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Friday, May 31, 2013

"What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur'an" (James R. White)

TITLE: What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur'an
AUTHOR: James R. White
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013, (318 pages).

In what way is the Bible similar to the Qur'an, and in what way are they different? It is one thing to hear interpretations from scholars, but what does the holy book actually say? What has the Qur'an to say about Jesus, modern politics, war, God, and many other faith matters? What exactly is the Qur'an? These questions plus many others are considered in this book. Calling the Qur'an as the "single uniting factor" for all the world's muslims, if anybody wants to understand Islam, the beliefs of Muslims, as well as to appreciate more about the Islamic faith, one needs to seriously consider the Qur'an itself. James White, an accomplished scholar and apologist writes this book with Christians as his primary audience, not to refute Qur'an but to expand the understanding of two faiths. For anyone to properly engage others in religious conversations, there need to be some knowledge of the holy books of the faiths in question. White goes to the beginning of Muhammad's life, early life around 570AD, early encounters with the angel Gabriel, and his primary role as a passive recipient of the holy words, the writing of the Qur'an, and the death of the prophet. He covers the Qur'an texts themselves, the origins, and the authority attributed to it.

The Qur'an contains about half the size of the New Testament, there are 114 surat (or chapters) and various ayat (or verses). In terms of organization, there is no chronological or topical arrangements, just a "pedestrain" manner of writing. In terms of authority, the earthly version that is considered "perfectly accurate rendition" is the Arabic Qur'an, written in heavenly language. Four things best describe Islam. In terms of worship, Muslims use the term "tawhid" in their acknowledgement of Allah, and to be reminded that they are to bring purity in worship. In terms of confession, the "shahada" is the pronouncement of belief, and Muslims are not to commit the sin of "shirk" which is essentially idolatry. The "mithaq" is the covenant between Allah and the descendants of Adam; the "fitra" which flows out of a natural inclination of mankind to worship God. Growing out of its early battles against polytheistic cultures, Islam continues to frown on the Christian theology of the Trinity, even putting Christianity as a polytheism, when it clearly is not. A key contention made by White is that it is the Qur'an that puts words into Jesus' mouth, a claim that denies Jesus' deity, when it is Jesus himself who had made the claim He is God.

Regarding the theology, the Qur'an also prefers to use 'Isa as a reference to Jesus, and also talked about Jesus' second coming. The key difference is that while Islam considers this eschatology only a part of the whole, Christians consider the second coming of Jesus as the whole matter altogether. White is also meticulous in comparing the major points of interest as well as controversies. He notes that the Qur'an actually has very little to say about the Cross and the Pauline epistles, especially on Christ's redeeming act for mankind, and yet Muslims deny the very foundation of Christ that was hardly mentioned in the Qur'an. While there are similarities in terms of the final judgment and the end times, the differences lay in the nature of atonement and how justice will be meted out. White also highlights the question of period of faith affirmation. Should we trust a holy book written after Muhammad claimed prophethood, or the claims of the Bible which stretches all the way back before Muhammad was even born? There is also a curious question of why Muslims insist that the Bible refers to Muhammad and his prophecies by name. A key question that White pose is this: "Why did Muhammad feel the need to project himself into the texts of the Jews and the Christians?" Why must Muslims make Christians think that the Bible is very specific on the claims of Muhammad when the Qur'an does not make as specific a claim?

Regarding the text, White notes that Muslims far too often take the Qur'an as it is, without questioning or examination. At the same time, they apply a different standard to the Bible. When pushed to the end, Muslim apologists will eventually say: "Because the Qur'an says so." There is something circular in the argument. The basic presupposition is that the Qur'an is right, because the Qur'an says that the Qur'an is right. If anyone thinks that the Qur'an is wrong, the next thing is for them to read the previous statement. Such circular arguments is essentially the way many Muslim interpreters will insist upon.

My Thoughts

Let me reiterate again that the book by White is written to Christians, and for Christians. It is not meant to be a text to debate. Neither will it make apologists of readers overnight. For that matter, it is not easy to debate any Muslim apologists on the Qur'an for at least three reasons. First, there is a circular logic to the way Muslims insist about the Qur'an. If anyone disagrees with this, there is really nothing much that anyone can talk. So the conversation will easily end. Circular techniques very quickly become an end in itself. Closed-ends kind of conversations are never going to produce much headway in religious dialogues. Second, comparison between the Bible and the Qur'an is difficult simply because of the difference in authority attributed to them. For example, Muslim scholars do not examine and critique the Qur'an in the same way as Christian theologians and scholars adopt biblical criticism techniques. In that way, the platform for Christian and Islamic scholars to debate and to talk frankly on the holy texts is already very restrictive. Third, the person of Jesus continues to be the key contention. Muslims see Jesus as peripheral, while Christians see Jesus as central. They see the coming of Jesus as just a part of the coming of Christ, while Christians see Jesus as the main event, the major Person in the Second Coming. Muslims see Jesus only as a prophet, while Christians see Jesus as God. For these reasons, while White's book is a bold attempt to try to bridge the theological gap through understanding and debate, it is only a small step forward. The main benefit is for Christians to be aware that Muslims read the Qur'an quite differently than the way Christians read the Bible. In wanting to engage any Muslim, Christians need to understand the mindset of the Muslim. White's book is a great way to learn that.

Let me share some thoughts about the rise of Islam. The Church is not only losing adherents to secularism. It is also losing people to other religions. It is common knowledge that Islam is growing faster in Europe and in the West, than traditional faiths such as Christianity. Recently, the Telegraph UK reported on a 2011 census that shows Christianity declining 50% faster than thought. The same report also shows Islam growing faster, where one in every ten people under 25 is Muslim. This is but one example of the rising influence of Islam. For me, the bigger concern is not Islam per se, but the way the Church is losing many Christians to secularism or ill-informed ideas about the Christian faith. Thus, a book like this is meant not so much as to target the Muslim faith, but more like to clarify what every Christian needs to know about the Qur'an.

Should we fear any Islamic uprising? I think there is no need to. If truth be told, God is great, and in time, God will manifest himself. There is no need for us to squabble and fight each other just to be proven correct. God will prove himself. In the meantime, love our neighbour. Love our fellow brothers and sisters. Love our fellow human people. We may disagree a lot, but that is no reason to fight.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Graf-Martin Communications and Bethany House Publishers in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

"Pray the Scriptures" (Kevin Johnson)

TITLE: Pray the Scriptures: A 40-Day Prayer Experience
AUTHOR: Kevin Johnson
PUBLISHER: Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013, (177 pages).

This book is a 40-day journey of prayer using the Bible as the main reference.Noting that the early Christians have a habit of praying the Scriptures, praying is very much about reciting back to God, the Word of God, with us as interested parties. Arising from the author's own worship experience, the book comprises of prayers that are intermingled with the preparation to worship God. In the process, there is spiritual formation going on, beginning with an initial thought, questions posed, prayerful responses, and finally, a declaration of who God is, as prayed in the Bible.

Each day, one chapter of the Bible is offered as the main spiritual food source. Through longings, wonderings, and worship, the Word of God helps readers to linger with the presence of God in mind. The various themes are provided as a guide to the 40-day journey. For example, John 10 is about Jesus being our Shepherd. It is not simply the reading of the prayers, but also an invitation for readers to respond. Finally, the book can also be used by groups as a discussion format. The short questions, at the end of each chapter, or day, provide readers some starting thoughts to discuss. There are also prayers on finding out God's plan (Romans 8); prayers to encourage the spiritually weary (Ephesians 2); prayers to provide hope (John 14); prayers to see God (Ps 19); and many more.

The key to reading the book is not to rush from cover to cover. Read the words slowly. Respond in writing with a purpose. Even a one-word response, written honestly, can evoke a desire to connect with God. Do not be distracted by the need to maintain a 40-days schedule. Travel as you feel freely. Cover a few days at a time, or stay at a passage for a few days. Speed up or slow down, let the Spirit guide your reading and your praying. Of course, the best result when reading this book is not to be locked into this book per se, but to be led to the love of Scriptures, and the desire for God more and more. If this book is able to lead you in this direction, you are on the way to spiritual formation and growth. 

