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Thursday, April 17, 2014

"From Jesus to the Church" (Craig A. Evans)

TITLE: From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation
AUTHOR: Craig A. Evans
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (176 pages).

Based on the prophecy mentioned in Numbers 24:17, this book is a study of the religious tensions between the prophecy, the interpretations of the prophecy, and the family of the religious leaders and Jesus. It is mentioned by the prophets of old and fulfilled in the person of Jesus. This narrow focus is the author's attempt to raise up interesting insights and issues about how this prophecy had impacted the early followers.  It is a focus on the "first link" between Jesus and the Early Church. Situated during the first forty years in between Jesus's ministry timeline and the Jewish-Roman political tensions leading up to the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem, Craig Evans, New Testament scholar and Professor at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada, argues that the prophecy is not only ambiguous, but has contributed in a large part to a separation of Judaism and Christianity. After examining the different perspectives of the prophecy, Evans made four conclusions.

  1. Jesus had already predicted the destruction of the Herodian Temple
  2. Jesus had used the same kind of language as the earlier prophets of old. Where the earlier prophets had predicted the destruction of Solomon's temple, Jesus did the same for the Herodian Temple using remarkably similar kinds of language
  3. The cleansing of the temple is necessary because of the corruption manifested within by various religious and sectarian groups.
  4. Simply because Herod was the one who built the Herodian Temple, Jews had already planned to destroy it.
The Resurrection of Christ marks the beginning of the Church. With the spread of Christianity comes increased persecution. Chapter 1 is used to raise the question whether Jesus had originally intended to start the Church. Evans said it depends. If one is part of the mainstream public, they would say yes. If one is a biblical scholar, one would say no. Evans surprisingly is agnostic about it. Probing the language used by Jesus and the early Christians, Evans looks at the typology of the 12 tribes of Israel that connects old Testament Israel to New Testament community. There is no break, thus no necessity to start a Church that is different from the calling of Israel. Maybe it is a remnant that will follow through. Maybe it is a different use of words for assembly, "synagogue" for Jews and "church" for Gentiles. The Church is thus not something distinctly different from Israel because the Church is tasked to fulfill the same purposes God had set out for Israel. The label may be different but the calling is the same. Chapter 2 continues with the connections between the Kingdom of God motif and the Church. The "remnant" applies to both Israel and the Church. There is a continuity. Chapter 3 looks at the people responsible to lead this continuity, in particular, James and Paul. It brings into the age-old controversies between faith and works. Evans takes the stand that Luther failed to interpret James correctly, that the "works" mentioned are not "works of the law" but good works in general. The main point is faith. Thus, James and Paul are more in agreement. This is described more in chapter 4, comparing zeal in the law and faith in God. Chapter 5 argues that the main disputes happened between Jesus' family and the family of the chief priest, Annas. Finally, Evans describes the aftermath of this disputes as he tackles the shape of the Christianity during the times of James, Paul, Ignatius, and others.

The whole point of the book is that Jesus did not intend to start a Church like the one it is today. Jesus wanted to fulfill the will of God, for the sake of all nations, and not to get caught up with the differences of each era. It is the 40 years between the Resurrection of Jesus and the destruction of the Temple that set forth in motion the departure of Judaism and Christianity.  The Church of today is not what Jesus had intended to be, which will dilute any modern attempt to put God's Name into any modern Church establishment. At the same time, we are called to pursue the main calling and the purposes of God to save the whole world. The structures may differ, the history may be drastically different, the interpretations diverse. These are not barriers to the doing of God's will. There is a continuity that exists between the old and the new testaments. This continuity remains with the remnants, a people of God who regardless of ethnicity, religious background, or various idiosyncrasies, will do God's will from where we are.

Read this book if we are interested to learn more about the early controversies and how the Early Church was forced to become what it is. At the same time, do not be too quick to label the Church of today as something that is designed from the start by Jesus. After all, there is a certain freedom for us to choose to become what we are today. The Church of today is within the confines of the liberty and freedom for man to choose.

