About This Blog

Monday, September 30, 2013

Compass The Study Bible (The Voice Translation)

TITLE: Compass: The Study Bible for Navigating Your Life
AUTHOR: Ecclesia Bible Society
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2012, (1664 pages).

Cleverly named "The Compass," this new study Bible is based on one of the latest English Bible translations called "The Voice." The translation team comprises scholars, musicians, writers, and poets, all wanting to communicate the Word of God as clearly as possible and as faithfully as possible. The translators adopt what they call as a "contextual equivalent." This differentiates itself from the other translation philosophies like word-for-word, thought-for-thought, or dynamic equivalence. (Simply put, a word-for-word is focused on translating the text as they are. A thought-for-thought translation is focused on translating the meaning the texts are trying to say. A dynamic equivalent translation tries to strike a balance between the word-for-word and thought-for-thought.) Where appropriate, The Voice translation avoids the traditional "word-for-word," because such a philosophy does not bring across the context clear enough for the modern reader. Moreover, the language may sound too woody for modern ears. It also avoids the "thought for thought" because it tends to translate the interpretations of the translators rather than the texts per se.  Instead, it aims toward a format that communicates a "contextual equivalent," that is backed by scholarship of the original languages.

What is contextual equivalent? There are many ways to explain it. According to the translators:

"A contextual equivalent translation technique seeks to convey the original language accurately while rendering the literary structures and character of a text in readable and meaningful contemporary language. This particular translation approach keeps in mind the smaller parts and the larger whole., In endeavoring to translate sacred Scripture, The Voice captures uniquely the poetic imagery and literary artistry of the original in a way that is beautiful and meaningful." (Preface, viii)

Friday, September 27, 2013

"Benefit of the Doubt" (Gregory A Boyd)

TITLE: Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty
AUTHOR: Gregory A Boyd
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (272 pages).

Have you ever encountered someone who seems absolutely sure about something, that he is never wrong? What about an individual so cocksure about his belief to the exclusion of all other possibilities? We have heard the famous saying, "power corrupts and absolutely power corrupts absolutely." Can the same happen to absolute faith? How can people who stubbornly hang on to the absolute certainty of their beliefs able to relate to others in this pluralistic world? If one is absolutely sure about an opinion, is that person's belief considered perfect? Is there any room for doubt in such absolute certainty? After all, the saying goes: no one's perfect. Is it possible to have a healthy faith that is peppered with constructive doubts? How biblical is absolute faith that appears to cover all grounds? These questions and many more are dealt with in this autobiographical approach adopted by the author. Boyd, senior pastor at Woodlands Church in St Paul, Minnesota, believes that there is a need to understand false faith from true faith first before embarking upon an exercising of one's faith. Boyd's ultimate goal is:

"... to help readers apply this information and embrace a kind of faith that is intellectually compelling, passionately centered on Christ, and fearlessly efficient in negotiating the complexity and ambiguity of our postmodern age."

Thursday, September 26, 2013

"Enough Already" (Emily Lawyer)

TITLE: Enough Already
AUTHOR: Emily Lawyer
PUBLISHER: Exponential Resources, 2013.

[Free ebook available here.]

In order to make disciples, one needs to learn what it means to be a disciple. In our achievement oriented world, we have a tendency to want things done as fast and as efficient as possible. Sometimes, when we buy a new household device, we rush to use the item without really reading the instruction manuals. Some manufacturers have understood this mentality well by inserting a "READ ME FIRST!" leaflet with minimal instructions, often with pictures to help people read and pay attention to important steps to take prior to using the item. For disciples of Christ, it is tempting to want to jump in quickly to do something about discipleship. In doing so, we may miss out the essence of what discipleship actually means. Essentially, it takes a disciple to make disciples. One of the best and most potent resources in our hands is the Bible. We have our Bibles, available in both print as well as electronic editions. We have a lot of different Bible translations, many of which are designed to help readers of all ages and all contexts to read and to understand. The key challenge in a busy environment is whether we are reading it well in the first place.

This short ebook resource is written by an author whose crisis of faith a few years ago becomes a springboard from which she gets rejuvenated with Bible reading. At that time, she was a staff member at a Church of people whose hearts seemed to be "partially full" with the gospel. She learns that serving actively does not necessarily means that disciples are growing passionately. Many are simply content with being told they are saved. Some think that giving more in service means they are growing well as disciples. Lawyer's path toward a more contemplative start to discipleship begins with Brother Lawrence's Practicing the Presence of God. Do quiet time together. Learn to read Scripture with a focused internalization. This book is a summary of her attempt to help us do discipleship through the cultivation of a quiet and contemplative heart on Scripture.

