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Friday, August 22, 2014

"Jonah" (Kevin J. Youngblood)

TITLE: Jonah: God's Scandalous Mercy (Hearing the Message of Scripture: A Commentary on the Old Testament)
AUTHOR:  Kevin J. Youngblood
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014, (192 pages).

This commentary is a part of Zondervan's series on "Hearing the Message of Scripture" to help readers in contemporary times hear as best as possible what the ancient audience are hearing. It helps readers go beyond word-for-word or technical analysis. It enables readers to sense the rhetorical orientations and the theological underpinnings of the biblical author. That is why "hearing" is a significant posture, considering that the ancient books are meant to be read aloud and received audibly. The three principles used are:
  1. What theological points are taught?
  2. How did the biblical author communicate these points?
  3. How does the message connect with the overall thrust of the Bible?
Using a standard format for the series, each commentary is helmed by an "expert" who has studied or taught the text in a significant way. In this commentary on the book of Jonah, it is the Professor of Bible & Religion at Harding University, Dr Kevin J, Youngblood. Since one of the purposes of this book is to help preachers, I will review this from a preacher's standpoint.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Facing Leviathan" (Mark Sayers)

TITLE: Facing Leviathan: Leadership, Influence, and Creating in a Cultural Storm
AUTHOR: Mark Sayers
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014, (240 pages).

Mark Sayers is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. His "The Road Trip That Changed the World," has become my go-to book for cultural engagement and analysis. Now, this latest book will be my goto book for leadership in our rapidly volatile cultural climate. Using the biblical sea monster described in the Old Testament book of Job, Sayers crafts this leadership guide that shines light on the cultural changes of this age, but penetrates deep into the forces that make or break a leader. Readers will slowly but surely be forced at some point to deal with their own "Leviathans."

Using the French Revolution and Paris as a metaphor, Sayers shows us how a society of power and glamour in 19th Century Paris that looks good on the outside can spawn the rise of a cruel and wicked person like Adolf Hitler. He points out the two popular forms of leadership: Mechanical (Enlightenment values) and Organic (Romanticism values). The former is based on power, task-driven, traditional, conventional, etc, while the latter is based on creativity, radical, relational, spiritual, imaginative, etc. Sayers admits that for the most part of his life, he has tried to evolve from the mechanical to the organic form of leadership.Gradually, he gets swamped by "surprising fruitlessness," "cultural splits," as well as his own bipolar condition, making him even more determined to find out the root cause of it all. He begins by meeting the Leviathan and the dangers of the sea. He observes with much fascination how poets like Jules Verne live out the Mechanical style of leadership while Rimbaud represents the organic form. Both had one thing in common: Both abandoned their Christian faith. Both the cultures of Enlightenment and Romanticism grow out of a "society of the spectacle" where leaders become celebrities; activists become spectators; creators become consumers; focus gives way to distractions; etc. This calls for urgent encounters with the Word of God. The concern is that the worries and distractions of the world can tempt leaders to abandon God's calling and embrace the cultural deceptions of comfort, entertainment, distractions, sensuality, and rising disobedience. Leaders soon forget that obedience to God often means disobedience to self.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

"Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus" (Nabeel Qureshi)

TITLE: Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity
AUTHOR: Nabeel Qureshi
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014, (304 pages).