Rating: 4 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.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Movie Review: "Heaven is For Real"

PRESENTED BY: Sony Pictures
DIRECTOR: Randall Wallace
PRODUCER: Joe Roth, T.D. Jakes
SCREENPLAY: Randall Wallace, Christopher Parker
CAST: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Margo Martindale, and Thomas Haden Church

Today is the official release of the movie, "Heaven is for Real." Based on the book by Todd Burpo, it is a story of earthly faith with heavenly hope about the Burpo family, whose lives have been changed by one miraculous experience of a three year old boy, Colton Burpo. Now made into a movie, the story comes alive with superb acting and quality footage.

Watch the trailer here.

You can read my full review here.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Biblical Preaching, Third Edition" (Haddon Robinson)

TITLE: Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages
AUTHOR: Haddon Robinson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014, (256 pages).

What is the secret that makes a 1 hour sermon feels like 30 minutes, and a 30-minute sermon that seems like an hour long? This one question drives one of the world's best preachers to seek out, to be soaked in, and to share widely the need for good biblical and expository preaching. After laying some initial thoughts and definitions about what biblical and expository preaching is, world renowned Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary shows us exactly how to go about preparing, developing, and delivering sermons with the Big-Idea concept. The basic concept is that every big idea comprises of two essential parts: a subject and a complement.

Subject: "What am I talking about?"
Complement: "What am I saying about the subject?"

This big idea must come from the biblical text itself. The subject can be developed using six faithful friends: who, what, when, where, why, how. The complement then goes on to provide the other half of the big idea equation. Going to specific details with many examples, Robinson shows us the different tools that one can use for sermon preparation. He shows us that the Bible text is the primary source that leads toward the sermon. The three phases of explaining, proving, and applying will help preachers sharpen their big idea delivery. Even the title of the sermon needs to be well thought through. He goes through the three different ways in which sermons can be prepared:
  1. Deductively: Point declared at the start, and the sermon then goes on to prove that point.
  2. Inductively: Point by point delivery until the whole picture is formed.
  3. Semi-Inductively: Combination of the two above.
On illustrations, we are taught to study cookbooks as a way to sharpen our pointers and improve our clarity. On the introduction and the conclusion, readers are urged to begin with a bang and to conclude with a burning focus. It can be restating the main points. It can be tying up the loose ends. It can also be a summary. Whether it is a prayer, a quotation, a story, a summary, or a visual, the conclusion needs to leave listeners with a memorable thought.

On the delivery, readers are given tips on dressing, on expressive gestures and movements, eye contact, vocal variety, pitch, punch, rehearsal, and many more. He ends on an encouraging note for readers not to be swamped by the daunting details but to prayerfully trust God to lead and to guide the whole process of development and delivery. The many exercises, evaluations, and the examples provide readers a healthy range of applications and learning points.

Now in its third edition, this book still packs a big punch. As a past student of Robinson, I can hear his voice just coming across powerfully and yet gentle in instruction. This edition has been expanded with contributions from several of Robinson's students and colleagues, friends and peers. It also incorporates many of the feedback obtained from readers of the past editions. For example, some of the exercises provided have been fine-tuned. Others have been contributed by students and preachers. This classic book on biblical preaching remains a top recommendation for anyone studying the art of preaching or teaching homiletics.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Monday, April 14, 2014

"Planted" (Leah Kostamo)

TITLE: Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling, and Community
AUTHOR: Leah Kostamo
PUBLISHER: Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013, (172 pages).

This is a beautiful book. Few books have managed to capture the essence of nature, the joys of community, and the affirmation of a simple calling like this one. Leah Kostamo, a wife, a former campus ministry worker, as well as a co-founder of the A Rocha ministry based in BC Canada, has shown us how good stories can be told with simplicity, with insight, and with humour. Combining her love for creation and conservation, her natural talent for observing details in ordinary things, her passion for community building, coupled with her eloquent use of words, this book is destined for greatness in the literary world. As a memoir, readers will be humbled at how the author and her husband Markku would give up lucrative careers, sell their house, and to pour all their assets into a non-profit ministry without guarantee that it would even survive its initial years. Yet, it did and it did so marvelously, blessing, teaching, and enabling thousands of visitors and volunteers at their farm facility. The ministry in Canada began as a seed back in 1996 at a Regent College course entitled, "Incarnational Mission" led by Peter and Miranda Harris, who had founded A Rocha in Portugal. Eight years later, the idea took root, and sprouted trunks and branches through personal investments as well as generous givers and loaners by those who expressed faith enough to walk with the Kostamos.

