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Friday, January 31, 2014

"The Age of the Spirit" (Phyllis Tickle)

TITLE: Age of the Spirit, The: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church
AUTHOR: Phyllis Tickle
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014, (192 pages).

This is the third book in the series of new shifts in the Christian Church arena. The first book, The Great Emergence looks at Christianity with the thesis that every 500 years, the Church at large will go through a great change or significant transition from one form to another. A religious trends enthusiast as well as Professor of religion, Phyllis Tickle reviews Christianity's shape and its impact on culture every 500 years. The second book, Emergence Christianity, continues where the first book left off, focusing on the concerns, organizational changes, and forms of the church for the next 500 years. My conclusion for that book was Tickle's prediction tends to be more "bird's eye rather than bull's eye," and how her book is high on demonstrating how the changes are happening and low on what exactly is the Church going to look like. This third book shifts gear a little bit. Instead of focusing on how the church is going to look like in the future, Tickle prefers to go back to the Holy Spirit, believing that once we understand the Age of the Spirit, we will get a better handle on how change is going to be happening for the foreseeable future. Simply put, Tickle believes that there is a sense that history is going to repeat itself. The question is, which part of history and when will that happen? It is the Holy Spirit that spurs all these great emergence or transformations.

Tickle begins with an investigation into Jewish perspectives of the Spirit according to the Scriptures and laid down four key guides.

  1. Judaism is deeply monotheistic
  2. Judaism uses many different ways to name the Spirit
  3. Some of these uses are connected to how Christians use it
  4. The Spirit as the Third Person in the Trinity.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"Raising Children in a Digital Age" (Bex Lewis)

TITLE: Raising Children in a Digital Age: Preparing Your Children for the Digital Jungle
AUTHOR: Bex Lewis
PUBLISHER: Oxford, England: Lion Hudson plc, 2014, (256 pages).

As the book title has suggested, how can parents raise their children in an increasingly digital world? How do we deal with a world that is resembling more and more like a technological jungle? In fact, it seems like technology is spiraling out of any human control. This is exactly what is happening right now in a world driven by technology. We are forced to move beyond questions such as "How do we control the Internet?" to learning to live with the Internet. No longer is one able to simply switch off the Internet like what baby boomers are used to switching off the TV. With more gadgets becoming more portable, it is almost impossible to keep away wireless signals or to lock away the computer. Technology has invaded the family lifestyle, both in public as well as in private. What goes onto the Internet stays on the Internet. Indeed, the world now is drastically different from previous eras. When the technological tsunami happens, most of us will not be able to avoid the effects. Cellphones, portable tablets, as well as the ubiquitous Internet have posed a new lifestyle altogether. Both children as well as adults are hooked onto the Internet day and night, whether one is traveling or stationary at any one place. With this in mind, this book addresses the following questions.
  • Are our fears or paranoia over the digital world a legitimate one?
  • What are the facts and fiction about the promises of the Internet?
  • How did we arrive at our current technological state?
  • What guidance can parents give to their children?
  • What specific guidance is necessary for children of various age groups?
  • What are the technologies out there?
  • What practical advice can parents get?
  • Is technology a boon or a bane?
  • What are the promises and the pitfalls of the use of technologies?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Ego Trip" (Glynn Harrison)

TITLE: Ego Trip: Rediscovering Grace in a Culture of Self-Esteem
AUTHOR: Glynn Harrison
PUBLISHER:  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014, (208 pages).

One of the most intriguing things about our culture is the insatiable appetite for self-help, supplemented by seminars and conferences. Many bookstores have bludgeoning spaces allocated to self-help books. Motivational gurus are kept busy with increasing demand for booster talks and feel-good events. Even the field of leadership is flooded with constant streams of people in expert fields giving advice to executives and working adults who are willing to pay big bucks to attend the conferences. If we do the math, if the books and conferences are effective, would there not be a decrease in the number of people needing help? Instead, what we are seeing is an epidemic of demand which psychiatrist and author Glynn Harrison has coined: "Boosterism."

The Problem
Harrison begins the book with a trip back to the age where self-esteem has been played up to young kids. We regularly hear that "Every kid is special." Reality TV shows tell us that "we need to believe in ourselves." We are taught to "think positive" and banish anything that threatens to introduce low self-esteem. Harrison puts it well:
"The self-esteem movement gripped our imagination because it engaged with this, the deepest and most profound problem of our lives — the struggle for significance and self-worth — and it told us it could fix it."
With promises, experts, and the timing of the needs of our era, the self-esteem industry has only one way to go: Up. He traces it back to the "father of psychology," Johnny Wilkinson, who first coined, "self-esteem" after bouts of mental health issues. This concept is farther developed by Sigmund Freud who describes the human person in three parts: id (like babies demands), the ego (all things me), the super ego (where one absorbs values and expectations of surroundings). Inferiority complex occurs when the "id" gets overwhelmed by the "super-ego." The "self-esteem" movement essentially deals with trying to build up one's ego to overcome any guilt produced by the "super-ego."

Monday, January 27, 2014

"The Deeper Life" (Daniel Henderson)

TITLE: Deeper Life, The: Satisfying the 8 Vital Longings of Your Soul
AUTHOR: Daniel Henderson
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013, (272 pages).

All of our life is an expression of our theology. This one statement will trigger in us a deeper search for meaning and truth. What is our theology? What are we living for? What kind of a legacy are we living behind? What does it mean to make things count? These questions and more are covered in this very helpful guide for growing deep roots in the things that truly matter. Author, spiritual director, and Professor, Daniel Henderson puts together an excellent book on spiritual direction that argues against shallow living and for deeper growing. Beginning with a flashback to the Boston bombings, Daniel Henderson notes how during times of trial and pain, he falls back to his written answers to life's most difficult questions. Essentially, he retreats to the truth and promises of Scripture, the love of God, and the need to keep faith. For as the world blew up before one's faces, a deeper life in God will be a key source of refreshment, renewal, and restoration. Yet, the motivation to cultivate a deeper life has several barriers. Some examples include the many distractions of life that seem to keep us busy with temporal things without much permanent meaning. Others derail our focus toward the possessing of things rather than developing friendships and good relationships with people. Moreover, the rising number of options, the overwhelming choices that flood us, and the seemingly loss of connection with what is vital. How then do we live well? How do we choose wisely? It all begins with the recognition of eight vital longings within our souls. Cultivating this requires a constant lookout against the evil forces. Henderson puts forth a WIN paradigm: Worship + Integrity + Non-Conformity = WIN. Such longing comes in the forms of:

#1 - Knowing God Fully (Theology)
#2 - Knowing Self Truthfully (Identity)
#3 - Knowing Our Role on Earth (Purpose)
#4 - Knowing Our Values (Value)
#5 - Knowing Our Activity Order (Priorities)
#6 - Knowing Our Goals (Goals)
#7 - Knowing Stewardship (Time)
#8 - Knowing how to Finish (Legacy)

Each longing is first described with questions. The starting question is critical for it reminds us to get first things first. Our theology instructs everything else. Understanding the world requires seeing from God's perspective. It is like CS Lewis's words that say: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." Getting our theology right from the start also means clearing our shelves the types that taint the holiness of God or hides the ugliness of the world. Once our foundational longing for God is established, Henderson guides us through the rest.

Friday, January 24, 2014

"One Thousand Gifts" (Ann Voskamp)

TITLE: One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are
AUTHOR: Ann Voskamp
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011, (240 pages).

