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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"The Action Bible"

TITLE: The Action Bible New Testament: God's Redemptive Story (Picture Bible)
AUTHOR: Sergio Cariello
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2012, (240 pages).

What a wonderful way to bring alive the contexts and the vibrancy of the New Testament. As a Bible teacher and scholar, I am always keen to learn of creative ways to build bridges between ancient biblical times with modern contexts. The Bible is not an old, boring collection of books reserved only for a few pious and religious individuals. It is meant to all people. Some translations become too literal that it is unable to bring out the meaning for modern readers. Others paraphrase it so liberally that it unwittingly diminishes the biblical contexts. As far as children are concerned, they do not need pages of facts and adult concerns interfere with their childlikeness. Instead, children need a firm grip of the story of the Bible, and not become entangled with Bible interpretations reserved for adult eyes and mature ears.

The Action Bible meets where children are. Knowing that children often do not sit still for long, the publishers of this Action Bible use pictures, and simple words to relay the story of the New Testament. It gives children an easy to understand context of where Jesus was born into. Like a graphic novel, the Action Bible use pictures, illustrations, vibrant colour to remind kids that the Bible is not a boring book but a living Word. There are 27 stories of Jesus' Birth and Ministry, 9 stories of Jesus' last days on earth, 10 stories about the early Church, 19 stories about the letters of Luke, Paul, Peter, and John. The illustrations are creative. The dramatization looks realistic. The human expressions in the drawings bring out emotions in a way that mere words cannot evoke.

In a nutshell, it brings the biblical text alive for modern readers, especially children. That said, I believe the audience of the Bible can be much wider. In fact, the Action Bible serves as a wonderful background introduction to any adult Bible reader unfamiliar with the contexts, the backgrounds, and the vibrancy of the ancient biblical times.

It is not easy to write books for children. It is even more difficult to paraphrase the Bible to keep children interested, and yet not losing out the main message of the Bible. Like all paraphrases and picture Bibles, it is a good practice to constantly remind ourselves that it is but one perspective or interpretation of what actually happened during the biblical times. For dramatization purposes, there are many scenes in which it is simply a depiction and not what really happened. Teachers need to be mindful of that if they use this Bible for their audience. As always, let this Action Bible point readers eventually to read the Bible for themselves. Better still, let the whole reading process point readers to the God of the Word.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Monday, February 27, 2012

"A Place at the Table" (Chris Seay)

TITLE: Place at the Table, A: 40 Days of Solidarity with the Poor
AUTHOR: Chris Seay
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012, (240 pages).

This book is so appropriate for the season of Lent, and especially for those of us living in a materialistic world, that indulges in a consumeristic manner, and lives so individualistic lives that it is so easy to forget that the world is much bigger than our world. The needs of the world outside is much hungrier than our own needs. Our day-to-day problems take on a whole new perspective when we begin to realize that life is not just about us. Even for Christians who are pious and do a lot of good works in their neighbourhoods, it is an important reminder that not everyone in the world has the 3-4 meals a day like us. The problem of poverty and hunger, sickness and poor hygiene, and the lack of basic necessities in many parts of the world should have pierced our hearts and minds to release compassion and care.

Seay invites readers to take on a 40 days of various spiritual disciplines that basically deny ourselves intentionally of things we so often take for granted. In doing so, we begin a process of self-discipline, and adopt spiritual disciplines with the objectives of learning to look outside of ourselves and our own needs. We are called to move from consuming to sharing. We are persuaded to develop a heart of gratitude to God for our daily provisions. We are given many practical steps to help us fast well, and to see fasting as a legitimate and crucial spiritual discipline. Seay gives us a wonderful rhythm of fasting for 6 days and feasting on the 7th. Such a cadence will help to release any puffed-up air of legalism, to encourage us along through the relatively long journey, and at the same time enable us to give thanks for much as well as for little stuff. Seay's strategy for fasting is a win-win method. He encourages us to donate our money that we saved from our fasting toward the needy causes. This way, the poor wins because they receive more. We win because we hear more sensitively from God.

Each day begins with a reflection which can be biblical, a spiritual thought, or a contemporary moment. One of his days even has a reflection from the popular TV series, House M.D. The Scriptures used are from the latest THE VOICE Bible translation project of which the author is one of the key members of the team. Every day, there is a short segment of a particular country to pray for. What I find  helpful is the way the author uses his fasting and spiritual disciplines direct his focus back to God and toward the position of solidarity with the poor. The low times that he experience, he is able to turn it back to God. His high times can be seen through his praises and singing of songs. Along the way, Seay provides readers several insights into the different compassion organizations around the world.

Ideally, this book should be started on Wednesdays, that culminates on a Sunday which is exactly 40 days. Lent has just begun, and it is never too late to start. The dates may not fit but as long as the heart is ready, and the spirit is willing, there is always opportunities to move beyond mere talk about saying we care for the poor, to actual walking of our talk. For me, I feel that the biggest benefit lies with the one doing the fasting, the praying, and the spiritual disciplining. I note how the author begins to experience a gradual shift from physical to spiritual warfare. The 40 days enables him to face sin head on, to love neighbour more intentionally, and to experience God in our lack. It is interesting to note the paradox of spirituality. The more physical comfort we have, the less spiritually aware we become. The more we deprive ourselves of the physical comfort, the greater our spiritual sensors. This book is an excellent guide and opportunity for us to experience the wilderness especially fort hose of us living in a materialistic, consumeristic, and individualistic world. In 40-days, we battle these three principalities in one sweep.

Rating: 4.25 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, February 26, 2012

"Discerning the Voice of God" (Priscilla Shirer)

TITLE: Discerning the Voice of God: How to Recognize When God is Speaking
AUTHOR: Priscilla Shirer
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers (new edition), 2012, (224 pages)

The book is a revised version of the very popular book about listening to God, recognizing God's voice, and to be reminded on the ways of God in guiding us. It is written in a very conversational and personal style which makes it easy reading. It invites the reader to eavesdrop on a conversation, and in the process learn a tip or two about what to do and what not to do with regards to discerning the voice of God. It is important to note that this book is about growing, and not about getting all the answers we need about spiritual discernment. Using biblical references, and several quotes from some popular writers on spirituality, Shirer is able to tell stories about how the various methods are practiced. She poses some practical questions of faith and doubt that many believers typically as. Her understanding of the anxious heart is clearly expressed which is one reason why this book is popular. Some of her reminders seem like evergreen spiritual notes for all believers.
  • Have we become hard of hearing?
  • Are we too impatient to wait for God?
  • Too busy for God?
  • Forcing God to toe our schedules?
  •  ...

Shirer teaches discernment through recognizing the different ways in which one can discern the voice of God. Readers can trust God to persevere in reaching out to them. They can trust God to be persistent. When there are challenges placed before them, it may be God communicating an important truth that can only be done that way. Shirer even brings in the key lesson of Job, in that what Job has benefitted is not the answers to the world's biggest question on suffering or the most pressing question about life. What Job himself has learned is a real experience of knowing God.  This is what this book is trying to bring about.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

"Mere Apologetics" (Alister E. McGrath)

TITLE: Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers and Skeptics Find Faith
AUTHOR: Alister E. McGrath
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012, (208 pages).

