say it well that "hurt people hurt people." At the same time, hurt people know what it means to be hurt, and through their healing, they know what it means to be healed. The authors weave in their own stories of hurts and healings, giving readers something to identify with and to be assured that the book is both authentic, which in itself can be very therapeutic.

Four, God is always with us, whether we feel it or not. I am encouraged by Hagar, who in spite of the harsh treatment by Sarah, is blessed by God. It reminds me that God is fair and just, and does not judge us according to skin colour or race, but loves us all. For God so loved the world, not just a part of the world, or any one particular ethnic race. God loves all, and He promises to be with all his disciples.

Five, it is not what is happening to us that matters, but how we respond that matters more. It reminds me too of Chuck Swindoll's wise words: "Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it." Ruth could have retreated into oblivion at the death of her husband. Yet, in choosing to go ahead and be faithful to her mother in law, God honours her faith and blesses her with a husband, a child, and eventually becoming the great grandmother of the greatest king Israel ever had: David.

I recommend this book for anyone, not just women, who are facing struggles of faith or doubt. Whether it is from the biblical examples of the wounded women of the Bible, real life illustrations of modern people, or personal stories of the authors' own experiences, there is something for everyone, if not, most people. The path to healing must be through the eyes of the needle of wounds and pain. It may be hard for many of us, but it is a reminder that what is impossible with people, does not mean it is impossible with God. In fact, with God, all things are possible.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


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

Thursday, August 22, 2013

"Five Stones" (Shane Stanford and R. Brad Martin)

TITLE: Five Stones: Conquering Your Giants
AUTHOR: Shane Stanford and R. Brad Martin
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2013, (192 pages).

Do you know that the word 'miseri' is literally "Egypt" in the Swahili language? Ever wonder why God chose a short and unfancied shepherd boy like David to defeat a large size fearsome Philistine like Goliath? What about moments of tough challenges in our lives? Do we take flight or do we fight? Maybe there are some giants in our lives that we have the potential to overcome, but for some reason we have failed to stand up against them. The authors begin by sharing the reminiscences of their own past, where they see how giants of life are slain by the most ordinary people with extraordinary hearts. Like Shane Stanford's grand uncle, whose bravery in WWII Normandy is often hidden as he wanted to avoid the pain of reliving the horrors of the war. The act of remembering is a way in which one can overcome the fear of pain with the reality of victory gained. Or the story of how a girl from Kenya became a symbol of hope, that as she battles the plight of being an orphan, she unconsciously helps others battle their own "emotional orphanages." Or the stories of Citizen Kane vs the victorious comeback coach in Hoosiers. Over and over, the authors reiterate that all of us can slay the giants of our lives, through the adopting of two attitudes and and using of five stones. The first attitude is interdependence, and to learn to fight battles together with others, not alone. The second is remembering that many others have conquered their own giants, and have paved the way for us to conquer our own giants.

The First Stone: A Picture

The key to fighting a victorious battle is to be clear in our minds what we are fighting. It is one thing to be gifted and skilled in a certain way. It is yet another to channel these skills toward a clear battle strategy. Like the famous golfer Jack Nicklaus who understands that the key to putting the ball is to visualize and "imagine the shot." Similarly, one needs to build a clear picture by recognizing fact from fiction; by visualizing the big picture; and by setting achievable goals. Before one flexes the muscles and throws the stone, one needs to reflect and recognize the actual challenge and the big picture of the target.

The Second Stone: Your Tools

Tools that are blunt will not give us the cutting edge. Not only that, tools that are unused will also go bad, just like Paganini's violin that became worm-eaten when kept unused in its case. The unused tool is also a metaphor of missing and avoiding opportunities when they present themselves. Three principles are put forth for the reader to sharpen, to use, and to excel in the tools we have. We first decide what is at stake. Then we take an inventory of what we have. Finally, we share our burdens and the battle we take. It reminds me of how easy it is for the stone that David threw to just embed itself fatally into Goliath's forehead. It must have been sharp to do just that!

The Third Stone: A Plan

Like the old adage, if one fails to plan, one plans to fail. How did David defeat Goliath? It is not enough just to have a big picture or powerful tools. One needs a plan in order to maximize both of them. being prepared is one core requirement of any successful battle. The authors also present three principles for planning. First, it needs to be solid but flexible. Solid in its comprehensiveness, and flexible in its implementation. Second, we learn from the Bible that seeking godly and wise counsel is critical in any battle plan or strategy. Having good mentors is a critical part. Third, keep the plan simple so that it can be easily communicated and effectively implemented.

The Fourth Stone: Your Training

We do not simply train for training's sake. We train with a purpose. We train on the basis of knowing ourselves. We train in a manner that knows what we need, what to build upon, and when to stop. Through five ways, we learn to adopt a targeted cultivating of skills. We learn when to put our skills into overload in order to strengthen. We learn to take a rest for recovery when needed. We learn to adapt. We learn to remain consistent.With the principles of sacrifice, obedience, and effort, our training will not be in vain.

The Fifth Stone: Your Nerve

One of the biggest challenges in any battle is on the inside. Whether it is psychological, emotional, or somewhat hidden, we need to cultivate boldness that is not easily given in to fear. It would have been easy for David to retreat back into the safety of his shepherding work, or the ordinary lifestyle of a normal Jewish boy. Yet, he built up nerves of steel to come face to face to battle with the Philistine. Living boldly is an act of faith. How do we do that? The authors suggest two principles. The first is to be prepared. The second is to be committed. Together, the preparation and the commitment will help build boldness in fighting our giants.

So What?