One word describes this book: Beautiful.  Despite ushering readers through her moment of grief in losing her sister, author Ann Voskamp does not rush to force any recovery toward that conventional "normal" we all seek. Instead, she allows the grief to linger and her emotions to meander through the crevices of her inmost being. She navigates through tears. She probes the fears. She asks the questions about life and finds herself seeing life through paradoxes. How can one live fully in the midst of deadening emptiness? What is the point of living as one observes the effects of dying? Is it possible to experience joy in the midst of sorrow? For Voskamp, the answer is emphatically YES through the practice of "eucharisteo," the Greek word for Thanksgiving. This one word is the key that unlocks a thousand gifts. This one word changes one's perspective of life. This one word reminds us less of what we do not have and more of what we already have. This is exactly what Voskamp describes, starting with items inside her house, familiar images of loved ones, simple things from moonlight to sunlight, simple appreciation of time, and various spiritual reflections to mine the ordinary to uncover the extraordinary gifts God has given. Though the author does not write down the entire list of thousand gifts, by the time she reaches #245, I was sold.

There are many spiritual lessons in the book. What makes this book special is not how it tells us what to do, but how it invites us to tell ourselves what we ought to do. Like the reflection on time in which God has given us. Have we thought about how we can give this time in dedication back to God? Is that not how love continues to flourish and flow? After all, money stuck with one person cannot be used to benefit others until it moves and circulates around society. For if we learn to practise giving and freely receiving, and learning to pass it on, thanksgiving will be like the fresh flow of living waters that can flow unimpeded from streams to river; from rivers to seas; from seas to oceans. God evaporates them to the clouds and rains them down on the mountain and the land. Tied closely with Thanksgiving is Grace, which Voskamp spends time describing, deliberating, and disbursing grace. With each step of thanksgiving and the dance of grace, one gradually enters into a space that allows a profound anticipation of the Presence of God. As rush disappears, God appears. One learns trust. One cultivates wakefulness to the things of God. One gives thanks.

As Voskamp begins with moments of grief, she ends with claims of joy. Most of all, she has reminded us once again that a thousand gifts are available for anyone of us, if we are willing to use the keys of "eucharisteo" and grace. Voskamp has given us a gift. How we receive it and use it is very much up to us.

This is definitely a book to treasure and to keep. It is definitely worth more than a thousand gifts.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

"Preaching God's Transforming Justice"

TITLE: Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A
AUTHOR/EDITORS: Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm.
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, (510 pages).

It is one thing to speak about justice for all and all for justice. Whether it is criminal justice, ethical justice or social justice, what about biblical justice? What does the Bible has to say about that? More importantly, what can the Church do as a collective people of God to be a part of God's transforming justice? The authors hope to accomplish three things. First, to interpret the existing world we live in. Second, to interpret it from a deep theological standpoint that is faithful to the biblical texts. Third, to do something about it through practice guidance for both individuals as well as for a community. While pain, suffering, and injustice cannot be undone, one can still play vital roles in learning how to deal with it in a manner that is biblical, humane, and transforming. Twenty-two specific days of justice are laid out for preachers to consider adopting, while the rest of the Sundays basically follow the Revised Common Lectionary Year A. It can be something that is local to American society (like Martin Luther King Day or Asian-American Heritage Day) or something more global (World AIDS Day or Earth Day). There are also days about women, Holocaust, native people, etc. There is an intentional using of biblical texts that speak into the existing situation needing justice or addressing the effects of injustice. The underlying belief is that the Bible speaks for the weak, the poor, the marginalized, and those on the fringes of society; how the Word builds community, and the need for the New World to come as promised by Jesus. The authors make a bold claim that "every passage of the Bible has social implications," and based on this tries to understand how the biblical writers speak to their audiences then, and how modern preachers can contextualize those and speak to modern audiences. This is where this book comes in. It asks questions like:

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"Give War and Peace a Chance" (Andrew D. Kaufman)

TITLE: Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times
AUTHOR: Andrew D. Kaufman
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2014, (288 pages).

Love it or hate it? That is what classic novels are all about. It is one thing to hear people calling it a classic. Yet, the true impact of a classic is how it impacts culture over time, across cultural boundaries, and the lessons it still has for us today.  This book is another testimony of the powerful Tolstoyan novel that gives us not simply a story to remember but lots of wisdom to cherish. A recognized scholar of Russian studies, and a Tolstoy expert in Oprah's Book Club, author Andrew Kaufman had written many books on Tolstoy, including the popular "Russian for Dummies." For more than 25 years, the author has had a love-hate relationship with the classic Tolstoy novel, "War and Peace." His motivation for writing this book is essentially personal. He shares about how in getting himself soaked and lost in the book's stories, he found himself lessons for life. That life, like what Tolstoy had said is a battle in itself. At the same time, life is interestingly "balanced," with the author walking this tightrope through reflections on life being "both messy and meaningful, prosaic and poetic, sensuous and ... sensible." The novel is a piece of art that is able to reflect the whole of life, and that is the purpose of this book, about how the author sees the relevance of Tolstoy, and how it still speaks today for us.

Monday, January 20, 2014

"Invitations of Jesus" (Trevor Hudson)

TITLE: Invitations of Jesus
AUTHOR: Trevor Hudson
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2014, (96 pages).

This little devotional is written by a Methodist minister based in South Africa. He begins with a reflection on a wedding invitation that he had overlooked. It was something very special for the couple, but he had embarrassingly forgotten all about it in the midst of his work and busyness. Once over, "our loss is forever" so says Trevor Hudson. As he looks at the relationship between Christ and us, so many of our relationship with God is on the basis of our own needs instead of on the basis of faith and love. For Hudson, it is important not to be straitjacketed in a BSH relationship that believes in Jesus, Saved from sins, and straight to heaven after death. Christianity is not about a project to escape hell and enter heaven. It is a response to the invitation of Jesus to open and receive Jesus' gift; to explore and to know God; and to respond to God affirmatively. The key is to learn to be fully alive to God, and in turn be fully alive to one another, and to the world that God so loved and gave his only Son.

The six weeks of "invitations" is a journey from spiritual wakefulness to hopefulness in God. Week One sets the tone of the trip. It encourages readers to open the invitation and to respond with eager hearts. Week Two looks at "transforming intimacy" where Hudson reminds us about the importance of passion for God. Love is not a burden. It is a passion. When we look at our faith from the lens of passion, obeying the commandments of God will be most natural and beautiful. He connects this intimacy of God and relates it also to intimacy with people. True spiritual intimacy is never isolated from intimacy with people. Week Three talks about "transforming discipleship," Hudson poses a challenge to us:

"What is your life's greatest opportunity?"

He urges readers to consider growing in God as that opportunity.  We learn to be accepted by God. We learn to accept ourselves. We learn to connect our individual small stories with the Big Story of God.

Week Four moves to "transforming solitude" which is an invitation to dwell in the gospels, to walk with Jesus in solitude. Underneath Jesus' busy agenda, he frequently takes time to be alone, to pray, and to spend time with God. We learn about rest, refreshment, and renewal. The intriguing thing about solitude is that true solitude is never lonely. It is an awareness that God is right there with us.

Week Five reminds us that the Christian life is never inward looking. It has a "transforming mission" focus. As our relationship with God deepens, we feel a greater urge to share of this intimacy with others. Those who have personally tasted the sweetness of the fruit of spiriual life, will be most happy to share the experience. Without any such experience in the first place, how then can one share about anything? Transforming mission is also about sharing, especially in the suffering of people in the community.

Week Six is an invitation to a "transforming mystery." Sometimes, we in the modern scientific and technological world can arrogantly think we can solve all things. Even our saying of certain things that are impossible comes across more as lip service. The key is not in terms of our knowing or unknowing. It is in God revealing Truth to us, according to his own time and purpose. Just like we do not know when we will die, our losses can be a mystery in itself.

So What?

Do not be deceived by the brevity or the simplicity of this devotional. There are many stories and illustrations to drive home the message of Jesus inviting us to walk with him more closely and more intimately. Far too many Christian books and resources have tried to give us tools to get things done or to make things happen. As a result, many people become more activists instead of reflective respondents. We become more fixated on the visible stuff of life and ignore the invisible things. We fall into the habit of trying to do things in our own strength instead of depending on God's strength. This book of invitation is open-ended enough for us to be creative in our practice of it. It is closed-ended enough to limit our scope to six weeks of transformative exercises. Do these with much prayer. Be patient. Be open. Be intentional. Most importantly, learn to remember that Jesus has already given us an invite. We need to RSVP our response.