Ever since CS Lewis's classic work of apologetics, 'Mere Christianity,' there has been a slew of books that uses the 'mere' word in explaining the basics of a certain subject. There is 'Mere Discipleship' by Lee Camp, 'Mere Morality' by Lewis Smedes, and 'Mere theology' by Will Vaus. Most of these books will in some way make some reference back to the great Oxford don and oft-quoted Christian thinker-philosopher. Mere Apologetics is no different. Based on his work on Apologetics both at Oxford and at Regent College, McGrath  gives the Christian public a glimpse of his teaching framework that he has used.

McGrath begins his book with some acknowledgement of CS Lewis's influence on him. Like a good teacher aiming to bring even the slowest student up to speed, McGrath defines some basic terms clearly. He talks about what Apologetics is. He makes a difference between 'evangelism' and 'apologetics,' in that the former moves towards commitment while the latter makes commendations for the faith. For McGrath, apologetics basically comprises of three themes: 1) Defending the Faith without being personally defensive; 2) Commending the faith to illuminate its beauty and truth; 3) translating the beliefs into a manner that is comprehensible.  The approach McGrath adopts is through 6-steps.
  1. Understand the faith;
  2. Understand the Audience
  3. Clear communications
  4. Identify points of contact with the audience
  5. Present the whole gospel
  6. Continual practice.
McGrath takes the time to present the theological basis of Apologetics, the various contexts that Paul faced during the New Testament times to the Jews, Greeks, and Romans. He proves that Christianity is a very reasonable faith. When engaging an audience, he shows readers 8 clues that can be used to point to a Creator God. He highlights various 'gateways' to open the door to faith: Gateways of explanation, of argument, of stories,and of images. Finally, McGrath tackles some tough questions like suffering, and the criticism of God being used as a crutch for weak minded people. Occasionally, McGrath will drop a hint or two on the incredulous nature of the arguments used by world-renowned atheists like Richard Dawkins. 

Closing Thoughts

This book is a good primer to use for any student of Apologetics. It is so clearly framed that anyone new will be able to hang on to the reasoning and relatively complex arguments used. McGrath makes the explanation so simple that one may think it is too easy. Truth is, the contents are serious and deal with hard material. So much so that I feel some of the most important things in Apologetics is not the content or information to say, but the way we say it. I appreciate the basic points McGrath makes with regards to being gracious, objective, be relevant, and be humble. Each chapter has a section to point readers forward to deeper research. Thus, there is something for everybody. For readers new to Apologetics, this book can be used as primer material. For those who are more advanced, this book points to many other helpful resources to build up our learning and our confidence to do apologetics. 

Clearly written with wise advice, this book  deserves to be on the bookshelves of teachers, pastors, leaders, and anyone interesting in learning how to defend the faith, and to be prepared to give anybody an answer for the hope that Christians have. McGrath is tough on critics but does so in a very respectful way. He has not only taught us how to do Apologetics, he has shown us what manner as well. This book has again showed us how McGrath is able to bridge scholarship, cultural contexts, and engagement techniques with the laypersons in mind.

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".

Friday, February 24, 2012

"Think Christianly" (Jonathan Morrow)

TITLE: Think Christianly: Looking at the Intersection of Faith and Culture
AUTHOR:  Jonathan Morrow
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011, (304 pages).

This book attempts to think in a Christian manner when our faith intersects with the culture of our times. It is a book about how Christians can interpret and read the times through the eyes of faith. The author argues powerfully that thinking Christianly is essentially about discipleship. The culture may shape us in terms of pros and cons of life, and what things that matter or not matter to us. Seen through the eyes of the world, we tend to measure gains and losses pertaining to self needs. However, as Christians, we ought to see all of life from God's view. When our minds are transformed and renewed by the Spirit, we will be equipped to think Christianly as we engage with the culture at large. Christians must not live isolated lives, but to be witnesses of Christ by integrating themselves by understanding what the world is about. Since there is no way we can escape culture, why not actively engage it?

Morrow shows us how to think Christianly via a 3-phase approach.
  1. Understanding our Intersection: Part One attempts to wake us up from any spiritual slumber. Here we are called to read our culture as best as we can. Recognize the spiritual warfare happening in the battlefield of ideas, Internet, secularism, pop culture, and worldliness that threatens to invade the Church. It is not enough to simply let the world be. Christians are called to interact, to intellectual engagement, and to be faithful witnesses. I find the chapter on equipping the next generation one of the best parts of the book.
  2. Preparing to Engage (Be Transformed): Part Two continues with some great stimulus to act. We are called to be holistic in thinking all of life, to cultivate a thoughtful faith, and to be Christlike in a world that needs Christ and yet refuses to seek Christ. This is a world that is looking for love and meaning in all the wrong places. Christians need to be the bridge, the pointer, and the light to shine the way for people to consider Christ. 
  3. Specific Areas to Engage:  Part Three expands on some important areas. The world respects Jesus. Christians worship Jesus. The call is for Christians to live out their faith that demonstrates Jesus is God. This means we need to be ready to contend for Jesus' claims. That Jesus is more than simply a good man. We are to contend for truth instead of yielding to mere tolerance or relativism.  We are to take the Bible seriously by living the Word with dedication. We are to recover God's design for sexuality, engage with media, think Christlike in areas of justice, and many others on faith, science, bioethics, creation etc.
 Morrow concludes with a vision of 'What if' the Church behaves all of what it claims to be. He supplies 21 ways in which the Church can engage and some pointers to apologetics. Every chapter ends with a page of resources and links for further research. Every chapter contains an interview with an expert in that area. In doing so, Morrow is practicing what he preached by engaging with the various cultural experts, even as he attempts to promote his ideas of what it means to think Christianly.

Further Thoughts

Through discussions and interviews with various experts on different aspects of culture,  Morrow is able to put together this very readable collection of material to make it into a practical resource for training and equipping Christians for the marketplace and for the world at large. I am so glad I read this book. Page after page, I find myself pressing buttons inside me that say 'yes,' 'of course,' and 'absolutely!' Readers need not worry about where to begin although the strategy comprises of understanding, of being transformed, and of engaging the culture at large. In fact, the three phase can be seen as a spiral of engagement. Whichever phase we are in, we are reminded that we cannot think Christianly alone. The world is too big, and the culture too complex for any lone ranger Christians. We need the community to reach the rest of the world. We need one another. The Church is perhaps the best chance for us to do that.

We need more of such books in an increasingly skeptical world that pretty much disses faith in favour of scientific proof, and religions in favour of secularism and worldly philosophies. If you want to start engaging the world, reading this book is like turning the our ignition keys. Let the Spirit of God use Morrow's book to warm up your witnessing engine. We will then be traveling different places of the world to let our faith do the thinking, the Spirit to help us in our praying, and God's wisdom to help us in our engaging.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided to me free by Zondervan and NetGalley without any obligation for me to give a positive review. All opinions furnished above are mine.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"The Top Ten Leadership Commandments" (Hans Finzel)

TITLE: The Top Ten Leadership Commandments
AUTHOR: Hans Finzel
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2012, (256 pages)

Based on the example of Moses as a leader, this book captures ten particular lessons for the Christian leader. For Finkel, leaders are people who make things happen. In doing that, obstacles will be many. Leaders must be prepared to tough it out in a tough environment that is often discouraging and meaningless. Often, the temptation to quit is real. Finkel relays 6 reasons why pastors leave the ministry.