The book is also a mini-ecological guide. We learn about the threats of worldwide extinction of 13% of birds, 25% of mammals, and 41% of amphibians. We see how a tiny shrimp plays its microscopic role in a complex and delicate ecological environment, that benefits beavers, bears, and big trees. We read about invasive species, weeds, the birds, and even slugs. Along the way, Kostamo makes sure we do not get carried away in the natural world and forget about the technological world. With a deft touch of humour, she compares and contrasts pods of orcas with iPods! It can also be used as a primer in becoming more nature aware. We are encouraged to think about the tap water we have, to think about its source, its distribution channels, and all the resources poured into the whole system. We are challenged to think about the gardens, how the seasons impact life, the variety of birds and nature around us, and even rocks and minerals that seem so mundane for the busy individual.

It is also a guide for a deeper awareness of what eating entails. For those of us whose limited vocabulary of eating centered around restaurants, the food on our tables, or the kitchen, we get invited into a world of farming, of growing our own food, and the beauty of real food over processed stuff. Food is not just something to be consumed, but it can incorporate a work of art in itself. Beyond the feasting, we will appreciate the preparation beyond mere cook books, and to be respectful in the way we partake of God's providence for us. Slowly but surely, the book becomes a rallying point in the practice of Micah 6:8, that we learn to live justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly. Very aptly, the book closes with a relook at the biblical Sabbath, reminding us that working hard and doing good have their limits. Man can only do so much. Everything else totally depends on God alone. The keeping of the Sabbath is a powerful reminder that we by ourselves are limited. That is why Sabbath keeping enables us to be natural ourselves one day a week, as we busy ourselves with nature on the other six days.

This book is a rare find. More accurately, the book found me. When contacted to do this review, I promptly agreed because of curiosity in part, and to support a fellow Regent alum as well. Little did I know that I would be receiving a literary gem, a unique seed that germinates in me a greater appreciation of nature and creation. Most of all, I am humbled by how the Kostamos' passion-turned-reality have blessed people of all ages from all walks of life. There is a lot of material in this humble looking book. Open it up at any one page and you can easily find a point or two to learn from and to contemplate after.

I am full of praise of the quality of this book. I particularly appreciate the three points to show us the way forward, namely; 1) Practice Gratitude; 2) Practice Generosity; and 3) Practice the Sabbath Keeping. On all three counts, I say a hearty Amen! A clear best of the best so far in my 2014 stack of books.

Thank you, Leah Kostamo for letting me know that this book even existed.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Friday, April 11, 2014

"A History of Christian Theology: A Second Edition" (William C. Placher)

TITLE: A History of Christian Theology, Second Edition: An Introduction
AUTHOR: William C. Placher (and Derek Nelson)
PUBLISHER:  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, (328 pages).

Students of history will often encounter the presence and influence of religion and for Europe, the significance of Christianity. Students of Christian Theology will realize that they cannot get away from the study of history. Both history and theology are tightly connected. Unfortunately, there are various quarters in educational circles that see history as boring. They view theology as dry. Imagine putting "boring history" and "dry theology" together? Thankfully, there are books that demonstrate that a study of history, of Christian Theology, and the historical development of Christianity can be very interesting and educational. More importantly, it shows us again that modern problems and controversies may not necessarily be solved but can be beneficially understood through the study of the historical events and contexts leading up to the issues. The author, the late William Placher who published this book's first edition in 1983 was a distinguished Professor at Wabash College until his untimely death in 2008. This second edition has been followed up by his past student and currently Associate Professor of the same college, Derek Nelson. With a very able and respectful summary of the late Professor Placher's overall theological stance, Nelson has given Placher a honourable tribute for the theological contributions given in a postmodern climate.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

"A Commentary on Judges and Ruth" (Robert J Chosholm Jr)

TITLE: A Commentary on Judges and Ruth (Kregel Exegetical Library)
AUTHOR: Robert J. Chisholm, Jr
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2013, (704 pages).

