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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Connecting Christ" (Paul Louis Metzger)

TITLE: Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths
AUTHOR: Paul Louis Metzger
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2012, (352 pages).

This book is a bold attempt to reach out to both Christians and non-Christians in the area of mission, evangelism, understanding, through an unconventional way of doing apologetics. While many evangelicals treat "apologetics" as meaning the way to defend the truths of Christ, making special care not to make it seem like Christians are apologizing for their faith, Metzger chooses to begin with an apology. Recognizing that the essence of "Connecting" with people is through relationships and understanding, Metzger adopts what he calls a "Relational-Incarnational Approach" that seeks to cultivate dialogue through a dual bridge building. Rather than crude dehumanizing statements and caricatures of non-believers, Metzger chooses not to begin with the religious mask but the human person. He uses the powerful examples of two persons, one a young upstart evangelical scholar, and another in Francis Schaeffer. The former won the arguments but lost the heart of the opponents. Schaeffer however won both the minds and the hearts of his opponents. The difference is connecting truth and love and communicating them together to opponents. This is exactly what Metzger tries to do in this book.

First things first, Metzger offers to wipe the slate clean by acknowledging that Christians themselves are not perfect in the first place. He begins with a humble apology for seeing non-Christians as less than humans. He apologizes for the way evangelicals have hurt and misunderstood the points of views of dissenting viewpoints. He asserts that the reason why forgiveness is sought is because of Christians' tendency to reduce God's truth into a series of propositions that have not made significant headway in reaching out to others. Apologies also apply for Christians trying to sell "Christian products" rather than sharing Christ. He takes time to point out that we ought not become stumbling blocks, for there is only one true stumbling block, the Cross of Christ. He speaks out against the three impediments within Christian circles, like narcissism, nihilism, and nicheness of communities that have prevented Christians from presenting the true stumbling block in Christ. Until Christians repent from their wrong deeds, and admit their imperfections humbly and objectively, it is difficult to begin any meaningful conversations. In fact, it is "fear, pride, and arrogance" that are stumbling our Christian witness.

Part Two of the book engages in detail eight different types of religions and spiritualities. Metzger puts together his experience and knowledge of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Unitarianism, Mormonism, Nietzschean Atheism, and Neo-Paganism through personal friends and contacts. He devotes a chapter to each of these religions, using a three-part framework. Firstly, he makes an apology for past mistakes against them. Secondly, he expresses as clear as possible his understanding of what each religion supposedly stands for. This enables a fair and objective understanding of their beliefs. Finally, he brings out the Christian's understanding of the gospel, and how the gospel differs from the religions.

Part Three touches on five hot topics affecting modern culture, namely the consumeristic culture, the hell-less beliefs, creation vs evolution, homosexuality-marriage-hospitality, and fascism even in Christian circles.

Part Four provides a platform for a response from the religions Metzger has described. This is where his friends provides counter arguments to Metzger's first attempt to connect. All eight religions talked about responded to Metzger. Dr Adam Gregerman graciously responded to Metzger on the Jewish question. Richard Reno speaks on behalf of the Islam, and is open for greater dialogue. Prema Raghunath writes a short response for Hinduism. Kyogen Carlson shares from a Buddhist perspective. Marilyn Sewell offers a Unitarian perspective. Robert  Millet speaks in response to Metzger's article on Mormonism. Thomas W Clark and Austin Dacey gives their take on Metzger's chapter on Nietzschean Atheism, and Gus diZerega offers a response for "Avatar."

Finally, Metsger ends with a brief apology for prayer in which one lets God link the head and the heart, trusting the Holy Spirit to make whatever connections necessary to preach Christ.

My Thoughts

This book is a unique way to do apologetics. It is very sensitively written out, and is a bold attempt to speak the truth in love to both Christians and especially non-believers coming from the various faith traditions. I like the way Metzger painstakingly tries to represent as accurately as possible his understanding of religions, neo-paganism, and the cultural religions of this age. The book is very informative, filled with descriptions of personal encounters with real practitioners. One may wonder about why Metzger has chosen only eight out of so many different religions. I suspect that the purpose is to demonstrate the application of Metzger's "Relational-Incarnational Approach" in apologetics.

Metzger is spot on in saying that Christians need to learn to apologize for past mistakes and any present arrogance. Not only will that help give Christians a clean slate to begin with, that will earn the respect of non-believers. By giving others a chance to explain their points of view,. the Christian will be better able to practice humility that is open to people, without having to concede any doctrinal truths. I look at the way Metzger's friends have responded. Interestingly, the tone of their responses mimics the tone of Metzger's writings. In other words, when one is kind, it is reciprocated in kind. That is perhaps one of the strongest part of the book. The other part is this. If there ever is a stumbling block, let it not be because of the Christians' arrogance, pride, or rudeness. Let it also not be because of the Christians' lack of sensitivity to non-believers in a pluralistic society. Instead, present the cross of Christ. All the Christian need to do is to explain clearly as possible the gospel, and eventually lead people to meet Christ for who Christ is. No gimmicks. No special effects. Just the plain and simple cross of Christ.

If you are looking to do apologetics that enables one to speak the truth in love, this is the book to use. Calm, collected, and comprehensive, make sure we begin with an apology. After all, we are all sinners, saved by grace. So live as a forgiven person, constantly seeking forgiveness.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Thomas-Nelson and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Monday, May 28, 2012

"Pastoral Graces" (Lee Eclov)

TITLE: Pastoral Graces: Reflections on the Care of Souls
AUTHOR: Lee Eclov
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012, (176 pages).

"Pastors, like all believers, are agents of grace." This statement sums up the thrust of the entire book. According to Lee Eclov, a seasoned pastor writing mainly for the exhausted shepherds of God's people, pastors need to learn to grapple with the newfound supernatural gifts of God, to grow in the process of dispensing grace of God even as they are receiving grace, and to practice grace giving in the communities they are in. The best kind of story is how pastors tell of God's grace in their lives and their ministries. In a nutshell, this book is about how God's grace flows richly through God's people, and especially through pastors and servants in the ministry.

Eclov begins the book with a sharing of his early beginnings in ministry work. He learns that pastoral work is not about a career choice. Going to seminary officially does not necessarily mean one is prepared for the ministry. For some, the "underground" seminary, or the unofficial school of hard knocks provide the true pastoral education. He reflects on the place of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors + teachers, as the "four ministry cousins" who each have their own particular voice. For Eclov, pastors + teachers are essentially "Word-working" people. The pulpit is a "Woodwork of grace."

Eclov shows us three gifts of a pastor, of authority, wisdom, and grace. The greatest is the latter. Grace in helping the worshipper approach God in the knowledge and presence of God's grace. Thankfully, Eclov also talks about the tendency of people taking grace for granted. It becomes overused. The challenge is for pastors to avoid making this grace to become "monochromatic" on Sundays. This means that pastors need to:

  • passionately preach grace from the pulpit
  • allow room for "romance" for the Word to make its way to the heart
  • allow room for light-heartedness
  • be open to visitors
  • ministry of walking around
  • ministry of prayer

All of these, and many more are ways in which to dispense pastoral graces, and enable grace to be refreshed regularly. Pastors are also "spiritual medics." Apart from hospital visitations, Eclov encourages pastors to demonstrate grace to people in the workplace, to adopt boldness in Jesus, faithfulness to biblical truths in each visit, and prayerfulness and honouring God everywhere they go, including evangelism. Grace is also like renovating our church.  When members of the church beautify the church, people come and will be amazed. At the same time, the church is also a building with broken people, broken dreams and hopes. Here, the pastoral grace is in terms of a delicate caring for souls. Pastors can remember that each time they care, there is a benefit package of pleasing God and God meeting our needs where we are. 

