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Monday, January 30, 2012

"Pastors in the Classics"

TITLE: Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature
AUTHOR: Leland Ryken, Philip Ryken and Todd Wilson.
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012, (192 pages).

This book teaches us to read literary works, with a special focus on learning the portrait of pastors, leaders, and the pastoral calling. Written in two parts, it is different from a typical non-fiction book in the sense that it shows rather than tells us what to do.The authors gently remind us that literary works are firstly to be understood as a presentation of a human experience. This keeps readers patiently mindful and emotionally ready to shake hands with the text. Secondly, literary texts are for readers to appreciate the authors' interpretation of that experience. This enables readers to embrace the author's understanding like a warm hug. Whether the reader agrees or not is another matter. Understanding is key. Thirdly, it is for the enjoyment of the many creative literary techniques, forms, and beauty. This helps readers to look with the original authors, interpreters, and all, to look in the same direction to appreciate life as a whole.

Part One is the major section of the book, drawing a sharp portrait of the pastoral life through 12 classic works. It lists some essential information like author's background, date published, era concerned, book length, setting, and plot overviews. What is helpful is the description of the characters played out. The unique value of this book is the way the authors sieve out the implications for pastors, leaders, and the pastoral ministry, through themes and insights for leadership.  For example, in "The Scarlet Letter," the Rykens summarizes the book with the words, "Hidden Sin and Its Consequences" while at the same time describes the themes of sin, shame, revenge, punishment, salvation, and forgiveness. It is a 'negative example' that can be used to facilitate a life more aware of the potency of sin. There is also the 'positive example' of perseverance in spite of great suffering. In 'Cry, the Beloved Country,' suffering is seen not as something to be despised and hated, but to be endured for sanctified service. Each chapter ends with a pertinent 'reflection or discussion' section that drives home the theme for application. The questions turns a fictional work into a very personal application, for a non-fictional world.

Part Two is like the section of minors, that bring together 58 short reflections and summaries of literary works. The subheadings of each chapter basically condenses the learning points in one short quip. It does not go into similar depth like the 12 works in Part One. Instead, it points readers with handles to appreciate the texts from a ministry and minister perspective. It looks very much like an extended annotated bibliography of books, much like Eugene Peterson's "Take and Read - Spiritual Reading: An Annotated List." Some of the notable works include "The Poisonwood Bible," "Les Miserables," "Father Brown," "The Brothers Karamazov," and even two of Jane Austen's novels!

Closing Thoughts

Even though many of the works are fictional, the experiences and the emotional ups and downs are real and authentic. It shows us the deep struggles and inner angsts of people in the pastoral vocation. There are many things in ministry that cannot be explained through words, or even stories. Some experiences need the help of good literary devices in order to do justice to the nuances of the emotions.

In a world of modern bookstores packed with story books like Chicken Soup series or all kinds of short stories that aim to inspire or create feel-good emotions, books like Pastors in the Classics, go much deeper, wider, and I dare say, richer. Just the table of contents and introduction pages are worth the price of the book. The literary beauty and brilliance that Pastors in the Classics contains reminds us all over again, that good books are hard to come by. Once they do pass by, read it, for we may not know when we will get another chance to read another good book.

This book is a collectable item for leaders, pastors, ministry workers, teachers, students, and all readers wanting to have a  great literary experience.

Ratings: 5 stars of 5.


"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group".

Sunday, January 29, 2012

"The Wisdom of God" (Nancy Guthrie)

TITLE: The Wisdom of God: Seeing Jesus in the Psalms and Wisdom Books
AUTHOR: Nancy Guthrie
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012, (272 pages).

This book is a 10-week journey of Bible studies through the five wisdom books in the Bible; namely, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Songs of Solomon. It begins with the author's personal conviction that being wise is much better than being smart. Each week, the reader is encouraged to work through the three phases.

  1. Personal Bible study
  2. Learning through the Teaching chapter
  3. Discussing it with a group
Week 1 is a general overview of the entire wisdom book series, that all the books are guiding the believer to live as one who belongs to God. Guthrie points out the salient emphases of each book. Job shows how a wise person can live through in spite of suffering. Psalms enable the person to express and engage God through the ups and downs of human emotions. Proverbs give advice and practical tips on how to be wise in this world. Ecclesiastes points out that life is more than simply living in the world. Life is about living under God. The song of Solomon highlights the joys of a loving relationship. Week 2 is on Job. Weeks 3-7 deals with the Psalms. Week 8 deals with Proverbs, week 9 with Ecclesiastes, and Week 10 on Song of Solomon.

Perhaps, due to the size of Psalms (150 books in all), Guthrie has sensibly taken time to go through the different themes of Psalms, making the studies on Psalms comprising about 50% of the whole book. The author has demonstrated her own personal engagement with the book with her own life too. Most of us know that the author has her share of hard times, and we are glad to have another of her very reflective and insightful work. For Bible study groups that want to learn about biblical wisdom, this book is a 5-in-1 offering to give us a wonderful overview of the wisdom books in the Bible. Most Bible studies tend to focus on one or two of these, but Guthrie wisely puts them all together to enable readers to get a richer perspective of wisdom through the five wisdom books. What I like about this book is the conscientious focus on Jesus.