The authors then share their real life stories of their battles with all kinds of giants in their own lives. Like Martin's recovery from a bitter divorce. It took a lot of work before he is ready to try again in another marriage. Training, planning, and committing are core ingredients. Toward the end of the book, there are many exercises to help readers develop and build upon these five stones for overcoming any giant.
It is very practical and easy to follow. It will be easy for readers to just say that this book is another of those spiritual motivation books that provides the adrenaline for a while. Lest readers miss it, note that the book is written out of the ashes of brokenness and humbled lives. The authors themselves are not just writing theories. They have personally experience the humiliation by giants in their lives. Honestly and humbly, they have given us a manual soaked with their experience and learning, that we too can be encouraged to battle our own giants, and hopefully, avoid potholes along the way.

I am encouraged indeed, to know that we can use the five stones to defeat any giant. Let me add in a cautionary note. We must always remember that when we face any giant, we come against them not in our own five-stones effort, but in the name of the Lord. Choose our battles wisely. As disciples and soldiers of the Lord, we cannot simply get involved with every battle. Sometimes, we need to discern with the Spirit of God, whether to advance or to retreat, whether to reinforce or to just let go. Distinguish between winning battles or winning wars. We may win short term battles and still lose the eventual war. Do not fight unnecessary battles foolishly. Beware of red herrings. The wisdom and counsel of the Lord must always be sought first. If the book has given readers the idea that they can do it with their own strength and their own five stones, then readers will be doing themselves a disfavour for that is not what the authors have intended.

The battle always belongs to the Lord. Even when we fail to use the five stones properly, or even when we fail despite our best efforts, God is faithful and just, and will win the battles in His Name, according to His time, for His ultimate Glory. That must be the reason for our boldness and our commitment. Glory must go to God, and only God!

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


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

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Evangelical Theology" (Michael F. Bird)

TITLE: Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction
AUTHOR:  Michael F. Bird
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (912 pages).

"The gospel is the fulcrum of Christian theology." The is the underlying conviction of the author in the systematizing of an evangelical theology shaped around the Person of Christ. For Bird, the gospel is the "glue between doctrine, experience, mission, and practice." Writing for the evangelical churches, Bird seeks to balance "biblical exposition" with contemporary theological engagement with various theologians through the ages. More crucially, Bird is concerned about the two extremes of current evangelical circles. The first extreme are those who try to make theology more relevant to a post-modern audience. This is problematic because it tempts well meaning theologians to unwittingly compromise and buy into pluralistic thoughts. The second extreme are those who try to defend orthodox theology so much that their very identity grows upon their oppositions rather than their propositions. Such actions lead to various levels of them accused of "imposing" their ideas on other people. Only in the gospel through Christ can one avoid the extremes; practice love; uphold truth; integrate Christian theology with ethical living; and proclaim the gospel well as evangelicals. Bird teaches at theological schools in various parts of Australia. He is currently a professor in theology at Ridley College, Melbourne. Although he is an unabashed Calvinist, he prefers to call himself a "mere evangelical" believing that labels are often quite unhelpful. Proving the point, he assigns himself other labels too, like "catholic evangelical," "reformed," and a biblical theologian trying to do systematic theology. The book is written in eight parts.

Part One is where the author explains his theological method. He defines evangelical theology as the "drama of gospelizing." Out of delight in the gospel, one can develop a theologizing be shaped by the gospel, avoid extremes of liberalism or fundamentalism, integrate other theologies, and to let the gospel guide our Scripture reading. Bird then lays the groundwork of the gospel being the kingdom of God having come in Christ and fully represented in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The reason why there is value in having a biblical theologian doing systematic theology in this way is the conviction that the gospel breathes life into theologies that are often accused of being dry and hard to comprehend.  Bird adopts the five main sources of doing theology; namely; Scripture, tradition, nature, experience, and culture. He also distinguishes his type of theology from "apologetic theology" (too question and answer heavy),  "dialectic theology" (overly paradoxical), and the "Wesleyan quadrilateral" (more a framework rather than a method), before proposing his own method of "gospelizing theology." Four questions guide Bird's method.

  1. What is the gospel? (Definition)
  2. Relationship to the gospel?
  3. How Scripture "dances" with other sources of theology?
  4. What the theology looks like when the gospel asks: "So what?"

Key take home is that we cannot have a relationship with Christology or other theologies, but we can have a relationship with Christ (the gospel).

Part Two sees theology as the gospel of God, of God revealing himself in the Trinity, how it is expressed in traditional creeds and confessions, and the highlighting of various heresies that distort the identity of Christ. Bird then brings together the theological thought and apply it to prayer, worship, ministry, missions, and community. The way to know God is through Christ, who perfectly manifests all the perfect attributes of God. Bird even squeezes in a section to ponder about whether God is male or female.

Part Three is eschatology in which the gospel announces the coming and culmination of the kingdom of God. Interestingly, in contrast to many systematic theology texts which put eschatology toward the end, Bird inserts it earlier, believing that the kingdom stems from a vision of the end. This is consistent with Jesus' consistent declaration of the kingdom in his ministry. Eschatology is not some future event but a present reality. He contrasts Christian eschatology with contemporary ones like modernity and postmodernity, and claim that "reason" per se is unreliable due to its constant flux. They do not offer sufficient hope, unlike the gospel. Taking the position of the well-known German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, Bird argues that eschatology is not about the future itself, but about the future of Jesus Christ and our participation in that future. After explaining the three different views surrounding the millennium and the tribulation, Bird proposes that a biblical theologian will assume the position of "historical premillennialism."

Part Four is Christology with an intense focus on Christ and the centrality of Jesus as God's Son. There are many issues with regards to the method. The Jesus seminar, the search for the historical Jesus, and the Third Quest seem to be losing steam as they increasingly look more like a quest based on the opinions of the biographers. Instead of doing Christology from the basis of "from above" or "from below," Bird insists on a Christology that is "behind, below, above, and before" which is more encompassing.  Jesus is not an idea or a philosophical frame of thought. Jesus is a person who lives and represents Word made flesh. Meticulously, Bird describes the birth, the life, the death, the cross, the atonement, the resurrection of Jesus, and the second coming of Christ.