Christians are not the only people who evangelize. Muslims do too. In many cases, Muslims are better trained in casting doubts on the Christian faith in order to influence more to believe in Islam. Sometimes, I have found Muslims to be relatively more prepared in winning any debate between the merits of Christianity vs Islam. Reading this book reminds me once again that Muslims are quite formidable in their religious heritage, in their arguments against Christianity, and in their knowledge of the New Testament. Sharing about his own religious search, Dr Nabeel Qureshi gives readers a glimpse about the inner workings of the upbringing of a Muslim child, the way Muslims are trained in their honor and authority observance, and the differences between the Eastern and Western perspective of things Islam, religion, and culture. After describing his pious upbringing and a background of devoutly seeking Allah, he reveals how he had a change of heart after being stumped on several occasions by his best friend David, who had not only defended key tenets of the Christian faith, but also exposed the fallacies of the anti-Christian arguments used by many Muslims. As his eyes become opened to the weaknesses of the "swoon theory" and the problems underlying the substitution explanation. More importantly, as he becomes open to the reality of the gospel, he soon takes on a new perspective: Finding Jesus. Qureshi turns from obstinate opponent to passionate proponent for the gospel of Christ. He notices that the arguments he had adopted, the apologetics used against Christianity were all "polemical," that is, they all started with a conclusion. He then attempted to use Western methodology with Eastern passion, and slowly discovers that Christianity is more water-tight than he had previously argued against. One by one, his walls of resistance crumbled.  He learned to see both sides of the picture. It was the Resurrection debate between the Muslim Shabir Ally against Michael Licona and Gary Habermas that tilted the balance. While Ally won the rhetoric and stage presence, Qureshi acknowledged that from the argument standpoint, Mike and Gary were far more convincing. With incredible detail of his journey from Islam to Christianity, Qureshi finds his initial resistance melts away, his doubts grow into faith, and his U-turn from skeptical disbelief to fervent faith.

Monday, August 18, 2014

"A Christian Survivor Guide" (Ed Cyzewski)

TITLE: A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth
AUTHOR: Ed Cyzewski
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2014, (208 pages).

Some books skirt the important issues of faith. Others dig so deep and lose the audience. Still, there are those that managed to point out the key matters and raise important questions but fail to adequately address them. How then do we grow in the midst of questions and doubts about the Christian faith? When the facts of life conflict with the faith we profess, which goes? Refusing to give into easy doubt or simplistic answers, author Ed Cyzewski takes the bull of questions by the horns and helps readers join the doubts toward reasonable faith. Called a "lifeline to faith and growth," the freelance writer uses this guide to help us navigate the paths to various Christian theologies and practical working out of such beliefs. His core belief is that "surviving as a Christian depends on having the right beliefs, putting them into practice in community with other Christians, and most importantly, meeting with God regularly." After identifying the marks of two groups of Christians that falter (messy and happy), he goes on to list down what it takes to move from milk-to-meat Christians.

He tackles nine beliefs in Part One. Prayer is not a monologue but a dialogue. Even when we feel God is distant does not necessarily mean God is far away. He mentions the Bible and the various interpretive angles Christians groups have, such as the conservative/liberal, and how important it is to avoid letting our past experiences or knowledge twist the interpretation of the Bible. He helps us see the biblical context behind the "violent Bible stories." He highlights the problem of dealing with the "problem of pain and evil" saying that many of us fail to discern between hot and cold cognition when dealing with situations of pain and evil. That is, those suffering in pain (hot) do not want some kind of a theological or chilly (cold) explanation about the pain. On hell, we read about the tendency of our modern culture to "erase hell" and at the same time, bring back a nuanced understanding of the Bible's references to "sheol, gehenna, or hades" as well as four different "instances" in Jesus' use of hell. He addresses the objections to the reliability of the Bible. He shows us some cultural uniqueness of various biblical events. He affirms that part of growing up is to learn to let our doubts shine light on our growth journey. On Revelation, Cyzewski's view is that the last book of the Bible essentially points to events already happening at that time rather than a futuristic view of what is ahead. The way Christians can apply that is to learn how to live well each day rather than to worry about the apocalypse.

Part Two of the book comprises five chapters that deal specifically with our Christian life matters. The first is about addiction, how the seven deadly sins can unravel our spirituality. The author suggests that restraint from such addictions and a commitment to break free from sinful acts is key to survival. Second, we learn about money as an idol, and how we use money. Third, in looking at community, we read about what to do when caught in a "bad church" environment. He reminds us that when we point a finger at the "church," we must not forget that you and I are very much the church. Fourth, evangelism is much talked about but less acted upon. Why not try to "embrace, ask, and act" in sharing the gospel? Finally, he looks at spiritual gifts, the charismatic movement, and what it means to trust in the Holy Spirit.