I recommend this book highly for all Bible study groups.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free, courtesy of Crossway Books and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All the comments given are freely mine.

Friday, January 27, 2012

"Every Body Matters" (Gary Thomas)

TITLE: Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul
AUTHOR: Gary Thomas
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011, (256 pages).

Keeping fit and bodily exercise is a legitimate and necessary spiritual discipline. This is the big idea that wraps the whole book together. In this important book, Thomas meticulously argues for the place of physical exercise disciplines in a world where people tend to eat more and exercise less. Having participated in the Boston marathon a few years ago, the author is writing from a deeply personal experience, which in a way communicates to those of us who gravitate toward couch potato lifestyles of a high-calorie and low exercise diet.

What makes this book special is the way Thomas infuses spiritual disciplines with a call daily exercises. He weaves theological underpinnings behind each exhortation to get physical. He underlines the dangers of sloth. He warns about the bad testimonies Christians unwittingly display. Strong faith is not exactly coherent with unhealthy physical bodies. In fact, a healthy body does good, and even more for one's spiritual health. In order to cultivate 'souls of silver' which is better than gold, physical fitness is a must.

Thomas argues against spiritual laziness that comes across as physical wimpiness. He argues for an active physical lifestyle that not only saves us money in the long run, it helps us live better as we age. He argues for making friends with 'Morty' in terms of learning to attack (mortify) sin rather than wait for sin to ambush us. A 300-Ib pastor, or believer will be an embarrassment rather than a testimony.

What I appreciate about this book is the holistic treatment Thomas has thoughtfully given. He never dichotomizes spirituality from the physical, unlike the gnostics. He shares from the rich reserviours of spirituality gleaned from the desert fathers, the church fathers, and contemporary theologians.  He puts himself as a prime example of what not to do, like his early years of indulging in sweet stuff to the point that he develops an embarrassing weight problem. Arguing for a 'muscular Christianity,' this book essentially challenges all believers to develop muscles that can lift heavy weights for God, not fat that drags down people's energy levels. The title is cleverly done, suggesting a double meaning that is both true: 1) Our physical bodies matter,; 2) Every individual matters.

This book is vital for the Church today. I believe that it is so good that it should not be placed under the religious or self-help sections of bookstores. Apart from spirituality, it needs to be in the sports section, the medical section, as well as the physical fitness sections.

Ratings: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan without any obligation for a positive review. The opinions offered above are given by me freely.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Jesus + Nothing = Everything" (Tullian Tchividjian)

TITLE: Jesus + Nothing = Everything
AUTHOR: Tullian Tchividjian
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2011, (224 pages).

This is Tchividjian's (pronounced as 'cha-vi-jin') personal spiritual journey from fear to faith, and from law to grace. The basic conviction behind the book is reflected in the following phrase:

"Jesus plus nothing equals everything."

In a personal confession of how he has intimately filled his faith with other things, he lists his personal pain and struggle as a senior pastor of a merged Church. The crisis leads him to focus more on what it means to live for God. Tchividjian points out powerfully the many different idols that believers have piled up in the name of Christian service. Many people have unwittingly added stuff to Jesus in order to feel that they are accomplishing everything. The result is a works-based kind of service that basically scorns the work of Christ at the Cross.

In 6 parts, Tchividjian dissects the human problem. In Part One, Tchivijian goes through a period of painful self-examination and make powerful observations about how trapped believers are, in wanting to do everything apart from God's strength. In Part Two, he guides readers in going beyond intellectual faith, toward heart-work and soul-search. In Part Three, he points out succinctly the many barriers which Christians often either fail to recognize, or unwittingly place before themselves, that prevent them from following Christ more truthfully. Part Four exposes the painful reality where Tchividjian does spiritual surgery to expose not so much of our sins, but how much we need Christ. Thankfully, Part Five makes a redemptive turn toward hope. With Christ as our focus, not only will we get everything we need for this life, we get more. This chapter is worth the price of the book.

Closing Thoughts

I like the way he points out how many Christians focus too much on fruit that they ignore the roots of the problem. Grace is the root, while peace is the fruit. I enjoy the way he exposes the three deadly sins in the lives of many Christians: 'legalism, performancism, and moralism' (45). The book flows intuitively from sin to grace to hope. Along the way, the author makes some rather bold statements, especially the part about the Christian life that needs to be 'better' than simply imitating Christ. While I appreciate his point about going beyond imitating to 'be crucified, buried, and raised with him,' I think true imitation of Christ is already inclusive of all those. Maybe, Tchividjian finds it necessary to break the verbs up. Personally, I think it is unnecessary. Thomas a Kempis, who wrote the classic work, 'Imitation of Christ' sums up all the theology and Christian actions in one word: Imitation of Christ.

I think we can do no more than what Christ has done. Tchividjian has given us a wonderful book to help readers move from legalism-performancism-moralism to grace and peace. Our Christian living needs to reflect a grace that embraces all of Jesus and no idols. That is God's will for our everything in life. 