Rating:4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Upper Room Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

"Sabbath as Resistance" (Walter Brueggemann)

TITLE: Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now
AUTHOR: Walter Brueggemann
PUBLISHER: Lousville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (124 pages).

You have probably heard about impatient societies or situations in which people simply cannot wait. With many symbols all around us that promote speed and efficiency, our fast-paced culture supported by fast-food industry is helping all of us race one another constantly in the search for meaning and accomplishments. Even Christians are not immune to this state of busyness and rush. Thankfully, there are perceptive people such as Walter Brueggemann who offers their acute awareness of contemporary culture that is combined with their grasp of biblical truth. Old Testament Professor and renowned author of books like "The Prophetic Imagination," and "Truth Speaks to Power," contributes yet another counter-cultural take on resisting the ways of the world. Expanding upon the topic first published as a series of Bible studies at "The Thoughtful Christian" website, Brueggemann has expanded the teaching into a book that aims to resist the worldliness by saying "NO to the culture of now." Riding on a provocative title, this book is deeply necessary to bringing back sanity back in an increasingly restless world. Brueggemann joins a chorus of prophetic voices in speaking against the restlessness, the frantic busyness, and the aimlessness of the world. He shares with theologian Marva Dawn and Michael Fishbane on the Jewish wisdom practices about keeping the Sabbath. He acknowledges the classic book on Sabbath by Abraham Heschel, calling it a "magisterial book." He then mines the Old Testament passages, focusing particularly on the Ten Commandments, to draw out elements of what it means to practise the Sabbath as resistance and provides an alternative lifestyle to a world that is quickly becoming breathless due to over-exertion, over-activity, and overwhelming anxiety.

Firstly, it means recognizing the Fourth Commandment as the "crucial bridge" that connects the rest of the commandments. The first commandment concerns God, and out of this flows the rest of the motivation to honour and please God. It is God who had freed Israel from slavery. It is God who had provided the people with freedom and liberty. Even as Exodus describes the toilsome labours and pains that the Israelites had to endure, there is that sense of God mindful of the very things that hem the people down: Forced labour. Brueggemann says it well:  "At the taproot of this divine commitment to relationship (covenant) rather than commodity (bricks) is the capacity and willingness of this God to rest." On an on, Brueggemann reminds us how we have tried to commodotize life as a whole, enslaving ourselves into a regimen of production, and non-stop achieving. Such efforts are effectively slavery of the modern kind.

Secondly, based on Exodus 20:12-17, Brueggemann expands his reflection on how work has caused much anxiety. The culture around us often promotes the worship of human deeds and goods, and as far as the Christian is concerned, leads dangerously to the elevation of idolatry. Keeping the Sabbath reacts against this trend by being a testimony against the insecurities of doing and achieving, toward the reality of being and resting.

Thirdly, knowing the nature of human beings, we are reminded that Sabbath as Resistance also mean some form of "coercion" to respect the rhythms and patterns of creation. Only then, one can be able to rest and be free from anxiety. Once we discipline ourselves to respect the seasons, and to rest during rest periods, and work during work periods, we will be truly free. Fighting against a culture of "acquisitiveness" has two main motivations: Honouring the covenant with God, and cultivating the community we live among.

Fourthly, Brueggemann traces the passage from a mixed culture to an exclusive culture. At the time of the Exodus, Israel has no identifiable culture (Exodus 12:38). At Sinai, the giving of the commandments sparked off a new beginning, the Mosaic covenant as identity. Leviticus reminds Israel about cultic purity and cleansing rituals, to drive home the holiness of God. Looking at Isaiah 56:3-8, we learn of how keeping the Sabbath broadens the identity through neighbourliness, that anyone willing to keep Sabbath will be a part of this exclusive community.

Fifth, Brueggemann probes Amos 8:4-8 to look at what Scriptures had to say about multitasking. As a social critic himself, the prophet Amos attacks the consumerism of the age and the endless self-indulgent culture. This comes across through multitasking of all things in order to consume and gratify oneself more. Instead of rest, one becomes more restless. Instead of honouring God, one grows deeper into idolatry.

Sixth, Brueggemann ends with a description of the Tenth Commandment, saying that it is unlike the rest of the commandments. This last commandment is a warning against covetousness. It involves a "posture" as well as "practice." It is the anti-thesis of neighbourliness. Without the protection of Sabbath keeping, one will covet other things, and the possessions of others.

So What?

Reading this book reminds me once again how relevant Sabbath keeping is for our world. On and on, we hear of an always-on, 24x7, and constant availability of anything to keep us running, working, and coveting. In Sabbath keeping, we have this ancient practice to discipline ourselves, to help us acknowledge that we are not super-people. We are not robots who can work non-stop. We need to rest regularly. We need to take a break frequently. We need to keep the Sabbath religiously, simply because we do not create ourselves. God has created us and it is best to follow the "manufacturer's manual."

Brueggemann has written a concise book about keeping Sabbath, and this is clearly written for laypeople. More could have been written about how technology and the digital addiction can be addressed. Our current era has a problem of a new kind of idolatry. The Internet, the smartphone, the digital waves around us, all threaten to overwhelm us more and more. How do we resist such temptations? What are the ways in which we can practise Sabbath keeping in an Internet era? Is there anything the Christian community can practise together to resist these wireless intrusions? Maybe, Brueggemann is already aware of the many resources and literature out there that have spoken on such topics. That said, at least, he could have pointed readers to resources that he know about. If I have any critique, I would say that this book is way too brief for a topic that can be expanded upon more.

I highly recommend this book for two reasons. First, it is staunchly biblical and sees Sabbath keeping with a big picture perspective. Instead of letting just a few verses lock the author in, the author is able to allow biblical theology to guide the reading and understanding of the Sabbath. Second, we all need it. We are in a modern quicksand of anxiety, restlessness, and impatience. By keeping a regular Sabbath, we will learn to be more sane, and more importantly, to guide our next generation to do the same. The modern ideology of busyness and non-stop work only leads us toward idolatry of activities, achievements, and acquisitions. Sabbath keeping helps us resist that.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"The Question That Never Goes Away" (Philip Yancey)

TITLE: The Question That Never Goes Away
AUTHOR: Philip Yancey
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014, (176 pages).

From September 11 to the 2013 Boston bombings; from the coasts of Japan to the tsunamis in the Philippines, from wars in foreign lands and guns in domestic places; whenever something bad or evil happens, people ask the same question: "Why?"

Ever since his dad passed away, bestselling author Philip Yancey has been grappling with this same question. The best responses available so far only seem to scratch the surface. Behind this one question, four related concerns surround it. The first is the question of "Where is God?" For when nothing is happening, people just assume life goes on as normal. The moment there is a disaster, a death, or a devastating event, or for Yancey, whenever December 15th arrives, he too ponders about why his father had to die that day. The second question, "I Want to Know Why!" pushes the envelope further. For a world that is used to things set prim and proper, just like the "orderliness and beauty" in Japan, tragedies and disasters buck the status quo to render people confused. It is interesting that Yancey uses Japan as a launchpad for this. For Japan is one that is well-prepared on the outside but like the rest of the world, ill-prepared for how the inside is going to react. For they too ask the same question: "Where is God when it hurts?" In the midst of the rubble and the devastation, Yancey was able to sense something profound. Take the cases of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) for example. Conventional thinking would indicate that negatively as a victims' need to deal with a serious psychological setback. Instead, Yancey poses the thought that people exhibiting PTSD are actually healthy enough to even manifest it. Only dead people will not feel anything. The answer to "why" is often stoically shrugged off as "acts of God." Citing David Hently Bent, we are reminded that disasters and tragedies do not teach us anything new about the problem with this world. They only uncover the ugliness more. Underlying the suffering and pain are people who are already in pain in various ways.  It is how we respond that is the key to dealing with this question. Yancey shows how atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, urge people to freely reject any notion of God. We read of how agnostics are ambivalent about God. We also come across biblical characters who each responded in their unique ways. Yancey concludes that the Bible is often silent about the question of suffering. For it is in the suffering and disaster that we learn how much the world is fallen. Why does the Bible evade such a question? Slowly and gradually, readers are forced to reckon that with each hurting, there is also a healing component. If we learn to ask why during bad times, what about good times?