  • 58% feels drained
  • 51% feels lonely
  • 43% feels bored or constrained
  • 43% feels a lack of support for their work
  • 38% finds a better job somewhere
  • 25% has relationship or marital problems.
Instead, all leaders need to learn to begin strong and finish strong. Moses is symbolic of this strong start and strong finish, complete with a perseverance to follow God's calling. The best teachers on leadership are those who have led through very difficult times. Finkel describes Moses's life in 3 acts. Firstly, Moses was born with power in Egypt from birth to 40 years old. Secondly, He became a man of weakness (40-80 years old), leading the people to 40 years of wilderness. Thirdly, he grows as a man of God from 80-120 years old. In our modern world, it is common for book publishers to approach popular and famous figures to write something about leadership. Since Moses is a great leader, if he is still alive today, probably the top publishers of the world will be queueing up to ink an agreement to write a book on leadership. Finkel, an admirer of Moses sums up the leadership tips through the Ten Leadership Commandments. They are:

  1. Thou shalt cling to the vision
  2. Thou shalt not serve thine own ego
  3. Thou shalt practice servant leadership
  4. Thou shalt be opposed, resisted, and misunderstood
  5. Thou shalt have a life
  6. Thou shalt sweat the small stuff
  7. Thou shalt spend time in the tent
  8. Thou shalt lead to leave
  9. Thou shalt never give up
  10. Thou shalt keep thine eyes on the prize.
Finkel tries to encourage the meek while at the same time dissuades the proud from seeking leadership. In fact, he takes special care to remind us that leaders should not lead to serve their own egos (commandment #2). For reluctant people, he talks about the 5 common excuses potential leaders give. For current leaders, he warns them about the 7 deadly motives of power, prestige, position, popularity, pride, personal gain, and paycheck. These can be addressed by adopting an attitude of servanthood (commandment #3). Finkel then gives us helpful comparisons between servant leadership and self-serving leadership, putting leaders at the bottom of importance instead of the top, asserting that servant leaders succeed when others succeed. He points out how easy it is for leaders to lose heart, and then point to the need to be prepared to face hardship, discouragement, and adversity.

Commandment #5 talks about delegation and the need to spend time with families. In commandment #6, Finkel reminds us that small stuff do add up, if we let them. Maintain our integrity but not compromising on integrity, intelligence, and energy. Commandment #7 is an important reminder to spend time with God. The leader for God is a man of God. The man of God prays, practices what he preaches, and grows to be more Christlike through the Word, thoughts, and actions. In commandment #8, leadership that is successful but without successors is actually failure. That is why it is critical to develop leaders during one's term as leader. Sometimes, this can be misunderstood. Actually, the essence of leading to leave is to ensure the organization has a longer term plan. Mentoring is a major part. Commandment #9 talks about perseverance, and #10 talks about keeping our eyes on the goal.

My Thoughts

For me, the single strongest message in this book is the leading to leave idea. It reminds us what Christian leadership is all about. At the heart of all leadership is discipleship. Leadership is not about leading people based on our own strengths, to beef up our egos, or to show other people we are better than them. Leadership is about serving others as an example to leaders to be. It is about demonstrating the love of Christ. It is about directing all praise and glory to the One who is the True Giver of life, and deserving Receiver of praise and worship. All of our work as leaders are basically ground work in preparing the ground to pass the baton. Sometimes, as leaders, we tend to hang on too tightly to the baton that it has become glued onto our hands. 

These ten leadership commandments are comprehensive enough to allow any reader to jump into any commandment and start from there. I like the many quotations and wisdom that Finkel has drawn in from different sources. I appreciate the way he explains difficult concepts with simple language, tables, and illustrations. This is a wonderful book on the life of Moses seen from the perspective of leadership. If you have not known the biblical character Moses, this book helps you to appreciate this great leader even more.

Highly practical, this book is a good book for equipping new leaders, and to encourage current leaders.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by David C Cook Publishing and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All comments offered are freely mine.

Monday, February 20, 2012

"Disciplines of a Godly Young Man"

TITLE: Disciplines of a Godly Young Man
AUTHOR: R. Kent Hughes and Carey Hughes
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012, (192 pages).

This book may be addressed to young man explicitly, but it implicitly applies to all believers in Christ. Using 'discipline' as the main operative word throughout the book, the author's conviction is that without discipline, one cannot grow up to be the mature man in God. Beginning with stories of mainly famous sports persons, the authors continuously hum the chorus:

"No manliness, no maturity! No discipline, no discipleship! No groans, no growth! No training, no triumph!" (22)

Written in 5 sections, the authors attempt to instil the need for discipline in relationships, in the soul, in character, in ministry and in grace. In relationships, one needs to rein in one's weakness to temptations, and at the same time strengthen one's resolve to pursue purity in God. At the same time, one cannot live a solitary life, but to develop deep friendships. Relationships are key to maturity in community.  Then there is the discipline of soul which talks about one's mental discipline and spiritual devotions. This section on SOUL is perhaps the strongest part of the book.

The third section deals with the personal development of character. By controlling the tongue and to use it wisely, one builds up the discipline to manage the rudder of one's life. Characted building can also be in terms of work. The authors give a really concise overview of the theology of work, followed by a need to cultivate perseverance.

The fourth section deals with Church in terms of Church life, giving, witnessing, and serving. The last section ties everything together by softening the stance on any tendency to make 'discipline' legalistic. Grace is the word.

My Thoughts

Reading this book reminds me of Paul's instructions to Titus about young men.
"Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled." (Titus 2:6)

In that short letter, Paul has one of the shortest instructions for the young men in the Church. Self-Controlled. I see 'discipline' as a way in which Titus 2:6 can be practised. This book certainly goes wide in terms of reaching out to young men in very important spheres of their lives. There is something for the relational young man. There are many good ideas to cultivate the mental prowess. There are great stories regarding the building of character. There is also the responsibility to be a part of Church through serving, giving, and regular attendance. All in all, though the book is targeted at young men, it can benefit a wider audience. In fact, if all young men can read this book, and apply the suggestions in it, our future is bright. Our nations will be swarming with future leaders who will be strong, faithful, and will honour to home, to country, and to God.

The best way to use this book is to read it together with a group, or another person. Teach it in a young adult class, or read it as a group. Discuss it with a friend, a mentor or your pastor. Otherwise, it is easy for young men to be distracted. Due to the demands in this book, reading it will require a discipline in itself. Beware. This book is not for the weak and faint-hearted. It is for those who want to grow up to be godly and mature in God.

Maybe, for those of us who are older, and have missed out on the disciplines when we were younger, it is never too late to begin. This book may also be used to cultivate the inner man in us, regardless of how old is our outer man.
Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites . . and other lies" (Bradley Wright)

TITLE: Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites...and Other Lies You've Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media
AUTHOR: Bradley R.E. Wright
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2010, (256 pages)

Christianity in the West are going through some of the most negative reviews in this modern era. So much so that being called a 'Christian' or an 'evangelical' is a liability in some circles. Generally, the press and the media at large are more poised to report bad stuff about Christians. As the Church and the evangelical movement continues to receive bad press, Bradley Wright offers this illuminating work to dispel the smoke of false information. A sociologist himself, he gathers up facts and statistics to support his findings. He tests the negative perceptions with cold hard data, eventually lifting up an optimistic view of Christianity at large. One of the reasons why the public perceives Christians negatively is because people has been fed with 'incomplete, inaccurate' and downright 'negative' news about Christians. The result: Non-Christians are dismissive of evangelicals in general, even in the light of a gross lack of supporting data. The author's conviction is that, at least Christians need to know the real statistics. Otherwise there will be a high cost in negative statistics.