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provide to me free by Crossway Books and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All comments above are freely given.

Monday, January 23, 2012

"The Voice - New Testament" Bible Translation

TITLE: The Voice New Testament: Revised & Updated
AUTHOR: Ecclesia Bible Society
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2011.

Thomas-Nelson has added a new English Bible translation to its library of published Bibles such as the 'New King James Version' (NKJV), the 'New Century Version' (NCV). While the NKJV is more literal, and the NCV more for personal devotional reading and study, the VOICE-NT is meant to be for the listening ear. Like the Bible which is authored by at least 40 different people throughout biblical history, the translation team continues this spirit by gathering an impressive array of 27 Bible scholars and 51 writers. It is essentially a literary project that aims to communicate the Word of God clearly and accurately. Scholars, artists, musicians, actors, and editors all work together to bring out the best of Bible translation in the VOICE.

A) What's Similar?

Like many modern translations, this version is based on the latest and most reliable manuscripts. It is comprised of a diverse group of dedicated believers who hold to the central tenets of the Christian faith. It is a collaborative effort. It tries to improve on other translations, and to update the readability of this ancient text.

Galatians 2:17 is quite similar to the way the NIV translates it.

  • "If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!" (NIV)
  • "Even though we are seeking a right relationship with God through the Anointed, the fact is we have been found out. We are sinners.But does that mean the Anointed is the one responsible for our sins? Absolutely not!" (VOICE)
  • "But, if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be!" (NAS)
Personally, I prefer the NAS translation (in red) which brings out the nuances of one 'being found' rather than a direct declaration of 'we are sinners.' The VOICE separates the one sentence into two, which although is clearer and allows for voice pause and breathing for vocalizing, it looses steam compared to a more impactful NAS translation of we 'have been found.' The theological nuance is that our sinful convictions are not based on our own declaration, but the Holy Spirit convicting us of sin.

B) What's Different?
I don't like the way John 1:1 has been translated.

"Before time was measured, the Voice was speaking. The Voice was and is God." (VOICE)

I still prefer the authoritative and dramatic way the King James Version and several others render the original as follows:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (KJV)

With so many different Bible translations, many Bibles have been categorized under three major headings.

  • Word-for-Word: Literal translations like KJV, NASB, NRSV;
  • Dynamic Equivalent: Balanced translation like NIV, NCV, 
  • Thought-for-Thought: where contexts and meanings are prioritized, like MSG, NLT, LIVING BIBLE

This Bible aims for a new category called 'contextual equivalence' which essentially means both accuracy and readability. For instance, in its decision regarding gender-inclusive language, when the contexts clearly say so, like in 1 Corinthians 15, 'brothers' is translated as 'brothers and sisters.' Otherwise, the VOICE sticks to its literal sense. Another strength of the translation is the belief that the Word of God 'do things' and not just 'mean' certain things. In other words, the Bible is not an ancient document trapped and buried in the past, and meant just for historical research or basic knowledge. It is an active Word that is alive and can infuse meaning and activate believers to live out the will of God. This is the key difference in the way the VOICE has been translated.

C) More Thoughts

The VOICE is a refreshing translation that sees the Word of God as a big story from God to man. It is inviting enough to invoke curiosity to browse. It is well laid out to enable readers, groups to read the Bible with different voices in different parts. The 4 Gospels and Acts are excellent examples of how the different roles can be played out. It makes reading Scripture very refreshing and easy to follow. The clarity is superb. The Pauline epistles, the letters of James, Peter, and John contain many contextual explanations of the biblical times. The paragraphing, the layout, and the different font arrangements updates ancient letters for eyes familiar with modern technological literary styles. With well placed headings, bold fonts, and beautiful layouts, the VOICE is a pleasure to read aloud. Each Bible book begins with a short overview. I especially appreciate the glossy soft covers of the Bible which is easy to turn, and not easily dog-eared.

The VOICE is a good refreshing translation best used for group reading. For group study, I prefer to use the NIV and the NASB together. I like the way that the VOICE invites readers to dive into the story of Scripture. This is important in a technological world that attempts to constantly attract people to the latest and the greatest gizmos and fads in the market. The VOICE is sympathetic to this gradual technological shift, without compromising on contextual accuracy. However, do not use this translation as the only translation. Use at least two others: a literal one like the NAS and a balanced one like the NIV.

I recommend this translation for group Bible reading purposes. It is clear, highly readable, and excellent for the ear. Small group facilitators can easily pick up this Bible, and assign reading parts to each member of the group without fear of anyone missing a beat. The passages are well-scripted just like movie actors reading out their parts of the film.

For study purposes, I will hesitate to recommend this as the main version. For this reason, my rating for this translation drops a notch. I look forward to the complete Bible due to be released in April this year.

Rating of translation: 4 stars of 5.


"New Testament has been provided courtesy of Thomas Nelson and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Thomas Nelson".

Friday, January 20, 2012

"Girls Uncovered"

TITLE: Girls Uncovered: New Research on What America's Sexual Culture Does to Young Women
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Northfield Publishing, 2012, (160 pages).