One is muggy and gloomy with situations deteriorating in a downward spiral. The other is spirited and bright, with each page turning into greater hope and living revelation. That is the contrast between the book of Judges and the book of Ruth. Robert Chisholm, Professor of Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, has three main aims in this commentary of two Old Testament books.
  1. What do the texts mean in their original contexts?
  2. What biblical principles can we learn from them?
  3. What does it mean for us in contemporary times?
Using his own translation of the two books, Chisholm adopts a "literary-theological method" in this commentary instead of a "extensive text-critical analysis." When in doubt, he chooses to let the texts speak for themselves rather than speculating upon what they mean. Believing that the preaching and teaching of the Bible ought to be offered to all, not just ivory tower seminarians, Chisholm provides ample resources for preachers and teachers to use for the sharing of the Word.

On The Book of Judges

He situates the book in between the end of Deuteronomy and the early beginnings of Kings. It was a time in which Israel was struggling with what it means to occupy the Promised Land, and the critical role of godly leadership which was increasingly missing. It also led to a spiritual deterioration that exhibits symptoms of utter horror and bloodshed. The central themes dwell around "Israel's propensity to sin, the Lord's disciplinary judgement," and how Israel was saved time and again by God's liberators. It also highlights the reason for God's continued insistence on rejecting idolatry. The prologue of the book tends to be generally positive, where each time Israel failed, God would send someone to rescue them. After Samson, there seems to be a turn for the worse. There were rising civil conflicts, selfish acts, culminating in sordid atrocities, murders, and rapes.  All of God's Ten Commandments were violated, as if the acts in Judges stood against everything Deuteronomy warned about. In contrast to Dorsey, Gooding, and Tanner, who suggest that the  chiastic structure points out Gideon as the central figure, Chisholm prefers to see it from a "United Israel" perspective. The stories point to a general disunity of Israel, and not about any one leader per se. Whatever happens to any one region impacts the entire nation. He supports this interpretation by arguing that the author of Judges sees Israel from one united angle. For instance, from a linguistic standpoint, the book of Judges uses the word "Israel" generally to speak for all Israel, instead of simply a region. Chronologically, one sees the different periods of rule through cycles of oppression and liberation, with some overlaps. Using the literary structure of the rhetorical statements "again did evil," "after him," and other chronological clues, Chisholm proposes that Judges occurred somewhere between 1190 and 1070. A synchronic approach is preferred to diachronic because the latter seems more speculative and fantasy. Chisholm summarizes Judges as having three primary purposes:
  1. Judges is about the defense of God's Name, endangered because of Israel's failures
  2. It demonstrates God's commitment and faithfulness to His People
  3. It is a polemic against idolatry.
Other themes include the need for godly leadership, the pitfalls of idolatry, and the consequences of failing to observe and obey Deuteronomy's instructions. Finally, Chisholm does not leave readers helpless about contemporary applications. He builds the homiletic bridge for us to travel. The three part preaching paradigm is consistently shared: 1) Exegetical idea; 2) Theological Idea; and 3) Homiletical Trajectories.

On The Book of Ruth

Chisholm is convinced that the book is a "historical short story" with a high redemptive element. He engages several scholars' interpretations before offering his own. He sees Ruth as God's instrument for deliverance, and Boaz as one used to impart and to receive blessings. Four major theological themes are highlighted.
  1. God is concerned for the needy
  2. God uses ordinary people like Naomi and Ruth, whose simple virtues of loyalty and kindness are timeless principles
  3. God rewards faithfulness and faithful people according to His good time; In fact, God's blessings extends beyond the lifespans of any one generation
  4. There is a Messianic trajectory, with Boaz seen as a type of Christ; sacrificial love; royal genealogy.

So What?

This book is a joy to read with many inspiring thoughts and provocative ideas for teachers and preachers. Though some of the material can be rather involved and heavy, especially the engagements with various scholarship propositions and arguments, there are many contemporary applications that can benefit a wide segment of the Church. This is especially for those in the ministry of teaching and preaching, where Chisholm meticulously guides the reader through the three-fold sermon preparation process. There is the exegetical idea phase to help navigate the literary structures and the literal contexts. There is the interpretive cycle backed with various scholarly views to keep readers updated on the different interpretations. There is an exceptionally helpful homiletical trajectory to bridge the ancient and the modern mind. In one book, we see the unity of Israel and the orientation of the Old Testament toward a Messianic revelation.