There is also a chapter on church conflicts. The challenge is to have courage to be brave and to tell the truth in love. "Frustration is an occupational hazard," reminds Eclov. This is not to be taken lightly as a "sour pastor" can hurt the church. Eclov encourages us that suffering is also a means to grow closer to Jesus. Interestingly, the thing about grace is that the more we dispense grace, the more we receive. Grace feeds on grace and takes a life of its own. Sensitively, Eclov deals with the tenderness needed for pastors to deal with situations at deaths and funerals. Each doctrine preached or taught needs to be practical and pastoral. One of the most important pastoral duties is to make people "homesick," as joyfully longing for God's Home. Ending with a theme from the hymn Amazing Grace, Eclov then tells us that grace will keep us safe if not now, then eventually.

Closing Thoughts

Pastors will resonate with a lot of what Eclov is writing about. In fact, the weary pastor will be very encouraged merely to recognize a familiar thread throughout the book: the pastor who dispenses grace needs grace as well to serve grace. The book offers three encouraging thoughts. Firstly, it lists out the need for pastors to recognize God's grace themselves. This enables the pastor to practice grace authentically. Secondly, it shows us the different avenues in which to dispense grace, through the pulpit, through visitations, through worship, through public services, through interpersonal relationships, and many more. This enables us to see the rich variety of applications where grace can reach. Thirdly, it encourages those in the pastoral ministry to serve grace with an eye on the Grace Giver. I particularly like the part about making people "homesick." Sometimes, pastors tend to be so overwhelmed by present concerns that they fail to incorporate more of the heavenly kingdom preaching and teaching. This is perhaps the biggest motivation for preaching grace: That God has prepared for us a beautiful and wonderful kingdom in heaven. Each practice of grace on our part is a gratitude for God's promises, not only in the past or present, but very much in the future.

Rating: 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 opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

"Bringing Jesus to the Desert" (Brad Nassif)

TITLE: Bringing Jesus to the Desert (Ancient Context, Ancient Faith)
AUTHOR: Bradley Nassif
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (144 pages).

Interest in desert spirituality continues to grow, with more people getting dissatisfied with contemporary offerings. New age spirituality, motivational talks, and all kinds of technological advancement are still deficient when it comes to plain, down to earth spirituality. There is much to be learnt from the desert fathers of old. Even as many modern folks tend to see old stuff being old-fashioned and backward, when compared to all the scientific prowess and technological advancements of late, wisdom proves to be something that science and technology badly lacked, and sorely needed. In this book, Bradley Nassif brings together a few of the more prominent desert fathers. The main conviction of the author is that there is much profound truths to be learned from these desert monks that can be applied to modern life. Instead of giving us raw primary sources, Nassif compiles them and categorizes them conveniently for modern eyes and ears.

A) Six Monks and One Nun

Like the short pithy sayings of the desert fathers of old, Nassif compiles this book into a relatively brief 144 pages long offering. One can easily expand the book with lots of commentaries, illustrations, and sayings, but the point of the brevity is that wisdom does not need multiple words of sophistication. It simply requires a simple and willing heart. This is what truth often comes across. Truth that begins with recognizing how the desert fathers and desert mothers intentionally flee from the ways of the world to seek God purely, without being entangled by the cares of the world. The desert offers such a retreat and solace from the world. The desert becomes a new form of "Holy Land" for a holy people of God, seeking to live more fully and more holy for God. More specifically, it is about a group of people seeking union with God. In fact, the new desert community created a new form of church that is different from the institutional church then during the fourth century in a post-Constantine era. Like Moses driven to the wilderness after killing an Egyptian, Makarios was falsely accused of something he did not do, which I elaborated later in great detail about how faithful God is in absolving him.  There are stories of spiritual discernment, of the practice of the Christian virtues of humility, patience, kindness, and endurance of all kinds of suffering.  The latter case is most pronounced when Nassif deals with the group of desert fathers called the Stylites. Simeon of Stylite practices a very radical form of discipleship, inflicting physical pain on himself as a form of extreme penance.

Then there is Pachomius who helps to banish any notion of monks being solely a solitary and hermit life. While Anthony is a 1st century hermit, this 12th Century saint builds up a new community called the cenobitic community, where monks come together to share, to work, and to live together. The establishment of the world renowned Benedictine movement in the Western Church owes largely to the work of Pachomius.

Not all the monks are male. Thankfully, Nassif inserts a desert mother called Melania. In a largely patriachal Arab culture, it is hard for women to rise up the ranks of religion and spirituality. This highly regarded 4th century nun is both a wise giver and a Bible lover. Known for her family wealth by the powers then, she is most known by her wisdom and deep knowledge of the Bible in religious counsel.  Melania's life is a classic testimony of learning voluntary poverty and generous philanthropy.

Closing Thoughts

Like the Jewish culture, these desert fathers are well known for their stories and wisdom associated with them. They are people who obeyed Scriptures to the letter. They lived out as close as possible the prescriptions in the Bible. In doing so, their years of hard pursuit of God and the strict disciplines have turned them into spiritual guides, counselors, and wise men for the rest of the society then. Nassif makes various references to both the ancient desert monks as well as modern writers such as Darrell Johnson. This explicit reference is for the benefit of the reader who are unfamiliar with the names.

Beginning with the Anthony of Egypt, also called the Patriarch of the Desert, Nassif gives a brief biography of this humble man, and tells of how one life can impact thousands of people, even today. Both the Western and Eastern flavours of Church look to Anthony with much respect. Then there is Makarios of Egypt who is a major player in making Sketis the "Heart Land" of Egypt in the fifth century.

This book will inspire modern readers that the way forward in the future involves a lot of learning from the past. Not only that, the quality of spirituality is deep and wise. Though the teachings are simple, there are profound. Modern believers who want to grow can take a leaf from the wise experiences and teachings of the desert spirituality. I warmly commend this book to anyone seeking to start a journey through desert spirituality. After all, in our land of technological advancement and scientific progress, there is a deep hunger for something more basic: Food for the heart. The desert is a rich buffet full of wise teachings. Learn from them. Thanks Nassif!

Ratings: 4.8 stars of 5


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

"God's Wisdom for Your Marriage" (a gift book)

TITLE: God's Wisdom for Your Marriage
AUTHOR: Jack Countryman
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2012, (256 pages).

This is a gift book meant primarily for married couples seeking God's wisdom in at least seven aspects.
  1. God's Plan
  2. God's Guidance
  3. God's Provision
  4. God's Blessings
  5. God's Truth
  6. God's Solutions
  7. God's Desires

In each aspect, Bible verses are conveniently put together according to the themes for easy reference. Easily accessible, each theme gives couples the opportunity to work through their marriage in the light of God's wisdom. In searching for God's plan, couples are encouraged to pray together, worship together, serve, be united, and to seek God together. In seeking guidance, couples can learn to work together in matters of finance, life's directions, family matters, as well as specific instructions on how to be a better husband or wife to each other. Provision is a key component of every marriage. Likewise, blessings and understanding God's truths are areas to cultivate joy and trust in God. One of the special sections is the part on "God's Solutions" where Bible verses are used to speak into the various challenges of any marriage. In "God's Desires," the purpose is to build greater unity and togetherness as couples work through emotions, actions, and thoughts that affect their marriage.

As again, this is a gift book style. Like any gift books, there is always a limitation in understanding the contexts of each passage. The verses ought to encourage the reader, but my usual advice on how to use this book is to let it point readers to read the Bible proper. Such a book is never meant to be used alone as we need always to go back to the full Bible in order to understand more of why God is saying what He is saying.


This book is provided to me free by Thomas-Nelson and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"Popologetics" (Ted Turnau)

TITLE: Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective
AUTHOR: Ted Turnau
PUBLISHER: Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2012, (368 pages).