This is a bold book with a provocative title. Copyrighted by the Medical Institute of Sexual Health, based in El Paso, Texas, this book brings together scientific research on the physiological aspects of teenagers, primarily girls, and connects the findings to how the modern sexualized culture tries to manipulate and take advantage of young women.

The motivation behind the book is to sound the alarm on uncritical acceptance of cultural propaganda of free sex, premarital affairs, early sexual activities, and of course the dangers and consequences of such actions. It attempts to enhance the self-esteem of girls by re-aligning girls back to a more holistic view of their sexuality. It also seeks to protect girls from being easily manipulated by lustful boys and opportunistic marketers of commercial businesses.

What does it mean to be a person grounded in what is more important in life? What are some of the lies that the media, the culture at large, and misinformed people are telling young girls?

Piece by piece, the authors uncover some scientific evidence that the physiological changes that happen to girls between the ages of 13-25. They talk about the dangers of sexually transmitted illnesses (STIs) as well as early pregnancy especially when the youths are not prepared. Chapter 6 is the key chapter that points out the 'biochemistry of connection,' that highlights how hormones like oxytocin, estrogen, dopamine, pheromones, excite the person to desire more emotional attachment. What really drives home the point is this:

"The brain can't tell the difference between a broken bone and a broken heart. It hurts just the same." (72)

Indeed, when girls engage in early sex, they are unwittingly uncovering their deepest and vulnerable selves, easily open to hurts and abuses. Worse, without the protection of a marriage covenant, any abuse or hurt can turn girls bitter.

Closing Thoughts

For those of us reading such information for the first time, it can be quite a shocker. For others, it may take a while to accept the evidence. For skeptics, it is easy to dismiss this as another book that is against pre-marital sex. Basically, one does not need to totally accept what the authors are saying. Even the medical and scientific research can be taken with a pinch of salt. That said, what if the authors are right? What if there really is a biochemistry of connection? Not believing it may mean some people feel less guilty about premarital sexual acts. Believing it means one takes more care and patience with regards to one's sexuality. My take is this. Even though we may not be familiar or agree with the book, what have we got to lose to keep our bodies chaste, pure, and reserved for the one that we will marry?

After all, suppose you get a Christmas present nicely wrapped up, only to find that it has been previously opened, and contains a used product, what will you feel? Used?

If I have a critique, I feel that the title of the book needs to be changed. If one searches for 'Girls Uncovered' on the Internet, there are multiple links to pornographic websites, which is something that the authors do not intend to happen in the first place. Perhaps, retitled the book as "Girls Redeemed or Rediscovered?"

Parents of young girls will do well to buy and read this important book. You have got nothing to lose, but a lot more to gain by doing that.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Moody Publishers and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered are freely mine.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"Frequency" (Eric Parks and Casey Bankord)

TITLE: Frequency: Discovering Your Unique Connection to God
AUTHOR: Eric Parks and Casey Bankord
PUBLISHER: Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing, 2012, (158 pages).

This book basically affirms that all of us are created unique with a particular set of frequency. Such a moment results in 'a place of complete completeness and satisfaction' (7). In this sacred moment, we experience God for ourselves. Written in two parts, this book first of all gives a broad overview of how each of us are created differently according to our frequencies. The authors pull together some frameworks such as:

  • Five Learning Styles (Auditory, Classroom, Social, Verbal, and Visual);
  • Seven Spiritual Pathways (Activist, Contemplative, Creation, Intellectual, Relational, Serving, and Worship);
  • Enneagram Personality (Performer, Helper, Achiever, Individualist, Investigator, Loyalist, Enthusiast, Challenger, Peacemaker).
They use a teeter-totter metaphor as a way to help undo the frequency blocker of sin. After addressing the sin barrier, they provide a way forward for readers to work toward becoming the best person they can be. It tackles the four areas of actions: Mind / Time / Relationship / Experience. This is done through an initial self-assessment using the MONVEE tool. 

Part Two is a list of illustrations on how people are able to discover an act on their respective frequencies. Each chapter lists a biblical character and introduces some modern examples. We have stories of Joseph, Abraham, Jacob, David, Luke, Timothy, Solomon, Samson, and Jonathan. It concludes with an interview with Dr Dallas Willard, a writer renowned for his work in spirituality matters.

Closing Thoughts

This book is a concise summary of many of the Christian frameworks and tools to help discover one's strengths, weaknesses, frequencies, and so on. It is written with clarity and will appeal to the general reader. Read in conjunction with John Ortberg's 'The Me I Want to Be' and used together with the Monvee model, this will help readers to discover more of what God's will is for their lives. Perhaps, we need to learn to move from our understanding of God's will somewhere outside, to discern what is God's will, from what the Holy Spirit is prompting inside our hearts.

Ratings: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Worthy Publishing and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. The comments and opinions offered are freely mine.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"No, We Can't" (Robert Stearns)

TITLE: No, We Can't: Radical Islam, Militant Secularism and the Myth of Coexistence
AUTHOR: Robert Stearns
PUBLISHER: Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 2011, (224 pages).