For me, this book is not just a commentary. It is a preaching guide made accessible to teachers, preachers, and students of the books of Judges and Ruth. For anyone who is unsure about how to approach Judges, or needing new ideas on teaching from the Book of Ruth, this book will be an able guide and a reliable resource for us. I highly recommend this commentary for your study and use at Church or seminary settings.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"No Greatness Without Goodness" (Randy Lewis)

TITLE: No Greatness without Goodness: How a Father's Love Changed a Company and Sparked a Movement
AUTHOR: Randy Lewis
PUBLISHER: Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013, (240 pages).

Are the disabled really disabled? Have we given them a fair chance to compete and to work at an equal footing? What if a Fortune 500 company offers them a chance to work like any other ordinary person? This is what Walgreens did. Under the leadership of former Anderson Consultant turned Walgreens employee, Randy Lewis made it a corporate goal to have representation of disabled people from 0% to 10%. Motivated by his love for his autistic son, Austin, spurred by his desire to pave the way for society to accept more people regardless of their abilities or disabilities, Lewis learns to defy all odds to attempt to make a difference in the lives of disabled people by first making a difference in the attitudes and expectations of society, beginning at Walgreens.

The path was definitely not easy. Filled with initial disappointments and despair at the discovery of Austin's condition, there were moments in which the family could have called it quits. Fortunately, Lewis was able to see a glimmer of hope through simple provision of opportunities. The language of business is money. The tool of management is mission. The opportunity to serve provides the meaning.  Lewis weaves all three together to incorporate as much meaning as possible in a world drive by profits and mission statements. Yet, the path to success is not easy. The first attempts were failures as not many shared Lewis's passion, let alone vision. Thankfully, the failures do not dampen his resolve. It strengthens, especially when he witnesses results and the way disabled people like his son becomes more purposeful and respected in earning a living instead of expecting handouts. Step by step, Lewis shares his ups and downs, and how he learns from mistakes, gets encouraged by results, and eventually, moving Walgreens forward as an exemplary leader in the area of hiring disabled people up to a third of the organization. What follows within the book are powerful principles put into action, to usher in humility in businesses and to cultivate a deeper respect for all humanity in society.

Monday, April 7, 2014

"Uncovered" (Rod Tucker)

TITLE: Uncovered: The Truth about Honesty and Community
AUTHOR: Rod Tucker
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, Kregel Publications, 2014, (160 pages).

We have all heard about the accusations. "Hypocrites! Bigots! False religion!" These words sting the Church at large, especially those who had been hurt before in Church settings. What is the underlying problem in such labeling of deception and false images? Why is the Church having such an image problem? Is there hope for Christianity? For author and founding pastor of The River:pm in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the answer is in learning to uncover ourselves to be honest and authentic with people. Discipleship is very much about revealing our true selves. As one who has observed the heightened external activities of well-meaning Christians, Tucker has noticed something more sinister in the general spirituality of the Christian. Dishonesty. Dishonest with the self. Dishonesty within the Church. Dishonesty beyond.

Tucker knows biblically that honesty is a healing balm, a "kiss on the lips." At the same time, he knows that many people shy away from openness due to the need to protect themselves from being hurt. Just like the behaviour of Adam and Eve after they sinned at the Garden of Eden, we too exhibit the same kind of behaviour that sews fig leaves to hide ourselves. When caught, we assign blame to others. As our relationship with God gets broken, our relationships with one another break down too. In Christ, we learn that honesty is more about being like Jesus and less about selective hiding and revealing. In hiding, we huddle behind in the dark. In honesty, we step out into the light.

Part Two of the book on community is a tough one as Tucker shares about how some churches teach bad theology that links sickness directly with sin. While it is important to be honest, it is also necessary to be theologically sound. He touches on the difficult problem of homosexuality and the Church where multiple versions of honesty have led to breakups and contentions within the community.The problem lies in how the issues are handled rather than the what of contention. He notes that "we always look for someone worse than we are so that we can feel better about ourselves" is a strong indictment that can be controversial. For Tucker, the point is that if we do not experience communal honesty, we cannot experience "grace-filled fellowship." For honesty is a cost that we cannot use cheap change such as the easiest way out. We cannot pick and choose who we are honest with.

Part Three gives us tips on how to go about uncovering ourselves. Through mirrors, we are reminded that too much self-consciousness can be a bane. At the same time, insufficient reflection and honesty about ourselves can be a barrier. We begin by seeing ourselves being saved by God, reconciled to God, and renewed in Christ. The encouragement for all of us is that honesty is not a self-driven enterprise. It is a gift of God in Christ. It is an act of grace. Our task of growing in honesty is a response to this grace.