Part Five is soteriology, the gospel of salvation. The author details how the gospel is salvation to all who believe. The gospel is redemptive and the message of redemption fills both the Old and the New Testaments. We learn of how one can "work out" the gospel through understanding predestination, and contrasting Calvinism and Arminianism, always remembering that it is God who saves.  The results are mindblowing. From forgiveness to redemption; rescue to reconciliation; justification and peace, faith believes that God works. There is even a comment on Rob Bell's controversial book about heaven and hell, as well as open theism.

Part Six touches on Pneumatology, on the identity, the Person, and the work of the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Triune Godhead. Bird laments that the Third Member of the Trinity has been largely neglected by evangelicals. Lest we become Binitarian instead of Trinitarian, we need to remember that the work of the Holy Spirit is beyond mere experiential. The Holy Spirit is at work in all areas of Christian ministry, a fulfilling of the Promise of Jesus, and empowers the Church to do God's work.  Unfortunately, the brevity of this chapter is in itself embarrassing. Just when Bird says that the Trinity has been largely neglected, I am dismayed to see this section on the Holy Spirit relatively shorter than theologies about God the Father and Christ. Surely, there is no shortage of sources on Pneumatology. Just ask our Pentecostal brethren!

Part Seven is on the doctrine of man and sin. It covers the themes of how humanity plays out in the overall plan of God. We learn how man is created in the image of God, its implications, and what it means to be children of God. Bird argues for a literal reading of Adam in creation. In explaining the nature of man and sin, Bird also emphasizes man's need for salvation and redemption in Christ. This is in view of the potency and ferociousness of sin that continues to drag down the whole world in sin. On the place of evil and suffering, Bird tackles theodicy and the problem of evil. He asserts that the ultimate form of theodicy is the gospel, for Christ himself suffered the gravest injustice and the greatest bearer of world suffering. Just think of it. If we being imperfect and evil deserve the pain and suffering, what about a perfect and good person like Christ who suffers unjustly?

Part Eight is about the Church and the community in Christ. Also known as Ecclesiology, we learn of what an evangelical church is like, biblical images, the shape, the marks, the governance, and the liturgies of the Church. Evangelical churches are identified with the gospel as the very core of their being and ministry. It is not a denomination by name, but an identification with Christ by nature. The Church is the people of God, the elect, the flock of Jesus, the priesthood of believers, the remnant of chosen people, the body of Christ, the temple of God, the new creation, the new Israel. The Church is a Trinitarian, diaconal (existing for others), fellowshiping (living with one another), and holistic community. There is an interesting chapter on the governance of the Church, covering the Episcopal, the Presbyterian, the Congregationalist, and others. Bird allows readers to discern what is most appropriate for their situations.

(**) The Advanced reader copy I received has mistyped the Part 8 as part 9. Hopefully, the publisher can catch it before the final copy goes to print.

So What?

This is a work of biblical/systematic theology textbook written by a biblical theologian. Bird admits firsthand that it is easy to criticize the work of systematic theologians from a distance, but hard when one is actually a practitioner. I can recognize the the painstaking details put into this giant textbook. Bird draws widely from the Patristics and the Reformed theologians. At the same time he is conversant with historical creeds, confessions, heresies, as well as contemporary theologies like Open Theism and Modernity. Let me offer a few thoughts about the book.

First, I applaud Bird for the very comprehensive treatment given to this important book on evangelical theology. The scope is indeed breathtaking. There are lots of references and summaries of the different theologies. As I read the book, sometimes I feel like this is a mini theological shopping mall where everything is available under one roof.

Second, I notice that Bird's writing starts to lose steam from Part Six onwards. While the first five parts of the book are meaty, even heavy, the next two parts, namely Pneumatology and Anthropology seem to be like a marathon runner slowing down drastically three quarter way through the race. The brevity on the Holy Spirit to me is quite disturbing, especially when Bird specifically mentions that many Churches tend to be Binitarian rather than Trinitarian!

Third, I smile when Bird compensates at the very end by writing a very good chapter on Ecclesiology. This is important because the primary vehicle where the gospel is communicated is through the Church.

Four, I appreciate the way Bird presents the book, putting forth a fair representation of the different scholarship and the theological perspectives first before telling the reader where he stands. With many tables and illustrative maps, readers find it easy to navigate the complex material presented.

Five, this is a textbook, a reference, a resource, for the Church. It will be a shame if it is consigned only to theological institutions or religious schools. It is a valuable book for the pastor, the preacher, the teacher, or a lay leader of any Church.

Finally, I applaud Michael Bird for a very good effort, especially for a biblical theologian attempting a systematic theology project like this.

I warmly recommend this book for teaching, preaching, and for anyone who calls himself an evangelical. I agree with the author that evangelical theology is a gospelizing drama. So dance away with Christ, delighting in the study of the Word with steps anchored in the kingdom and the gospel.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Film: "Season of a Lifetime"

TITLE: Season of a Lifetime
PRODUCER: Rick Cohen
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Word Entertainment, 2013.

[Release Date: August 27, 2013]

Can a relatively unknown high school ever become known in public eyes? Can a small football team in a small town ever make it to the big stage? Can a man diagnosed with ALS help in 2008 help lead a football team to success in the 2010 high school football season? As far as Jeremy Williams is concerned, the answer is a resounding YES!

"It ain't over until it's over!" comes the refrain of Jeremy Williams. His never say die attitude is infectious. It turns around a group of football players into greatness. It gives national attention to the spirit of the human soul. It provides a can-do attitude for anyone who tends to be discouraged by illness, disease, and dire situations.

This is an inspirational documentary about a man who dares to defy the odds. It is about how one looks at the word "impossible" into "I am Possible." The can-do attitude defines the life and determination of Jeremy Williams, who suffers a progressing ALS disease, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Despite the condition and the deteriorating effects of the disease, Williams lets his actions talk. He commits himself to be the head coach of his hometown's Greenville Patriots for one last season, to give of his best, but more importantly, to challenge others around him to give of their best and be at their best. The results are phenomenal. Greenville High School is the only high school in Greenville town, about 60 miles south west of Atlanta, Georgia. With a population of less than a thousand people, the documentary even says that it has just one red light junction!