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


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

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"Privilege the Text!" (Abraham Kuruvilla)

TITLE: Privilege the Text!: A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching
AUTHOR: Abraham Kuruvilla
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013, (336 pages).

How can preachers and teachers interpret the Bible for preaching and teaching purposes? How can anyone really bridge more than 2000-3000 years of history and make it relevant for contemporary hearers? Is it right for an evangelical to read Christ into all of the Old Testament texts? When should we do systematization (big picture) and when can we adopt atomization (micro-analysis)? These questions and many more are addressed in this important book about preaching, interpreting, and the art and science of hermeneutics.

Beginning with a provocative question about the challenges of Bible interpretation and how to bridge the ancient texts with contemporary hearers, Kuruvilla asserts that the Bible is not only authoritative for the audiences then, it is also applicable for modern hearers too. Preachers and teachers are to be able to do both the exposition of what the texts meant then, and also what it means for modern audiences now. The basic hermeneutical principle that Kuruvilla asserts is this. Both hermeneutical faithfulness must be matched with rhetorical effectiveness, with preachers and teachers to be faithful and respectful to the texts, and be relevant for the audiences. By privileging the text, the image that Kuruvilla brings forth is a very creative one. For hermeneutics, he suggests six ways to read the Bible, basing it on the history and tradition. For the "theology of the pericope,"  he calls preaching a two-step process; firstly from text to theology; and secondly, from theology to application. When it comes to obeying God's Word, relationship is foremost, while responsibility is second. With the relationship, one begins a journey of responsibility to be holy for God is holy.

A key concern in the book is the preaching of Christ. While not disagreeing with the need for a Christocentric hermeneutic of the Bible, Kuruvilla argues for a Christiconic understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures. Using the image of a glass window, preachers must not simply interpret Scripture as if it is seeing through a clear glass through to the ancient times. They need to look at a Christ-aware lens, like looking through a stained glass window, where Christ is the glass in which the interpreter reads Scripture. This is the general stance, in the light of the use of the Rule of Centrality, which is an interpretive stance based on the pre-eminent person of Christ, and the redemptive work in Christ. Also called the Redemptive-Historical hermeneutic, one also needs to be careful not to be too "big picture" that one loses the details of the micro-narratives. Taking the positions of speakers like Calvin, Mohler, Carson, Luther, and other Reformers, Kuruvilla urgest the preaching of Christ in every sermon.

With keen insight and scholarly expertise, Kuruvilla who is both a medical practitioner as well as a Professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, shows us the way by using a rigorous theological hermeneutic that essentially gives the privilege of interpretation to the text. It is not only about expounding the Scriptures. It is also about spiritual formation, preparing to preach, and to let the interpretation by guided by God through the Holy Spirit and the Word. Kuruvilla does not take the position of seeing Christ in every verse of the Bible. Instead, being Christiconic means to see the events of Scripture as being fulfilled in man through Christ. We see the world of Scripture with Christ in front of the text, rather than behind the text. The latter tries to project Christ as being inside the original texts, while the former adopts Christ-like perspectives toward Scriptures. Every biblical pericope points to a "facet" of the Person of Christ. It takes the whole Bible to help us complete the whole picture of the Person of Christ.

My Thoughts

As a preacher, I agree with Kuruvilla about the need to preach Christ in every sermon. That is still quite different from trying to superimpose Christ onto the original Scriptures. This book essentially highlights the Christiconic hermeneutical method to enable preachers and teachers to see how the entire Scriptures reveal the whole Person of Christ. While not every pericope reveals everything, every pericope reveals something, or some facet of Christ. Some may be more, while others less.

As I read this book, I prefer to take the hermeneutical stance a little farther. Rather than trying to visualize Christ, or whatever facet into the text, let us be guided by the Holy Spirit to view Scriptures with the mind of Christ. The interpretive stance of Christiconic method is a good way to distinguish the difference between reading behind the text versus reading in front of the text. This is an important distinction. While there are examples that Kuruvilla has used to show the application of Kuruvilla's theological hermeneutic, what is not clear is how much of Christ can readers see in other pericopes. There are much left unsaid that keeps Kuruvilla's book very open-ended.I agree with Kuruvilla that the historical approach with regards to Scripture is an exercise in over simplification. Yet, it is a good way to remember the trajectories of each era.

  • Antiquity (100-500): Truth handed down in tradition via defense;
  • Middle Ages (500-1500): Truth handed down in church via dogma;
  • Reformation (1500-2000) Truth handed down through the canon via deliverance;
  • Contemporary (2000-present): Truth handed down within the pericope via duty.
While I am generally inclined to agree with the first three eras, I am not too convinced about Kuruvilla's take about the contemporary era, that it is the era of the pericope. What the author is actually saying that the contemporary duty of man is all of the above. Perhaps, more space can be given for the author to expand on this perspective. 

I commend Moody Publishers for publishing this important resource not just for teachers and preachers, but also for students and laypersons. Helpful for preaching, it gives us a fresh look at how to interpret Scripture from the mind of Christ. I am also touched by Benjamin Jowett's reminder for us as interpreters and teachers to bear. "The true use of interpretation is to get rid of interpretation, and leave us in company with the author." What a great way to conclude!

Rating: 4.75 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.

Monday, May 27, 2013

"Praying the Prayers of the Bible" (James Banks)

TITLE: Praying the Prayers of the Bible
AUTHOR: James Banks
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 2013, (240 pages).

The Bible is often studied and analyzed by Church groups and many Christian communities. From character studies to theological treatises, from word exegesis to thematic references, the Bible has become the sole bread and butter of everything Christianity. One of the ways that the Bible has so richly informed the Christian community is the prayers in the Bible itself. Whether it is from the Old Testament or the New Testament, it is very easy to find references to prayer in the sacred Scriptures. According to James Banks, we have much to learn from just the prayers of the Bible themselves. We can learn how Moses, Job, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Mary, Peter, Paul, and many others pray to God. The advantages are many. We learn to stay faithful to the biblical text. We learn to pray the way that the biblical men and women of old have done. More importantly, because the prayers are so God-focused, and so natural to the human being, it is a worthwhile discipline for anyone following Jesus to learn to pray the prayers of the Bible. James Banks teach us how in this book.

The objective is simple. Make the prayers of the Bible our own. There are 9 themes that the prayers are organized under.
  1. For praising and honoring God;
  2. For Thanksgiving;
  3. For Faith;
  4. For Needs;
  5. For Confession and Humility;
  6. For guidance and direction;
  7. For Help and Protection;
  8. For Everyday Struggles;
  9. For Blessings.
Each theme has a "prayer starter" for those who want a quick entry into the prayer. It also has a longer description for anyone desiring to probe a little deeper. Banks guides readers along. In fact, Banks urges readers to go beyond just remaining in any one category, but to immerse themselves widely in various categories. Believing that all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for holy living, readers are encouraged to go deep and wide, and to pray and to bask in the presence of God as they utter the words of Scripture. There is no limit to what one can do with the prayers, simply because the prayers point one toward the Eternal and Everlasting God, Boundless, Limitless, and full of glory and grace.

Dr Banks is well qualified to share with us his experiences, having led many groups in prayer retreats, written books, as well as being involved in pastoral work. Through this book, readers from other parts of the world is able to benefit from the ministry of Banks.

My Thoughts

Use this book as a guide to praying, but do not limit yourself to what Banks is saying. Let the Spirit of God lead you to pray and also to come up with your own prayers, with the Bible as a guide. The more we pray, the more we learn. The more we learn to pray, the more we become creative in our praying. The book provides the biblical texts so that readers can use them straightaway. The main problem with books like these is always context. When we pull out verses from the Bible, we risk taking the texts out of contexts. While I am happy to recommend this book for general reference and earnest praying, I will encourage readers not to stop there, but to open up the Bible for themselves. Perhaps, let the selected verses be entries to reading and praying through whole passages, leading toward whole books, and even large chunks of Scripture.

If this book can encourage readers to desire more after God, and to study the Bible more for themselves and their communities, it will have worth every single penny for the price of the book.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


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

Friday, May 24, 2013

"Bound Together" (Chris Brauns)

TITLE: Bound Together: How We Are Tied to Others in Good and Bad Choices
AUTHOR: Chris Brauns
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (208 pages).