So What?

Are we content to simply survive? Or are we looking forward to thrive? The title of the book bugs me initially as it seems to be simply helping us to stay afloat rather than to journey to a particular destination. Only after reading the introduction do I realize that the objective is to move from surviving to thriving. He begins with the basic assumption that our Christian living must not be content about mere survival although survival is crucial to staying alive in the first place. Instead, we need to survive first in order to go somewhere later. Written for a lay audience, for the general church member, Cyzewski is perceptive about the nagging concerns and typical struggles behind some basic beliefs and Christian practices. Underlying each question and answer is the sensitivity to the quest for authenticity and truth. Written in a very accessible manner, he hooks readers in with an initial explanation of the problem, before giving some brief examples of what we can do about it. As a guide, it asks questions that we feel but seldom ask. It gives us some perspectives to consider. Most of all, it affirms once again that our Christian faith is not some old-fashioned religion that is applicable only to ancient times, but is very much practical and relevant. While the book is not intended to give us all the answers, it does point us to various resources that we can refer to. The "For Further Reading" section is a useful guide for readers who want to know more about the different topics covered in the book.

If you do not know how to verbalize the inner questions that you have in your heart, perhaps reading this book can not only jiggle some inner concerns but also bring out more concretely the inner feelings that demand a biblical verdict.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.

conrade

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.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"Loving Jesus More" (Phil Ryken)

TITLE: Loving Jesus More
AUTHOR: Phil Ryken
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2014, (176 pages).

Everybody talks about love. It is often used but one wonders what exactly does it mean. What does it mean to love? More specifically, in this book, what does it mean to love Jesus more? Spurred by a crude comment directed particularly at him for writing about love inside his office and not doing enough of loving people outside the office, Ryken admits that he needs more love for Jesus. At the same time, he also affirms the great commandment as necessarily beginning with the mind. Rather than to see the commandment to love with all our heart, mind, soul, and will as four different things, the Wheaton College professor prefers to see it as four different ways to do the same thing. He then builds his case from the beginning that we love because God first loved. us. We receive our love essentially through the Holy Spirit. If we are truly in love with Jesus, we will naturally find ways to overcome any obstacles in order to share the love of God with all. There is a logic that not many people realize. Those who can love Jesus "more" are those who love Jesus "less" in the first place. This book takes this thought and works through what it means to love Jesus more.

With lots of New Testament references and examples from the gospels, Ryken encourages us not to be waylaid by doubts, but to let doubts help us find the way to deeper faith. Like the witty words of Frederick Buechner, "Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving." Whenever we doubt, keep going back to the gospel story and the teachings of Jesus. This is where Ryken shines. Love in Christ comes in many places. There is the love that is prepared to forsake the glories of heaven for the ordinariness of earthly life. There is the deep suffering of Christ for our sake. There is the crucifixion as the ultimate demonstration of God's love. He points out that love is not something compartmentalized into intellect, emotion, physical, or whatever human will. They are all legitimate ways toward loving God. We love with our mind. We love with our delight and admiration of God's creation. We love God with the best of us. We love God with our "affectionate intellect."

Loving Jesus more means extravagance, brilliantly summarized by the moving act of the woman with the alabaster jar. It means obedience to what God had commanded or taught us. It means growing in affection for Christ. It means finding unlimited ways to love. It means mercy and grace. It means loving those who are difficult to love. It also means loving the Church, warts and all.