I confess. I have all my feelers for any forms of radicalism up high when I read this book. Is the writer biased against Islam? Is there a hidden agenda? What are the facts to prove the author's case? Are the conclusions sound? Reading this book from beginning to finish tells me that Stearns does has a case in point.

The key idea in the book is that Christians need to muster up courage to stand up against the prevailing climate of unhealthy tolerance and half-truths. Well-intentioned ordinary people are buying into an erroneous paradigms coming from primarily the West. Stearns is convinced that the future comprises of three major world views:
  1. Radicalized Islam;
  2. Humanistic Secularism;
  3. Biblical Faith.
These three worldviews form the new world, which transcends people groups, political boundaries, geographical limits, ethnicity, family, and all other conventional delineations. The new paradigm is one of culture and ideological warfare. 

Of Radicalized Islam, the activists are on a crusade that essentially seeks to dominate and will not rest until the whole world turns Islamic. Nothing is spared, even honour killings, to ensure that the purpose is met. Of militant secularism, where humanism is groomed in the public classrooms in the country, forced upon the citizens of the land, and manifests itself through materialism, utilitarianism, and a humanism that seeks to turn humanism into the major philosophy of the land. Of biblical faith, the author argues that it is the last stronghold that stands against the other two major forces. Stearns argues that the very basis of the laws of America are based on the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Stearns calls the movement for co-existence as a myth because 3 reasons.
  1. "Coexistence does not allow for a dominant culture."
  2. "Coexistence is not what every one wants.
  3. "Coexistence denies a Higher Authority."
Modern versions of tolerance and multiculturalism have been distorted beyond all measure. The way ahead is not to trust ourselves in the worldly definitions of tolerating all kinds of error. The way forward is the biblical view of shalom which is the features of the kingdom of God. Through prayer, hope, and courageous sharing of the kingdom of God, the world will be saved from the waywardness and meaninglessness it is digging itself into.

My Thoughts
I find myself progressing from initial scepticism to gradual openness. Stearns talk sense. He is careful not to label all Islam, but to single out radical islam, which is an aggressive (sometimes militant) movement seeking to coerce the world to convert to Islam using the ways of the democratic world: Where majority rules. That is why RI is keen on population growth in areas they are seeking to dominate. Islam is going to be a force, and radicalized Islam will make it even more formidable. Secularised humanism seems to be the mainstay of western society. Stearns makes several powerful observations of the weaknesses of the existing Western model that parades co-existence as an ideal. Unfortunately, this view is not shared by others. It is mainly trumpeted in the West, and forced upon the rest. Only the biblical model can stand against the radicalism of Islam and secularism/humanism. Read this book with an open mind. Do not dismiss it outright. While some aspects may appear exaggerated, do not let them diminish the warnings and the pertinent observations Stearns makes. Yes, tolerance is important. Yes, respecting one another is crucial. Yes, people have their rights. In any of these, truth must not be compromised. Anything apart from the truth, is shallow and on shaky foundations.

Ratings: 3.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Chosen Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, without any obligation for a positive review. Opinions given above are freely mine.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

"How to Read the Bible in Changing Times" (Mark L. Strauss)

TITLE: How to Read the Bible in Changing Times: Understanding and Applying God's Word Today
AUTHOR: Mark L. Strauss
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011, (278 pages).

This book is one of the clearest and helpful guides to laypersons wanting to learn how to interpret the Bible. Beginning with a humourous rendition of some extreme literal reading, Strauss plays a few roles in the writing of this book. As a Bible tour guide, he shows readers the various genre terrains in both the new and old testaments. He provides the highlights of Scripture as well as themes. As a gentle teacher, he shows readers how to read and how not to read Scripture. He shares his key Heart of God hermeneutic which is essentially entering the story of God and with neighbours, learning the ways of God and living out the biblical principles through fellowship and witness to the world. All of these are done through the empowering Holy Spirit.

As a scholar, Strauss weaves in many different perspectives of Bible reading. He details the various genres and themes in both the Old and New Testaments. He talks about the different levels of bible interpretation, the various criterion of understanding, and also the three hermeneutical frameworks. He crafts out four general questions that help us understand and apply God's word today.

  1. What is the passage saying in the light of the whole Bible?
  2. What is the author's contexts, purpose, and place in the light of the historical, literary, or genre?
  3. How does the passage inform our understanding of God and the world?
  4. How does the passage teach us to be (attitudes and character) and to do (actions and goals)?

What I like about this book is the clear manner in which difficult topics are dealt with. Apart from the point by point explanations, the author uses lots of Bible references and examples to demonstrate the use of the texts. Strauss generally adopts a 3-point framework. He first states a perspective. Secondly, he explains it in simple terms and examples. Thirdly, he provides an application. These things are hallmarks of a good teacher. The last chapter, "Where Cultures Collide" is certainly worth expanding on.  My critique is that this chapter is too short.

If you are a keen Bible reader, this book will enhance your Bible reading. If you are a student, this book is a must have in your personal book shelves. If you are a Bible teacher, you will love this book and use this book in any introductory level book on hermeneutics. If you are always wondering how to apply ancient texts to modern contexts, this book is an essential read.