Is it true that we can mind our own business all the time? Is it true that as long as we don't do things that hurt people, we are fine? Is it also true that what we do is nobody's business? No! We are more connected than we think. We are more bounded together than we can ever imagine. The sooner we realize this, the better. In this book, Chris Brauns has masterfully expressed this through the principle of the rope. That is the key to understanding this book. With the rope, we are bounded together as one. Without the rope, our relationships easily unravel. With the rope, we live in solidarity through thick and thin, in both good times as well as bad. Without the rope, we come together in happy times, but disperse during unhappy moments. The trouble with human nature is that people tend to come together in good times, but when the bad times come, they flee. They go away. They leave one another alone, disconnected, isolated, and lonely.

Beginning with an observation of an individualistic modern culture, Brauns shows us how the movie characters like the "Lone Ranger," "Shane," "Pale Rider," and more recently, "Jack Reacher" glorify the individual hero. The trouble is, it entices us to be lone rangers or individual rambos in our various contexts. Brauns notes that our modern culture "idolizes the free-floating, unhindered, and isolated hero cut off from any formal responsibilities." Such people eventually live for themselves, care for their own world, and die a lonely death. In contrast, "biblical individualism" has a healthy sense of self-identity within a participative spirit of living in community.

A) The Principle of the Rope

The first two chapters of the book is a grim reminder that we are more connected than we think we are. Take Stevie for instance, whose personal decision to become an alcoholic is a result of his whole family being alcoholics themselves. While the family members may not have taught Stevie explicitly, by their actions, they have influenced Stevie absolutely. Or the story of Achan, where the foolish actions on one man, brought condemnation on himself as well as his clan. The principles of the rope is this: "the decisions and choices made by God's representative leaders have consequences for their people."

There are both negative as well as positive examples of the rope principle. Brauns first deals with the negative part. Like the actions of Adam and Eve that lead to the downfall of man, so are our actions, that while we may like to think that they only apply to ourselves, the truth is it affects us all. Just like the Talmudic story of a group of travelers seated on a boat. When one passenger stands up, and starts to drill holes on the base of his bolted seat, everyone gets affected as water gushes in from one hole and fills the entire boat. The actions of one individual invariably affect the rest.  We are not as autonomous as we think. Our individual actions affect more people than one. Brauns then goes on to share about the biblical understanding of original sin, to explain how mankind becomes more twisted as time goes by.

There is also the positive part, where the gospel through the life and death of one man, saves the world through grace. In disentangling us from sin, we are free to be re-bounded to the Eternal God, our Lord of Heaven and Earth. Theologians have long expressed this as "Union with Christ." When we are bounded in Christ, we learn to see more from God's perspective. For example, we are more aware that God does not simply treat us as individuals, but more as people of God, his children. Solidarity in the truth is also key to life.

Brauns also touches on the objection of the rope principle, addressing the concern why we get blamed for the faults of others. Is that an unfair thing in the first place? How can my rebellion bring about negative consequences for others far away? Why should we be victimized just because of the foolish act of Adam and Eve? The second part of the book addresses this in detail.

B) Applying not Denying, the Principle Constructively

Denying the principle does not necessarily mean it will go away. For we are bounded in ways that we may not even comprehend the fullness of it all. Since we are already bounded, why not live it well? Apply this principle to joy unspeakable, where the joy of one will spread joy to others. Apply that to marriage, where the union of two persons lead to something more beautiful, and how the marriage metaphor helps us understand the relationship of the Church as the bride to Christ. Applying the rope to the roles of husbands and wives will help us appreciate the solidarity that marriage can lead to. When one hurts, the rest of the body hurts. When one rejoices, the rest of the body rejoices. There is also the wider consequences of the rope principle when applied to country and culture. The Church is a vital organ to bring about unity and solidarity, when the people live in unity and solidarity in the Church. Share our abundance of natural resources. Grow a virtuous society of sharing and caring.  Avoid radical individualism or the enthronement of the self over all others. The greatest act of love remains this: when one willingly lays down his life for others. Just like Christ.

My Thoughts

We are bounded together far more intimately than we even know. One act can lead to multiple consequences. Just like one accident on a freeway can lead to heavy congestion, missed appointments, and frustrations all around, we are to be constantly reminded of two things. First, no man is an island. Second, everyone lives in places where there are multiple points of connection and consequences. We badly need an antidote to counter the rising disease of individualism and selfishness. Such individualistic tendencies are only pathetic attempts to hide what is essential for us as human people. We are made to connect with one another. We are meant to be in touch with people, and to be considerate toward one another. If there is one message to take home from this book, it is this: We are connected to one another, whether we admit it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not.

Brauns has given us a valuable book to show us that we are bounded together as human beings, and that we need one another. We need each other to work together and live together. We need one another in order to build a community for all. The musketeers's famous words still ring through: "One for all, and all for one!" Just like one bad act like Adam/Eve can lead to the downfall of mankind, one great sacrifice of love, through Jesus Christ gives the whole world life and eternal salvation. Even though some of us can be critical about the idea of original sin, we must similarly grapple with the truth of the gospel. We cannot criticize God just on the basis of sin. We need to acknowledge the God of love, who despite his greatness, chooses willingly to humble himself, to take up the Cross, to be humiliated, executed, and finally raised from the death. Why must God go through all the trouble? It is simply this. Love binds us together. God is not one who is distant far away. He is now near, and he is always here.

Some people may choose to deny the principle of the rope, and carry on a mind their own business model. The truth is, sooner or later, they will come to the crossroads of human connection and communities of people. The sooner we accept the reality of relationships, we better we can become more human. We are indeed made for each other. We are bounded together.

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.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Reclaiming Love" (Ajith Fernando)

TITLE: Reclaiming Love: Radical Relationships in a Complex World
AUTHOR: Ajith Fernando
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (192 pages).

Love and holiness are two of the key traits of the Christian life. For more than 30 years, Ajith Fernando has been teaching from 1 Corinthians 13, sharing the truth of faith, hope, and love, to many thousands and thousands of students. Hailing from Sri Lanka, Fernando is a passionate Bible teacher as well as competent scholar. Reclaiming love essentially means reclaiming the pursuit of holiness and the passion for love. God provides it. We obey it. We live it. We love it. It is an obedience to God that is demonstrated in our love for people. This is what Fernando writes:

"So for the Christian, love is a priority; it is an act of obedience. Looking at the way Christian love is described in the Bible, we realize that it is not a case of loving the lovable. Rather, it includes loving our enemies, blessing those who persecute us, being patient with people who are difficult to tolerate, visiting prisoners, and the like. These are actions that do not automatically happen, like falling in love. Christian love is decisive; we must make it happen." (21)

Love and emotions need to accompany each other, even though one may occur first, and the other later. Christian love is more of a decisive action rather than a yet-to-be-received feeling. Using many examples of love, such as Corrie Ten Boom about love as forgiveness, Robertson McQuilkin's commitment to his wife, Mother Teresa's ministry to the poor, and many more, love is essentially about honouring others above self, giving comfort and help to others, over and above accumulating material possessions or earthly successes. What are the other ways in which love can be reclaimed? Fernando paves the way with the following.

First, love is more than spectacular gifts. We may have the most amazing gifts, but without love, we become unloving. None of these gifts are to replace the love of God. The greatest gift is actually the receiving of God's love, and the sharing of this love using our gifts.

Second, love is more than radical commitment. We can give sacrificially out of merit, of obligation and duty, of avoiding personal involvement, inappropriate giving, for avoiding responsibility, for recognition, or a competitive spirit. Sacrifice alone does not equate to love. True love enables others to keep the peace, the faith and love of Christ in their hearts. If our giving is aimed toward that, that is reclaiming love.

Third, patience is not necessarily weakness. It is patience in spite of weakness, for as we recognize our own weaknesses, we learn to empathize and be a bridge between the people we serve and the God from whom all blessings and strengths flow from. Such patience can also be practised with people in sin, where we learn about God's grace to us and we learn to extend that care and love to others as well. The two truths is that God's love is far greater than all the injustice in the world, and all of our pain, in the hands of God, can surely be turned into something good. God is able. Patience gives us the capacity to wait for the work of God to be fulfilled.