The central message about this book is this: There is good news about 'bad' news, simply because the 'bad news' are not as true as it seems.

A) Debunking 7 Key Myths

Firstly, "Is American Christianity on the Brink of Extinction?" Wright points out that the 'good-old-days' thinking is erroneous. Modern religious adherents are actually higher than in the 18th Century. It is not the decline of new believers. It is actually a wrong perception of how 'high' the religious adherents were in the old days. Thus, numerically and percentage wise, there are more Christians now then before.

Secondly, the concern about "Are we losing our young people? What will happen in the future?" Dire predictions about church dying out are myths. In fact, every generation worries about their youths. The challenges in our generation is thus NOT unique. In fact, the perceptions of older people being more religious are similar in every generation. The young who leaves the church now, eventually returns as older people.

The third question deals with gender, race and social class, and that migration patterns are constantly changing. Thus it is too simplistic to generalize.

Fourthly, there is the myths that Christians do not think or do what they profess.  By examining beliefs, practices, commitment, and experiences, the author finds that in many churches, there are many devoted and pious believers. The myths are not supported by consistent data.

Fifthly, statistics about divorces and wild claims about Christians are inaccurate. The opposite is true. Christians in general are more well-behaved.

"Essentially, people who associate themselves with Christianity, as compared to the religiously unaffiliated, are more likely to have faithful marriages, commit less crime, interact honestly with others, and not get into as much trouble with drugs or alcohol. What's more, the more committed Christians are to their faith, as measured by church attendance, the greater the impact the church's teachings seem to have on their lives." (152)

Sixthly, do Christians love others? Again, compared with the rest of society, Christians generally do very well. While they are good in terms of giving, forgiving, and caring for the poor, they are not as good with regards to their feelings about the minority, both racial and sexual. The positive thing is that Christians are improving in terms of their attitudes.

Seventhly, there is an image problem. The author even takes issues with some of the findings from the popular book 'UnChristian.'

B) Closing Thoughts

The take-away for this book is not to believe data too readily or too quickly. Sometimes, information presented to us are inaccurate, or not representative. Beware of media looking to bash the Church. Beware of uncritical acceptance of negative statements. Learn to ask for the assumptions and the evidence behind each accusation. It is a good discipline to ask ourselves what is true, rather than to be swept away by perceptions that are false. The four things that Wright identifies as need to improve upon are:

  1. Greater gender equality in leadership circles
  2. Poorer level of giving
  3. Improve on loving behaviours
  4. Improve on our attitudes toward non-Christians.
The best part of the book is the 'Caveat Lector.' It shows us the 5 questions we need to ask when people try to shove anything down our throats.

  1. 'Question whether it's accurate.'
  2. 'Question the motives of the person writing'
  3. Disagree with the conclusions
  4. Judge the statistic in the light of your own experiences
  5. Not believe it for any reason, including just being in a cranky mood.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Teens Gone Wired: Are You Ready?" (Lyndsay Green)

TITLE: Teens Gone Wired: Are You Ready?
AUTHOR: Lyndsay Green
PUBLISHER: Toronto, ON: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2011, (288 pages).
ISBN: 978-088762-8092

As more and more people are spending greater amounts of time online, books pointing to the dangers of excessive use are also pouring in. This book is written primarily for parents of teenagers, but it is useful reading for all readers. As Green writes, 'parenting a teen' is like tightrope walking, which sets the tone for the entire book. Through 6 parts, Green navigates between the good and the bad, the acceptable and the unacceptable, the merits and the dangers of online use.

The author begins Part One using some understanding of teen social behaviour and psychology. Between useful time, and wasteful time, education vs monitoring, fun vs obsessions, multitasking vs single-focus, persevering vs dropping out, it is about understanding the teen mind while highlighting the pros and cons of online usage.

Part Two addresses the upsides and downsides of social communications. Green covers how much personal information to share and what not to share, sexting vs criminal, forming an identity vs mere performance, privacy vs anonymity, and tips to basically allow the teen to expand his/her social circles discreetly.

Part Three is about the teenager self-esteem development. Balance is the key to living real vs virtual lives, self-esteen vs narcissism, empathy or indifference, sexual identity vs confusion, education vs entertainment, practicing vs preaching.

Part Four approaches the role the teen plays in society. When is it sharing responsibility and when is it behaving with a sense of entitlement? What is the right thing to do? Being participative or being insular from the world? Green gives lots of tips to guide readers through wise decisions.

Part Five is an important part about physical appearance. Teens grow fast. They are no longer kids, but they are not yet adults. Green shows the way to inculcate self-acceptance, body decoration without mutilating oneself, living smoke free, drinking moderately, making the difference between getting high or hooked, eating or controlling, and adequate physical care.

Part Six is the key part that brings all of these together. Here is where the adult parent communicates wisely to encourage good communication, giving teens an appropriate curfew vs freedom, safe driving, partying, learning, and many more.

Closing Thoughts

This is more of a guide book for parents to find ways to communicate well with their teens. Honestly, the materials in the book can be quite overwhelming at first. While it is non-fiction, the stories and the format of the book appears like a novel. The table of contents enable one to get a good grasp of where the author is going. What is most helpful is the extensive understanding of the teen mind. There is also the advantage of equipping the parent with communicating helps, to kickstart the conversation. Above all, the point is about having a healthy balance. This is something that teenagers need. This is something that parents themselves need to practise. Perhaps, the book is for parents to learn from first before teaching it to teens. Mind you, teens are very sensitive to anything resembling hypocrisy.

The key to managing relationships with this: Greater time online needs more time offline.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


Friday, February 17, 2012

"Christianity and Chinese Culture"

TITLE: Christianity and Chinese Culture
AUTHOR/EDITOR: Miika Ruokanen and Paulos Huang
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010, (384 pages).
ISBN: 978-08028-6556-4

This publication is a collection of conference materials presented during the 2003 Sino-Nordic conference with the same name as the title of this book. Prepared by scholars, theologians, Confucianists and Christian contributors, this volume attempts to bring the best of 'human-oriented Confucianism' and 'religious vitalism of Christianity.' It believes that Confucianism and Christianity needs each other. The former cannot deal with the deeper religious needs of the Chinese people. The latter needs a proper understanding and appreciation of Confucianism in order to be relevant and be appreciated in the Chinese culture. More importantly, it shows how the Chinese authorities are opening up to the benefits of religion, and that religion is 'not harmful to society.' Instead, there is much good that Christianity can bring about in the social wellbeing of China. This represents a great opportunity for Christians to work with the Chinese people to bring about mutual benefits.