Ratings: 5 stars of 5.


Friday, January 13, 2012

"Miracles are for Real" (James Garlow & Keith Wall)

TITLE: Miracles Are for Real: What Happens When Heaven Touches Earth
AUTHOR: James L. Garlow and Keith Wall
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2011, (272 pages).

Do you believe in miracles? Are miracles a thing of the past? How do you know if a miracle is simply a coincidence, a hallucination, a fraud, or the real deal? These questions and many more are explored in this book of testimonies, rich revelations of miraculous events that cannot be explained by science or natural phenomena. Throughout the book, the authors relate the different stories where real individuals personally experience incredible turn of events. There is the story of 8-year-old Jackie who was badly hurt in an accident which left her haemorraghing internally, a fractured skull, collapsed lungs, and other internal injuries that doctors deem a hopeless case. X-rays confirmed the inevitable: prepare to die. Yet, a few hours later, Jackie walked out of the hospital completely healed. Then there is Leroy Lane and his family whose huge Chevy van got trapped in a mountain. Two men appeared from nowhere to guide them to safety. Suddenly they were no where to be found. Are they angels sent miraculously? Then there's Natalie who managed to arrive at her destination in less than half the normal time, despite driving at incredibly slow speeds due to the bad weather. Not only was she quick, she was miraculously protected from the terrible winds and potential floods. Stories after stories, the authors point out that miracles today still happen.

According to Garlow and Wall, a miracle is like what CS Lewis describes:

"Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see." (11)

They have three purposes in writing this book. Firstly, whether through miracles of not, God is strongly interested in people's lives. Secondly, miracles have not ceased. Thirdly, the best way to live is to expect any miracle at any time. At the same time, they attempt to separate fact from fiction as they tell the various miracle occurrences. They affirm John Wimber's approach to testing the miracles. They tell readers not to be too quick to label anything as a miracle until certain tests are rigorously performed. They plead with readers to maintain an open stance instead of trying to be smarter than God, and to diss away supernatural events based on our own intellect or scientific prowess.

At the same time, the authors draw in biblical examples of miracles, as well as the many saints such as Bernard of Clairvaux (11-12th C), Francis of Assisi (12 C), Bridget of Sweden, Martin Luther as well as St Patrick of Ireland. They are also aware of modern myths such as Rhonda Byrne's 'The Secret' which emphasises more on what a person can do over and above what God can do. This point is important. Miracles are supernatural events that can only be performed by SomeOne who is not bounded by natural limits.

This book is a fresh look at miracles, backed by many examples and real life stories. It is a powerful reminder that the miracles described are only glimpses of what God can do. Readers may read the book with a suspicious or skeptical mind. They may also adopt a stance of unbelief initially. If they can honestly read through to the end, I believe they will have a change of heart. After all, if medical sciences, professional opinions, and human wisdom fail to explain certain phenomena, that is plain proof that man is not in full control of the world. God is. Learn to test it. Pray over it. Question the circumstances as much as possible. The proof is in the healing, the walking, the protecting, and the constant watching over creation by God above.

I warmly recommend this book for readers to be encouraged that God still works today. Maybe, this book can at least cause the skeptic to shift from unbelief to openness.

Ratings: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provide to me free by Bethany House Publishers without any obligation for a positive review. The opinions offered are freely mine. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"Toxic Charity" (Robert D. Lupton)

TITLE: Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)
AUTHOR: Robert D. Lupton
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011, (200 pages).

Focus on outcomes, not activities. Not all giving is good. In fact, much giving is toxic. This is the basic message in this book. Lupton in one sweep exposes the scandals both intended and unintended. He explains the reasons behind the flawed thinking, that underlies conventional giving. He explicates the various alternatives to transform charity from toxic handout to healthy helping out.

1) Exposing the Scandal
The scandal of toxic charity is basically the dis-empowerment of the poor to help themselves. After all, if they can get things for free, then why bother to work or find work?  Large charitable giving has not shortened the handout lines. Instead it has pathetically increased the demand. Those in poor economies, despite the huge millions of aid given to them, have not improved their living or economic conditions. According to one African aid worker, the continent has gotten worse. With easy availability of free money, free food, and free stuff, begging lines become longer. Administrative officials in developing economies become more corrupt. The incentives to work dramatically drop.

2) Explaining the Problem

Lupton convincingly drives home the problem of good intentions based on poor knowledge that givers have of the recipients. Through their self-centered perspective of giving in order to feel good inside the heart, they unwittingly weaken those they serve, develop dishonest relationships among their intended communities, diminish work ethic among the people they are trying to help, and increases the dependency of the poor for foreign aid. Charity of giving needs to be accompanied by parity of what the people really need. The former may help in the short term. The latter will be essential for the long term. Likewise, mercy must be accompanied by justice. Otherwise, the cycle of dependency will continue to spiral hopelessly non-stop. This results in frustrations when givers do not see improvements in the plight of the people they are trying to help. At the same time, the recipients grows in their inferiority complexes, in which their potential is not reached. One of the powerful examples Lupton shares in the book includes the following unhealthy pattern of giving without proper accountabilities:

  • Give once and you elicit appreciation;
  • give twice and you create anticipation;
  • give three times and you create expectation;
  • give four times and it becomes entitlement;
  • give five times and you establish dependency.