This book argues for the urgent need for Christians to engage popular culture thoughtfully, meaningfully, and lovingly. It begins with the question, "Why should we study popular culture?" The author then argues that we need to, simply because popular culture has become "something of a rudder of the spirit, a touchstone for our deepest desires and aspirations." Moreover, popular culture is getting more pervasive. More importantly, the author is convinced that popular culture is becoming a key worldview changer or influencer. Apologetics is to find a connection between the messiness and the meaning, and to make a case for the Christian worldview. The key question that drives the entire book is this: "How can Christians engage non-Christian popular culture?" The key purpose of this book is thus to learn to read popular culture with Christian eyes, to learn to respond appropriately as a Christ-follower. The biggest value from the book is how Christians can constructively engage people in popular culture comfortably through open conversations. It is meant to be an invitation to discuss rather than something to dumb down.

Part One describes some basic definitions and frameworks used for engaging culture. Here are some of the author's working definitions for the two major players.

  • "Popular culture is made up of cultural works whose media, genres, or venues tend to be widespread and widely received in our everyday world." (6)
  • "A worldview is the perspective from which you understand reality, your view of the world." (8)

Using a "worldview tree," Turnau sees "presuppositions" as roots, "world-story" as trunk, "life-philosophy" as branches, "applied beliefs" as the leaves, and "fruits" being the life practices. What makes popular culture so powerful is that it connects with us and takes us to new places. They can directly assault any passive minds to craft out new meaning in shaping our own worldviews. A worldview apologetic engages these by not allowing popular culture to be the primary shaper of us. Apologetics is about standing up for truth. We cannot settle with simply the facts, but how we interpret them. He then points readers to a basic understanding of Christianity 101 through the Creation, Fall, and Redemption model. Trudau carefully tiptoes over many facets of popular culture by telling us not to diss or trample the many good themes such as true love, justice, reconciliation, peace, and blessings that popular culture can point back to God. He urges readers not to be distracted by "swear words" and concentrate on understanding the worldview presented. He reminds us that popular culture is also a form of narrative that we can identify with. He teaches us that what we see out there is a lens to the understanding of the world. Christians need to learn to shed meaning, especially from the rich truth of God's Word.

Part Two lists five ways that have been used to engage popular culture. The first is the non-response approach or apathy that simply shrug a why bother attitude. The second is the total rejection approach that disses and condemns popular culture. Such an attitude alienates us from the rest of the world. The third is the superiority complex approach, or elitist. It dichotomizes life into good vs bad instead of looking to affirm or to redeem. The fourth is the presumed all-bad approach, something that is shoot-first-talk-later approach. Trudau calls this "Imagophobic" and critiques people like McLuhan and Postman for the culturally negative outlook. The fifth is the only positive approach, which is the cautiously affirmative approach. It is evident that Turnau sees more good than bad in popular culture.

Part Three is where the author sets out his proposal for engagement. He is for the idea that we engage popular culture because real people that God loves are living in there. Instead of having a skeptical of separatist mindset, we need to have a missional heart that seeks to reach people where they are. Instead of riding on the bandwagon of trying to change culture as a first step, Turnau reaches back and argues that there is another phase before culture creating. This is what he calls "critical imagination." This is the first phase of his engagement model, that begins with listening to existing culture and argue with it before any creating endeavour. The second phase is to remind ourselves to see the people in popular culture more as friends rather as foes. The third phase is to adopt a holistic approach. This approach is understood through five revealing questions.
  1. What's the story?
  2. Where am I (the world of the text)?
  3. What's good and true and beautiful about it?
  4. What's false and ugly and perverse about it (and how do I subvert that)?
  5. How does the gospel apply here?
My Thoughts

This is one of the clearest and well laid out book on how to engage popular culture from a Christian perspective. It is an optimistic one that gives Christians an impetus to go out into the world to engage popular culture. It is also redemptive and puts a lot of faith in the naturally good part of the world. One can easily tell that Turnau begins with a "half-full" perspective of popular culture. Perhaps, the push to engage culture in apologetics may have tilted Turnau's hand in providing more optimism in his approaches. He seems to have a disdain over cultural critiques like Postman and McLuhan for reasons mentioned. If Turnau can be faulted, it will be his over-enthusiasm for the good in popular culture may have blurred his sensitivity over some of the nuances that McLuhan and Postman have written extensively about. For example, on the phobia of images, there is a particular principality that philosophers like Jacques Ellul have pointed out, that is on an offensive against Christianity and whatever good that Turnau has said. They are on the attack against truth. They are not misguided or passive elements in popular culture. Instead, they have an evil agenda. Turnau has described popular culture so optimistically that he may have underestimated this evil.

My feel about this book is that it has a strong redemptive element but puts up a weak defense against the principalities of evil. Having said that, it is an extremely readable book and is an excellent resource in terms of reading culture with positive eyes. However, let this book be read together with Neil Postman's or Marshall McLuhan's resources. After all, a country cannot simply survive on hospitals, caregiving units, or recreational centers. It needs a strong military too as a deterrent. Turnau has a good optimistic look on the goodness of people in the midst of popular culture. Unfortunately, such optimism risks understating the sinful inclinations that can easily sway popular culture into a culture of evil principalities.

Rating. 4.25 stars of 5


This book is provided to me free by P&R Publishing and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Linsanity" (Timothy Dalrymple)

TITLE: Jeremy Lin: The Reason for the Linsanity
AUTHOR: Timothy, Dalrymple
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Center Street, 2012, (186 pages).

What's the reason for Jeremy Lin's rise from mediocrity to linsanity? This is the underlying question that laces the entire book. The overnight hero and unlikely star has not only become a basketball sensation, he has galvanized hope for many in a society that is currently economically depressed and spiritually hungry for hope. Jeremy Lin provides glimpses of hope that tell us that any ordinary person who works hard will always have a chance at stardom. Jeremy comes from an Asian culture staunch in educational pursuit and a work-hard attitude. Like any typical Asian American family, his parents put a huge emphasis on academic excellence, and sports often become a distant second or third priority. At the same time, it is hard for any Asian to break into the domain of the world of sports, usually dominated by non-Asian Americans. Despite these barriers, the way Jeremy rescues his team from the brink of defeat, to become a genuine force to contend with in the tough NBA league has made him a household name not just in sports-mad America, but in many Asian communities worldwide.

The author interviews Jeremy, and writes a captivating summary of the events that made Jeremy a star. Using the seven game winning streak by the New York Knicks to coincide with the significance of the number 7 in Hebrew culture, Dalrymple details the background and the ups and downs of the emotions from Game 1 to 7. Like a skilled storyteller, the author weaves in Jeremy's background stories in the midst of an exciting coverage of how Jeremy manages to outshoot, outwit, and outplay some of his toughest and most formidable basketball opponents. In Game 1 against the New Jersey Nets, Dalrymple highlights the role of perseverance in Jeremy's upbringing and character. In Game 2 against the Utah Jazz, the author points out a mysterious and miraculous way in which Jeremy was offered a chance to continue his magical play. As Jeremy celebrates his team's victory with lowly and down to earth humility, the media bursts out highly praising his virtues. The next Game 3 happens to be away against the Washington Wizards.  By then, Jeremy already has a sizeable following, especially among Asians. Dalrymple compares Jeremy's attitude with that of the famous Chinese General Li, whose passion for excellence took center stage. Not only is his team beginning to climb up the table, he is rising up in fame and popularity. It is Game 4 against the LA Lakers that cement his heroic status. It pits a rising superstar in Jeremy against the world famous Kobe Bryant. In a culture split between ethnic cultural expectations and somewhat tense inter-racial relations, coaches, supporters, even players are forced to look at the damage and the silliness of discrimination. As long as Jeremy is playing, the fans keep on coming. By the time Game 5 is played against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jeremy has become a household name. The underdog has become the hero. Winning five in a row makes Jeremy an automatic first team player. In a world of basketball, Asians are a force to be reckoned with. Game 6 against the Toronto Raptors has one of the most sensational endings. With only 2.2 seconds left to win the game, guess who threw the winning shot? Jeremy's faith in his game stems from his deep faith in God. Even many of the local Toronto fans (with a huge Asian population), scream in delight as they watch the Knicks win the game. Game 7 against the Sacramento Kings shows how Jeremy has played his point guard role to perfection.