The third question poses: "Has God overslept?"  Yancey continues his whirlwind tour around the world, beginning this time at Sarajevo, recalling his time with people affected by the horrors of ethnic cleansing. Rapes, murders, injustice, with the strong bullying the weak, and the marginalized being pushed beyond their limits of misery, fill the shameful space of evil and injustice. If natural disasters ruin property, the evils inflicted by humans ruin families and people groups. There is the Nazi holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, and the religious and racial disriminations happening around the world. Yet, amid the horrors, there are cases where human warmth and care stood up strong. Like the example of a freezing Christian family being given some firewood by Muslim friends, and how a Father Markovic made friends with a woman bitter over racial discrimination. We are encouraged to protest like the Psalmist or lament like the prophets about the problems in this world. At the same time, we are urged to ponder about something more, something that comes above all of these terrible sufferings. Something that guides us toward hope in something or Someone bigger than ourselves.  The last question is about redemption and healing. A book of such a nature needs to address directly the circumstances leading to the question of why. Here, Yancey goes back to America, more specifically, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. Yancey shares about how he persuaded his publisher to make available for free, his earlier books, "Where is God when it hurts?" and "What good is God?"  for the community. In his journey to Newtown, he observes how the various survivors are coping. The hurts were still very raw. He notices how a community that is not known to be religious is suddenly asking religious questions about life. Rather than probing into the mysteries of God and suffering, or attempting any explanation of the complexities of pain and hurt, Yancey choose to speak on the question, "Where is God when it hurts?" Masterfully, he weaves in the reflections of Miroslav Volf, Desmond Tutu, Nicholas Wolterstorff, as well as the poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, that it is still possible to hang on to hope and life, amid an atmosphere of despair and death. Even as "Grief is the place where love and pain converge," Yancey reminds us that even in the midst of suffering, God is there. After all, Jesus died on the cross, remember?

Yancey leaves the readers with three powerful answers to the question. In fact, this alone is worth the price of the book. If we ask where is God when it hurts, we can remember that God is on the side of the sufferer all the time, regardless whether we are aware of it or not. If we ask where is God when it hurts, Christians must ask, "Where is the church when it hurts?" It is a reminder for us not to be paralyzed by philosophical or theological confusion, but to do what the church does best: caring, sharing, and provide comfort and opportunities of healing for the hurting. Finally, Yancey reminds us that we should not lose hope for the new world that God is preparing for all of us.

The question of suffering has been asked so many times, and despite the many attempts throughout history to answer it, people are still asking the same question. It is indeed a question that never goes away. Literally. What matters is not the question, but the need to be fixed on the Eternal Hope in God. Without hope, there is no reason to carry on. Without faith, there is no guide to hang on to life. Without God, there is no reason to even ask the question, "Why?"

Yancey's mastery of this topic is evident. As he travels around the world, he is able to sense the commonness among all people groups, that we all can hurt. We can all hurt one another. For hurt people hurt people. What is more important is the way Yancey tries to guide us away from seeking answers to the questions of why, toward the responses of healing, goodness, sharing, caring, and the very Christian blessings that can be provided during times of grief and pain. It is in spite of the suffering that we continue to bless one another. It is in spite of the pain and dangers that we continue to shine forth God's hope. For the day will come, when the question of why will not only go away, it will be replaced by something else even more mysterious and beautiful. Why God do you still love us?

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Encounters with Jesus" (Tim Keller)

TITLE: Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life's Biggest Questions
AUTHOR: Tim Keller
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Dutton Press, (240 pages).

Another book by Tim Keller? This popular preacher and author has done it again. Writing as one who has benefited from an honest search about life's biggest questions, Keller lets the gospel of John lead the way. With his theological depth and biblical insights, Keller stands in the gap to bridge the first century text with contemporary contexts. Selecting ten passages from the gospel of John, the extremely well-read author bakes the questions with measured explanations.Beginning with a personal sharing of his own faith journey, Keller invites the reader, especially the skeptic to discover the answers for oneself not just to look for solutions but to come face to face with the beauty of Christ. He calls this, "Encounters with Jesus," describing how the skeptical student like Nathaniel who despite his worldly brilliance cannot grapple with spiritual depth that Jesus provides. Both the Samaritan woman (outsider) as well as the Pharisee (insider) encounter Jesus through different ways. Then there are the grieving sisters, Martha and Mary, who in losing their brother Lazarus, gains a greater insight into the Person of Christ, who is able to resurrect anyone. In the wedding at Cana, readers learn how a seemingly mundane shortage of wine becomes a sign in which Jesus reveals his glory. That very incident at Cana is pointing readers toward the grandest Feast of Feasts when the kingdom comes. These and several other incidents point to some of life's most pressing questions. The first five chapters cover questions such as:
  • What is the meaning of life?
  • What is the meaning and purpose of marriage?
  • What is wrong with the world?
  • Where and what is the hope of the world?
  • What about life after death?
  • What is faith all about?
  • ...
The next five chapters deal with something more tangible for us: How do we personally encounter Christ today? Keller challenges us to encounter Jesus through an expanded description of the Incarnation: Christ among us. Jesus is seen as the Overcomer, the Intercessor, the Obedient Son, The Victor, and the One who will come again.

There are three reasons why I like this book. First, it is grounded in Scripture. Keller has a unique way of letting the Bible deal with the actual questions of life. This is especially so for the first five chapters where Keller leads us through a Bible study with him as a guide, using questions not just to trigger our curiosity but also to bridge one idea with the next. What is most insightful is the way Keller puts forth his interpretation. For instance, the wedding at Cana may lead many people to ponder why Jesus even bothers with the shortage of wine. When readers learn about the way the sign is pointing to the kingdom and to the glory of God, it makes more sense. Second, readers are given both a philosophical and scholarly treat each time they read a book from Keller. He quotes from theologians like Louis Berkhof, Richard Bauckham, and Jonathan Edwards. He cites classics from Dostoyevsky. He shares insights from modern poets and writers such as Annie Dillard, Philip Yancey, and even JK Rowling! Not only does he makes readers want to read these additional references for themselves, readers are taught to look at these external sources with an enlightened mind. Third, I like the way Keller stands in the gap to make the ancient texts resonate with modern minds. Believers come out encouraged to dig deeper into the Word of God. Non-believers can begin to appreciate what the Bible can offer. The book also challenges standard paradigms and understandings of the very ordinary stories in the Bible. Honestly, for some of us, bible stories can become so familiar that it is tempting to simply gloss over the texts. With Keller, we get a dependable guide to look at the Bible passages afresh.

One can benefit most by using this book within a group discussion setting.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Dutton Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

"Encounters with Orthodoxy" (John P. Burgess)

TITLE: Encounters with Orthodoxy: How Protestant Churches Can Reform Themselves Again
AUTHOR: John P. Burgess
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, (226 pages).