Four, reclaiming love is not about arguments but about actions. We can choose to act in kindness during conflict, non-retaliation during hurts, and learning to constructively put ourselves in a position of trust and self-control in the midst of much evil and injustice thrown at us. Key to it all is to be able to point people toward God.

Five, kindness can be practised even when it is not reciprocated. This is because Christians affirm the love of God is far greater and the culmination of the kingdom far more rewarding than anything the world has to offer.

Six, reclaiming love can be done through giving honour to others and avoiding envy. We are reminded of how envy can come across through comparison that breeds anger, and envy that leads to unholy actions. On the contrary, love is about cheering others to do the best that they can be, even when we ourselves are overlooked in the process. The antidote to envy is acceptance, that one day, our minds and hearts will be joined as one, when we see how God delights in us, without us earning our keeps. Five keys are presented to help us grow in this love and acceptance.

  1. Saturating ourselves with the Word of God
  2. The Holy Spirit is our witness of us being the children of God
  3. Linger in the presence of God through inspiration in the way the saints of old have traversed
  4. Rejoice in the work God has given us
  5. Be accepted into a community of believers.
The rest of the points go to address the problem of boastfulness, pride and arrogance. Reclaiming love also means radical living in a complex world. We are urged to be aware of carelessness that comes from the failure to consider consequences for our actions. We are reminded how tempting we can be to busyness and overwork, and preferring to depend on ourselves rather than sharing our burdens. Physical weakness can also impact the way we love people. 

My Thoughts

Ajith Fernando is able to expound on this great chapter on Christian love with many examples from literature as well as his own personal ministry experiences. One of the observations he makes is the plight of young people, who seem marginalized and hurt by an ultra competitive world. Hope in God remains a key promise for such people. Fernando gives us much encouragement as well that even when the world is complex and full of different challenges, the path for the Christian is simple and potent. Love is the greatest, and that is not simply rhetoric. The pages of this book flow with belief and conviction that God's love is far greater than all the problems of the world combined. The key problem among many people about love is that, while their heads think one way, their hearts perceive another. The lack of congruence is the biggest challenge in understanding what God's love is all about. All of us need this love. All of us can share this love. The gospel is about such love, and when God's people can catch a glimpse of this, they will also catch a glimmer of hope. Over time, as the Spirit of God fans the flame of love, the disciple of Christ will grow in love as according to 1 Corinthians 13. Before one can claim the world for Christ, one needs to reclaim love for the world, beginning with the self. 

Rating: 4.5 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.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"Magnificent Malevolence" (Derek Wilson)

TITLE: Magnificent Malevolence
AUTHOR: Derek Wilson
PUBLISHER: Oxford, England: Lion Fiction plc, 2013, (240 pages).

This book continues the tradition of CS Lewis's "Screwtape Letters," where the perspective of life comes from the devil and his evil followers. While there are similarities, there are differences that make this book unique. The chief character is Crumblewit, the equivalent to Wormwood in Lewis's work. Wilson has also expanded the coverage and applied it to historical milestones and eras from 1942 to the present. The task of Crumblewit is to destroy the spiritual life of mankind. With each change of eras, as the contexts change, so does the methods and strategies used by Crumblewit to dissuade, deceive, distract, and demoralize man from pursuing their true God.

  • 1942-1944: Crumblewit describes how his career as a tempter begins, albeit humbly in a sack, with anonymity as a way to go undercover in the business of tempting the unsuspecting humans.
  • 1944-1948: the strategy is to manipulate a preacher by the name of Little Bratt to be busy about the less important things, and for political leaders to be engaged in controversy and politics of land and power.
  • 1949-1956: Crumblewit works on a strategy of taking Christian truths and distort them. He influences a Dr Xavier Oliphant mentally bully all others to submission, and to keep all debates at an intellectual level, away from anything resembling the gospel. 
  • 1956-1958: Infiltration is the strategy preferred over confrontation. This is also the period of the ecumenical movement in which lots of efforts and resources are put to unite the Christian Church. The tactic is to maneuver unwitting spies and agents into the Church. Rise of the social gospel.
  • 1958-1960: Against the tide of unity movements, the devil works on disunity from the inside, and turn leaders toward peripheral issues rather than the core gospel. They mislead people to render authority and allegiance to institutionalized authority. They deceive churches from depending on the Bible as the sole authority. They create dissent through inflighting, disdain, and isolates Christians into their various camps.
  • 1961-1967: With the growth of movements like the charismatic movement, Crumblewit has to change strategies.
  • 1968-1975: Using temptations of busyness, focus on miraculous works, and all kinds of distractions, Crumblewit and his team seek to separate the Church people from God, the true source of Power.
  • 1975-1985: With the Cuban missile crisis as a political backdrop, three new strategies are adopted to stem the tide of the Christian growth. First is to exploit the political ideal of freedom, and cause people to promote sexual promiscuity and immorality. Second, promote consumerism and acquisitions as a way of life. Third, instill some loyalty to a warped sense of democracy.
  • 1986-1988: With the rise and pervasiveness of technology. Crumblewit adapts his strategies accordingly. Substitute church going with tele-evangelism. Promote programs that distort life. Make people believe in fictional tales. Infuse secular philosophies into music and the arts.
  • 1989-1995: With widening rich-poor divide,  misinformation and individualism are worked through.
  • 1996-2000: Continue the focus on meaningless things, like dropping AD/BC conventions, making people more judgmental, giving Bible fundamentalists a bad reputation.
  • 2001-Present: Greed and other methods continue to be used to stumble the Christians.

Wilson is well aware of the historical movements from WWII to the present and adopts the book accordingly with a keen understanding of what works and what does not work when it comes to stumbling the Church. Written with some sarcasm of the modern Church as well as hints of what the Church has done well, there are some common lessons that one can learn from.

First, the power and place of prayer continues to be the key strategy Christians use against the wiles and deceptions of the devil. Time and again, whenever the people of God pray, the devils are unable to gain much headway or foothold into the Church or Christian communities. Prayer blurs the radar screen of Crumblewit and his associates. Second, with each changing era and cultural changes, the enemy adapts accordingly. It reminds us how quick and adept the evil one is when it comes to developing new tricks to instill old ideas. The times may change. The strategies may vary, but the objective to halt the kingdom of God remains the same. Third, evil is real. Often the way the enemy tries to hit the Christian communities is not from the outside, but very much from the inside. That is why disunity and the seeds of discord are often used by the devil.

Derek Wilson is a popular historian, and is able to harness this strength very well here. In a book like this, he has managed to inject some humour in an otherwise serious matter. Readers will find this book filled with insightful observations about the ups and downs of the Christian Church through the years from 1942 to the present. It is hoped that by learning from the past, one will learn to be wise about the present and the future. One more thing. If there is one thing readers can take home from this book, it is this. Temptation is real, and it often comes to a place near you, even inside you.

Rating: 4.5 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.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"Grow" (Winfield Bevins)

TITLE: GROW - Reproducing Through Organic Discipleship
AUTHOR: Winfield Bevins
PUBLISHER: Exponential Resources, 2013.

[Free ebook available here.]

One of the ways to measure Church growth is in through their initiatives in planting Churches. Have they planted a church in the past ten years or are they content with just maintaining their size? Maybe, there are leaders who are passionate about growth but adopt strategies that look good on others but inappropriate for itself? Perhaps, there are leaders who are so concerned about growth strategies that they begin with management techniques that look more worldly than anything the Bible has to say.

The gist of this book is to avoid all the worldliness or inappropriate growth strategies that the world has to offer. Instead, the author argues that church growth must begin with the gospel, and grow "organically." Disciples need to grow naturally. Bevins defines  discipleship as follows: "Discipleship is an organic process of helping others become and continue to be disciples of Jesus Christ."