It attempts to cover three broad areas. Part One looks back at the traditional frameworks of Confucianism and Christianity in China. Eight Chinese scholars present largely conciliatory papers that emphasize commonness, similarities, and compatibilities between the Chinese and the Western cultures. There are similarities like motivation for moral good works, recognition of some kind of evil and original sin, similar attributions to a Higher Being, and inter-religious dialogues. Frequently, the Chinese scholars point to the positive missionary example of Matteo Ricci, who himself embraced Confucian values and ethics. Interestingly, according to one scholar, Christianity seems to be more favourably accepted than other religions. One paper talks about the religious conversions of Lin Yutang. When Lin finds a conflict between Chinese culture, Taoism and Christianity, he chooses humanism and leaves Christianity. Thirty years later, after recognizing the flaws and limits of humanism, he returns to Christianity. One particularly interesting paper is how folk religions, pragmatism, secularism, rationalism, influences the attitudes of Chinese people toward Christianity. Chinese culture has been both an influence as well as a limit to the spread of orthodox Christianity.

Part Two comes back to the present state of how the Chinese people (or scholars) perceive Christianity. There is a strong sense of seeing Christianity from the eyes of Chinese culture, rather than vice versa. In other words, the scholars continue to find common ground through 'comprehensive theology' by locating a 'mean.' The premise is that the mean of Chinese culture, and the mean of Christianity will intersect. It is still very much a 'balanced' approach that resembles the Taoist yin-yang philosophy. One paper offers much food for thought. In The Contextualization of Chinese Christian Theology, Yang Huilin argues that Christianity can be contextualized through language immersion, through humanities studies, through research into the present faith communities, and an understanding of what atheism means. For the West, atheism is antagonistic. For the Chinese, atheism is more of an 'indifference.' In response, Western theologians like Thor Strandenaes point out the 'counter-culture' nature of Christian theology.Wang Xiaochao gives 5 misunderstandings of Christianity made by the academic circles in China; namely, 1) misunderstanding the origins of Christianity, 2) Misunderstanding the relationship between Christianity and Roman Empire; 3) Misunderstanding the link between Christianity and Western philosophy; 4) Misunderstanding Christianity and the events in the Middle Ages; 5) misunderstanding Christianity and modernism.  Dr Choong Chee Pang, former principal of Trinity Theological College in Singapore gives a dual response. On the one hand, he commends Xiaochao for his concise identification of the 5 misunderstandings. On the other hand, Choong says that any misunderstandings less than a biblical foundation, will remain very much a misunderstanding. This is particularly illuminating. One very down-to-earth paper deals with the practical difficulties of people living in China. With the rise of pluralism in churches, the rising rich-poor divide in society, the materialistic, pragmatic, secular society, the challenge for urban Chinese is to find a sense of spirituality. Gao Shining admits that Christians who have 'strong faith' can overcome these challenges. Those who are interested in political and social place of Christianity in China will appreciate Li Quiling's paper which touches upon how the Chinese view religion in society.

Part Three looks to the future challenges. Deng Fucun's paper explains why 'conservative theological thinking' may not work as well as the three-self patriotic church theology. The key point is that Chinese culture prefers a middle ground, and any theologies that push to any extremes will be rejected in Chinese society. Of all the three parts, this final part is perhaps the most challenging because it pushes fundamental Christianity to the borderline (even over the line) of compromising the faith, in favour of cultural relevance and acceptance. While the West grapples between Christ and Culture, as far as Christianity in China is concerned, there is another layer: Christ and China.

My Thoughts

I have three reactions when I read this volume. Firstly, it is one of disappointment because diplomacy seems to come first, critical scholarship that we are used to seeing in academic circles appears secondary. The bulk of the essays tends to prefer diplomatic tact over critical engagement with biblical principles. Intellectual vigour is perhaps subservient to the higher purpose of searching for common grounds. A majority of the scholars seem to prefer the positive messages, even claiming that Christianity is not as contradictory as many people have thought. At least the responses by the European and American scholars are a little more engaging with alternative, even opposing views. It seems like the Chinese scholars themselves tend to toe the middle ground normally, and if forced to choose, they will tend to interpret Christianity from the eyes of Chinese culture rather than from biblical grounds. It takes the Nordic responses to bring out the non-Chinese perspectives.

Secondly, the representations are lopsided toward European and Chinese scholarship. Out of the 33 contributors, only 2 are from North America. Considering North America as a major world player, it is unusual for a work like this to be limited to Chinese and Scandinavian circles. Thirdly, this book presents many windows to help Westerners understand Chinese culture a little more. This point is perhaps worth the price of the book.

All in all, in view of the lack of literature and materials on Chinese culture and Christianity in the English language, this book is a welcome addition. In order to garner a wider acceptance, such sino-Christian studies need to be more global in outlook, and the interactions need to have a greater degree of biblical foundations. What about the Chinese diaspora? What about the re-integration of Chinese scholars trained in the West? What about Western expatriates or missionaries working in China?

My main critique of this book is basically this. The contents do not exactly reflect 'Christianity and the Chinese Culture.' I feel that a more accurate title is, "Christianity seen through the eyes of Chinese Culture." There is a place for diplomacy and tact. However, for any work to be academically rigourous, deeper critical scholarship and more alternative views are needed. Perhaps, the reserved manner of scholarship from the Chinese contingent is in itself a picture of how the Chinese approach life.

Ratings: 3.75 stars of 5.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Organic Outreach for Churches" (Kevin G. Harney)

TITLE: Organic Outreach for Churches: Infusing Evangelistic Passion into Your Congregation
AUTHOR: Kevin G. Harney
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011, (196 pages).

In a clever play on the word 'organic,' Harney is able to compare and contrast what true evangelistic passions means. It is not simply a job delegated to groups that label themselves evangelistic committees or mission teams. Neither is it just sending money or promising prayers to a distant community of need. Those are essentially add-ons, or artificial supplements, or inorganically modified methods of outreach. In a nutshell, organic outreach is about infusing evangelistic passion in all ministries beginning with the leadership in any Christian organization. The need to obey the Great Commission needs to occur at every level, every domain, and in every heart of anyone who calls himself or herself a disciple of Christ. Harney writes passionately:

"The only way outreach will become a natural part of a congregation's life is when every leader and each ministry are gripped by a commitment to fulfill the Great Commission." (13)

Written in four parts, Harney aims to infuse such evangelistic fervour beginning with the HEART of the congregation. He then progresses to the MIND of the congregation by adopting 7 'simple mind shifts' and 6 'levels of influence' to mobilize the whole church.  Part Three is about the doing aspect through the HANDS of the congregation where one can utilize present inherent strengths as well as innovative approaches. Part Four provides tips and ideas about MOUTH that speaks for Christ through vibrant testimonies. To avoid being accused of mere theory only, Harney conscientiously field-tests his ideas with his local church, and 11 other ministry settings, with personal accountability groups. Moreover, this book was not written first. It comes 5 years later after numerous conference discussions and encouragement from friends and acquaintances.

All organic outreach needs to begin with a real love for God and for people, through the heart. Using the heartbeat metaphor, Harney clears the table by saying that people who exhibit a flatline, a weak pulse, or a rapid heartbeat, needs life support. What is needed is a healthy heartiness.

Harney's treatment of the different domains is rather wide. He adopts a holistic approach to deal with heart, mind, hands, and mouth, and personifies the Church through these parts. Each chapter ends with four pointers:

  1. Discussion questions to probe deeper
  2. Action item to check one's inner conditions
  3. Action item to grow
  4. Prayer Direction for divine assistance.