Why would a North American theologian and professor of an evangelical seminary spend sabbatical time at an Eastern European culture and a Eastern Orthodox environment? Why Russia? Why pull up the whole family from a familiar and comfortable West and plunge into an unfamiliar and sometimes discomforting East? John Burgess begins with at least three reasons: The first is growing discontent with the North American Church scene. The second is the frustration with an academic environment that hems one at a superficial level of intellectual inquiry rather than deeper levels of human existence. The third touches on something that represents Burgess's deep hope, that there is much evangelicalism can learn from the Orthodox Faith. So Burgess and his family boldly embark upon an immersion experience to encounter personally Eastern Orthodoxy. The journey began not in Russia but in America itself, with the whole family having to grapple with immigation visas, fund-raising, air tickets, educational needs, language learning, and various travel logistics. Then there are the Russian details where they need to look for a place of worship, a place to stay, and someone to guide them. From rat infestation encounters to being assaulted, the Burgesses had also to deal with the local people's suspicions of Westerners. They learn firsthand that language matters a lot.  Not knowing Russian well makes one extremely vulnerable. Despite a discouraging first month, the fruits of the effort are about to start. Burgess describes how entering into Eastern Orthodoxy is like moving from a black/white world into one that is full of colour. He appreciates the historical background that made Russia what it is today. Although Russia is still considered a very secular society, more than eighty percent of the people consider themselves as part of the Orthodox faith. For Burgess, the sabbatical in Russia has reaped many fruits. For instance, he has learned to appreciate his own Church tradition as well as the significance of the liturgies. He brings in a more experiential component to his academic life. He is more sensitive to the complexities when the secular and the religious contexts interact. Likewise, it is entirely beneficial if both the Western Christianity and the Eastern Orthodox Church can learn from each other.

Monday, January 13, 2014

"Related by Chance, Family by Choice" (Deb DeArmond)

TITLE: Related by Chance, Family by Choice: Transforming Mother-in-Law and Daughter-in-Law Relationships
AUTHOR: Deb DeArmond
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2013, (208 pages).

Many of us have heard countless jokes about mother-in-laws, and how they struggle to relate with their sons' wives; the extended family; and even between mothers. Many of these quips often arise due to the frustrations of having to live with constant quibbling by two women over the most mundane matters. Daughters getting married have to put up with a new mother-in-law with unknown behaviours. Mother-in-laws struggle with seeing their sons beginning a new life with their wives. That is not so for a mother of three sons, who welcomed her three daughter-in-laws with such graciousness that I believe many wish there would be more like her. Her first daughter-in-law, Sarah calls her "mother in love." Her second, Heather, calls her "Mom" despite her initial reservations of using the title beyond her biological mother. Her third daughter-in-law, Penny, calls her affectionately, "Mama Deb" and together, they all become mothers and daughters of their hearts. According to DeArmond, the reason behind the infamous MIL/DIL "monstrous" relationships is not about their common love for their sons/husbands, but the different expectations that come with it, on each other, on themselves, and even on their sons/husbands. Beginning with an online survey which resulted in 150 respondents, the author realizes that despite the respondents being "Christian followers," less than half reported "good or close" relationships between MIL and DIL. This is not helped by the many TV programs and movies that stereotype MILs as "monstrous" and DILs as sufferers. Instead of letting the world shape our thinking about the MIL-DIL relationship, why not let the Word of God shape us? This is the central premise of the book. Written to help readers be more attentive to the perspective of the others, it is hoped that both MILs and DILs, and of course the rest of us can better understand one another, and in the process better appreciate one another.

The first chapter sets the stage to distinguish "law" from "love." The central point is that the "in-law" may be in name, but certainly the behaviour ought to be more "in-love" instead. For we learn from Christ that law can only limit us, but love will free us.Let Christ influence our experience. Let Christ form our beliefs. Let Christ direct our actions. Let Christ be proclaimed to the world through our behaviour and actions. DeArmond writes:
"Love is a choice. Love honors our Father's love for us as well as the sacrifice Jesus made for us. Love heals. Love reunites. Love works. And it will work even in the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship, no matter its current condition. Love never fails." (37)
Chapter two is a study of Naomi and Ruth as an exemplary MIL/DIL relationship, where love is expressed in loyalty, faithfulness, action, and fruit for all. Chapter three looks at what it means to leave and to cleave. Leaving means being respectful of parents on the one hand, but also learning to be independent of those outside of the marriage bond. For one leaves the parents not to remain tied to parental wishes. One leaves to cleave with one's spouse, and becomes an independent couple, whose submission is first and foremost to God and to each other. Any sources of dependence that threatens this first relationship must be swiftly and surely dealt with. Thus, one needs to be conscious of feelings of protectiveness, of possessiveness, and of aggressiveness. Having said that, sons and daughter-in-laws must always be respectful to their parents. This means making appropriate time and space for mothers to be a part of their lives. This means cultivating trust. This means trying to bridge communication gaps. At the same time, there is also a need to establish healthy boundaries so that all parties will be able to grow and be at their best.

So What?

The importance of this book cannot be overstated. In fact, not only will MILs and DILs benefit greatly from the wisdom contained inside, sons, husbands, and many others can learn a tip or two about how to support families that do struggle with MIL/DIL issues. For those of us who are Christians, this book reminds us once again that it is Christ's love that is foundational to all relationships. The author has written from her own experience, supported by real-life examples of loving daughter-in-laws, and her many interactions with people all over. I like the "burning questions" that can stop readers at their tracks to reflect on their emotional postures at any time. For me, these questions deserve a second look.

  • "Should we be living our in-law relationships in love or under the law?" (28)
  • "What have you set your heart on when it comes to your woman-in-law?" (43)
  • "So what does it mean to leave and cleave?" (61)
  • "So what am I suppose to do now? Just stop being a mother?" (79)
  • "I have a mom. Why make room for another?" (93)
  • "What is trust? How do I build it - especially when it is broken?" (105)
  • ... and many more.

Each chapter begins with a brief writeup followed by some "burning questions." These questions help to probe our inner motives and cultivate self-examination. The "self-assessment" is taken to a deeper level toward the end of each chapter through probing self-awareness of one's perception of the relationship. Then, there is a plan of action where readers can choose to implement without letting the theory sit on our heads. Finally, there is a prayer to round it off, and committing the content and commitments to God.

If you are a mother, or mother-in-law now, or soon, pick up this book as a wisdom guide for yourself. There is much to learn about establishing boundaries, especially the tendency of mothers to "mother" their children unnecessarily. There is much to learn about letting go.

If you are a daughter, a daughter-in-law now or sometime in the future, pick up this book as an insightful look at the real struggles of mothers in general when their sons leave their parents and cleave to their wives. Understanding is a big bridge builder.

If you are a son, a husband, or a son-in-law, this book may very well be a window to a whole new world of women and how they relate to one another. Far too many husbands have been too passive, and when asked, simply shrug their shoulders or have remained oblivious to the whole issue. Again, understanding the perspective of both DILs and MILs can be extremely helpful in husbands not taking sides of either party, but taking the sides of both parties in love. Impossible? Remember, that in God there is nothing impossible. I like the title of the book which pretty much sums up the situation. The "related by chance" is not something that we can really choose. However, we need not be paralyzed by the idiosyncrasies of the family units that our marriages usher us into. We can instead, choose to live as a family, willingly and with commitment and with love.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Kregel Publications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Friday, January 10, 2014

"No Problem" (Robert J. Wicks)

TITLE: No Problem: Turning the Next Corner in Your Spiritual Life
AUTHOR: Robert J. Wicks
PUBLISHER: Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2014, (128 pages).

We have all heard about going to workshops at conferences, meetings, and external gatherings. What about having an inner workshop? How do we go about creating one in the first place? What is the purpose of such a workshop? These questions are dealt with thoughtfully, meaningfully, and prayerfully through meditation and contemplation of the divine.