Seven things are evident in this.
  1. Discipleship is about transformation into Christlikeness more and more;
  2. Christian discipleship involves every dimension of life.
  3. Christian discipleship is progressive, and true disciples are always growing.
  4. Christian discipleship is not a Do-It-Yourself endeavor but a Spirit-led movement
  5. Christian discipleship exists to help one another in the community of Christ
  6. Christian discipleship automatically reproduces
  7. Christian discipleship is centered in the life of the local church.
Bevins helpfully describes some of the problems faced by churches in America in their discipleship or the lack of discipleship. Three roadblocks are mentioned. First, there is the challenge of the "radically unchurched" who find that true spirituality no longer exists in churches but elsewhere. Worse, churches are denying this and choosing to continue more of the same, leading to a disconnect between the seekers and the church-goers. Second, many churches have unwittingly substituted evangelism for discipleship. They prefer "conversion" instead of making disciples. The point is, both evangelism and discipleship are to be emphasized. Third, the notion of institutionalization continues to prevent churches from making disciples. Bevins observes that "many of the great revivals of the past began as disciple making movements; however, over time they became secular institutions."

Thankfully, Bevins does not leave us helpless with the problems and the challenges. Bevins proposes four ways in which churches can grow and make disciples. First, the key is the gospel, which must be the central focus from beginning to end. A gospel-centered discipleship is Christ-focused, grace-filled, and aligned in hope toward the God of glory. It trusts God to guide churches toward the goal of reaching the world for Christ. The second aspect is the mission and the living out of the mission. God is a missionary God. The Church exists for the purpose of mission. He suggests the following shifts first broached by Ed Stetzer.

  • From programs to processes 
  • From demographics to discernment 
  • From models to missions 
  • From attractional to incarnational 
  • From uniformity to diversity 
  • From professional to passionate 
  • From seating to sending 
  • From decisions to disciples 
  • From additional to exponential 
  •  From monuments to movements.
Third, making disciples is about building communities. Any discipleship movement must be done within the context of an authentic Christian community. We are made for fellowship, not solitary confinement. We need to be connected to the vine of Christ, and lead others to do the same. Community groups are the way to go. Through community, we can serve and grow.

Four, making disciples is about reproducing men and women after God's heart in Christ. Note how Jesus selects his disciples, be associated even with the least, set them apart for the work of God, impart his authority, demonstrate, delegate, and empower the disciples to do God's work. 

My Thoughts

This little booklet is clear and concise and will serve the church leader well. It reminds us all over again, that making disciples is the key role churches are to adopt, with Christ and the gospel as the center of focus. The problem with many churches is that they are not exactly sure what is the mission of the church in the first place. Without clarity about the goal and identity of the Church, they can easily be swayed by strange ideas of the world and adopt worldly techniques that fail to promote the cause of Christ. Worse, it keeps the church stagnated and powerless against the darkness and evil of the world. God has given the world the Church to stand up for the faith and to be the mission for the world.

Thankfully, Bevins has given us one important resource for us to take appropriate steps toward disciple making. After all, all great revivals and movements come about whenever churches shift their focus away from programs and toward disciple making. May this be the prayer and thrust of churches all over.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5


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

Monday, May 20, 2013

"God or Godless?" (John W. Loftus and Randal Rauser)

TITLE: God or Godless?: One Atheist. One Christian. Twenty Controversial Questions.
AUTHOR: John W. Loftus and Randal Rauser
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (208 pages).

This book is an engaging debate between a Christian and an theist on twenty controversial questions. Initiated by Randal Rauser, who takes the position of a Christian apologist, the opponent is a former Christian minister and trained theologian, who has since renounced the faith and embarked upon a journey of debunking Christianity. Rauser the fervent Christian asks ten questions, mostly in defending the rationality and the plausibility of the Christian faith. He does this by highlighting the flawed arguments of Loftus, philosophically, theologically, and socially through affirmations of the Christian faith as well as questioning the assumptions of the atheist arguments. Loftus, the staunch atheist aims at the outset to deny the attributes of God (omnibenevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence); discrediting the claims of Christianity, and arguing that science is basically the answer to life's probing questions.

Each author proposes ten questions, with the proposer making an initial affirmation, followed by a rebuttal by the opponent, and subsequently a defense. Both authors then get to make closing statements to summarize their stand. Randal the Christian affirms the following ten:

  1. If there is no God, then life has no meaning.
  2. If there is no God, then everything is permitted.
  3. Science is no substitute for religion.
  4. God is the best explanation for the whole shebang.
  5. If there is no God, then we don't know anything.
  6. Love is a many splendored thing, but only if God exists.
  7. Everybody has faith.
  8. God is found in the majesty of the Hallelujah chorus.
  9. God best explains the miracles in people's lives.
  10. Jesus was resurrected, so who do you think raised him?

Loftus advocates affirmatively the following:

  1. The biblical concept of God evolved from polytheism to monotheism
  2. The biblical God required child sacrifices for his pleasure
  3. The biblcal God commanded genocide
  4. The biblical God does not care much about slaves
  5. The biblical God does not care much about women
  6. The biblical God does not care much about animals
  7. The biblical God is ignorant about science
  8. The biblical God is ignorant about the future
  9. The biblical God is an incompetent Creator
  10. The biblical God is an incompetent Redeemer.
My Thoughts

I confess that I begin this book with a bias toward the Christian faith. It is thus no surprise that I side more with Rauser than Loftus. Preconceived notions aside, when I apply as fair an understanding as possible to Loftus's viewpoints, I cannot help but wonder whether Loftus's arguments are like sawing the same branch that he is sitting on in the first place. He concludes the following:

"Because the bottom line is that atheists are skeptics. That places us in a bracket all our own. We are not affirming anything. We are denying the claims of all religionists." (181)

My doubts about Loftus's position are three-fold. Firstly, does the skepticism include itself? That will mean Loftus will need to apply his critiques on Christianity the same way he does on his atheistic beliefs as well. Secondly, by saying they are not affirming anything in the first place, and denying the religious views, is that itself not an affirmation? I find it mind-boggling to see how Loftus manages to give himself a backdoor of escape, making his own arguments too slippery for anyone to grasp. Thirdly, by denying the claims of all religions, he may very well be denying his own. After all, remove the "theist" from atheist, and you have nothing much to talk about. As one who appreciates science, I am also surprised that Loftus has taken upon himself a big leap of faith in trusting that science will solve many more things in the future. The trouble is, science is science, and needs to be understood as that. Marry that to the other disciplines, we will get s strange mangled matter than seeks not explanation but faith seeking understanding. In other words, science has a boundary marker, something that Loftus refuses to accept.

That does not mean I am fully persuaded by Rauser as well. Some of the examples he use are less than satisfactory. For example, in the opening chapter, he takes the stand that life has meaning from a hugely utilitarian standpoint. That is a view with an extremely limited view of life. However, he does make some good arguments, like the part about no one believing in Baal today, while millions believe in the God of the Bible.

Overall, I agree more with Rauser because I find the arguments more cohesive and plausible. Loftus on the other hand, makes sweeping statements that require more evidence and proof rather than mere rhetoric or philosophical statements. In fact, the arguments Loftus makes sounds rather aloof and dismissive. Just look at the way sarcasm plays in the affirmative statements about the "biblical God."

This book gives readers some clear insights about the thinking processes of a Christian vs an atheist. Rauser has a message to tell while Loftus seems to have an axe to grind. The authors argue their views passionately and make rebuttals vigorously for their stand. They have also given readers some helpful resources for researching into the different viewpoints. I commend the authors and the publisher for sharing this important engagement that should appeal to both believers as well as non-believers. What I think is most beneficial is not the winning of arguments but the manner in which the debate is conducted. I appreciate the respectful mood throughout the book, and how the authors can disagree in their basic views, but still agree to the rules of the debate. Even if readers may not agree with everything the authors say, I am convinced that we can learn from them how to engage respectfully and constructively, and maintain the dignity of all involved.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Graf-Martin Communications and Baker Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Friday, May 17, 2013

"These are the Days of Elijah" (RT Kendall)

TITLE: These Are the Days of Elijah: How God Uses Ordinary People to Do Extraordinary Things
AUTHOR: R.T. Kendall
PUBLISHER: Bloomington, MN: Chosen, 2013, (192 pages).