How on earth can a small team make it to the big arena? By winning? Not really. It is not the winning per se, but the winning attitude that grows from largely the energy and determination of one man. Voted the National High School Coach of the Year for 2010, Jeremy Williams shares his family, his faith, while others revel in his fame and fantastic life of courage. Williams garners many public recognition. From being a recipient of the national show, Extreme Makeover, to the 2010 High School football season that epitomizes his life, Williams has become a symbol of hope and courage. Producer Rick Cohen, after reading about the inspiring story of Williams in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, decides to make a film that traces the life, and the gruelling challenges of being a head coach, who eventually leads the team to its first ever undefeated season, and to play in the coveted playoffs for the championship.

So What?

The film is devoid of all the glitzy and glorious Hollywood style rags to riches atmosphere. Yet, there is a gradual buildup of expectations of great things that are to come from humble beginnings. Inspiration comes not through a superficial bowl of glittering images, but through simple deep and honest doses of energy and belief that cut through the no's of discouragement, to reveal the yes's of determination. Williams's power of belief is infectious. Just seeing how he fights his own physical ailments is enough to energize people around him to achieve what many people say is impossible.

In the first few minutes, viewers will be introduced to the debilitating effect of ALS, the seemingly low probability of success of Greenville football team, and the very ordinary town of Greenville. Filled with snippets of the football team, interviews with family, friends, school staff, and many, we are given an idea how formidable the barriers are to lead the team to success. The producers even included the subtitles to aid viewers to understand what Williams is saying.

Just to give us an idea of the mountain of challenges for the Williams family, not only is Jeremy dealing with ALS, his son Jacob continues to battle Spina Bifida, a birth defect that affects Jacob's ability to walk normally. His wife Jennifer has also been diagnosed with breast cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. One wonders why this family has to go through so much. You can follow and support the fund raising campaign here. Jeremy and Jennifer will also be publishing a book called "Tenacious" due to be released this month.

(Jacob, Josie, Jennifer, and Jeremy; Sep 2012)
Photo Credit - Robin Trimarchi

If you enjoy football, you will enjoy this film. For the rest, the story itself is bigger than the football. Overall, this is a great film, but don't expect Hollywood style frills. There is no need as the story is already inspiring in itself. For more information click here.


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

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"The End of Apologetics" (Myron Bradley Penner)

TITLE: End of Apologetics, The: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context
AUTHOR: Myron Bradley Penner
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013, (192 pages).

What is wrong with current models of Apologetics? Is it the method? Is it the technique? No. It is the underlying set of assumptions that has been outdated and irrelevant to the postmodern mindset.  This provocative work is not against the Apologetics that we have come to be familiar with. It is re-describing the postmodern culture so that Christians can speak within its context. It is realigning strategies toward an environment that is less Enlightenment but Postmodern. It is a humble acknowledgement that we need to learn what postmodern cultural paradigms are, and to speak in a way that people steep in postmodernism can understand and appreciate.

The Apologetics of today do not work anymore, says Anglican priest and academic Dr Myron Penner, because of different aims. For instance, Conventional Apologetics are based on an understanding that if truth is presented as it is, people will be convinced, if not, a step closer to be convinced. No. Truth must be presented in a way that a postmodern mind can understand, not in a way that assumes a postmodern person having a 17th Century Enlightenment mindset. Penner weaves in the perspectives of Alistair MacIntyre, Soren Kierkergaard, and to some extent, John G Stackhouse, and slowly builds up his case to argue for a new form of Apologetics. This form will be a shift away from epistemological paradigms toward a hermeneutics of faith. It approaches that of Alistair MacIntyre's argument for both "consistency and coherence," that in order for any convincing to be done, parties must all come to a common understanding of the world and themselves. It embraces Kierkegaard's caution that rejecting a particular form of reasoning does not necessarily mean rejecting reason altogether. It supports John Stackhouse's attitude that humility is necessary when doing any Apologetics. Having set the tone, Penner goes on the offensive against conventional Apologetics.

First, Penner takes the underlying beliefs of the popular apologist William Lane Craig to task. There is an overwhelming dependence on reasoning to prove the consistency of Christian claims. Such a belief led to a heavy reliance on reason for faith, to the detriment of other non-rationalizing aspects. In other words, through reasoning and knowledge, people will come to faith. He argues that WLC's normative philosophy errs on the side of wrongful assumptions, that conventional kinds of apologetic arguments and debate are "normative" in a postmodern mind. In fact, Penner warns that Apologetics of old can even hinder the gospel. All because apologists like WLC are "disembedded" from what is meaningful to the postmodern mind. Penner points out the mismatch as follows:

"The task of reason in modernity is principally epistemological: its function is to measure, categorize, and exercise intellectual mastery and control over an otherwise brute and irrational universe that does not necessarily have a purpose, a center, or even a unifying principle. But reason is also the possession of individuals—not the universe—and is something each person has and must exercise." (30)

Having said that, Penner takes a softer stance to acknowledge that there are at least 5 other kinds of apologetic methods, but still asserts that all of them have the same central goal: justify Christianity to the postmodern mind, by assuming they still possess Enlightenment thinking.

In Chapter 2, Penner tackles the popular religious debates, usually between a famous believer and a prominent unbeliever. After that, a general poll is taken to check which debater does best. The problem with such debates is that many in the audience can find it difficult to follow both sides of the debates. Either it is too philosophical or overly academic.  Penner argues that instead of helping, modern apologists could very well be hurting the fragmented environment even further. What then is the best way to deal with postmodern skepticism? How does one speak to the sense of meaninglessness? It is one thing to be an intellectual expert. It is yet another to be understood beyond the mind. In doing good Apologetics, one must move toward a greater emphasis on revelation rather than reason. Following Kierkergaard's way of distinguishing between geniuses and apostles, Penner argues that genuises are born while apostles are called. Moreover, human reason can only scratch the surface of revealing truth. It is only the Holy Spirit who can reveal the whole truth. Point is: Are we establishing the reign of God because of our reasoning and argument? Or are we recognizing the reign of God because of God's revelation and redemption? For Christianity is not about an objective something, but a personal Someone; not about having the truth, but about being IN the truth; to do less of imparting knowledge in order to dominate and control, but understanding in order to care and to reveal the love of God.