My Thoughts

This book is inspiring and gives readers a background on how and why Jeremy Lin has become such a sensation. Not expected to perform, he outperformed all expectations. An unknown on the morning of February 12th, 2012, he became a superstar in a matter of days. Against all odds, Jeremy defines for many of us what "possibility" means. His faith shows Christian believers one version of what hope and trust in God looks like. Dalrymple makes this observation about something that makes Jeremy different. While stars like Kobe Bryant are expected to win, it is stories like Jeremy Lin's that connect better with the everyday man and woman in the street. Just like the story of David and Goliath. While Goliath is "awe-inspiring," David is "inspiring."

Personally, I am inspired by Jeremy Lin's never-say-die attitude to persevere on in a tough environment marked by competitiveness, brutal expectations, discrimination, and unequal status. At the same time, it is also humbling to see how a star like him can continue to maintain a low profile, choosing to honour others before self. Perseverance in one's faithfulness. Humility toward people. Faith in God. These three are the hallmarks of any star. Jeremy Lin has shown us the way. Let more of us be inspired to live not just for ourselves or for others, but for God.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Center Street Publishers, part of the Hachette Book Group of companies, without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Monday, May 21, 2012

"Praying with the Grain" (Pablo Martinez)

TITLE: Praying with the Grain: How Your Personality Affects the Way You Pray
AUTHOR: Pablo Martinez
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012, (176 pages).

Why is prayer so easy for some people, and difficult for others? Why are some people uncomfortable about praying in public? How do I learn to pray with pleasure rather than pressurize ourselves to pray? Is there a way to pray in a way that befits how we are created, like our personality types? What about prayer as a psychological projection? Are Christians imagining a divine person in their prayers? These questions and many more are tackled in this very insightful book about personality types, psychology, psychotherapy, Christianity, temperaments and how prayer can be therapeutic and also spiritual.

In this book, Pablo Martinez describes the psychology and the apologetics of prayer. In Part One, "The Psychology of Prayer," Martinez highlights three factors that directly affect our praying, namely; our temperament, our personality, and our circumstances. All of these are not separate entities but play varying roles according to the interactions of our mental, emotional, and spiritual being. For temperament, Martinez uses Carl Jung's classification of two general attitudes (introvert, extrovert) and four psychological types (thinking, sensation, feeling, intuitive). For instance, introverts tend to prefer praying in private while extroverts are comfortable in public prayer gatherings. Introverts prefer meditation while extroverts work better through activities. The author is careful to point out that such classifications are simply tendencies rather than totalities.

Psychological Profiling

Jungian Four Personalities
On the psychological profile, Martinez believes that while everyone exhibits a little of thinking, of sensing, of feeling, and of intuition, only one trait is dominant. The problem occurs when there is an imbalance of all four to the point that this dominant trait grows at the expense of the rest. The healthy condition is for the dominant trait to be strengthened and not undermine the rest. For example, while we can cultivate our strengths, it is good to be aware of our weaknesses. We can train ourselves in such a way to train ourselves accordingly, knowing our psychological tendencies. This helps immensely when it comes to relationships. With this understanding, thinking types tend to be more objective over the subjective. The Apostle Paul and Martin Luther are thinking types.

At the other end of thinking, there is the Feeling types that use emotions more expressively than the thinking types. Feelers are more sympthetic to social causes and reactive to injustice they see. For them, they step forward with heart first. The biblical character, Jeremiah is an example of Feeling personality.

Then there is the Intuitive type that sees the possibilities, contemplate better, and more apt toward the presence of God in prayer. Mystics like Theresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, are known as intuitives. The missionary David Livingstone is also another example. Intuitives shun methodical praying, preferring freedom in approaching God.

On the other end of the vertical spectrum is the sensation which responds more readily to external senses. For them, perception is key in their seeing, their hearing, their touching. While they can enter into prayer quite readily, they are also susceptible to the ups and downs of everyday living.

The three recommendations that Martinez gives are the need to accept ourselves as we are, accepting one another, and to strike a "temperamental balance."

The rest of Part One deals with how the various temperaments and personality types interact with regards to overcoming difficulties and therapeutic element of prayer.

Apologetics of Prayer

Part Two addresses two basic questions. The first is about psychology and prayer. The second covers the comparison between Christian prayer and Eastern meditation. In it, Martinez engages a challenging aspect of psychological versus prayer, painstakingly distinguishing one from the other, clarifying the purposes of each and how they can complement, not supplant each other. There is a powerful explanation that prayer is not another form of "self-suggestion" because of three factors. First, unlike self-suggestion, the purpose of prayer is not evasive from reality, but seeking a known God. Second, the object of prayer is not a hysterical or "uncritical compliance" designed to please man but a journey toward God in peace, order and balance, zeal and fire.Third, the duration of prayer outruns that of self-suggestion. Prayer is also not behaviorism which is essentially us growing out or away from something, but growing in love more toward God. Martinez finishes his book with a brief comparison of Christian prayer and Eastern Meditation in terms of differences in purpose, means, and how it leads to valuing the person concerned.

My Thoughts

This book is rich. It dives in deep into explaining the psychological and temperamental traits of a person without becoming lost in the psychotherapy world. In fact, the author makes it a point to constantly check back on Christian principles and biblical perspective of it all. Even the analyses of each personality profile are measured carefully. It is clear that the author does not want to paint a picture of a one-size-fits-all scenario for all readers. Instead, the author invites us to consider the different personality types, understand the nuances, and the importance of depending on the Holy Spirit to show us ourselves. He deals with some of the most difficult questions asked.

  1. Is pain a spiritual or psychological problem?
  2. How do we make sense of feelings in prayer and intercession?
  3. Is it ok to ask for things for ourselves?
  4. How do we know God's will?
  5. What to do with bad thoughts in our praying?
  6. How do we avoid over-analyzing things when we pray?
What Martinez is trying to drive at throughout the book is that prayer is not only necessary but a vital return back to the first relationship we have with God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Everyone of us can pray, albeit differently. The book is more descriptive rather than prescriptive. What is missing are some basic questionnaires that can help readers at least to get some snapshot of their own tendencies. For after reading and appreciating the different prayer personality types, I am still not sure where I am. Moreover, while Martinez affirms the unity of the mental, the body, and the spirit, his wholesale adoption of Jungian concepts makes it challenging for the reader in knowing how to integrate them intuitively. It gives me a feeling of the book being easy to understand but difficult to apply.

What is more helpful in the book is the way Martinez answer the various questions regarding overcoming difficulties in prayer, prayer and psychology, eastern meditation and Christian prayer, and the various apologetics. If that is your area of interest, this book is a must read.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Kregel Publications without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

"How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age"

TITLE: How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age
AUTHOR: Dale Cargenie & Associates with Brent Cole
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2011, (250 pages).
ISBN: 978-1-4516-1257-8

This book updates the 1936 classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, which has since launched many self-help companies and revolutionized the motivational industry. It maintains the same 4-part emphasis. Part One comprises three essentials prior to engaging anybody. Part Two lists 6 ways in which one can make a lasting impression. Part Three gives us 10 ways to merit and maintain the trust of others. Part Four contains 8 ways to lead change with minimal resistance.

I was hoping for a readable version just like the original. Boy was I disappointed. While there are vivid stories and bullet points, the book looks rather disjointed. One literally has to keep the table of contents open frequently as a self-reminder of where the book is going.

The Plus Points

The preface is promising. It tells us that the world we live in now is technologically much different than Dale Cargenie's days. Messaging is speedier. Strategies have become more complex. The tools we have are non-existent in the 30s. Yet, the common skills are even more necessary.