A) Twenty Ways to Begin Inner Transformation

There are lots of creative ideas about grooming the inner person. There is the part about prayer, that prayer is not something merely said. It can be lived out. For prayer moves one from knowing to convicting; from convicting to exercising that conviction in faith. For when prayer and theology come alive, there is richness in spirituality and fullness in living. We are also reminded that transformation is not just inner but outer too. Otherwise, we are tempted toward a Do-It-Yourself spirituality to the detriment of an openness to God and to others. We learn too about simplicity not just de-cluttering our stuff, but training our eyes to see what is essential and what is frivolous. We learn about wonder in worship in contrast to the method driven, solutions focused world of many other religious practices. We are also taught about putting less emphasis on trying to find a middle way between the pros and cons, but to consider the way that does not drowns out God's voice. Another powerful reminder is gratefulness so that we do not fall into spiritual Alzheimer's.  On and on, we learn of so many different gems that most readers will be poised to find a few that will hit home. For me, I am intrigued by the "wisdom of spiritual sadness," which forces us to acknowledge there are many things in this world without an immediate fix, without a need to blame anyone, or to feel guilty about. Life just happens. There is also a short take on spirituality and psychology where Wicks says that "Psychology has often focused almost solely on the negative aspects of personality." Indeed, science is often good at breaking things down. What about putting them back altogether? These and many more can bring about a special spiritual transformation for anyone desiring to enter into spiritual formation.

B) So What?

After dealing with 20 ways to cultivate an inner workshop of personal devotion and spirituality, we are reminded once again that "Christianity is a community religion." All of these exercises, practices, or disciplines, are not to become an end in themselves as if one is singing out with God, "It's you and me against the world!" No. In fact, we need each other in order to be the best versions of each other to each other. Using the Parable of the Good Samaritan as a launch pad for loving our neighbours, Wicks invites readers to explore the question of what we need to do to inherit eternal life, and the three doorways to answer that question: Being present to self; to others; and to God. All of these doorways are actually not three but one focus: Everything for the sake of upholding God's glory.This is put into practice through 30 days of developing one's inner workshop of virtue. For each day, readers are urged to put into practice the various ways of spiritual growth and to respond to God's love. The instructions are brief, but the responses can be endless. The brevity of simple questions and answers is helpful as it gives room for readers or respondents to practice meditation and prayer.

Wicks is a wise guide and this book will be an excellent guide for those of us who want to embark upon the journey of inner transformation with outer application.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Sorin Books, Ave Maria Press, and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

"Tiger Woman on Wall Street" (Junheng Li)

TITLE: Tiger Woman on Wall Street: Winning Business Strategies from Shanghai to New York and Back
AUTHOR: Junheng Li
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2013, (256 pages).

This is an amazing biography and personal story of how Junheng Li struggled through the setbacks of China's Cultural Revolution in the 60s, brought up under a strict father, fought through multiple challenges in her growing up years, came to America to study, to work, and subsequently to make a huge impact on the investment industry, especially in the area of providing deeper insights about American strategies and Chinese peculiarities in social, political, economic, and other tangible relationships. Richly personal and highly informative, Li (known in the book as Junh) shares her journey from China to America, and how she gleans the best of Chinese discipline and diliegnet, and the American way of freedom and democracy. Positioning herself as a Wall Street strategist and investment analyst with feet on both Western and Eastern awareness, Li aims to use her own story to help business people (especially from the West) to do business in China.

Li brings to us an up-front-and-personal view of Wall Street and its day to day dealings, as well as an insightful and shrewd take on Shanghai and the culture in China. She highlights her early years of how her family survived China's modern but cruel "Cultural Revolution." She shares the roots of her tenacity that was developed since young, like having to up her TOEFL scores from 480 to 600 in three months. She reveals how her questioning of the norm sharpens her acumen for short-selling opportunities. At the same time, she candidly writes about her setbacks such as her dozing off when an important client was speaking as well as her failed marriage. Even her company, Aurarian, a small investment firm had to call it quits at the height of the 2009 financial crisis. Most fascinating of it all was her ability to understand the American mentality and ethical upbringing from a mainline Chinese point of view. She knows that there are many who are eager to invest in China. Yet, many of these investors are unable to understand the complexity of the Chinese markets. According to Li, the American model is one that assumes the market is "efficient" and many have unwittingly assumed that the Chinese market is similar. Li seeks to debunk this mistaken belief, arguing that when investing in China, it is critical for investors to know who and what they are investing in. By setting up her own firm (JL Warren), she has positioned herself as the expert in Sino-US investment analyses. 

So What?

Reading through the various investment snippets gives me an opportunity to refresh my own knowledge about investment, like short selling and long positions; hedge funds and IPOs; company management and stock health; and others. Li writes in such a compelling and honest manner that readers can feel as if they are there with Li. The captivating stories make for a very educational as well as entertaining read. That said, I do have some reservations about some of the conclusions Li had made. First, I think Li may have tried to make things far too black and white, like claiming the Chinese's upbringing is more "shame-based" while the Western model is more "guilt-based"; or Chinese system as "knowledge based" compared to the American system of "idea based." My question is "To what extent is this true? What about those who grow up with mixed parenting?"

Perhaps, as a mainline Chinese working and living the American Dream, Li has that uncanny ability to discern the differences much more than others. However, with rising immigration and globalization, plus inter-marriages and the the merging of cultures, the investment climate is getting more grey and complex. Second, this book is Li's personal story about her journey in the investment angle. Readers need to be careful not to extrapolate too much into the other parts of society, such as politics, social norms, or other cultural idiosyncrasies. There are a lot of things that readers can adopt in terms of questioning the herd mentality and the lack of discernment when investing in an unknown firm. At the same time, it is good to remember that it is just one view. It is not the only view. In a complex environment, there is no one-size-fits-all methodology. Third, the success of any venture is not solely an individual matter. We need communities of discernment. Even Li herself admits seeking out advice from older and more experienced individuals such as her previous mentor, Jason, and business friends like Peter Winn. In a hard-hitting world of business amid a very unforgiving Wall Street attitude toward losses, we all need friends and to learn to see life not just from a money or profits point of view. Seeing that Li's reputation as a "Tiger Woman on Wall Street" has also come at a steep personal price, it is a reminder for me that life is not just about making money or breeding successful endeavours one after another. There will come a time in which the more important things in life will become more significant.

Toward the end of the book, Li becomes more reconciliatry in her outlook of both the American and the Chinese cultures. The "discipline and perseverance" she learned from her Chinese parents and the "integrity and curiosity" she adopted from her American way of life has made her more equipped to deal with both. Keen readers will realize that Li is advocating for change for both sides, for diligence from all, to work together and to flourish together.

I warmly recommend this book for anyone interested in investment, especially those keen to learn and understand more about investing in companies with a Chinese background. Great read!

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of McGraw-Hill Professional and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

"The Well-Balanced World Changer" (Sarah Cunningham)

TITLE: The Well-Balanced World Changer: A Field Guide for Staying Sane While Doing Good
AUTHOR: Sarah Cunningham
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013, (288 pages).

How do we pursue our highest ideals and still remain grounded in reality? What can we do to stay sane in the midst of doing good? We have frequently seen how the best of intentions come up in the worst possible ways, or the worst scenarios averted through some fortunate encounters. If there is any one thing that young people typically faces, it is this: The world is not as pretty as one's dreams. At the same time, there is another voice that says: The world is not as bad as you think. Thus, Sarah Cunningham in this book tries to walk the thin rope between idealism and realism, pitting the ideals of doing good versus the reality of open struggles of life. Calling herself an "idea junkie," South Michigan based author Sarah Cunningham presents to us ten broad ideas to help us be a "well-balanced world changer."

Unlike books that talk about goals and purposes, Cunningham prefers to focus on the existing paths of "surviving it." In "Worth and Success," she urges us to be bold in honesty and authentic living. We learn that opportunities need to be earned rather than given, showing us that too often, students blame their teachers for poor grades when teachers are actually grading according to the students' work. In other words, students earn their grades, not teachers. Along with it, she reminds readers over and over that success needs to be humbly accepted and pride curtailed. On "Health and Balance," we learn about the constant pursuit of happiness that needs to be balanced with an awareness of the needy. We learn about the need to exercise wisdom in our choices. On "Peace and Perseverance," we are reminded that God has not given up on us, and that we too are not to give up on ourselves. "Risk and Control" contains some encouragement to venture forth into the unknown, and to learn to take responsibility for what we can control and not be too distracted by those things we cannot control. "Alignment and Relationships" reminds us once again the importance of friends and human relationships, and how working with people can make or break. "Plans and Priorities" looks toward the goal of living, to learn about things that matter and avoid things that are not. Sections 7 and 8 look at the internal makeup of "Passion and Identity" with "Desires and Frustrations" showing us that the best opportunity for change is ourselves and how frustrations can arrive through improper alignment of our energies toward money, disillusionment, criticisms, and external bullies. Amid the depressing mood of failure, one needs to adopt a posture of "Faith and Expectations" that we ought not to throw away our hopes but resolve to hang on to God's promises. Finally, "Humility and Perspective" brings us back to community focus and neighbourly living.