Chapter 3 further exposes the vulnerability of modern apologetics in its fruit. Modern apologists seem more concerned with "epistemological justification" instead of people's "edification." Christians need to become more like apostles of exhortation, encouragement, and edification rather than genuises of arguments and reasons. It involves listening, being with, caring, and even living together. For Christianity cannot be reduced to mere arguments. Christianity is about the person of Christ, the confession that we do not know it all. God does. The ethics of belief Penner argues for is one that is more concerned with "how one believes" rather than "what" of belief. He then talks about features of prophetic speech, contrasting them with modern debates, cautioning one that we can win debates but still lose the person. Moreover, if one is not anchored on the gospel proper and depends only on reason, as listeners become unconvinced or remain skeptical, even the apologists can be disillusioned with the gospel.

Thankfully, Penner moves toward constructing a proper response in the light of his dismantling of modern Apologetics. This is done with an eye on eschatological aspect and the revelation of God through the gospel. God is not represented through arguments. God is presented in Christ. Two key things are said. First, we cannot presume to argue in a manner that seems to communicate we have all the truth. Only God has all truth. Second, becoming too objective in our pursuit of truth can do injustice to us being created as persons, and as creatures of subjective understanding. Truth must move from "correspondence" theories of facts toward "edification" of persons. Only edification can help bring people together. It can be humbling for apologists to acknowledge that there are many ways to understand truth, not necessarily the way advocated by the apologists. It takes humility to accept that people are free to look at truth a different way than suggested. At the same time, it takes good language that reflects truth-telling that seeks to understand rather than to be understood. Build more bridges instead of depending on arguments and debate to build bridges. Learn to use Luther's way of attesting to the truth to "belief in" rather than to "belief that."  Not all truths need to be proven. One can testify to the truth, and then let the Holy Spirit convicts the listeners.Truth-telling is not just about transferring knowledge. It is about edification of all. Penner asserts once again that there is no need to dichotimize objectivity from subjectivity, for truth embraces both of them!

In the final chapter, Penner moves away from Western based theologians and philosophy toward African style cultural symbols and how the Africans have exemplified a nice balance of objectivity and subjectivity. Western civilization tends to adopt a colonizing mindset, and then impart them to the Africans. In that manner, the biggest problem with modern Apologetics is that it resembles the colonizing activities of the Imperial West over the rest of the world. Telling the truth cannot be simply reduced to bullets of scattered arguments or the cannons of great intellectual apologists trained in Ivy League schools or famous institutions. For truth edifies. We need to make sure that we love our neighbour as ourselves, to not only talk about truth, but to LIVE in the truth. Gradually, Penner warns about how our "ethics of witness" (through over emphasis on reasoning) can lead to a "politics of witness" (through dismembering thoughts of others).

So What?

Is this then the end of the Apologetics that many of us have come to embrace? Are apologists really being less helpful than before? I think Penner is not saying that. While the language and criticisms he uses tend to be controversial, even confrontational, I perceive that he is not arguing for an abandonment of Apologetics altogether, but a realignment with the postmodern mindset, so that any arguments will not just convince the head, but care for the heart. What is needed is a bridge that modern apologists need to construct with much love and compassion. Personally, I believe the title of the book is a challenging invitation to talk about how to improve on the way we do Apologetics, and not meant to declare the death of Apologetics altogether. Apologetics is still alive and well. In fact, it cannot be abandoned altogether for three reasons. First, it is too early to say "the end." There are many people still familiar with the modernist mindset and the enlightenment thinking of the 17th Century. Just because we live in a postmodern world does not necessarily mean everyone is postmodern. That is why existing models of Apologetics still have its place. This is even more so because many modern educational systems and structures are still based on an Enlightenment foundation of truth seeking. Apologetics is here to stay for quite a while. Second, Penner's argument for a more edifying way to do Apologetics is to challenge any arrogance or overemphasis on knowledge over faith. In other words, do not see Penner as directly opposing what WLC or other apologists are doing. Penner is actually helping them to see that there are important changes happening in the world we live in now, and our Apologetics must speak not only intelligently to them, but be edifying.

Third, we need to adapt toward a more audience sensitive format. Key to understanding Penner's argument is to accept that the postmodern philosophical context and cultural climate have changed from a well-ordered ideal to a disordered reality. It has moved away from a world of harmonized and meaningful garden to a warring and increasingly meaningless world. It has become very individualistic, with communities increasingly more and more fragmented. Pluralism is not the hallmark of society. Fragmentation is. It is to this environment that Penner argues all believers and apologists speak meaningfully with. Just because one can put forth reasons for belief is not sufficient for faith. This is especially when the audience's very fundamental need is not even scratched at all. 

Still, I find three flaws in the book. First and foremost, the chief flaw to me in this book is this. As Penner tries to direct the focus of apologetics from an Enlightenment mindset to a more Postmodern sensitive mindset, the vehicle to do that is still very much the same rationalizing mindset that reasons and thinks like conventional apologists. In other words, Penner is essentially using the same kind of reasoning language! Granted that the book's audience is most likely people who come with that background. That said, will it not be more effective for the book to do what it says? That is, argue in a manner that is more postmodern sensitive. Second, postmodernism is a culture that is very hard to tie down because it is too diverse, too relative, and too slippery. Try as one may, eventually, one will have to realize that Penner's assertions work only for a particular group of Apologists who are overly focused on rationalization as a vehicle of faith. Anyone can dispute the definition of postmodernism. If Penner is right about society being fragmented, then there are more than one way to talk about postmodernism which then puts everyone in a relative spin. Third, more specifics are needed. The book is high on its critique but low in the application of what it prescribes. Maybe, give more examples of Apologists who have come close to Penner's model.