Anyone desiring to reach the world needs to be prepared to do it sacrificially too. Harney helps readers to ask three critical questions to do that. The Church needs to count the costs. We can only learn to love other people, when we learn to love the Church as well.

In the MIND, Harney reminds us that negative attitudes can damage any evangelistic passion. Positive and healthy perspectives are needed. Through the mindshifts, Harney helpfully teaches us 7 ways to move from negative to positive. I like the way Harney urges, that evangelistic fervour ought to 'permeate' the whole Church, not just committees or certain groups. All can do it. He provides 6 ways how to influence it.

In the HANDs, Harney brings out a need for change, turning Church inreach programs that work, to become outreach programs that work as well. In the MOUTH, the shortest of all parts, Harney then zooms in on a highly essential aspect of outreach: Speak the gospel out so that others can hear.

My Thoughts

The cover of the book is a great way to talk about evangelistic fervour. The saltshaker image reminds me of a classic book called 'Out of a Saltshaker,' written by Rebecca Manley Pippert. Pippert's book talks about personal evangelism as a way of life. Harney's book here extends this idea to incorporate evangelism as the whole church's way of life. The way he uses the temperature gauge is highly creative. His 1-degree raising the temperature for evangelistic fervour itself, is worth the price of the book. He follows up with a 2-degree vectoring method that aims to turn what we do well within the church, and to apply them outside the church, turning away from us toward the community around us.

Thankfully, other than having an evangelistic fervour and the need to let our outreach be meaningful both for the Church as well as our communities, the gospel still needs to be spoken out clearly. Harney does not make the mistake of focusing so much on the works that the words are ignored. He dedicates one whole chapter with a short and easy to remember gospel sharing message.

This book is heavy on practical ways to move the Church toward an outreach mindset. It is particularly strong in understanding how Churches are stuck with old paradigms. That is why Harney meticulously deals with the need for a mindset change. Having done that, he offers very creative and helpful ways in which church members are able to say: "Hey! I can do that too!"

Let not only our money or our committees do the talking. Let the whole church do the walking, the talking, and the praying. This book is poised to become the modern version of Pippert's bestselling books for evangelism.

Ratings: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions given above are made freely.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

"Leadership Excellence" (Pat Williams)

TITLE: Leadership Excellence: The Seven Sides of Leadership for the 21st Century
AUTHOR: Pat Williams with Jim Denney
PUBLISHER: Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Publishing, 2011, (320 pages)

This is a treasure of leadership teachings, tips, techniques, and tales about how leaders excel in the 21st Century. Written by a person who learns leadership through his parents, and through the school of hard knocks, Williams shares generously his insights over the years. For the author, leadership is a three-legged stool: viewing onself as a leader, preparing to be a leader, and stepping up to be a leader.As a sports management consultant, an experienced leader in the Disney organization, and now a leadership consultant, Williams draws on his experience and learnings from 700 other leadership books to give us a concise book on seven important sides of leadership. An outstanding leader will have or aim to have:

  1. Vision
  2. Communication
  3. People skills
  4. Character
  5. Competence
  6. Boldness
  7. Serving Heart.
One's leadership can be excellent with these traits which are all learnable. For Williams, leadership is all about lifetime learning and practicing leadership excellence.

1) Vision
Leadership is essentially about the future, and this is concisely captured in the vision that powers the mission. He cites leaders like Cyrus the Great who builds his empire based on tolerance and diversity. He talks about Sam Walton's vision for Walmart, Steve Jobs for Apple, Richard Branson for Virgin, and many more. There are three vital traits of visionary leadership. Firstly, vision helps to keep one focused. Secondly, it keeps one fueled. Thirdly, it helps one to finish. He then goes on to show ways in which leaders can build vision.

2) Communication
In order to be a great leader, one needs to be a great communicator. Vision is no good unless it can be effectively communicated. Williams hones in on 6 principles:

  1. Believe in the power of communication
  2. Communicate so that people understand
  3. Communicate optimism
  4. Communicate hope
  5. Communicate to motivate and inspire
  6. Become a storyteller
3) People Skills
Relationships. People essentially do not care until they know that the leader cares about them. For Williams, love can be learned. For Williams, he describes:

"People skills are simply the learnable skills that enable you, the leader, to understand the people you lead, to empathize with them, and to build harmonious relationships with them. People skills are the social skills that enable you to get along with people, to negotiate with people, to avoid and resolve conflict with people, and to interact with people in a way that is mutually beneficial." (120)

4) Character
Williams calls 'character' indispensable to leadership. It is through times of testing, that our character will tough it through, to do the right thing, and to live with integrity. One of the helpful ways he gives is the accountability covenants. Covenants of confidentiality, of time, of honesty, and of prayer.

5) Competence
Leaders are made, not born. That is why it is important to continue to train and be competent in what we are called to do. Competence is defined as "the ability to perform the leadership role in a highly effective way." Williams then goes on to describe 15 leadership competencies. Each competency described comes with loads of precious nuggets of wisdom from the many different leadership gurus in the different industries.

6) Boldness
Leadership means not shrinking back from responsibilities, or to shirk away from threats. It is to be bold to face up to challenges. Good leadership means not over-analyzing anything, but taking action to do something. It is learning to swim upstream despite the loneliness of leadership. It is not being afraid to make mistakes. There are many examples of military situations, and wisdom from generals and commanders.

7) Servant Heart
This is the most important but also hardest for people to grasp. For Williams, the first 6 sides of leadership are all nouns. This seventh one is a verb: serving. He is so convinced that he calls serving the 'key' to leadership excellence.

My Thoughts

This book is a great collection cum reference book on many things on leadership. I like the many different anecdotes and wisdom from the different books and leaders Williams have learned from. The book is systematic in its presentation of the leadership traits. It is backed up with stories and multiple references to other leadership literature. It teaches. It motivates. It inspires. This is what leadership is all about. Williams has done a great service for all of us keen to learn and to practise leadership.

I strongly recommend this book to be read by all leaders, past, present and future. The old will nod their heads. The young will be wowed. For the rest, they will be actively challenged to pursue after leadership challenge. Great book!

Ratings: 5 stars of 5.

This book is provided to me free by Barbour Publishing and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions furnished above are mine.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Review: "The Mysterious Epigenome" (Thomas E. Woodward and James P. Gillis)

TITLE: The Mysterious Epigenome: What Lies Beyond DNA
AUTHORS: Thomas E. Woodward and James P. Gills
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012, (160 pages).

The more we study the complexities and the miraculous coordination of various information codes within the human cell's DNA, the more the evidence of an Intelligent Being behind such a wonder. At the end of a groundbreaking project called the Human Genome Project launched in 1990, the entire human DNA has been successfully mapped by 2003. Costing billions of dollars, needing thousands of scientists and researchers, this microscopic gene requires 3.1 billion letters to describe its database.  According to the authors, this mapping is just the beginning. New research shows that behind this mapping is a control system called the epigenome. This system like a 'built-in director' controls how and when the mappings are replicated. It knows mysteriously how much, how soon, what to replicate. It has some intelligence in which to shut on or off DNA processes called 'methyl tags.'