This book is about the life of Elijah, the famous Old Testament prophet who spoke for God, lived for God, and shone for God. He prophesied, did miracles, fought the evil prophets, and struggled against the idolatry in the land. As one of the greatest prophets in the Bible, Elijah is in a class of his own. Kendall guides readers through a study and understanding of the inner life of the man of God. Questions are asked of:

  • What kind of a man is Elijah?
  • How can we make sense of a man who is weak as well as strong?
  • What is the role of Elijah, himself not a "canonical prophet" and yet figures mightily in the Old Testament?
  • Elijah can be a complex man, locked in ancient times. Is there any modern applications for us?

These questions and more are addressed in this book that contains sermons preached by the author at Westminster Seminary from September 2000 to December 2001. Beginning with the call of Elijah, Kendall focuses on the call of Elijah through the oath language in Old Testament times. This is important because the oath to God is unchanging and reflects the promise to God that needs to be faithfully kept. From this oath, just like Abraham, Elijah ventures off in faith and heads eastward toward Kerith Ravine (1 Kings 17:2-6). Just like Elijah becomes obedient to God and lives for God, modern readers can also learn obedience to Christ, and live for Christ. From the life of Elijah, we also learn several things that can be direct applications for modern readers. First, Elijah encounters disappointments one after another. After a promising start, soon, Elijah faces the disappointment of drought. How is the prophet going to serve God if he is dehydrated or thirsting to death? What the author tries to home in is the fact that believers are to expect trials and tribulations. Every positive change will lead to some kind of challenges. That is why Kendall spells faith as R.I.S.K. Second, there is also the challenge of relationships. Elijah faces the problem of disillusionment and misunderstanding. In the story of the widow's son who died, Elijah was accused of being directly responsible for the death. Here, Elijah's dependence on God to deliver comes through as a mark of a man of God.  Third, there is a challenge of facing Ahab direct. Himself a wanted man, Elijah knows that he needs to face Ahab at great personal risk. He may even die! Four, there is the challenge of being persecuted even after doing the right thing. The famous win over the prophets of Baal that leads to persecution is a famous example. These and many more shows readers the trials and tribulations Elijah had to endure.

Thankfully, Elijah's life is also one of hope, faith, power, and salvation. In all of these challenges, the LORD God delivers Elijah from the clutches of death. Against the terrible rule of Ahab, and the evil schemes of Jezebel, and the deceptive ways of idolatry, Elijah stands with God against all of them. It is the LORD who delivers Elijah, strengthens Elijah, and uses an ordinary man to become an extraordinary prophet. Kendall has helped us to distill the life of Elijah, to enable readers to identify with the ups and downs of the spiritual life, and to be encouraged to keep faith in God. The purpose of the author is clear. He wants to show us that the God who delivers and helps Elijah, is the same God that we have today. Following Christ is worth it. All we need to do is to watch the life of Elijah, how real the trials of Christian living is, and how splendid is the grace and power of God, given for the people of God. More importantly, Kendall reminds us that trusting in God is not about knowing all the things or solutions to all the problems in the world. It is about trusting in God, even when things seem to be hopeless. Kendall reminds us that "God loves to do what is unprecedented. Sometimes He repeats Himself; sometimes He does what He has never done before. This part of the story shows the unpredictable ways of God - how He loves to surprise. It teaches us not to speculate as to what God is going to do next or how He will show up! We all have so much more to learn about God, regardless of how old we are or how long we have been Christians." (143)


Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Chosen Books and Baker Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

"What Every Pastor Should Know" (Gary McIntosh and Charles Arn)

TITLE: What Every Pastor Should Know: 101 Indispensable Rules of Thumb for Leading Your Church
AUTHOR: Gary McIntosh and Charles Arn
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (272 pages).

It is common knowledge that pastoral ministry is among the toughest place to work. At the same time, it can be extremely enriching and satisfying when one sees lives change for God. It is not about making money. It is about touching lives. It is not about material success, but spiritual growth. It is not about self-accomplishment, but about humble service. Like all organizations, the pastoral ministry is also about leadership, with the pastor as a crucial member of the leadership structure. While some churches are more hierarchical than the rest, and others are less, the importance of the pastor cannot be overstated. The Scriptures remind us that if we are blind, we may very well be part of the blind-leading-the-blind movement. Here is where this book shines. Containing 101 and "indispensable rules of thumb" for Church leaders, it covers 15 major aspects of Church. There are rules for:

  1. Evangelism and Outreach
  2. Visitors and how to welcome them
  3. Worship
  4. Connecting with newcomers
  5. Small groups
  6. Christian Education
  7. Care
  8. Volunteer Matters
  9. Programs and Planning
  10. Staff and Leadership
  11. Facilities and Maintenance
  12. Finances
  13. Change
  14. Revitalization
  15. Demographical awareness and Strategies
Designed for the busy pastor and church leader, the chapters are brief and to the point. Gary McIntosh and Charles Arn, both experienced in the pastoral ministry have come together to merge their expertise, knowledge, and in-depth personal encounters on all things church, to give us a book that contains the best tips for pastoral work. They have combed many seminars and consultations, researched and even written on such matters in the past, and condensed many of the best ideas into this one book. Every chapter begins with a stated objective or "rule." It introduces the purpose, the problem, and the promise. It explains the different ways that challenges can be dealt with. The step-by-step description ensures that the reader do not lose track of the thought process. Filled with biblical references and applications, the book overflows with practical ideas. Five things are particularly important.

First, clarity is emphasized, with clearly identified steps and explanations. Not only is the ministry aspect clearly stated up-front in the title and in each introduction, the point-by-point ideas can stimulate readers to come out with their own ideas too. This is a mark of clarity. For instance, in the ministry of evangelism and outreach, the authors provide 5 guidelines on how to go about with evangelism matters. After passing the third idea, I find my creative juices freely flowing.

Second., brevity is beauty. Some guidebooks can become too lengthy. Just like a good dissertation, a good book need not be the size of an encyclopedia. Pastors themselves are already equipped to some degree, and many mainly require a key to unlock their mountain of knowledge, learned over the years. Most of the tips are about 2-5 pages long, and will appeal very much to the busy pastor.

Third, the diagrams, tables, and illustrations make this book a pleasure to read. As the saying goes, a picture speaks more than a thousand words. In this book, a visual can lead to many more thoughts. For example, in the chapter on Christian Education, the simple diagram of the relationships between teachers and students allows readers to add in their own take on how to work with the teacher-student ratio as well as to plan it across age groups. Even the statistics given can help us be more aware and discerning in situating our local church with the statistical outcomes. Knowing that every church is different, there is no harm in understanding what other churches are encountering as well. We can avoid re-inventing the wheel or avoid the pitfalls of certain strategies.

Four, the coverage is broad. Leading a Church can be very complex. There are many issues to deal with. The book covers not just buildings and budgets, it shows readers about the nitty-gritty of management, leadership, relationships, biblical perspectives, and core church ministries. For example, the chapter on small groups not only show us that there are many different types of small groups, it shines a light forward on how to lead them.

Five, this guidebook can be a primer for readers to do their own research into any one area of ministry. Granted that different churches have different needs, not everyone will benefit from all 101 rules. As a reference, I am amazed at the amount of information packed into a small footprint. Only experienced people are able to consolidate them well. 

Having said that, let me offer three ideas for improvement.  First, have a bigger bibliography that contains the best of pastoral resources. This enables interested readers with little time to do their own research. Second, more alternative views can help. This book is written more from a North American perspective. I appreciate the chapter on demographics and ethnic identity, and feel that these are increasingly more important in a globalizing economy and world immigration patterns. My third suggestion is a more practical one. What about having tabs on the book to make it something easy to refer to?

Unlike John Bisagno's "Pastor's Handbook," this book tends to focus more on strategies and methods. Bisagno's book is more complete in the sense that it not only deals with the what or how to, it deals with the person and the spiritual side of the pastor as well. Here lies the biggest flaw in this book. As much as pastoral ministry is important, it is equally, if not more important to understand the pastor. Anyone can do pastoral ministry. Not everyone can do it "pastorally." This book is high on the rules, but low on the person doing the work. I suspect that this is a "given" already. Let me suggest that readers supplement this book with Bisagno's or Eugene Peterson's writings about the pastoral ministry.

That said, you do not need to be a "pastor" in order to benefit from reading this book. What about buying this for your pastor? You can also learn to understand what pastors have to face everyday. At the same time, this book can also help readers pray for their pastor, support them, and in the process, help the Church to grow. 