  • Need to communicate well;
  • Selflessness is a virtue;
  • Learning to share with people, rather than becoming self-absorbed in one's needs
  • People follow us when they know we have done something for them
  • People follow us for who we really are.
  • Every medium matters
  • Good 'soft skills' are still needed
One important point is this:

"By relying so heavily on digital communication, we lose a critical aspect of human interactions: nonverbal cues. When delivering bad news, it is difficult to show compassion and support without putting your hand on another's shoulder. When exploring a new idea, it is difficult to convey the same level of enthusiasm through a phone call as you would if standing before your audience in person. How many times have you sent an email and had the recipient call you to clear the air when the air was already clear?" (xx)

The key to understanding this update is this: "In general, the best practice is a judicious blend of personal touch and digital presence." (xx)

My Thoughts

This book is not easy to summarize. It has too many pointers all over the place which makes me suspect that it has been rushed to print. Moreover, trying to stick to the original framework literally, it has done itself a disservice. What is more helpful is to redesign the entire concept with the digital era as the driving context. For instance, have a section that specifically deals with the instantaneous nature of digital communications. Dedicate chapters to deal with specific social media platforms. Like having one chapter solely on applying the principles to Facebook. Unfortunately, the book looks more like an old convertible simply repainted with a fresh coat of paint. It needs to be redesigned with new engines, new electronics, and new looks.

What I find most helpful is the back cover which provides 6 helpful ways to communicate in a digital era.
  1. Communicate tactfully: discover nuances on online mediums
  2. Be Likeable: Capitalize on social networks
  3. Be Persuasive in Speech: Project oneself widely and clearly
  4. Leading More Effectively: Convey competence in the new media
  5. Increase Ability to Get Things Done: Optimize the power of digital tools
I suppose this ups my rating from 2 to 3.

Ratings: 3 stars of 5


Friday, May 18, 2012

"The Road Trip That Changed the World" (Mark Sayers)

TITLE: The Road Trip that Changed the World: The Unlikely Theory that will Change How You View Culture, the Church, and, Most Importantly, Yourself
AUTHOR: Mark Sayers
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012, (288 pages).

This is a book that has an inviting title with surprising insights into how to read our modern culture. It does this by looking back to our historical past to make sense of the present. It reads our current environment of secularism and the reasons for the downward spiral of morality and the upward rise of relativism. It tells of two road trips rather than one, of the road and the home. If the sixth century marks the beginning of the home pilgrimage, the enlightenment in the 17th Century marks the beginning of the road journey. The former produces virtues such as "obedience, eternity, foundation, and devotion." The latter adopts "journey, feeling, and experience" over and above the attributes of loyalty, faithfulness, and commitments. In other words, how our modern culture has come to be is mainly because of this road trip which has resulted in our modern society becoming secular and increasingly meaningless. We are modern refugees of this road trip looking aimlessly for a home. Sayers makes a distinction between pilgrimage and secular journey. The latter relates to secularism making a trip to nowhere. The former talks about a trip that has a destiny.

Part One talks about the road narrative, Sayers points out three stages. The first stage is one of happiness, fun, and pleasure. The second stage is about the barriers that impede any progress to happiness, pleasure, and fun. The third stage is true happiness once all the obstacles are removed. In doing so, these stages reflect the traveler on a journey that progresses on the outside but remain adolescent on the inside. One's sense of lostness becomes the journey itself. The secular world is a spiritual wasteland where morality has been de-emphasized in favour of subjectivity. The transcendence has been surrendered in favour of the immanence, of immediate gratification. Such a culture has been condemned by Sayyid Qutb, an influential Islamic thinker, whose teachings have influenced Muslim terrorists, the most notorious being Osama bin Laden. As one journeys along the path of nothingness, aimlessness, and meaninglessness, people soon believe that nothing matters. Since the 60s, the Church has been declining. The spiritual climate of America has been "Californianized" into a culture of individualism, narcissism, materialism, and entertainment. In a secular environment without morality, it is easy to objectivize women, rank feelings above faith, prefer the therapeutic above transcendent beings, nonconformity over authority, and where absolute freedom becomes an intense form of slavery. Jesus becomes not a deliver of sin but one who grants wishes and delivers wants. There is also a lot of cultural observations on social media why we reveal so much of ourselves in public, on why we continue to watch in glee the humiliations of people on TV, and how we remain connected online but disconnected from everyday life. We prefer the sensational 'wow' instead of the firm Word.

Thankfully, Sayers does not end by giving secularism the prize. The end of the road narrative is the cross. There is hope. There is truth coming amid our gloomy journey of doom. Part Two is about the home narrative. One of the first things we need to go up against is our tendency toward pleasure, comfort and a negativity-adverse mindset. Instead, the essence of life is to be willing to embrace our "fragility and mortality" and be open to be led back to God. Instead of Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" metaphor, Sayers proposes we learn with Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" which begins with a deserted and desolate world. Without the distractions of attractive options, we are forced to seek out the fundamentals of life, to do what is deeply necessary, and ultimately most meaningful. It reflects a life of sacrifice, of putting others above self. It reflects a life of dependence on the transcendent. It is a call back to the "old kind of Christian" that is concerned about belonging to God and a real community. It is that kind that is mindful of one's true identity and destiny. The journey is no longer an aimless one of wandering in the wilderness, but a purposeful one of traveling the path toward God. Page after page, Sayers pulls in biblical images, personalities, and Scriptural references to paint a picture of hope of the future kingdom. In contrast to the secular image of building a home on the road, Sayers gives us an image of moving homeward while traveling on the road. The key to this homeward narrative is in getting God right first. We need to rid our idols and to accept God's sovereignty over us. For our sake. For our children's sake. For our community's sake. For our society's sake.

Further Thoughts

I must say that this is one of the most insightful books that intelligently analyzes the modern secular environment, and points us to reasons why it is secular. It blasts the Western model of Church that has substituted personal self-discovery instead of discipleship, self-actualization under the guise of worship. It cleverly adopts the secular terms and models that we are all accustomed to, makes a measured interpretations of it all in the light of both Christian and non-Christian literature, and explains the predicament of the Church so that the Church can do something about it. I admit that the first part of the book seems to be more depressing and painful to read. While the insights look so spot on and distressing, it leaves me gasping for Part Two. After all, it cannot be all that bad, I thought. I am grateful that from the point of the Cross, things change for the better. The road trip can be redeemed. The pilgrimage can be set right. The world has hope in God.

Well-researched and eloquently argued, this book is a must for anyone interested in Christianity and culture, evangelism and mission in the urban Western environment. I have not read Mark Sayers before, but after this book, I am looking forward to the next.

Rating: 5 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 above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

"@StickyJesus" (Toni Birdsong and Tami Heim)

TITLE: @stickyJesus: How to Live Out Your Faith Online
AUTHOR: Tony Birdsong and Tami Heim
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2011, (216 pages).

This is a book about getting connected and building bridges to people. More importantly, it is about helping us share the gospel that sticks in an online world that seem to be temporal, constantly changing, and rapidly evolving. Social media is now the craze.

How do the authors propose to live our one's faith online? They begin with Jesus. After introducing the impact of social media, with statistics from Barna, television networks, and other sources, they assert that only in the light of Jesus' life can we learn to shine for God in the online world. Thus each chapter ends with a list of "Downloads" that have practical tips on how to live for Jesus. It is quickly followed up by an "Upload" which is a prayer for help. The list of "my actions" is a good list to help us not become addicted to social media. Jesus is the model to follow as far as building relationships is concerned. In leadership, servanthood, consistency, compassion, encouragement, and inclusiveness, Jesus' life sets out for us a way forward. The rest of the book deals with the nitty gritty of what social media is, how we can connect meaningfully and Christianly, how to get online, and the do's and don'ts of online behaviour.

Key to the success and longevity of the book is the link to supporting sites such as www.stickyjesus.com, Facebook (@StickyJesus), and Twitter (#LiveSticky, @stickyjesus, @tonibirdsong, @tamiheim).

It is evident that the authors have done loads of research on social media. After all, they met on Twitter!  There are lots of ideas and tips to trigger anyone's creativity. Meant more as a reference rather than a book to be read from cover to cover, this book will definitely appeal to the uninitiated, or anyone new to the world of social media. I have cited this book elsewhere in my blogs. They are available here and the latest here.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"Empty Promises" (Pete Wilson)

TITLE: Empty Promises: The Truth About You, Your Desires, and the Lies You're Believing AUTHOR: Pete Wilson
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2012, (212 pages).