3) Expressing the Oath

Luton provides the turning point by suggesting that charitable organizations and givers take the 'Oath of Compassionate Service.' The oath mirrors the Hippocratic Oath. (128)
  • "Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves."
  • "Limit one-way giving to emergency services."
  • ''Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements."
  • "Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served."
  • "Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said - unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service."
  • "Above all, do no harm."
4) Explicating the Recovery

This section is worth the price of the book. Lupton shares from his experience to give readers a few creative alternatives to conventional giving. He is quite supportive of the Opportunity International organization which seeks to equip and empower people to help themselves. He advocates the need to be patient, and that there is no quick fixes in the charity initiative. He promotes the ABCD method: 'Asset-Based Community Development' in which one prioritizes on achieving the 'potential' instead of focusing on 'problems.' Rather than trying to solve one small part of the needy's problems, Lupton argues rightly for a wholesome restoration of the recipients sense of self-worth. This needs patience. This requires due diligence. This demands responsible giving.

Closing Thoughts

'Toxic Charity' may not a book for bed-time reading but is an important book that needs to be read by all charities and churches who are keen to help the poor and the needy. The first half of the book is a no-holds barred reprimand on the flaws of our current charitable giving model. It contains such strong observations that even the most faithful giver can be tempted to stop giving altogether. Fortunately, the second part of the book redeems the idea of giving. If readers are able to go beyond the wallet-wrenching parts at the beginning, to reach the end, they will appreciate the pains and the meticulous ways in which Lupton redeems giving altogether. This is how the gospel works too. As much as it exposes and attacks the effects of sin and sin itself, it redeems the sinner.

I highly recommend this book for all givers, to let their giving be guided by knowledge and wisdom. Most importantly, giving is a way to empower, and not disempower the receivers.

Ratings: 5 stars of 5.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"Real Marriage" (Mark & Grace Driscoll)

TITLE: Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together
AUTHOR: Mark and Grace Driscoll
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2012, (240 pages).

Another marriage book? Every now and then, someone somewhere will write on this evergreen topic every year. This year is no different. In this book, the Driscolls provide a book that contains a point-blank exposé (journalistic detail) about their own marriage, a well-researched treatise on sex and sexual matters, as well as the much talked about controversial chapter on 'Can We _____?" It is written in three parts. Part One is on Marriage, while Part Two is on Sex. Part Three is an attempt to redeem the whole situation by 're-engineering' one's lives and marriage.

The core conviction is to use this book as a way for married couples to become 'best friends and lovers' like how God has intended. In order to present this 'Real Marriage' picture, the Driscolls lead by example by sharing openly and honestly about themselves. They admit their sleeping around with others prior to marriage. They confess their lack of openness to each other in their early years of marriage. They share their continuing struggles candidly. At the same time, both affirm that their marriage has been transformed under the love and grace of God.

Friday, January 6, 2012

"The Resolution for Women" (Priscilla Shirer)

TITLE: The Resolution for Women
AUTHOR: Priscilla Shirer
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2011, (276 pages).

After reading the "Resolution for Men," I keep thinking if there is also an equivalent set of challenges for the female folks as well. This book fills in the gap. Amazingly, it is indeed an excellent companion. If husbands read the men's resolutions, it will be especially helpful if wives read this book at the same time. There are some similarities with the men's version. Firstly, there is a one-page resolution specifically for women, albeit with 13 resolutions compared with 12 for the men's version. This does not mean the ladies do more. It is simply the author's way of making her points clearer with regards to what the women of God can resolve to do. Secondly, both books are companion volumes to the COURAGEOUS movie (Sherwood Pictures) and COURAGEOUS LIVING book (Michael Catt). Thirdly, both books are attempts to raise the bar for self. The best way to challenge oneself is to keep the bar high enough to motivate us to be excellent people. Finally, just like 'Resolutions for Men,' each chapter ends with a specific challenge. Theory must be put into practice.

Unlike the men's version, Shirer is a little more delicate in the motivational aspect. The Men's version has a lot more of recognizing the call for men, and the need for men to respond to this call. It is somewhat a more direct, goal-getter, target setting style. The Women's version goes a little deeper in terms of being more indirect, more explanatory, and more questions for personal reflection. The Men's version has relatively more imperative challenges, and a proactive approach to working out the challenges. The women's version has challenges too, but proceeds in a more contemplative manner. The Men's version has a greater amount of telling and showing one what to do. The Women's version dwells a little more on explaining, convincing, and a lot of story telling to move the soul.

I appreciate the way that Shirer explains the need for resolutions. The chapter 'The Resolution Revolution' is such a necessary exhortation for a culture that seems to be overly dismissive about any need for making resolutions in the first place. I wish the Men's version had the same chapter.  Part One carefully establishes the need for women to understand their sense of who they are biblically. Part Two reminds the readers to recognize what they have, to devote to God's priorities for their lives; to bless others; to forgive; and to learn to care and to live a life of integrity before God and people. Part Three focuses on the specific responsibilities as wives, as female workers, as mothers, and to learn to live a life of grace, and to leave a life of legacy.