Ryken also deals with the common question of what if we do not feel like loving Jesus? One clue is our understanding and awareness of how much we have been forgiven. Another clue is whether something else has usurped the throne of our allegiance? Yet another clue is to find out how much we have become molded by the culture around us. The author ends with a call to love Jesus perfectly, that our desire to love God will be multiplied over and over again when we see the perfect beauty and Person of Jesus. Like the true story of Lap Vi Ho, locked up in a Vietnamese prison, whose love for his family enabled him to endure many hardships, believing that one day, he will be able to see his wife and children in a refugee camp in Thailand.

The idea is simple but the message is so necessary to our entire Christian living. Without love, all the spiritual disciplines, all the theological knowledge, all the strategies and the methods of doing church will fall to the ground like a dull thud. With love, whatever we do, whether it is a melody, a chorus, a rhyme, a strophe, a crescendo, or just a note, they can all be brought together to produce a musical masterpiece, for the ears and enjoyment of the God we love.

The study guide at the end of the book provides further opportunities to discuss this topic. If you are feeling a little jaded about what it means to love God, maybe this book is a breeze of fresh air to rejuvenate and to renew our love for God.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.

conrade

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

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"Rising Above a Toxic Workplace" (Gary Chapman, Paul White, and Harold Myra)

TITLE: Rising Above a Toxic Workplace: Taking Care of Yourself in an Unhealthy Environment
AUTHOR: Gary Chapman, Paul White, and Harold Myra
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Northfield Publishing, 2014, (160 pages).

Ever encountered the boss from hell? What about irritating colleagues who absolutely ruin our day? Maybe, there is a negativity so heavy that going to the workplace no longer seems fun or exciting anymore. The fact is, there are many places that have a toxic environment that can discourage and turn off ordinary workers from discharging their best. According to a Gallup poll, seven in ten people work in toxic workplaces. A bad workplace also leads to stress and reduced productivity. Class tensions create divisions within organizations.

Then there is the toxic boss from hell. They cannot take no for an answer. Not only that, they can make life miserable for subordinates who are desperate to keep their job. Some bosses are so abusive that standing up to them may very well be worse off. Greed and envy are the toxic fumes in any workplace. Even those companies that shot to fame based on their ranking in "Best companies to work for" are not immune from toxic workplaces. For what is wonderful for now is no guarantee of the future.

Monday, August 11, 2014

"Tables in the Wilderness" (Preston Yancey)

TITLE: Tables in the Wilderness: A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again
AUTHOR: Preston Yancey
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014, (240 pages).

Eight words preceded the silence. Many questions arose out of the widening chasm between the knowledge about God and the experience of God. They spurred a feeding frenzy on spirituality books, prayer resources, and anything to help the author feel God once again. There was an increasing sense of aloneness and feeling cast out in the wilderness. It prompted a question that inspired this memoir: "Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?" Is God simply a clockmaker? How did others encounter God?

This memoir details the author's spiritual mountain highs and valley lows. Preston Yancey, a former story coach as well as a research assistance in the Anglican Church on the Western Gulf Coast. He has degrees in theology and is interested in Medieval spirituality matters. This book tells the story of his spiritual chorus of being lost and found again, and again. He uses ten spiritual milestones in this unique memoir.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

"Encountering the Book of Romans" (Douglas J. Moo)

TITLE: Encountering the Book of Romans: A Theological Survey (Encountering Biblical Studies)
AUTHOR: Douglas J. Moo
PUBLISHER:  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014, (240 pages).

When encountering the biblical book of Romans, what comes to mind? For some, Romans represent the essence of Paul's theological treatise. For others, it is a powerful resource for the teaching of adult Christian Education classes or deep systematic theology. Professors have based entire lessons on the book. Pastors find Romans a powerful place to do Greek exegesis and theological structuring. The common words associated with this book range from "Powerful Theology" to "Beautiful Greek."  What about reading it as it was intended? Not what John Calvin or Martin Luther had interpreted it to be, but what Paul's "game plan" was when he first wrote it.