In summary, lest anyone accuses Penner of placing too much attention on postmodernism, readers ought to be reminded that Penner is arguing for an understanding of postmodernism as a "starting point" and not the end in itself. Another starting thought is to recognize that the world now is less of pluralism but more of fragmentation. Thus, any Apologetics cannot be geared toward individual groups in bits and pieces, but to learn to put fragmented pieces back together through common understanding and faith. The way to do this is not through thinking, reasoning, or sole dependence on our rationalization brilliance, but on the Holy Spirit. The mind may convince, but only the Holy Spirit convicts. Faith comes and grows from the latter.

This is a provocative book that does not end but instead extends the reach of Apologetics toward a more Postmodern sensitive audience. Kudos to Dr Myron Penner for highlighting his brave new work.

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.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"One Year to Better Preaching" (Daniel Overdorf)

TITLE: One Year to Better Preaching: 52 Exercises to Hone Your Skills
AUTHOR: Daniel Overdorf
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2013, (320 pages).

After seminary education, many preachers will have to learn on the job and to fine-tune their preaching skills either by themselves or to learn from within a small pool of people within their own church. Few have the chance to go back to Bible school for re-training or re-energizing their skills. In such situations, this book presents a valuable opportunity to improve one's preaching without having to take a long leave of absence. In fact, with 52 exercises, preachers can basically continue their preaching in their congregations and to improve along the way. The exercises are meant not to substitute but to supplement, even help hone in important pointers for preaching the Word of God. Designed in a way that encourages preachers and learners to preach and learn with fellow preachers, the exercises are supplemented with prayer, listening skills, honest feedback, fresh ideas for old strategies, and some new material for the modern audience.

All the exercises in the book have practical exercises with a single aim: honing on one specific preaching skill, technique, or thought at a time. The following are ten of my favourite exercises:

  1. Balancing the Biblical Diet: Learning to preach from a broad base of Biblical books is important. The exercise reminds me again that I need to be reminded to check back at my own selection of Bible verses, to ensure that they are well balanced and not too lopsided to any one book or testament. 
  2. The Three Different Listening Skills: People listen differently. In fact, preaching is not only the task of the person at the pulpit, the listeners are big participants in the whole preaching ministry too. I have long known that different people will appreciate different things at different times. This book gives a very solid overview of the three main groups of listeners: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. They are basically listeners spurred by inspirational content or delivery, personal relationship with the preacher, and the ideas in the sermon respectively. 
  3. Multisensory Preaching: The part about using the five senses is helpful as it helps the preacher avoid overdependence over any one sense. It is humbling in a way because when we utilize our other less used senses, we are forced in a way to depend on God, that God is able to reveal Himself through his Word using not only our strengths but also our weaknesses.
  4. Communicate in E-Prime: This is a call to choose stronger verbs that are more direct and personal. For instance, use "empowers" instead of "be empowering." Replace passive with active voice. This is a big challenge for me. Many writers work often in the passive mode. Those at the pulpit must go beyond toward active.
  5. Listen to a Storyteller: One of the most important parts of sermon giving is in telling stories. We all need to learn and to master the art of stories. This is what keeps a sermon away from boredom. It also helps listener to remember well. What better way than to listen to master storytellers themselves. I appreciate the valuable resources that the author has given .
  6. Collaborate with Other Preachers: While preaching can be a lonely exercise, it need not necessarily remain that way. We can collaborate preaching and sermon ideas with other preachers. 
  7. Hang the Sermon on an Image: In an increasingly visually stimulated world, we find modern listeners relate better with images and film. Not only will that make sermons more vivid and clear, it helps listeners remember better. 
  8. Design Careful Transitions: This is one of my greatest needs. In fact, the difficulty rises when it comes to sermons with multiple points. We will learn about the 5 different transitions
  9. Go to Work with a Church Member: This is about trying to live in the listeners' world more, in contrast to living in our own preaching world. In a way, this is extremely helpful as it forces us to move away from our own literary and study world into the real world.
  10. Read Fiction: Wow! I needed this. I have been reading lots of books, many of them non-fiction. This is a reminder again that if I want to preach and tell stories well, I need to have a more balanced diet.

There are many more precious pointers that preachers will appreciate. Not only are they extremely relevant, even challenging, they are put together by a well respected and reputed preacher himself. Of course, my top ten lists will change from time to time. That makes this book a very vibrant one to keep and to refer to.

So What?

Preachers are never fully formed. They are gradually being transformed. Most for the better, few for the worse, especially for those who have the heart to try and to keep trying. Preachers must also be learners and practitioners. Like the saying, practice makes perfect, while there are no perfect preachers, there are opportunities for all preachers to move and hone their skills to perfection, if not close to perfection. This is where this book comes in. With 52 practical and very insightful exercises, any preacher or preacher to be will find it a good training material to work with and to improve one's preaching skills. The key word here is "exercise." It means that the book cannot be simply read and then kept aside on the bookshelf. Instead, it needs to be opened up, and our hearts be taught by the Holy Spirit to learn and to improve. Just after the first 3 chapters on reading this book, I was sold.

I am reminded of the power of prayer. I am reminded to think beyond the preacher's world into the listeners' world. I am reminded to have a broad base of preaching ideas to maintain. I am also reminded to make a beeline for the Cross in every sermon. Actually, you do not need 1 year to be a better preacher. Just by putting into practice any one of the 52 exercises will already set any preacher toward becoming a better preacher. This is a must have for preachers!

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.