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free, courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications and Baker Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"Say No to Discipleship" (Jason C. Dukes)

AUTHOR: Jason C. Dukes
PUBLISHER: Exponential Resources, 2013.

[Free ebook available here.]

This book has a provocative title, that should grab attention. It's primary message stresses on the need to focus more on "making disciples" and less on the theoretical or analytical aspect of "discipleship." Five shifts are suggested.

  1. From gospel as "presentation" to gospel as "presence."
    This moves anyone from using the gospel as a tract. The gospel is more than just a message to be sent to the head. It is meant to be a lifestyle, a participating presence, to allow the gospel to be part of the person sharing it, to the person receiving it, and for each other to walk together learning it.
  2. From Learned to Learner
    Recalling that the Greek word for disciple is "to learn," Dukes reminds us that to be a disciple means to learn more and more about the gospel. It is easy to accumulate knowledge without being changed on the inside. It is more important to keep learning of God, instead of simply content to remain on the learned front.
  3. From "Feed Me" to "Feed Others"
    This is a plea for disciples to look more to the interests of others rather than themselves. Discipleship is not about a self-learning kind of a program or concept for one to feed oneself. It is about serving one another in Christ.
  4. From "one is singular" to "one is plural"
    This is a reminder that the community aspect is the essence of a discipleship community. When we make disciples, we are essentially saying that we need one another. This is getting more important in a society that is increasingly individualistic.
  5. From "live for God" to "live with God."
    There is a need to shift away from me-first to God-always. Sometimes, people like to claim they "live for God" as a facade for putting their own lives and needs as priorities. Living with God will move us away from such self-centered attitudes.  

I enjoyed the book's description of the shifts needed to move away from mere "discipleship" to "make disciples." Some people may say these are purely semantics. Others may even say that we need both. The truth is, many people learn best when they see contrasts. Do not read the book with any negative ideas on "discipleship" per se. That is not the author's intent. What the author has done is to bring readers back to a proper understanding of what true discipleship is all about. It is about making disciples.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5


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

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The NIV QuickView Bible

TITLE: NIV QuickView Bible
AUTHOR: The Zondervan Quickview Bible Team
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (1110 pages).

This is one of those love-at-first-sight Bible resources to have. Included with the entire New International Version English Bible translation (latest 2011 version), the Bible is filled with vivid colours that are refreshing, and illustrations that bring out the Bible's truth with clarity and insights. Using more than 360 intelligent visual infographics, it makes navigating the Bible a richer and more exciting adventure. The Bible team recognizes that 83% of all human learning occurs visually. At the same time, the QuickView Bible brings a refreshing new perspective on the stories, the messages, the histories, and the ancient texts, making readers more excited to get into the text for themselves.  There are many visual eye-candies like:
  • Colour coding the ten different divisions of the whole Bible;
  • Simple explanation of how we get our Bibles;
  • Breakdown of Noah's 375 days in the Ark;
  • Life story of Jacob, Moses, and others clearly diagrammed;
  • Jewish Calendar and our modern equivalents;
  • Table of all the kings of Israel and Judah;
  • Contrast of Jesus' teachings about light and darkness
  • Paul's Teachings;
  • Spiritual Gifts;
  • Maps of Canaan, the Divided Kingdom, Palestine, Israel, and many more;
It is hard not to like this book. Old Testament laws are clearly laid out with the purposes of them weaved with the mercy of God. The gospels are also full of charts and diagrams to give readers a glimpse of the idea flow, which encourages the reader to read the text more carefully to check the biblical texts for themselves. There are three things which I really appreciate about this Quickview Bible. Firstly, it enhances the reading of the Bible with some brilliant bird's eye view of the Bible story. For instance, in the book of First Samuel, we read how the biblical author narrates the different characters who change their allegiances. There is also a highs and lows chart to show the erratic life of Saul, how he rises valiantly at the beginning, fumbles along in the middle, and ultimately kills himself at the end. Secondly, the maps are incorporated appropriately in the texts that help readers appreciate the geographical aspects of the texts being read. Normally, we will need a Bible atlas to accompany the study of the Bible. This Quickview Bible incorporates some of the most important maps within the Bible itself, enabling the reader to remain on the page without having to flip open another book to refer to the same thing. Thirdly, from a preaching and teaching perspective, the infographics are powerful ways to communicate the big ideas of the Bible. The colours are well used. The adjectives are carefully chosen. The placement of the infographics are sensitively placed to enable readers to read the texts with the big ideas in mind.

Having said that, there are some drawbacks with regards to using such a Bible. First, readers may unwittingly pay more attention to the infographics rather than the Bible itself. After all, if 83% of people learn better with visual material, will that also mean about 83% of the attention will be biased toward the infographics rather than the text? Second, the infographics are by themselves an interpretation. There is little explanation of why, how, and what are the facts leading up to the way the charts and illustrations are done. From a scholarship perspective, there is no way to cite any individual or individuals for each graphic. For example, what are the factors leading up to the declaration of the "Top 5 Reasons to Praise God in Psalms" on page 524? Where are the proof texts pertaining to the big ideas in the "Song of Songs" or Jeremiah? Third, the very idea of a "Quick view" can pose a problem for cultivating the spirituality of waiting and contemplation.  Some of the best spiritual exercises are only cultivated through patience. While it is quick as far as mental grasps of the facts are concerned, reading the Bible is not just about knowledge, but the application of such knowledge in wisdom and in discernment.

That said, I still consider this Quickview Bible a precious resource for learning and teaching. As long as readers understand the pros and cons of using such a resource. I highly recommend this as a learning supplement, not a full replacement of the reading of the Bible. If you like to check out some of the infographics, click here.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


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

Friday, May 10, 2013

"A Public Faith" (Miroslav Volf)

TITLE: Public Faith, A: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good
AUTHOR: Miroslav Volf
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011, (176 pages).

Religions have received quite a bad rap these days. In the West, it is common to read negative press on both Islam and Christianity, especially with the growing influence of the new atheists and secularism. This begs the question of why these religions with a sizeable following, that claim to be for the greater good of the world, receiving the largely bad reviews? How can Christians build deeper relationships and better trust with the public? What kind of a role can religions play in a largely secular world? For a Church that claims to be a light to the world, why is the world still in darkness? Well known Yale Professor, Miroslav Volf, tackles these questions from two creative angles. Firstly, he tries to identify the sources of "malfunctions of faith" and looks back two ascent malfunctions and two return malfunctions. Ascent malfunction is a kind of spiritual encounter that a believer receives, but never really comes back down to earth. The believer stays at that abyss without any interest in sharing that with the world. Return malfunction is basically about the missed opportunities of shaping culture and to be a creative force for good. Volf maintains that both ascent and return aspects of religion must be creatively lived out for the benefit of others. As volf probes deeper, he raises up three major impediments to this creative and prophetic role of ascent-return.

  1. Idleness and Misdirected busyness. The former does nothing to bring about good to the world. The latter is overly busy with things that ultimately do not matter. The way forward is to see work in four ways: Through God's blessings, we succeed in our work; Through God's deliverance, we continue to climb back up amid failures and discouragement; Through God's direction, we live moral good and responsible lives; Through God's meaning, we find significance in what we do.
  2. Coerciveness:  True faith is never coercive. The way forward is not to despise or be separate from the rest of the world, but to keep the vision of God's kingdom and link that to the vision of the human race becoming the best version of themselves.
  3. Human Flourishing: Erroneous understanding of human advancement as one that is without God. Christians must overcome this, and to live in a way that the world will know that God is love.
Secondly, he works on providing a way forward to help believers gain trust and goodwill through positive engagement and cooperation, called "a public faith." He argues for the Christian to be engaged with their whole being, and to engage all dimensions of a culture. He points out the need for the vision of good from God's perspective. Volf then deals with how to engage non-believers as well as engaging in political life. I appreciate Volf's insights on how to witness meaningfully to non-Christians.