As a reminder, this book reaffirms the need for Christians to be authentic with themselves, with others, and within the Church. It is a direct reversal from the lifestyle of sinful Adam and Eve, toward a lifestyle that is centered on Jesus Christ. As a honesty primer, we learn to see ourselves honestly with a mirror, and then to put that mirror aside in order to present ourselves to others, honest in Christ. The book is not strong in the "how to" department. Instead, it is more beneficial in the "what-if" we begin the path to honesty. By planting the seed of honesty and readiness to be open, Tucker is urging more of us to be honest in everything we do. More importantly, the truth about honesty and community is to know that we cannot do it all alone. We need God. We need the grace of people. We need to boldness in Jesus.

Rating: 3.75 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, April 4, 2014

"Where Courage Calls" (Janette Oke and Laurel Oke Logan)

TITLE: Where Courage Calls: A When Calls the Heart Novel
AUTHOR: Janette Oke and Laurel Oke Logan
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2014, (336 pages).

For every Jewish boy, there is the coming out of age ritual called the Bar Mitzvah. For girls, it is their Bat Mitzvah in which at age 12, she becomes responsible for her own life. In various countries, the issuing of a driving license or the legal age for employment is a way to signify the coming out of age of that individual. Others see military conscription as a way to turn a child into an adult man. Bestselling author and significant contributor to the Christian book industry Janette Oke has done it again with her daughter as a co-author. It is about a compelling story of a girl called Beth Thatcher who had come out of age from a wealthy and comfortable home of her parents toward an unknown rugged wild, wild West. The seeds of her call to courageous living begin early when someone told her that we often rely on things we want to remember instead of remembering the things that actually were. Yet, that is what Beth continues to do in comfortable Toronto society where she lives constantly basking in the wealth of her family. Until an opportunity knocks on her door to pursue a teaching position in Coal Valley where the unknowns there easily overwhelm her memories of the knowns back home. She encounters the need for courage beginning with that single major decision to go.

With courage as a central theme, Oke weaves many other twists and turns that the protagonist had to go through. Beth struggles with a need to be independent and yet reminisces on her life of dependence on a life of luxury. Right from the start, there is the shock of losing her belongings. Then there is the scary experience of traveling to a place that is so remote. Beth soon realizes that losing possessions is one thing, losing loved ones is another, judging from how the mining town had just experienced a tragedy of a mining accident. This hits home and hard when Beth reads in the essays submitted  to her, about the students' description of how the loss of their dads had affected them personally. Then there is the emotional tug of war between two men, both potential suitors. Yet, there are upsides to this seemingly challenging venture. There is the beauty of Coal Valley, the mountains, the fields, the lush greens, and the natural rivers. There is the Church that she worships in which has given her a semblance of familiarity. Then there is her growing love for her own children, while by virture of one mining disaster, had been ushered into sudden adulthood. With each pleasant encounter, there is a desire to learn more. With each unpleasant event, there is a tendency to retreat. Chief of them all is the constant urging to spring back from the unknown strange environment toward a known environment. As her first school year comes to a close, will she continue in Coal Valley or will she return to comfortable Torontonian society?

This novel adds to an already impressive list of inspirational fiction by Janette Oke. Within it are themes of compassion, love, danger, courage, faith, uncertainty, romance, relationships, and basic humanity lived out. Most importantly, readers are invited to feel the tensions experienced by Beth Thatcher, and to subtly ask the question: "If I were Beth, what would I have done?" This question itself can turn this fictional story very much into our own moments of real-life biographies.

Janette Oke's long list of inspirational fiction books can be found here.



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

Thursday, April 3, 2014

"When Your Life is on Fire" (Erik Kolbell)

TITLE: When Your Life Is on Fire: Thirteen Extraordinary People Answer One Simple Question
AUTHOR: Erik Kolbell
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (248 pages).

What are the things or activities people assign ultimate value to? What do they mean to our own lives? What can we learn from others and apply to our own lives? These three questions are dealt with in this book of interviews with 13 public figures, entertainers, accomplished professionals, samaritans, spiritualists, war veterans, artists, musicians, and others to capture a slice of life.  The title of the book is revealing: "When your life is on fire, what would you save?" It begs another question: What do we value most in life? What is that one or two things we will grab and go when the fire is at the door of our own life?