In brief, while the function of genetics is to study the codes for RNA and proteins in the DNA, the purpose of epigenetics is to study the control mechanisms of DNA expressions. What is intriguing is that while genetics acknowledge the hereditary nature of genetic link to human behaviour and health, they cannot change the genetic structure. It is the school of epigenetics that presents a real potential for some kind of genetic modifications that can be passed on to future generations. In other words, rather than trying to modify the DNA directly, why not influence the director of DNA mechanisms, namely, the mysterious epigenome?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"Letters from a Skeptic" (Gregory A. Boyd)

TITLE: Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father's Questions about Christianity
AUTHOR: Gregory A. Boyd
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2008, (256 pages)

This book fits into a genre series called letters. Through a series of questions and answers exchange between a non-believer father and a son who is Christian, the book invites the reader into the conversation. It is a book that deals openly and honestly the serious questions surrounding faith, in particular, the Christian faith.  Martin Luther famously wrote to his barber about how to pray. CS Lewis's popular book, 'Screwtape Letters' is a remarkable book of how a senior devil advises the junior wormwood on how best to deceive Christians. In the spirit of openly discussing matters of faith and doubt, the Boyds have given the public a book of apologetics that cover quite large areas of legitimate questions that Christians need to learn to deal with.

Written in 4 parts, the junior Boyd tackles 29 letters called 'correspondences' and tries to answer each question for his skeptic father, Edward, the senior Boyd. After a long time of debate and impasse, Boyd the son decides to try one more time through an invitation to tackle the most pressing doubts his father have. It is thus important to remember that these series of letters are started with permissions from both the Boyds, and are made public with full knowledge of all parties.

The Book

Part One deals with Questions about God with contains 12 questions. Part Two contains 5 questions about Jesus Christ. Part Three deals with 6 questions on the Bible. Part Four comprises 6 questions on Christian life and doctrine. The father starts the ball rolling by articulating his doubts in writing about why he is unable to believe. This is then followed by a methodical and detailed response. Some of the questions that are dealt with range from popular ones such as:
  • "Why has Christianity done so much harm?"
  • "Is your God all poweful?"
  • "Why is the world so full of suffering?"
  • "Aren't the gospels so full of contradictions?"
  • "Do all non-Christians go to hell?"
  • ....
to other less asked questions like:
  • "Why would a God care about us little humans?"
  • "Does God know the future?"
  • "Why didn't God spare your mother?"
  • "Why did God create Satan?"
  • "How can another man's death pardon me?"
The author treats each question respectfully, and explains the problem and the possible responses in a loving manner. The book ends with a series of discussion questions that study groups can use.

Additional Thoughts

Even the wording of the questions itself is enough to whet one's appetite and motivate the reading of the book. The letters are personal which comes across as an authentic conversation that readers are able to identify with. I appreciate the way the questions and answers are exchanged. The questions are briefly articulated. The answers are, thankfully, not a theological treatise but a thoughtful response given with a gentle persuasive voice. It is easy for a theologically trained son to take his dad to task with scholarly references and theological frameworks. Yet, the junior Boyd wisely refrains. Instead, he answers the questions often by first repeating what he believes is the inner doubts. I really enjoy the part about him trying to reconcile his faith with his mother's death. By saying that intellectual answers do not bring people back from the dead, the junior Boyd is putting himself on the same side of anguish with his dad.  In other words, many of the doubts are common doubts. Many of the questions are common questions. It simply takes a change of perspective. Thankfully, Boyd's dad confesses himself as a 'smart-ass-know-it-all.' Edward Boyd acknowledges Christ as his Lord and Saviour on January 15th, 1992.

I like this style of apologetics. It is a wonderful way to discuss matters of faith without having to adopt any position of superiority. In fact, when we openly admit that we do not have all the answers, and that we are always open to understand the other person's perspectives, we often build bridges instead of walls. This ought to be the purpose of apologetics: Build bridges, not walls. This book builds more than 29 bridges to help skeptics doubt Christianity a little less, and to help Christians appreciate the skeptic's view a little more.

Ratings: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by David C Cook publishers and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered are made freely by me.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"When a Nation Forgets God" (Erwin W. Lutzer)

TITLE: When a Nation Forgets God: 7 Lessons We Must Learn from Nazi Germany
AUTHOR: Erwin W. Lutzer
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2010, (160 pages).

Erwin Lutzer is like a modern prophet speaking out against the deceptions of the world. In this book compilation of what looks like a series of sermons, Lutzer warns the modern world of the alarming similarities of the values in America now with the values that led to Nazi Germany. He leads the reader through seven trends that ought to wake us up. His key contention is this:

"I don't expect that America will ever gas millions of people because they belong to the wrong race; but the same values that destroyed Germany are being taught in many of our centers of learning today." (10)

#1 - "When God is Separated from Government, Judgment Follows"

Hitler slyly separated the Church from the government under the guise of freedom, tolerance, and what is best for the country. Systematically, Hitler proceeded to marginalize the Church, and eventually used the Church as a tool for his means. His point is, that the Church should confine itself only to church matters, and let Hitler take care of the rest. The point is: Church should let Hitler do what Hitler wants, as long as Hitler promises to 'take care' of the German people.

In modern America, if God is removed from government, this leads to a 'raw use of power,' 'eroticism,' 'arbitrary judicial rulings,' and pragmatism being the new moralism. Lutzer argues that the curtailment of the freedom of religion in America will ultimately lead to judgment. The crux of the matter is, such separation changes giving to Caesar what is Caesar's into a give to Caesar even those things that belongs to God.

#2 - It's Always the Economy

Economic concerns were the mainstay of German society at that time. With greater economic benefits, other things such as human rights are given a lower priority. The danger of modern America is that it is moving toward putting economic concerns as the key objective. When this happens, Scriptural warnings about debt accumulation are ignored. Bribes are accepted in the name of a better economic future for all. Stealing becomes justifiable, even from the rich.

#3 - That which is Legal Might Also Be Evil

Adolf Hitler created new laws to justify his persecution of the Jews. Being in power, the law courts are powerless against him. When God is separated from society, it slowly weakens the law structures. Firstly, in America, this is happening through a 'survival of the fittest' theory of evolution, where the one with the greatest power survives. Secondly, liberal theology continues to weaken the Christian influence in the traditional law. Thirdly, there is a sociological evolution where right and wrong are increasingly blurred and attributed to genes and physiological reasons. The founding fathers, who made laws based on their religious convictions are gradually seeing their laws being modified to suit a new generation's humanism ideals. Man has become god in lawmaking.

#4 - Propaganda Can Change a Nation

Hitler manipulated the media to his advantage to advance the Nazi cause. Look at modern America. Propaganda can manipulate facts based on mere feelings. It can cast uncritical support to movements they choose to support, like gay rights, without fairly representing other views. They use propaganda to wear out the opposition. By constantly appealing to popular emotional appeal, right and wrong are blurred, and eventually, propaganda can turn anything wrong into everything right.

#5 - Parents Not the State are Responsible for a Child's Training

Hitler ruled that public schooling is compulsory, which enables him to influence young minds to the Nazi cause. It is state-sponsored indoctrination at the highest degree. Instead of training young minds to think for themselves, the state indoctrinates minds to think the Nazi cause. In America, such a pattern is growing. Children are taught to suspect absolutes and to think more in relative terms. Psychological manipulation of kids to the humanistic doctrines are absolute. Increasingly, gay sexuality are promoted as a normal thing. The point Lutzer makes is that the responsibility of the child's upbringing remains very much at home.