Monday, August 12, 2013

"Compassionate Jesus" (Christopher Bogosh)

TITLE: Compassionate Jesus: Rethinking the Christian's Approach to Modern Medicine
AUTHOR: Christopher Bogosh
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013, (160 pages).

Have we placed our deepest hopes on modern medicine uncritically? Have we allowed our faith to be based on what medical advances have to offer? Are we so infatuated with a long life that we have failed to see the big picture of what life is all about? What about Christian health professionals who are using and even promoting medical sciences based on less than biblical principles? Is there a viable alternative to modern medicine?  These questions are dealt with along with the two big questions in this book:
  1. Are we living for Christ in the midst of a medical crisis?
  2. Do we really see our death as great gain as we look in hope
    to Christ?

The author's journey of reflecting on these questions begin with his sister's death. He recognizes that all of us because of sin deserve to die anyway. We are all living on "borrowed time." Do we really understand what it means to die at the Lord's timing? Three things guide the author. God is merciful; God is just; and God is in control. Thus, one must not embark on a healing at all costs aptitude, but to adopt a healing in God's will attitude. For there is something far greater than good health or physical comfort. The ultimate healing according to the Bible is to be healed in Christ, and to be restored in human wholeness via connecting to a people of God called church. Lest we be participants of the cult of health and healing. Seven principles are then suggested, all of them based on the person of Christ and biblical compassion.

Chapter 2 commends the level of medical advancement over the years and the good intent of greater access to medical care for all Americans. There has been lots of good in the medical sciences, where diseases and pain have been actively addressed. The problem is that such techniques and advances are tied closely to unhealthy values such as materialism. Going through the history of how medical science has found its way to modern society, Bogosh raises the important question of temporal hope vs eternal hope. Even Christians fail to think biblically enough when it comes to health care. In highlighting the wonders of medicine, it can also be tempting to downplay the risks or negative effects in other ways. Sometimes, treatment may not be the best option. For example, what if cancer treatment causes a person to become physically worse than the cancer itself?

Chapter 3 argues for greater biblical insights in medical decisions, especially during medical dilemmas. Medical equipment and chemicals can only detect a part of the human condition. What about the spiritual, the emotional, and the non-quantitative aspects of a person? We need to recognize that there are many things medical know-how still do not understand. At the same time, there is something that only human compassion and sensitivity can detect, not machines. Fix machines to measure the wrong thing, and we can easily get a wrong diagnosis of the true condition. Some biblical insights worth pondering are:
  • Our hope must be in Christ and not mere healing;
  • All physical healing is temporal. Perfect healing never happens in this life;
  • Spiritual restoration often must come before physical healing in the present;
  • Exercise biblical compassion like Jesus, to care and to touch people toward holistic aspects;
Chapter 4 expands on what it means by "God's medicine." Bogosh talks about prayerful communion and how it allows one to live with pain and suffering, and at the same to cast hope on God. Along with the actual plea for comfort, there is also the awareness of loneliness, meaning, and significance of life. Giving some reflections on the book of Job, Bogosh highlights the need for spiritual renewal and a dependence on God that one's faith will grow strong. Healing prayers also includes the possibility of God using modern medicine to heal. Prayer is to be TOGETHER with any medical help we seek.

Chapter 5 is about hospice and how to think biblically about it. The goal is not cure but care. Bogosh praises the role of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's contributions to the hospice situation with her well-known book, On Death and Dying, which presents the five stages of growth. Unfortunately, Bogosh takes her book to task in terms of the fifth stage: Death, which relies more on Buddhist and Hindu philosophies. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

"Home Run" (Travis Thrasher)

TITLE: Home Run: A Novel
AUTHOR: Travis Thrasher
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2013, (416 pages).

There is a price for success. For some, public accolades come with private sacrifices. For Cory Brand, he learns first hand that winning consistently at a high level is a great feeling and is often rewarding. The feeling of getting attention with rising fame; the feeling of being mobbed by fans; the feeling of getting easy interviews; and the constant happiness of being given headline news by the mass media. For one who has lived through a terrible childhood, especially in terms of his traumatic relationship with an abusive father, the success he has gained as a top baseball hitter accelerated not only his own career and stardom, it also gives him a bloated ego and a heightened sense of the world owing him a living. By filling an emptying inner self with outer fame and winning games, he realizes at a personal level that success can come at a great price.

Brand’s relationship with baseball begins at an early age. Growing up with an abusive father, he becomes infatuated with trying to make great hits at the balls coming at him. Once his talent was discovered, his rise to stardom is nothing less than spectacular. Just seeing how people cheer him on whenever he hits a homerun is sufficient adrenaline for the day. Unfortunately, one homerun is not enough. As his skills tank, so too his demand for more great runs he had previously experienced. He just loves the stadium cheer. He loves the limelight. He loves it when the whole world centers its attention on one man: Cory Brand. Unfortunately, fame like a narcotic, has its side effects. When the performance on the field fails to match his personal expectations, he finds self-gratification in imagining homeruns and great hits. Out of such a bad patch comes a bad personal call. Without controlling his temper, he lets out his frustration, hurting a young boy, not knowing that that boy is the adopted son of his younger brother, Clay.

As we all know, all it takes is one silly mistake, and people will easily forget the glorious past of the most cherished heroes. All the successful runs and the games won because of Cory Brand are suddenly forgotten. All the great smiles and proud looks are substituted with a Youtube viral video of the badly executed tantrum. For all his achievements, Cory Brand has set himself up for a major downfall. The rest of the book shows how Cory is able to recover and to be reinstated not only as a baseball player in recovery, but a new man, transformed by grace. Piece by piece, the author shows how Cory Brand rebuilds himself as a person; how he starts afresh by coaching junior league baseball; how he recovers from his addictions to alcohol; and how he make amends in his relationships with people, especially with Emma, the woman he ran away from after getting her pregnant with Tyler. 