This book is a solid example of why Pete Wilson is such a sought after speaker and preacher. With clear headed thinking, supported by a wealth of cultural awareness and biblical foundations, and filled with compassion and love from a pastoral heart, Empty Promises seeks to be convicting but compassionate, people aware but God-centered, insightful and pointed.  The main thesis of his book is that many of us have been deceived by the world, by ourselves, and by what he calls, empty promises of idols.

The first ten chapters touch on what these idols are, how they look like, and what exactly they are trying to do. First, they are deceptively good simply because of the flawed and sinful human heart that gravitates toward the imperfect and the idolatrous. Second, he warns us that the pursuit of empty promises will only leave us emptier than before. Third, he points out five traps that deceive us about the promises of achievement, that there is a kind of success that sets us up for eventual failure. Four, the constant seeking after human approval is in itself an addiction. It sets us up for exhaustion, disappointment, and rejection. Five, power corrupts and will eventually trips us up. (Points four and five are particularly important and applicable for those of us in leadership). Six, the biggest truth about money is that it always want to become more than what it is, and we unwittingly buy into it. The antidote is to learn to give, give, and give, and not allow money a foothold on our hearts. Seven, Wilson warns us about the insidious ways of religiosity that seeks to add expectations on ourselves, to the point that we need to do more in order to be more. Eight, Wilson brings about another kind of addiction, or false promise, that beauty helps us to be more. Nine, we are warned about chasing after a fleeting dream, or a false sense of destiny. Ten, if we continue our chasing after empty promises, we end up becoming the idols we worship.

Thankfully, Wilson reserves two chapters to lift us out of the whirlwind of depressing "empty promises." He goes back to the spiritual disciplines of solitude, fasting, God's Word, and prayer, ending with a warning. These too may become idols in themselves. The way forward is to live the spiritual disciplines with open hands and hearts to God's grace and truth. Once we are able to arrest our idolatrous tendencies toward empty promises, we are ready to be transformed by the Holy Spirit to move from:
  • drivenness to dedicated;
  • needy to affirmed;
  • controlling to surrendering;
  • greedy to giving;
  • religiosity to faith;
  • appearance-based to truly beautiful;
  • frustrated with past to trusting for the future.
My Comments

This may very well be Pete Wilson's best book so far. Just like Tim Keller's warnings about counterfeit Gods, or John Calvin's famous declaration about the human heart being an "idol factory," Wilson contributes another needful reminder on our popular culture's addiction to promises that appear promising but ultimately empty in themselves. Through this book, one can be forgiven for comparing Wilson to a modern Ecclesiastes. Wilson's first ten chapters are powerful warnings on the dangerous effects of chasing after these idols, even under the umbrella of good intentions. In every age, every society, and especially in a world constantly seeking after meaning and hope, it is crucial for us to first recognize the empty promises of the world, and to re-orientate ourselves back to the true promises that fulfill. The bulk of the book talks about the dangerous effects and futility of chasing after the world, just like Ecclesiastes's observation of life largely being about chasing after the wind.

After a solid ten chapters, I find the last two chapters a little of an anti-climax. It is like watching a movie, where after grimacing in agony over the exploitations of the villain for the most part, the villain simply disappears into thin air without much fanfare at the final scene. That leads me to suspect that there is a sequel to this book that will fill in needed gaps. Maybe a companion upcoming book to "Empty Promises" will be "Fulfilled Hopes?"

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Thursday, May 10, 2012

"Word versus Deed" (Duane Litfin)

TITLE: Word versus Deed: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance
AUTHOR: Duane Litfin
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2012, (224 pages).

There seems to be a perennial war going on between works and words. On one side, there is the emphasis on using words to share and to spread the gospel of Christ, that the works and deeds become de-emphasized. This often triggers an equal and opposite accusation that words without works is dead, just like James's reminder to us that if we do not love with deeds, our love is not love, and our faith is not true faith. The essential purpose of this book is two-fold. Firstly, both word and deed are to be asserted together. The author's conviction is that there is a crucial place for words and deeds to co-exist and practised. There is no superiority of one over the other, unlike a popular quote often attributed to St Francis of Assisi.

"Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." (anonymous)

The second conviction is the crux of the book, where the author sets the path forward to implement a paradigm for balancing both word and deed. Key to the paradigm is the ladder of abstraction in which readers are encouraged to move up and down the ladder from abstraction to concrete or vice versa, where appropriate. This ladder is widely applied in the eight examples, where readers are encouraged to move back and forth between generality and specifics, the abstract and the concrete, consistently urging readers to keep both together in mind and in action.
  1. Abstraction and their uses are to pave the way forward for good thinking through proper mapping that helps us use the right verbal and non-verbal communications.
  2. Theology applied is again both word+deed, where words proclaim the gospel, while deeds 'enact' the gospel.
  3. Gospel worthy deeds are to cover at least 5 aspects, the personal, family, God's people, society, and natural creation. A keen observation Litfin makes is that deed-based advocates tend to focus so much on society and natural creation that they often miss out the first three. This is a great point!
  4. Living wisely adopts the wisdom from Proverbs and Job, showing us the way to live and the way to relate.
  5. Obeying the king through the great commandments is incorporating belief into behaviour
  6. Serving the Kingdom goes beyond the believing community to serve all others. It is the fusion of two stories, of how our personal story of our own reconciliation with God transforms and connects to the bigger story of how God reconciles the world. As a Church, we are called to be part of the solution.
  7. Our nonverbal witness provides a platform for verbal witness. The Church needs to do both.
  8. Stewarding creation is also crucial to enable Christians to join with the rest of the world for one common concern.

My Comments

What I like about this book is that it affirms the need for words without diminishing the place of good deeds. At the same time, Litfin shows us the way not only to balance word and deed, but to move up or down the ladder of word/work based on the premise of loving God and loving our neighbours. If anyone accuses the author of mere talk without the walk, they will be grossly mistaken for three reasons. Firstly, Litfin approaches the topic from a biblical perspective, honouring the Word of God instead of our human tendency to read our own needs into the issue. Instead, we need to let the Word of God shine light into our understanding, our actions, and our interpretations. Secondly, Litfin allocates three chapters to talk about the importance of words, and a a whopping EIGHT chapters to talk about the importance of deeds. If anyone dares to accuse Litfin of mere talk, they will be mistaken. Thirdly, the ladder of abstraction proposed by Litfin brings both words and deeds under the perspective of love. Words need to be demonstrated by good deeds. Good deeds need to be based on the foundation of the word. The ladder of abstraction enables us to move appropriately to enable word+deed to operate together rather than against each other.

The five circles of application makes the whole book very practical. Each is based on the Word of God, and Litfin shows readers the way to be faithful to the Word and at the same time be fervent practitioners of the Word. This book deserves to be read widely. While the ladder of abstraction may be a little difficult to understand initially, I urge readers to press on, for the value of understanding it is key to practicing and balancing our words and our deeds. I highly recommend this book for all Christians concerned with living a consistent witness that honours both verbal and non-verbal communications. Great book!


This book is provided to me free by Crossway Publishers and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Monday, May 7, 2012

"A Survey of the New Testament" (Robert H. Gundry)

TITLE: A Survey of the New Testament: 5th Edition
AUTHOR: Robert H. Gundry
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (593 pages).

A good survey is one that is diligent in its exegetical work, faithful to the original intent of the Bible, and well-aware of the scholarship available for that topic. This one-volume survey has been so popular and widely used by seminarians, Bible teachers, pastors, theologians, and students, that it is now into its 5th edition. Filled with illustrations, maps, and charts, Gundry does a fine job in giving us a work that is readable and readily usable for any survey of the New Testament. There are tonnes of materials on the New Testament, and merely sorting them through is one thing. Selecting which to include or to exclude is much more challenging. Thankfully, we have an experienced New Testament scholar to help us sieve through all the difficult work.