So What?

There are many clever quips and advice in this hugely ambitious book. The chapters are short, which reminds me of the style of the popular blogger Seth Godin who is well known for putting his ideas in a short and concise manner. When I read the ten sections and the chapters within them, I was trying hard to piece together how representative the chapters are to the sections. Not all the chapters sync well with the overall theme of the section.  Sometimes, I feel that chapters can stand on their own instead of being straitjacketed into the specific section. For example, I find it hard to see any link between "Peace and Perseverance" with "The Next Billy Graham." Sections 7 and 8 seem to be twin chapters that can be combined. The chosen section titles can also be problematic as I am unable to see some intuitive link between them. For instance, it is easy to see the need to try to balance war and peace, and laziness versus perseverance, but "Peace and Perseverance?"

Overall, there are a lot of good ideas in this book, but it is written in a manner that is very free spirited and somewhat unstructured. Kudos to Cunningham for producing a book that is saturated with ideas. What is needed most is some hand-rails to guide readers on what Cunningham is trying to say. If it is meant to be a "field guide," than make it more accessible with indexes, maps, diagrams, illustrations, or a general explanation of what each section is trying to do. A library is best utilized with catalogs to help patrons find their resources fast. This book needs a catalog to help readers find the stated ideas.

If I were to recommend a purchase, I will suggest buying an e-book so that readers can search using their e-book programs in the absence of an index in the printed version. 

Rating: 3.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Moody Publishers in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Friday, January 3, 2014

"Midrash" (Sandy Eisenberg Sasso)

TITLE: Midrash: Reading the Bible with Question Marks
AUTHOR: Sandy Eisenberg Sasso
PUBLISHER: Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013, (170 pages).

This book has a subtitle that can scare off the pious and those who revere the Word of God. How can we question the Holy Scriptures? Aren't we suppose to revere the Word and not question it? The key to the book is to understand that there is a difference between "questioning the truth in the Bible" versus "reading the Bible with question marks." The former tries to shut down with skepticism while the latter tries to dig deeper with anticipation for greater revelation. In fact, it is not the questioning of the Bible that is the point. It is letting the Bible question us that makes it all so revealing. In our modern world of science and technological know-how, our basic study paradigm is to search, analyze, take apart, and to understand the broken pieces. It takes the wise and discerning to sieve out the Word amid the words, to observe the specifics without forgetting the nuances, to separate parts with an eye on the whole, and to appreciate the bigger picture collectively once the smaller parts are understood for what they mean individually.   The first part of the book explains the origins of Midrash, which is to learn to approach Scripture as if God is speaking to us directly. Sasso gives us an insight into Midrash not just as a document but a way of understanding the Bible, through the awareness that the Word of God is not truth stuck in the concrete of time, but is Truth that continues to flow in a continuous stream of truth revealed and truth to be revealed. There are connections to be learned. There are messages that are relevant through all time. There is room for human imagination as God's Word gets revealed more and more. Midrash reminds us that reading the Bible is beyond literal understanding. It includes appreciation of the literary beauty. It means learning to look at truth through stories of life past, present, and future. The famous words of Amos Oz are instructive: "Fundamentalists live life with an exclamation point. I prefer to live my life with a question mark."

Sasso writes with a keen understanding of many non-Jewish readers. She gives an explanation of what Hasidism, Mishnah, the Talmud, the Midrash, and other Rabbinic literature. Hasidism is a mystical tradition that started in the 18th Century, reminding us that God's revelation is a continuous process. The Mishnah comprises of 6 sections. Each section comprises 63 tractates which is further subdivided into chapters and paragraphs. This Mishnah can be understood as the "Oral Torah" while the written text is the "Written Torah." The commentary to the Mishna is called the Gemara. This original Mishna (oral Torah) and the Gemara (commentary) together forms the Talmud. The situation gets more interesting as there are two versions of Talmud: Palestinian (completed 4CE) and the Babylonian (completed 500CE). The midrash is a kind of a "meaning maker" comprising both a product as well as a process. The product is in the form of a group of literature that interprets Holy Scripture. The process is the time of which the interpretation is continually done. Thus, in Midrash, one is able to venture into the ancient texts and at the same time, try to make sense of the present contexts and how the Scriptures can speak into every era. This is done in four levels.
  1. The first is the "peshat" which is a straight reading of the text.
  2. The second is the "remez" which connects one text to the other to find out what each text is pointing to or hinting at.
  3. The third level is that of "drash" which requires one to search out deeper meanings, and try to fill in missing gaps through their best understanding available.
  4. The fourth level is "sod" which is mystical.
What is fascinating is how Sasso tells how the first letters of each word are put together, and after adding vowels, it sounds like "pardes" which means "orchard." After establishing the basics of what Midrash is, Sasso brings us through 11 chapters of practical application of Midrash as product as well as process. Readers will learn how:
  • Midrash speaks to us in the present tense and to build our faith;
  • How God's revelation continues to touch us as we let questions open us up;
  • Midrash teaches us to consider other opinions respectfully and to treat our own humbly;
  • Midrash shows us how to see the world of pain and hurt through the eyes of grace and forgiveness;
  • Using the example of Cain and Able, Midrash instructs us about the content of the quarrel that led to the murder. Is it over economics or over personal property rights? It makes one understand Cain's rage over fairness, even though one may not agree with the eventual murder. It tells us how anger can lead us to sin even in matters we think are right.

Reading this book helps me appreciate the place of Midrash in Jewish holy literature and the process of interpretation and commentary. Some may not be comfortable with the flood of imaginations and creative filling in the gaps when reading the Word of God. Some may even accuse the Midrash as a way to add-subtract-modify the Holy Word. Midrash does not do that. It simply casts some light to enhance the understanding of the contexts using questions to guide appreciation. Questioning of the text does not mean subjecting the text to human scrutiny. Asking questions of the text simply means subjecting ourselves to the texts, for the Word to teach and guide us, and for us to be open and revere the Truth revealed. After all, the Word of God is also called the Living Word. Why then should anyone of us be stuck with paradigms that treat the Bible as a history book or a book written by human hands that cannot be changed. In other words, the Word of God does not change, but because of the Word of God, we change. The Midrash is one way to facilitate that change.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Paraclete Press in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

"God's Double Agent" (Bob Fu)

TITLE: God's Double Agent: The True Story of a Chinese Christian's Fight for Freedom
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (336 pages).

There is a lot of persecution going on since the beginning of the first century. Like what Jesus had said, that those who are persecuted for the sake of Christ are blessed. The Early Church too had their share of persections. The same goes for the early martyrs, the persecuted Church, and the many reports of tribulations of believers by evil regimes that are anti-Christian and utterly resistant to the gospel. Unlike the openly democratic and free societies in the West, there are many in Asia, the Middle East, the Eastern states of Asia, as well as many other secluded places where no news media are able to venture into. As a result, many believers suffered in silence and struggled in secret. How then does one stay right with God in a world gone horribly wrong? If there is one story to jerk us awake in our Western slumber and our comfortable state of nonchalance, it is the story of Bob Fu,  a former dissident and church leader in China, who escaped imprisonment and fled to the US in 1997. His story is just one page of the many books of horrific trials and tortures believers in China had to go through.