Erik Kolbell, a psychotherapist and former minister of Social Justice at Riverside Church in New York City has grouped these thirteen individuals into four categories. The first category is about "Seekers" of the more important things in life. Rabbi Arthur Waskow (founder of Shalom Center in Philadelphia) seeks to be a channel for peace with people groups and communities, as part of his personal "midrash" or commentary about life. Mariah Britton, having experienced the benefits of being mentored tries to pay it forward by dedicating her life to the spiritual developments of adolescents and adults. A poet herself, she sees her life as learning to infuse art with religion, and prayers with action. The third seeker described is Kenjitsu Nakagaki, a Buddhist priest who sees the most important value of life is living as a human being.

The second category is "Artists" that puts actors, poets, and musicians together. Actor and screenwriter Alan Alda values reality is about embracing both the known as well as the unknown with openness and vigor. Inspired by the lives of Marie Curie, Yuan Long Ping, Alda sees the significance of life that lies in the pursuit of worthy causes. Poet John Alexander provides raw honesty in his paintings that reflect his own calling not just to make art but to live it. Jazz violinist from Michigan, Regina Carter sees music as both expression of it as well as the receiving of it. In expressing it, one gives it joy and meaning. In receiving it, one accords respect. Harvard Medical School student and musician, Christopher Lim sees the attitude of learning and unlearning as an outworking of faith and living.

The third category of "Iconoclasts" shows the depiction of life through various symbols and imagery. Fred Newman is both a soundman as well as a storyteller. Believing that life is about adopting the disposition of "silence, stillness," for the present, and "attentiveness" to the world beyond. As long as he lives, communications is his calling. Kolbell's most difficult interview was with Tao Porchon-Lynch, a 95-year-old Yoga instructor, simply because she was physically "elusive." Although her name suggests a Buddhist or Taoism origin, her beliefs are more Hinduism with a focus on "oneness" with self. Without equating Christianity with Buddhist thought or Hinduism beliefs, Kolbell is able to hone in on a common theme: the inherent value of people. The late Cathrine Kellison, once a high-school dropout was a popular member of the faculty at New York University teaching media studies. She was an adventurer, a wanderer, a risk taker who sees journaling as an essential part of capturing one's life.

The final category is about "Survivors." People like Jane Pauley, former host of the TODAY show sees moderation as the key to life.  Don Lange, a veteran of the Afghan War survives the effects of a bomb blast, struggles with memory loss, PTSD, and other traumatic emotions. He reflects on his experience and prefers not to dwell on the "why" of existence but on the existential reality we are in right now. Brenda Berkman, the first woman to serve in the New York City Fire Department as well as one of the first responders to September 11, is a literal example of one who would break down the door amid the approaching fire, that she may save some.  Her expression of rage against the fires of evil as well as tears for the demise take second place as she lets the Beatitudes light up the fire in her.

So What?

Reading this book reminds me of Studs Terkel's interviews with working professionals in "Working." While Terkel's interviews tend to be relatively more verbatim, the interviews in this book has a lot more reflection on things that matter. The thirteen individuals give readers not just food for thought but also motivation for action. Actions with regards to learning, to working faithfully, to living peacefully, to enduring adversity and to expressing one's gifts and talents. In our world of problem solving and technological advancements, sometimes we see so much of the world outside that we fail to contemplate a bigger story growing inside humanity. Why must we let a fire trigger answers to our deepest held beliefs and values? Why wait until an emergency before we start to invest in the more important things in life?

Although each of us have our unique identities, we all have a common humanity. We do not need to be a seeker, an artist, an iconoclast, or a survivor in order to appreciate life. We are already in this life. Perhaps, some of us may fit in more than one category. Perhaps, there is no category yet. Perhaps, there is a little of each in everyone of us. The point is, keep searching. Keep looking out for others even as we look after our own selves. The world is larger than our world. We need to care for others. At the same time, let us not forget that to help others, we first need to take care of our own houses. For a house built on solid ground will offer better shelter and hospitality to others in need. We all have various fires of life. Some of us have been burnt badly in the past. Others have never encountered any danger. Still, there are many who have never even understood that it is very human to be driven by fire. If this book can be that "fire," it can very well save us a lot of heartache and grief.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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