Famous (or some may say infamous) for his tremendously insightful and controversial commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Gundry continues to share his brilliance with this slightly expanded version of the survey. Compared with the 4th edition, this version is a lot more student-teacher friendly. With updated bibliographies to whet the appetite of scholars, digital flashcards to aid the job of teachers, and Powerpoint slides and various student materials to help the student do less hand copying and more listening and understanding, this 5th edition maintains a fair coverage of all the various books of the New Testament.

There is an intentional historical survey that begins with the inter-testament era of the Greeks, the Maccabeans, and the Romans. With description of the rise and fall of the kings, emperors, and leaders, Gundry sets the tone for understanding the contexts prior to the first coming of Jesus Christ. The illustrations and the tables are useful summaries for the text, which should aid more visual readers or the nervous student. Like a wise and gentle teacher, Gundry provides summaries of each chapter learnings and reminders of what have readers learnt.

I like the book for 8 reasons. Firstly, it makes learning about the New Testament a very enjoyable experience. With colour, interesting snippets and stories of the New Testament contexts, readers will not be bored at all. Secondly, it is an extremely helpful book for teaching. Bible teachers can easily use this book as a reference curriculum in any kinds of survey for the New Testament. Thirdly, it provides the new student a gateway into the world of New Testament studies.  With each New Testament genre, Gundry gives out an introductory map of what to expect, and closes with a list of solid scholarship material for anyone wanting to probe deeper. Fourthly, the book is deep and wide. For a one-volume work, it is amazing how Gundry can pack in not only the historical contexts, he makes space to deal with the philosophical, the various religious beliefs, and literature at that time. A deliberate decision was made to avoid going too deep into the various nuances of the different evangelical viewpoints, mainly for the reason of space. Fifthly, the survey is fair. The five parts in the book are given fair coverage not only in terms of page lengths, but with reasonable level scholastic interpretation, with minimal personal bias. This latter element is perhaps the biggest reason for recommending this book widely for teaching in a wide range of denominational and non-denominational contexts. Sixth, the book is extremely well-structured. For those of us who likes to read maps, this survey is an excellent map for anyone desiring to understand the New Testament well. The points are detailed without bogging readers down with too much data. The outline of each NT book is also an excellent structure for teachers on their classes, pastors for their sermons, and believers for their read-through-the-Bible expeditions. There is a lot of genre-sensitive commentary which I appreciate. The commentaries on the gospels are perhaps the strongest part of the book. Seventh, the illustrations and the colourful maps and tables are helpful devices for teaching and remembering. So often, we get big surveys that give us everything, but students find them too much heavy lifting. This book gives us useful mnemonics and visual keys to take home.  Finally, the survey is a great introduction especially for those of us from an evangelical tradition. For those of us lost about which commentary to begin with, with all the different Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Progressive Protestants materials, finding which to begin with can be a challenge. For those with an evangelical background, this survey is a good start. In fact, it is an excellent choice to begin with.

Part IV that talks about the letters of Paul is exceptionally good. It compares and contrasts the patterns, the literary nuances, and the similarities and differences in the writings of Paul, Peter, and James. The theological arguments are well covered, with comparisons between law/grace, works/faith, flesh/spirit, all given space for the student to appreciate the important controversies through the ages. The survey also brings out common confusions that students generally encounter. For instance, there are more than one 'James' in the Bible. Gundry makes a point to draw these different James's out for the benefit of readers. Gundry regularly makes allusions to the heroes of the faith, like Martin Luther, and the martyrs, of how they have countered the cultural expectations and religious persecutions of their times.

Closing Thoughts

It is important to realize that this book is NOT a commentary of the New Testament. It is a survey that provides the historical contexts, a framework to understand each NT book, and a sizeable reference to understand the origins, the purposes, the trajectories, and the message of the NT. Any personal comments are well indicated so that students are able to identify what are the author's personal opinions and those that are more factual in nature. In any survey, there will definitely be interpretations. What makes this survey shines is the way plain texts can be taught in such an illustrative and even enjoyable manner. This is the mark of a great teacher and scholar. I highly recommend this 5th edition for all teachers, pastors, seminarians, students, and laypersons.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

"The Jesus Life" (Stephen W. Smith)

TITLE: The Jesus Life: Eight Ways to Recover Authentic Christianity
AUTHOR: Stephen W. Smith
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2012, (256 pages).

Living a "balanced life" seems to be the rage in the past few decades. Whether one calls it time management, or priority setting, learning to juggle our lives' main responsibilities remains a popular prayer request. Yet, after striving to live the best at work, in the home, in social circles, and miscellaneous activities, the next prayer request becomes played like a broken record: More time management, more priority setting. Enters Stephen W Smith with this book with a familiar title with a not so familiar idea. Instead of seven steps or nine stages of Christian development, Smith proposes eight ways to recover authentic Christianity. Each way can be adopted depending on the individual's discernment. Instead of aiming for a forced "balance," Smith suggests "unforced rhythm." Instead of racking up "information" to live more Christianly, Smith advocates "transformation" by being Christlike. Be recovered from our sinful ways. Sync in with Christ. Live out in Christlike ways. Smith makes this key observation.

"We are on information overload. We go to Bible studies, attend seminars, and listen to countless sermons, but this one reality remains: Information and the amassing of information, no matter how true it is, does not lead to life transformation." (23)

The "Jesus Life" is essentially this: "Transformation is an experience. It's something that happens to a person who alters the trajectory and quality of life from that point forward. It's transformation that we most need to live the life we most want." (24)

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"Think Christianly" (Jonathan Morrow) - engagingchurchblogtour

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

[This review is my participation in a blog tour organized by engagingchurchblog.com, for the period Apr 30th to May 4th, 2012]

This is an important contribution to help readers engage culture from a Christian perspective. Central to the author's conviction is the need for spiritual discernment of the culture we live in, and the active discipleship of our minds through active engagement with the questions asked by the culture. Through interviews with individual specialists, Morrow wisely seeks help from people who have been leaders in their respective fields. He does this by first making  a case for updating our Christian radar screen of the contemporary world. He then identifies certain morality traits of the new era, which is filled with complexity, confusion, consumerism, and negative perceptions of Christianity. His main concern revolves not on the bad press the Church or Christians are having, but in the lack of conviction among Christians to believe that the gospel is robust enough for modern times.

Part One talks about understanding the intersection between Christianity and the culture at large through cultural understanding, conviction of calling, and the task of equipping the Church. Morrow sets out four theological underpinnings of any cultural engagement:

  • We are kingdom citizens (in Christ)
  • We are everyday embassadors (for Christ)
  • We are to be creative image bearers (of Christ)
  • We are to cultivate a community of Radical Love (with Christ)

Equipping the next generation is not about meeting felt needs, but to take genuine feelings "and to make it felt."

Part Two is about engaging worldviews such as naturalism, postmodernism, theism, and others. Truth has to be rational, livable, and authoritative. Morrow gives readers a primer on how to do apologetics, gain knowledge, and to enable confident engagement with adequate knowledge. After all, Christianity has a rich knowledge tradition. Morrow also reminds us that Christianity is firstly about Christ, and any engagement must stem from this identity.

Part Three is the applications section that specifically deals with Church, relativism, Biblicism, Sex, Media, Injustice, Public Matters, Science, Bioethics, and Creation.

The Interviews

Randall Niles, a director at www.AllAboutGod.com and www.GotQuestions.org, talks about the need to engage the Internet generation through dialogue in the social networks. Kelly Monroe Kullberg, founder of the Veritas Forum talks about the need to seek truth in a secular world, to dispel wrong ideas of tolerance, and to affirm objective understanding of truth claims. Reggie Joiner shares about his "Think Orange" concept, that combines the light of the church (yellow) and the heart of home (red) to get a powerful orange. John Streetstone points out the deficiency of the Church in understanding the world. Paul Copan urges readers to learn to speak the truth in love as they engage the world of ideas. Alan Shlemon talks about engaging Islam through conversations around authority. Kyle Strobel talks about spiritual formation. Scott Klusendorf deals with the pro-life stance. Sean McDowell argues against Darwinism, but with a passionate awareness of the hurts and emotional baggages that many young people are carrying.