Beginning with a personal story of how Bob and his wife Heidi, escape the clutches of the secret police, and the real hunger and debilitating conditions suffered by many folks during the Cultural Revolution, Fu gives the world a closer look at the deceitfulness of the "Great Leap Forward" Cultural Revolution, the corruption of the establishment, and the evils committed by people in order to suppress the gospel and the believers. Imagine being starved until one had to cut, boil, and swallow leather strips to stop hunger pangs. Think about how a good like Bob's father, had to risk his family's well-being when doing kind deeds. Even the naming of children just to wart off suspicion and evil intent is part and parcel of life in China at that time. Movies come in the form of propaganda films, but those become highlights in the life of rural China, since any entertainment suffices. Schools were run military styles. Ordinary folks had to donate metals from their homes as a patriotic act. Even dating in University is outlawed. Freedom of speech and press are secondary. Obedience to the Communist Party is primary. All it takes is a little bit of defiance or resistance against the norm of politburo control, and one gets branded a traitor. That is what happened to Bob Fu, even though Fu's intent was good, and one that is based on equity and goodwill for the public. With growing suspicions and tightening control from the authorities, Fu finds his options increasingly limited in his struggle for a better society. Instead of dampening his fight, it turned him into a "counterrevolutionary." In the process, he encountered Christianity and from then on, he lives not just to participate in the making of a better society, he becomes a passionate follower of Jesus, to learn firsthand what it means to be a believer in an environment that is hostile and anti-Christ.

This is a gripping retelling of the incredible stories of faith behind one man's journey through persecution, prosecution, and perseverance. The many stories put our modern struggles of making ends meet, getting a satisfactory jobs, or paying our bills on time seem so mundane and superficial. I start to wonder how many of us living in the comforts of Western materialism and privacy of mass individualism, can actually survive the harsh tests of faith. Fu has learnt to be a double agent, one as a freedom fighter, and the other as a fighter for the gospel truth. With much help from both domestic underground sources as well as international agencies, Fu and his family managed to land in the USA with only a diaper bag and a long list of people they would like to thank. Such is the simplicity and the sacrifice they had to make in order to escape China. It is a story of how believers in the modern world can still be persecuted legally in a country like China that prides itself as "progressive" and people centered. Three things amazed me.

First, I am amazed by the resilience of Fu and his family, that against such huge barriers, it would have been easy to just succumb to the threats and the demands of the authorities. As long as Fu obeys the higher ups, his path would have been smooth sailing, even rewarding. Considering his influence and ability to network with people in power, he could have done more good from inside rather than when he was outside. The truth is, one has to remain faithful to what is right and not live a pretentious life upon what is blatantly wrong. Fu's faith in honouring God overwhelms the promise of societal comforts.

Second, the resistance movement is still a big part of living faith. It is a resistance that reminds me very much of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who made a fateful personal decision to be part of a rebellion to bring down Hitler. While Bonhoeffer was caught, imprisoned, and executed by Hitler's secret police just before the end of World War II, Fu managed to escaped the clutches of the Communist stronghold. While Fu's resistance efforts may not have resulted in the fall of the Communist Party, like how WWII ended with the fall of the German Empire, it brings about greater awareness to the world about the plight of Chinese believers in the underground churches of China.

Third, the results of Fu's efforts do not end just by escaping from China. Instead, Fu's love for his countrymen and fellow believers continued through his "China Aid" ministry, which is a ministry that advocates for the persecuted Church in China. What Fu had tried doing from within China, he can now do it freely from outside China. It is a test of his own belief in what freedom of speech and press can bring about. In doing so, any rewards or positive results of his efforts can be a testimony of what China would have looked like, if they have freedom like what many countries in the world have.

If you are looking for a book to be woken up from spiritual slumber, this book is pure adrenaline. Finally, my overall sentiment of this book teaches me that we ought to cherish our freedom gratefully, strengthen our faith gradually, build our connections wisely, use our influence appropriately, and to grow our trust steadfastly. For we are in a way "double agents" for God. One foot of ours is to be on the earthly commission to bring good news to the world. The other foot is on the promise of the heavenly kingdom from which all blessings flow from our Divine Creator God and Savior.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


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

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

"The Gospel At Work" (Sebastian Traeger & Greg Gilbert)

TITLE: The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs
AUTHOR: Sebastian Traeger & Greg Gilbert
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (160 pages).

This is a surprisingly good and useful book on vocation, work, and ministry. Some books cover topics of faith and work with a greater emphasis on good works and ethics. Others cover the topic with theological depth that appeals more to scholars and less to laypersons. Still, there are those that promise a lot but disappoints at the end. This latest effort looks the same at first, but offers a unique take on what it means to let the gospel guide our work. The key idea is this. We have only one employer, and that is God. We have only one calling, and that is calling to God. In fact, it is not what we do but who we work for that makes all the difference. This one big idea drives the entire focus of the book.

When the authors make use of the phrase "King Jesus," it reminds me straightaway of another brilliant book called "The King Jesus Gospel." What Scott McKnight was able to do for evangelism and outreach everywhere, Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert manage to do the same for workplace and faith ministry efforts everywhere. Traeger and Gilbert's years of experience in both the marketplace as well as in ministry settings have lent an additional layer of credibility to this latest book. Beginning with a focus on what our primary motivation for work is, Traeger and Gilbert help us fuse this with the greatest commandment to love God, love people, and serve all. In all things, the way to witness is to shine forth God's character in all things we do. This one tip trumps all other detailed methodologies or strategies that can be unwieldy and confusing.

What I really appreciate is the way the authors warn readers about the dual threats against the living out of King Jesus focus. They created a brilliant visual of an arrow, sandwiched by the pits of idleness and idolatry. Slacken in our faithfulness and we fall into the pit of idleness. Overly engrossed in fruitfulness risks plunging oneself deeper into idolatry. Thus, the guiding principle is to make sure we avoid idleness by sustaining our faithful living throughout, and to refrain from idolatry by being measured in our push for fruitful living. In helping us recognize the promises and perils of working in this fallen world, readers will find this a very intuitive guide to recognize when to push and when to pull back. Once we catch the main point, the rest of the motivations and methods in the book becomes more tightly knitted instead of scattered offerings. This is important because living for God is not about compartmentalizing our lives into neat pockets or drawers. It is about integration of work and purpose with faith in God as the guiding principle for all.

The scope of applications are far and wide. There are tips for Church and family, friends and colleagues, work inside as well as outside our regular places.  In choosing a job, readers will find it a helpful list of "must haves" versus "nice to haves." We will recognize that all those questions and struggles about finding the right job, making ends meet, or enjoying what we do, are but secondary concerns. What is primary is godliness in everything we do, faithfulness in whatever we do, and bringing glory to God in all that we are and are doing. There is a chapter on how we relate to bosses and our co-workers to see them not as obstacles to our promotion or job security, but to see them as people loved by God. Some helpful tips include:
  1. Determination not to complain or grumble about our work
  2. Happy submission to authority by remembering it is God we submit to
  3. Humble acknowledgment of duties and authority knowing that Christ himself had done the same
  4. Compete with integrity, that we do not focus on taking people down, but holding Christ up.
There is also a chapter on how to be a Christian boss that should appeal to people who runs their own business or entrepreneurial endeavors. The guiding principles include honouring God with our authority, using our power to bless others, awareness of the ease of power abuse, sacrificial service, imitating Jesus, be Gospel motivated and grace empowered. The chapter on sharing the gospel at work is a call not to be too afraid of sharing the gospel when the opportunity presents itself, and not to be too insensitive to push down the good news to those who are resistant. What is needed is to be ready at all times, to be sensitive to Spirit-led moments, and to build good relationships for the gospel to flourish. As expected, the authors assert once more that full-time work is not more important than regular work outside the Church or Christian borders. The key thing is to see how God, our Employer is deploying us. Some are deployed for Church work. Others are deployed for work in secular settings. The key thing is that we are all members of the same body and workers for the Same Boss.

I am excited to recommend this book highly as we kick off a brand new year 2014!

Do check out their website here for more resources.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.