#6 - Ordinary Heroes can make a difference

Here, Lutzer makes a more encouraging turn. Using Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an example, he points out that ordinary folks who practice costly grace can make a difference. He shares about Zakaria Botros, a Coptic priest who risks his life to share the gospel with Muslims. He talks about Corrie Ten Boom, whose power to forgive remains one of the most memorable. He highlights Charles Colson, whose life has blessed many in the Prison Fellowship. He points out Donnita Travis, an unknown, whose simple desire to want to help illiterate children leads to the setting up of a Hand Club for kids.

#7 - We Must Exalt the Cross in the Gathering Darkness

Christians cannot be afraid to suffer. They need to learn to resist temptations of physical healing as proof of Christ. The health and wealth gospel is more deception than truth. The use of gospel for sole material gains are to be rejected.  Subtly, one of the dangers in churches is the deception of community being more important than the cross.

Closing Thoughts

This is not a popular book for modern Christians to read. In fact, the cover of the book can be quite off-putting. Few people are willing to associate Nazi Germany with modern America. People will be easily upset about the thought of any attempt to equate them. Yet, I urge the reader to consider carefully the values behind the consequences. We know how evil the consequences are with regards to the Nazi regime. Yet, the remarkable similarities of the values Hitler tried to impose on Germany need to make us sit up and take notice about our modern society.

  • What about lobbying groups who are economic 'mercenaries' for the highest bidder?
  • What about the rising debt of the country being seen as a normal thing?
  • What if wrong is being justified as right? Without absolute values, anything wrong can become absolutely right.
After reading this book, I am more troubled than annoyed. I really hope that Lutzer is wrong about the increasing similarities of the Nazi societal values and of modern America. The trouble is, Lutzer's observations should make us sit up, take notice, and take action. Dismiss this book's warning at your own risk.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


Friday, February 3, 2012

"Useful Servanthood"

TITLE: Useful Servanthood: A Study of Spiritual Formation in the Writings of Abba Ammonas (Cistercian Studies - Cistercian Publications)
AUTHOR: Bernadette McNary-Zak
PUBLISHER: Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011, (174 pages).

This book makes available to the modern readers in the 21st Century, the wisdom and spiritual discernment teachings from a 4th century desert father called Abba Ammonas. It is a study of spiritual formation based on the Greek writings by this prominent desert monk at that time. Ammonas is a disciple and a successor to the famed Abba Antony, the founder of desert monasticism.

Every monastic practice is a form of Christian discipleship. The monks learn wisdom through ascetic and strict disciplines. At the same time, they impart their wisdom, teachings, and counsel to others who seek them out. Their form of discipleship is a unique blend of theory and practice, of listening, of discernment, of experience in the real world of the desert. In the desert, it is a mix of fleeing from the world, and entering into temptation. If the world is seen as full of external devilish forces, the desert brings out the multitude of inner demons.

Part One of this book touches on the historical and theological perspectives of Abba Ammonas, setting the contexts to understand why the desert fathers did what they did. Chapters 3-5 represent the core of the book's spiritual formation. It begins with a earnest desire to pursue after God, even if it means a personal price to pay. Each successful phase will lead to spiritual gifts. The purpose of spiritual formation is union with God.

Chapter 4 deals with the important aspect of spiritual discernment. A journey is fraught with dangers and temptations. Spiritual discernment is like a regular compass check on our inner and outer orientations. Love compels them to press on in their pilgrimage to God.

Chapter 5 talks about spiritual discernment as a community. Many people misunderstand the desert monks as being individualistic seekers of perfection. On the contrary, they are very much a part of the vibrant community.

Part Two is the complete translation of the entire Greek corpus of Abba Ammonas. For students of monastic spirituality, this part alone is worth the price of the book. I like this particular quote.

"If you love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might remain in fear, fear will beget weeping, weeping joy, and joy will beget strength, and through this strength the soul will bear fruit in all things. And if God sees that this fruit of the soul is so ripe, He will receive it as a sweet smell, and in everything He, along with His angels, will rejoice with the soul, and will give it a guard to keep it in all its ways so that he may guide it into a place of rest, and Satan may not overpower it." (Abba Ammonas in Bernadette McNary-Zak's Useful Servanthood, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011, 118)

It is a reminder that Christian spirituality is not simply a place of bliss, but it is very much a world of spiritual warfare.

My Comments

The title is interesting. In order for servanthood to be effective, and be 'useful,' one needs to make sure that one is guided by spiritual discernment, moving from imperfection to perfection, journeying toward union with God. Every step of the way, one needs to acknowledge that by ourselves, we can do nothing. Only God can help lead us to Him. It is so basic that modern readers often either miss it or take it for granted. Give this book a chance. Give ourselves a chance. Give God the chance.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

"Unfriend Yourself" (Kyle Tennant)

TITLE: Unfriend Yourself: Three Days to Detox, Discern, and Decide About Social Media
AUTHOR: Kyle Tennant
PUBLISHER: Moody Publishers, 2011, (89 pages).

This little book takes a critical look at the ubiquitous social media icon: Facebook. In a world where many people simply hop onto the social media bandwagon without asking why, or simply because everyone else is doing it, Tennant helps us to understand why it is important to look before you leap. He constantly reminds us that he is not bashing Facebook per se. Instead, he is calling upon readers to think critically, and to recognize the limitations of social media.

He offers a three-fold challenge for readers over a three day Facebook fast weekend. Firstly, unplug and start the process of detoxification. Recognize what Facebook can do and not do. Facebook friends are very different from face-to-face friends. He then goes through some false promises that people have of Facebook.

  1. "Media are amoral."
  2. "It's ok to make it all about you."
  3. "Community can be found anywhere."
  4. "Nowhere is somewhere, and it can be anywhere."
These promises are not viable on the Facebook medium. The chief concerns surrounding uncritical use of Facebook is summarised as follows:

  • Facebook provides a tempting platform for one to present themselves as more important than others.
  • Facebook is the modern fig leaves that cover up our sinful selves
  • Facebook is a powerful tool for self-promotion.
Secondly, he urges readers to discern what is best for them, and to discern and discover the pros and cons of social media. He points out that bad old sin lurks in the social medium. Digital communications is a convenient and easy cloak to hide our real selves from others. In other words, how can we build real community if we only showcase the nice parts of ourselves?

Thirdly, Tennant challenges readers to decide what is best for themselves. This final section is worth the price of the book. Instead of simply blasting away the use of social media, Tennant provides some suggestions to redeem the way we use it. 

Closing Thoughts

Tennant openly admits that he is a 'technology pessimist.' He prefers to err on the side of caution. Personally, I feel that this book is an important contribution to check the tsunami of interest and uncritical use of social media. Many have argued against the use of Facebook using statistical data and expert advice.  What Albert Borgmann and Neil Postman have done at a scholarly level to argue warnings about technology using us, Tennant has done for the layperson. The observations in the book is a reminder to us again that technology, social media such as Facebook needs to be on a leash. Uncritical usage of social media is like a pit-bull terror let loose, devouring others, and finally us. 

One need not agree with all the pointers, but I urge readers to keep the warnings fresh as they use Facebook. If all self-control fail, when all self-discipline is gone, then do the best thing for ourselves: Unfriend ourselves from Facebook.

Ratings: 4.5 stars of 5.


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