This is exactly where author and Professor Douglas Moo begins.
Cautioning us that many interpreters through the centuries are not neutral in their interpretation, he points out too that we see Paul's letter to the Romans from our own contexts too. That is why it is important to encounter the ancient contexts of Romans before we can begin a modern theological survey. Moo does this very well by showing us a few examples of the progression of interpretive thought through parts of history. For instance, in the Reformation years, Luther's focus on individual salvation and justification by faith had skewed his reading of Romans.  It also skewed ours. This is due in part to our modern tendency toward individualistic thought. Another reason for Luther's interpretation was the reaction against the Roman Catholic doctrines of justification by works. We too are participants in reacting against certain elements in our culture, and we unconsciously read Romans with our culture in mind.

Another modernist thought is from E. P. Sanders who sees Romans as reflection of first century Judaism. James D G Dunn says that Paul was concerned more with the "people issue" where God intends both Jews and Gentiles to be grafted as a chosen people. There is also a "new perspective" with advocates like NT Wright who argues that Romans is about salvation for all people. Adding to the complication is the rise of a "radical new perspective" that Paul was critical of the Judaism of the day but still maintained the "traditional means of atonement" for the Jews.

Moo deals with all the three interpretive angles: Reformation, New Perspective, and the Radical New Perspective in this book. As a letter, he urges readers to practise what Augustine called "Take up and read!" This book goes on to help us encounter Romans in seven ways.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"Teenagers Matter" (Mark Cannister)

TITLE: Teenagers Matter: Making Student Ministry a Priority in the Church (Youth, Family, and Culture)
AUTHOR: Mark Cannister
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014, (260 pages).

Is your Church average population getting older? Is there a decline in the number of teenagers or young people in your congregation? Have you ever wondered how on earth is your Church going to reach this particular age group more effectively and successfully? How has youth ministry changed over the years? These questions are dealt with ably by Gordon College Professor of Christian Ministries, Dr Mark Cannister. Also an elder and Sunday School teacher at Grace Chapel, Dr Cannister combines his formidable knowledge and experience with a deep love of people, and in this case, young people. He gives a breathtaking overview of youth ministry via four roughly sketched time-tested strategies.
  1. Late 1800s: Clarity of Purpose
  2. 1920s: Authentic Leadership
  3. 1930s: Transformation of Lives
  4. Post 1940s: Genuine Relationships
He proves the importance of "genuine relationships" through the breakfast meetings which had proven to be a hit among the teenager groups he led. Following this, he provides seven broad potentials when student ministry gets prioritized.

Friday, August 1, 2014

"Finding Spiritual Whitespace" (Bonnie Gray)

TITLE: Finding Spiritual Whitespace: Awakening Your Soul to Rest
AUTHOR: Bonnie Gray
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2014, (272 pages).

We are all busy. We all have our own things to do. Packed calenders, filled schedules, you name it, we are all stretched to maximize all of our time and to minimize wastage. We have become so proficient in filling up all of our spaces but often paying a heavy price: We do not know how to rest. As Sabbath beckons each week, sometimes, we wonder whether we are able to find a place and means to rest. We need help. we need a way to recuperate from the madness of busyness. In the words of Bonnie Gray, we need to find "spiritual whitespace" which is her way of saying "we need to find a place to rest."

Bonnie Gray has personally heard stories and experienced her own trauma about needing to find spaces to rest when the demands are high and the energy levels are low. With a constant drive to get things done, she allowed the demands of work to dominate, resulting in severe post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Rather than a book that talks about rest from an expert, this book is about one person's journey of recovery from PTSD to restfulness. It comes out of a deep search for newer places of rest. It invites readers to come alongside and share the search process. It is a spiritual journey that breaks new ground for the author and hopefully for readers. More importantly, it reminds us that just because there is a blank space or empty schedule does not mean we need to straightaway fill it up. Some things are meant to be cherished as blank spaces so that it can spur creativity and beauty, not cluttering with work or accumulating stuff. Five "whitespaces" of rest are described.