This book has set a high bar for women. It is beneficial for men to read this book as well, not only to understand the women's perspective, but also because a lot of advice in it applies to men as well. For any reader, if you read this book, be prepared to be charged up, and to be changed from the inside.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


"Book has been provided courtesy of David C Cook and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from B&H Publishing Group".

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"The Resolution for Men" (Stephen & Alex Kendrick)

TITLE: The Resolution for Men
AUTHOR: Stephen and Alex Kendrick with Randy Alcorn
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2011, (264 pages).

This is a companion book that pairs very well with either; 1) the Courageous film made by Sherwood Pictures, or 2) the "Courageous Living" book by Michael Catt. It begins with a terse warning to readers not to take the book's contents lightly. Following a brief introduction, a one page RESOLUTION is issued like a paper plaque. The resolution contains 12 clear resolutions. The first is a personal reminder about one's commitment to God to take full responsibility for self, wife, and children. The other eleven resolutions put this commitment to practice. Beginning with the responsibility and commitment to the home and family, the resolutions gradually include commitments to be honourable and exemplary outside of the home. Commitments to honour authority, to stand up for justice, to bless others, to forgive others, to be faithful to Church, and to serve society at large, and several more.

The main part of the book is subdivided into two parts. Part One is a call to men on why resolutions are necessary. It re-establishes the need to bring back fatherhood in a largely fatherless society. It calls upon fathers to break the chains of sinful nature, worldly nurture, and sinful choices. Part Two contains 12 chapters which deals with each of the 12 resolutions printed at the beginning of the book. The Appendices are especially helpful as they contain lots of helpful information about basic Christian Living. It even has a transcript of the final moving speech in the movie 'Courageous.'

I find my heart palpitating with excitement as I turn each page. Every part dares me to become a better father.Every chapter challenges me to man up and be the man God has called me to be.  The book is unapologetically written. It does not mince words but tell it as it is. Throughout the book, biblical examples, verses, and lessons are interwoven to show readers that the ideas in the book are not invented by people, but biblically derived. Each chapter begins with a resolution statement, proceeds with a description of what, why, who, and how it affects us and our neighbours, and ends with a 'Courageous challenge' and a Bible verse.

For its sheer courage to challenge and to counter the prevailing culture of laxity, luxury, and rootless liberty, I give this book a high five.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


"Book has been provided courtesy of David C Cook and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from B&H Publishing Group".

Monday, January 2, 2012

"Courageous Living" (Michael Catt)

TITLE: Courageous Living: Dare to Take a Stand
AUTHOR: Michael Catt
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2011, (164 pages).

What a powerful book! This is the author's fourth book in less than three years, and boy does it packs a punch. Many punches. Let me highlight the ten punches that can lead to an incredible spiritual awakening. Firstly, there is the punch to take the first step of faith. We are not called to sit still, relax and avoid risks. We are called to let our words and works demonstrate our commitment to our faith. We need a kick off. Secondly, we need the punch of learning the choose the right and to refuse the wrong. Thirdly, we need to take the punch to accept our responsibility to lead in every level possible. Let no fear deter us from even the most difficult situation. Fourthly, we need the punch to be humbled by God, and be humble before men. Fifthly, we need the punch to face uncertain future with faith against fear. Sixthly, we need to punch ourselves to practice discipleship with the younger generation, to search and to build up Timothys that we can find. Seventhly, there is a punch to be decisive, and at every juncture, to make the decision to be Christlike. Eighthly, we need the punch of learning to face criticism bravely, to let the four walls of courage form around us: Faith, Courage, Integrity, and Prayer. I like this quote:

"Have you ever seen a monument erected to a critic? When the critic throws stones, the visionary should take them and build a wall. Then if the critic wants to see what you've built, charge him admission to get through the gate." (106)

Ninthly,there is the punch of being stirred by inside us by the Holy Spirit. Finally, the punch of courage to face any kinds of persecution. While there are many people who can cite other works, I find the way Catt quotes from others is smooth flowing and adds powerfully to the argument.

Closing Thoughts

There is a difference between physical punches and the punches delivered in this book. While physical punches can bruise us physically, the punches of courage embolden us to stand up and be counted for God. What the film 'Courageous' does for the movie industry, this book does the same for the book industry. Page after page, the convictions flow. Passions oozes out freely from the chapters that demand a response from readers. I give this book a standing ovation at the end of the book. It is that good. Michael Catt is one revivalist who reminds me of writers like A W Tozer and Leonard Ravenhill. Reading this book is a great start to a brand new year.

I can dare you to read this book. I can even double-dare you to practice what this book teaches. After reading it, you may not even need my challenge. You will have been challenged already!

Ratings: 5 stars of 5.

"Book has been provided courtesy of David C Cook and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.
Available at your favourite bookseller from B&H Publishing Group".