  • One shares wisdom of God not by coercive words, or imposing authority, but through pointing to the crucified Christ;
  • Being a witness is not about selling Christianity to people. It is freely given.
  • Being a witness is not about mere words, but also behaviour, actions, and wise words.
  • Being a witness is not playing the middle man, or the midwife. It is direct attention to Christ, that all wisdom comes from Christ.
Volf's method is consistent. Share Christ intentionally but also respectfully. Witness in wisdom. Resist any forms of imposition one's views. When in doubt, love. Resist total religious domination from any group. Uphold the political project of pluralism without fear of one's religion being diminished in any way. 

My Thoughts

Volf continues to impress me with his depth of insights. He does this while actively engaging from different angles from multiple perspectives. From religions to political platforms, he respectfully highlights the similarities of all the three major monotheistic religions, and at the same time, allowing each of them to retain their distinctive identity. He practices what he writes. The mood is tender. The thrust is clear. The goal is wide and far-ranging. If anyone likes a good guide on how to engage non-Christians, the secular culture, amid a climate of distrust of religions, this book is a must read. Let me close with this powerful quote.

"The more we reduce faith to vague religiosity that serves primarily to energize, heal, and give meaning to the business of life whose course is shaped by factors other than faith (such as national or economic interests), the worse off we will be. Inversely, the more the Christian faith matters to its adherents as faith that maps a way of life, and the more they practice it as an ongoing tradition with strong ties to its origins and history, and with clear cognitive and moral content, the better off we will be." (Miroslav Volf, 40) 

Briefly, what this means is that Christians who want to engage the rest of the world, must NOT do so on the basis of shedding their Christian values or identity in order to make themselves more tolerable to the rest. Instead, they must keep wearing the Cross of Christ, to be faithful in all the tenets of the faith, to offer to the world a powerful alternative, that indeed, the Hope of the World is much much bigger and better than anything the secular world can offer.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Radical Dating

TITLE: Radical Dating: When God takes over your love life
AUTHOR: Diane Montgomery, Gabrielle Pickle, Sarah Bubar
PUBLISHER: Christian Focus Publications, (176 pages).

Why would anyone read another book on dating? Simply put, relationships matter. One does not have to be a single in order to learn more about dating. Parents may need to give guidance to their children at some point of time. Friends who are single may need some advice from time to time. Maybe, you know of someone who is single and lost about their own relationships with people. Maybe, you are in an organization where there are singles who need some kind of guidance or help. More importantly, if you are Christian, you may want some wholesome advice from a faith-based perspective, written by theologically trained authors, and by people who are honestly wrestling with the same kind of questions. Montgomery, Pickle, and Bubar are three women who came together to write about faith, love, dating relationships, through the why, how, who, what, and when questions. The central point in the book is to let the love of God direct the love relationship, through two key words: Witness and Worship.

In witness, the authors aim to let the desire to be a witness for God guide all their dating decisions. This automatically leads to a "radical" decisions such as:

  • Letting faith guides the decision to date believers vs non-believers;
  • Letting faith guides the strict establishment of physical and emotional boundaries;
  • Letting faith guides the relationship beyond mere romance or emotional bonds;
  • Knowing that true love is for God, above all relationships;
  • Letting faith guides the desire for purity;
  • Letting faith guides the decision to choose singlehood if necessary.
These and many more encapsulate the general principle of letting God guide the believer in all decisions pertaining to dating relationships. Packed with biblical references and practical tips, the authors let their convictions in God guide all of their dating advice. There are personal sharing of painful past relationships. There are questions to help readers in their struggle through dating and relationships. As I read the book, I can sense the deep convictions the authors have and the earnest care that they desire to share for those struggling with singleness. Most of all, they have written this book together, highlighting yet one more important thing about going through the ups and downs of dating relationship: Fellowshiping with believers. In this book, the three girls have one another for companionship, for fellowship, and lots of fun!

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Christian Focus Publications and Cross-Focused Media without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

"Flawed Families of the Bible" (David E. Garland and Diana R. Garland)

TITLE: Flawed Families of the Bible: How God's Grace Works through Imperfect Relationships
AUTHOR: David E. Garland and Diana R. Garland
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007, (236 pages).

If your family is Christian, and if you feel like your family is flawed, imperfect, and even dysfunctional, you will find this book deeply encouraging. Far too often, Christian people have elevated the status of the biblical characters and families to the level of spiritual superstars. Some even think that the biblical families are more perfect than our modern ones. After all, everyone who calls themselves "Christian" likes to be as biblical as possible, right? That include character studies with two differences. Firstly, instead of reverting back to popular characters like Moses, Joseph, Jacob, David, and Elijah in the Old Testament, or Peter, Paul, and Jesus in the New Testament, the authors of this book select those relatively more obscure and unknown. Some of the characters may even be shocking and controversial. Characters like Leah, who seems less prominent than Rachel. Or women such as Tamar, who was raped and discarded, or David's wife, Michal who did not have a good ending in the Bible. Secondly, the characters are linked to the families they come from and how their backgrounds affected both their lives and others. Finally, through it all, there is a common strand: God's grace. The underlying message of the entire book is this: The reality is that within every person or family, even biblical families, there are flaws and dysfunctional relationships. The hope is that within each flaw and seemingly dysfunctional situation, there is God's grace that shines forth to redeem people wherever they are.

  • Sarah and Hagar: We read how the barren Sarai was given grace to conceive. Hagar, when forced out of the home with her child, was given grace to survive, and the promise to flourish. Both stories contain many instances of how hopelessness turns to hope.
  • Leah: How unloved Leah becomes caught in the scheming of both Laban and Jacob, rivalry and deceit, and through it all, bore most of Jacob's children, and becoming a big part of God's plan.
  • Dinah: We read about the horrors of rape, and living through much shame not just for Dinah but the family. We learn of how the family of Dinah chooses to hide the shame and keep the whole matter in secret, only to allow the anger to accumulate toward violence and tragedy. God's grace is available to us through the Church, modern counseling, and many avenues of comfort.
  • Tamar: The story of Tamar is often told about incest and shame. It reminds us that those of us in positions of power and responsibility must exercise care and love to all. The persistence and courage of Tamar against all odds, represents grace unlimited from God.
  • Michal: Readers may think that Michal has been unfortunate to be born under the family of Saul. As a daughter whose father turned away from God, she herself embarrasses her husband David for openly expressing his joy in the LORD. What kind of grace lessons can we learn from Michal? It is hard to read grace into the passage. It is much easier to read about the scenarios that could have happened when Michal herself had been less bitter, more gracious, and more forgiving. God's grace is powerful. Man's freedom to receive God's grace will be most welcome.
  • Bathsheba: Poor woman. She had to suffer the tragic loss of her husband Uriah, marry her husband's murderer, and subsequently lose her first son. In her deep sorrow, she laments to God (2 Sam 11:26). Unlike most happy marriages, Bathsheba and David's marriage began in grief. Grace to them comes in the form of both David and Bathsheba knowing where and Who to turn to.
  • Jephthah and David's Daughters: Jephthah lives through the time of Judges, where immorality ran rampant and idolatry was at its peak. What good news can there be for Jephthah's daughter, whose father is a son of a prostitute, and solicits sexual services from men in the streets? Moreover, Jephthah sacrificed his own daughter because of a silly bet. Unnamed, unable to bear children, and died as a sacrifice, perhaps the story is an example of how much human society depend on God. For if men are to be left completely to their own devices, men will ultimately destroy themselves.
  • Ethiopian Eunuch: Here is the only New Testament character that the authors have highlighted, that symbolizes how God through Jesus brought together Jews and Gentiles under one umbrella of faith.

There is no perfect family. There is no such thing as a 'normal' family. All families are dysfunctional in a certain way. Only in Christ can there be grace and redemption, forgiveness and restoration, faith and hope. Throughout this book, the authors help readers appreciate the fact that the biblical characters are not very much different from our modern people. We are as sinful as they are, albeit in a different way. We are as imperfect as they are. Most importantly, all are recipients of God's grace. The take away for me is this. The more we understand how flawed, how imperfect, and how needy we are, the more we will appreciate and embrace the gentle loving arms of the Perfect God, the Coming Kingdom, and the Eternal Peace. The good news is this. God's grace has worked for the biblical characters in the past. God's grace is working right now in the present through the Church, God's people. God's grace is promised for the future that is to come. This book imaginatively strings together all of these, and becomes a 236 pages of encouragement.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.