Now made into a movie, this book is an inspirational that gives readers hope. It also shows us the power of faith and love. Just like Cory Brand, we all deserve a second chance at life. We all need to give one another chance to try again. The author goes much farther. He shows how the protagonist is given opportunities after opportunities, revealing to us in a very insightful way, that that is also how God is treating us. God gives us chances after chances, over and over again. Until we like Cory, get it, fully and perfectly. If you love baseball, this book will be a captivating read. If you do not like baseball, this book will make you want to learn a bit more about the sport. 

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


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

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

"Why Not Today" (Matthew Cork and Kenneth Kemp)

TITLE: Why Not Today: Trafficking, Slavery, the Global Church . . . and You
AUTHOR: Matthew Cork and Kenneth Kemp
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013, (288 pages).

Freedom is good. Freedom is great. Freedom is desired and even framed in nice sounding words in the United Nations. Yet, the very freedom that many in the developed world have often taken for granted is still very much out of reach to a group numbering more than 300 million. For more than 3000 years, this group has been oppressed, discarded, and considered as "untouchables" by many in the land. Blame it on a caste system that has managed to suffocate this race of people. Blame it on the aftereffects of reincarnation beliefs that these people are getting what they deserved. Blame it on apathy. More importantly, in this book, the focus is not simply on the outcasts, the spot light is also on those who know about it, and still refuse to do anything about it. Welcome to a book that highlights the plight of the people in South Asia known as the "Dalits."

A) The Discomfort

It begins with the Cork's discomfort over the "safe" environment he lives in. An environment that is predictable; that minds one's business; that toes the cultural line; that competes and lives like any other neighbour next door; that basically goes through life that maintains the status quo. Then one question (attributed to Bill Hybels) pops up that deepens the discomfort: "Do you have a vision with dying for?" Gradually, the conviction grows with the author finding Scriptural exhortation to speak up for the silenced, and bring about justice for the weak. This book is a story of how the author has found meaning and compassion to serve God through the Dalit Freedom Mission. Flying from California to Andhra Pradesh, Cork experiences not just a culture shock, he endures a tsunami of people in the poorest living conditions, with pleas for money and relentless cries for help. It is the sight of the children that is most unbearable. Poverty, hunger, dirty, helpless, just seeing the conditions of these "untouchables" is gut wrenching. Of all the reasons for the state of the Dalits, the one that is most targeted is the dreaded caste system where the Dalits are ranked at the lowest level to the point that they are not considered humans. What then can be done for these Dalits? How is justice going to be fought on behalf of these "untouchables?" This book reveals an American pastor's journey from discomfort to convert; and from convert to effort. Each discomfort leads him to prayer and faith. These words sustain him: "Do What You Can. Where You Are. With What You Have."

B) The Energized Convert

Seeing the real thing speaks more than words. Imagine seeing numerous beggars, mostly children who are hungry, uneducated, lost, poor, and being cast aside by the rest of society. Some children especially girls are sold away as slaves. Many are belittled, ridiculed, and treated in a manner that is less than humane. As long as one is a Dalit, justice seems to never be on one's side. Yet, seeing how education can bring about better livelihood and future for the Dalit people, Cork realizes that the most practical goal is to create an educational culture: Build schools. Those who have broken through the ranks are those who have benefited from education, such as Udit Raj who is a Dalit with a PhD, who in his early years, tell of the unfair treatment by his class, who simply assumed that because he is a Dalit, that he has to do all the chores and the cleaning up.  There is also the legendary Dalit, Dr Ambedkar who spends his entire life battling the chief cause of the Dalits' plight: Hindu Caste System. Understanding the history of the Dalit fight, and recognizing that his Church needs to wake up to the challenge to break the cycle of injustice, Cork is convinced that the rewards is far greater than the costs to bear. The 'converted' Cork learns that ministry is not about getting his Church on a balanced position with regards to worship, governance, and purpose. Neither is it about blending contemporary culture with biblical ministry. For him, the vision is about global freedom, in particular, how he can harness his Church's resources toward helping the Dalit Freedom Network. It leads to the starting of a new Church with Cork as the lead pastor. Just as his new Church finds liberation in a new vision, likewise, they increasingly realize, together with their partners from Dalit Freedom Network, that it is the gospel that will truly liberate the Dalits.

C) The Continuing Effort

On and on, the book flows with pages of wake up calls that will cause readers to have the same kind of discomfort as Cork. Education is not about helping the Dalits. It is also targeted at the powers of the land of India, and the outside world. It is also tackling the horrible divide of the rich and the poor, where the rich in India are profiting from the cheap labour of the poor and the outcastes. It is a most unfair system, tightly held and believed by millions of Hindus, including the Dalits themselves. Those who fight the system also do so at their own risk. Fighting injustice is often not so simple. For instance, it touches on religious sensitivities across the country. Certain Hindu radicals will basically use the fight to free the Dalits as a religious provocation too! Converting into the Christian faith is also a risk, and violence has been common.

So What?

It takes only less than 24 hours to change a man's view of the world. It takes a first hand look at the horrors of poverty, injustice, and a fatalistic religious system in order to wake one man out of his slumber. More importantly, what has happened to one man, can also impact us. It reminds us that Christians everywhere must stand up for the weak and the marginalized everywhere. If your Church or organization is going through a dry patch, or suffering from spiritual lethargy or a general lack of vision or purpose, what is needed is not more programs or more activities to keep one's members busy. It is also not about trying to maintain our churches' status quo, to become a church that is on "maintenance mode." What is needed is a vision from God about what the Church with all its people and resources can do: Make a difference.

The question that has arrested Cork can also be a wake up call for us: "Do you have a vision worth dying for?" If you do not have, or if you feel your church do not have one, start praying. Start seeking. Start seeing. Start visiting places. Start to venture beyond your comfort zone. Let one's prayers guide the way. Let the reading of the Word, and the examining of Jesus' outreach to the poor in the gospel energize us. Let the Holy Spirit guide us to do the right thing. The title of the book is a direct challenge to all of us: Why Not Today?

Rating: 4.5 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.