My Comments

This book is a mini-encyclopedia of cultural engagement. Interspersed with insights from the author and interviews with different experts on different matters, there is one central concern to be a knowledgeable and understanding witness for Christ in a world that is increasingly confusing, even for the Christian. This book provides at least three helpful ways to think Christianity. Firstly, it takes a snapshot of the culture, and to reference it back to the biblical model. This enables readers to learn from the biblical past as well as to capture contemporary mindsets. Secondly, it provides the way forward not only on how to engage, but also why we need to engage. This trains the reader to think critically and not simplistically about the culture. It is important not to be dismissive but respectful. Thirdly, this book gives resources to point interested readers to dig deeper. The resource pages of each chapter are valuable additions for anyone to dive in for research and for study purposes.

Culture is a complex entity to understand. There is no one view that can sufficiently deal with culture. Yet, there is a need to be centered on the biblical perspective. With "Think Christianly," the author has done a service for the Church by making the Church more culturally aware seven days a week, instead of living only one day a week in a Church building. More importantly, this book is about equipping the Church to be living disciples, and to be active witnesses, by beginning with a critical aspect of being a Christian: Think Christianly.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan and the EngagingChurchBlog.com without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"The Meaning of Marriage" (Tim and Kathy Keller)

TITLE: The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God
AUTHOR: Tim Keller with Kathy Keller
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Dutton Books, 2011, (290 pages).

This book is packed with biblical wisdom and practical helps on one of the most important issues of our age: Marriage. The author draws upon three deep roots to write the book; his own marriage, his concern for the large unmarried part of his congregation, and from the Bible. The central thesis of the book is that we need to understand the meaning of marriage that is both realistic and glorious.  He makes it clear that marriage is not same-sex, not polygamous, and certainly not romanticism, or defined through cultural lens. Instead, marriage is love unlimited

"The Secret of Marriage" reminds us that the tough times of marriage ought to drive couples to seek to experience more of the transforming love of God. Like Christ, married couples need to learn to give up their own selves for the sake of their spouses, and work toward mutual fulfillment. As one allows marriage to drive couples to seek God more, the gospel will transform marriages into the love that God has intended it to be.

He writes: "Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it. God's saving love in Christ, however, is marked by both radical truthfulness about who we are and yet also radical, unconditional commitment to us. The merciful commitment strengthens us to see the truth about ourselves and repent. The conviction and repentance moves us to cling to and rest in God's mercy and grace." (48)
"The Power of Marriage" comes through very unique ways, unlike the worldly ways. For instance, true power comes from mutual submission, avoiding self-centeredness, boldly facing our own wounds, and to heal ourselves from self-seeking ways. The fear of God is the beginning of a good marriage.

"The Essence of Marriage" continues on the Ephesians teachings on marriage with Keller's classic skill in separating fact from fiction. Marriage is not just a piece of paper but pure love. It is not subjective based on feelings, but objective based on truth. It is not to be a consumer activity but a covenant relationship. It is both vertical (faith in God) and horizontal (trust in each other).  It is a life that draws on the power of a promise. In other words, the starting point is not feelings of love, but "actions of love" that will lead to any romantic feelings. Just like how Christ stayed on to love us, despite our hateful actions against him, we too ought to commit ourselves to loving and staying with our spouses through thick and thin.

"The Mission of Marriage" is again other-centered. It is to be best friends with our spouses, to help each  other become our best, to see our spouses beyond simply a sex or financial partner, but a whole person who deserves to be the best in our eyes.

In "Loving the Stranger," Keller provides a vivid image of marriage being like a bridge over a stream, and the spouse as a giant truck driving on the bridge, exposing the cracks and weaknesses in all of us. Even when our spouses become like strangers over time, it is our duty to make sure that the "someone better" will always be our spouse. When one transitions from "in love" to simply "love," affection, friendship, and service will come naturally. The big problem in marriage is how we handle truth. Truth needs to be handled with grace, reconciliation, and love.

"Embracing the Other" is a call to commitment, and not convenience. This is especially when one spouse doesn't seem to make the other "get it." Keller proposes taking upon the "Jesus role" which essentially means serving, submitting, and satisfying the other more than self. As one takes care of one's  own weaknesses, one trusts God to help the spouse manage his/her own.

Chapter 7 talks about an important aspect of singleness and marriage. The author acknowledges that marriage has been given a bad rap these days, and affirms the good in both singleness as well as marriage. He maintains a high view of marriage, and that singles ought to do the same, even though some may be called to be single. He carefully explains the delicate balance, that while one can pray for a marriage partner, one needs also to cultivate contentment in God alone, to be satisfied whatever the state.  For dating, Keller takes readers through a historical tour of how the modern dating concept comes from. He then gives 8 helpful tips for singles.

  1. That there are seasons for not seeking marriage, and that Christian friendships are more important than dates or ideas about marriage;
  2. Need to understand the gift of singleness
  3. Be more serious about seeking marriage when one grows older
  4. Avoid deepening emotional relationships with a non-believing personal
  5. Be attracted comprehensively
  6. Be slow in getting passionate
  7. Don't be a "faux spouse" for someone unwilling to commit; (don't cheapen self)
  8. Solicit plenty of community input
Finally, Keller deals with the place of sex. It is for whole life "self giving." He pins the Christian sex ethic as one that is within a marriage, and between a husband and a wife. Sex deepens the marriage union, unites the couple, affirms commitment, and is about the other. With regards to singles, Keller advises chastity, and to devote one to loving Jesus. Using the example of Jane Eyre, Keller points out how the leading lady avoids depending on the feelings of her heart and redirects her energies toward God.

The Appendix lists some thoughtful ways to think about our gender roles.

  1. The husband's authority over the wife is meant to serve the interests of the wife, not the husband.
  2. The wife's role is beyond mere compliance but to use her resources to empower her husband.
  3. Wives are not to give their husbands unconditional obedience.
  4. Husband's headship is for ministry to wife and family.
  5. Any stalemate needs to be 'broken' with a decision that is made for the family or the marriage, never for self.

My Comments

What makes this book very readable for all is that it appeals not only to Christians but provides a reasonable and inviting atmosphere for non-believers to enter in. In other words, one does not need to be a Christian (but being a Christian certainly helps!) in order to appreciate the wisdom in the book. Carefully laying out the biblical principles, he makes a powerful case for marriage seen from the Bible's perspective, which is far more wholesome and constructive. He is respectful to both male and female. By not talking a lot about homosexuality or gay affairs, he faithfully sticks to his main definition of marriage being between a man and a woman.  His chapter on singles and the need for couples to learn to be other-centered more than self is certainly godsend for many in the Church, especially single women. I appreciate the "Decision Making and Gender Roles" he has included in the appendix which lists what are the better ways to understand biblical submission and gender roles.

In one book, Keller explains biblical marriage, relationships, practical marriage tips, singlehood, sex, and gender roles. It reminds me of another recent book on marriage, written by Mark Driscoll. While the other book is deemed "controversial" for its boldness in talking about more explicit sex techniques and tools, this book is more focused on reasonably translating biblical truths into practice.

Indeed, marriage is a mystery. The challenges in marriage can humble us and cause us to seek God more, to learn to be more like Christ. The single biggest message the book has for me is be OTHER-centered, beginning with our spouses. If we feel alone, if we feel dissatisfied with our marriages, if we feel lost about our spouses, it is time to remove any sentimental thinking about marriage, and to adopt a convenant commitment, a loving service, and continued trust in God. This book is a practical guide to help couples do just that.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.