The first part of the book explains the reasons for a quiet environment and a focused heart. In one word, it is "Relationship." The author learns first-hand how difficult it is to practice silence in a world of frantic activities. Indeed, how addicted modern people are to activity and hyperactivity. For Lawyer, it takes physical ailments to force her to slow down and start her path of recovery from activity-addiction. It draws her toward the Bible. It reminds her that it is one thing to learn the Bible from other people. It is much more powerful to be directly taught by God through the Bible. We cannot simply read the Bible as if it is something we can use to get things done according to our own time and agenda. Reading the Bible for what it is requires us to adopt a humble heart to let God speak or not speak according to His time. One gem in this section is this:

"Change is the byproduct, not the goal. Relationship is the goal."

We do not read the Bible simply in search of something to do, or some activity to plan for. We read the Bible in pursuit of the knowledge of a Person. It is one thing to read the Word of God. It is yet another to know the God of the Word.

The second part of the book is written for people who currently has a vocational ministry desiring to practice the presence of God in their daily work or activities. In three steps, Lawyer shares with us what is needed to cultivate a posture of independence from activities toward dependence on God. 
  1. Pray asking God to guide our reading and what we need to hear;
  2. Select the Scripture
  3. Read silently the Scripture, asking ourselves what it tells us about God.
The goal is to help us appreciate the Person of God. This activity can also be done in a group environment. Lawyer recommends an optimum number from 5-8, who are committed to meeting regularly. Such Bible sessions are to be limited to not more than an hour each time. 

I find the title of the book rather curious. What exactly is the author expressing enough of? I suppose the author is fed up with any more addictions to activities and busyness that seem to go nowhere. Enough of tasks. Enough of projects. Enough of noisy activities that will never satisfy. Instead, embark upon the path of relationship building. For discipleship is about patterning one another's relationships to God's image. When that happens, we will say "enough!" to the world of activities, and cry out "More!" to the Word of God and the Person of Christ.


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.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"Growing Up" (Robby Gallaty)

TITLE: Growing UP: How to Be a Disciple Who Makes Disciples
AUTHOR: Robby Gallaty
PUBLISHER: Bloomington, IN: Crossbooks, 2013, (248 pages).

This whole book tries to answer the following questions. How do we as disciples make disciples practically, daily, passionately, and plainly? Written with practice in mind, the methods described in this book have been time tested and group tested. For the past decade, the author has been a part of Discipleship Groups (D-Groups), ever since he was dramatically transformed from his past life as a drug and alcohol addict. He openly shares about his failures encountered. Rejected from the school basketball team, the author had to nurse a failed relationship with his girlfriend, suffered a failed business venture, endured an accident that broke parts of his back, and spiraling downward in drugs and depression. It took a dear friend to patiently walk him back to faith and hope. He experiences what it means to benefit from people who sought to make a difference in the lives of others. "Growing up" is about Gallaty wanting to be a part of the solution instead of being a part of the problem. What better way than to consolidate all his energies and ideas into the work of discipleship. For him, making a difference simply means helping to make disciples who can make more disciples.

Just like his Church's mission statement to "Deliver, Disciple, and Deploy," the author spends the first three chapters of the book to make a case for the importance and necessity of making disciples. The rest of the book is contained in six steps using the CLOSER acronym for ease of remembering.
  1. Communicate with God through prayer
  2. Learn to understand and apply God's Word 
  3. Obey God's commands
  4. Store God's Word in our hearts
  5. Evangelize
  6. Renew our Spiritual life daily.

Monday, September 23, 2013

"What Your Dreams Are Telling You" (Cindy McGill)

TITLE: What Your Dreams Are Telling You: Unlocking Solutions While You Sleep
AUTHOR: Cindy McGill
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Chosen Books, 2013, (176 pages).

"It's a dream come true!" is a statement of exhilaration. "Thank God it's only a dream" is a statement of relief. We all dream about things or thoughts from time to time. The Bible too has a fair share of dreams and the interpretation of them. There is Joseph the dreamer, Daniel the interpreter of dreams, in the Old Testament as well as Peter's vision of a ladder in the New Testament. What if dreams can be a way in which our lives be guided wisely and spiritually? What if dreams can help us make better sense of our role in the world? What if we can learn how to get the best out of our dreams? In this book, McGill shows us how our dreams can be understood and learned from. A popular interpreter of dreams, she has been highly sought after by people wanting to make sense of what their own dreams are about.

McGill arrests any skeptic right from the start, saying point blank to them: "You are not my audience." Obviously, she is interested only in people who are open about dreams and the interpretation of dreams for our own benefit. She shares her own journey in dreaming, interpreting, and applying her learning with compelling conviction and belief. Her success at Best Buy Marketing literally launches her career in dream interpretation and business marketing. McGill believes that once dreams are unlocked, the potential for good and prosperous business results are immense. She provides seven interpretive principles.
  1. Believe that dreams are for our good
  2. Dreams are personal
  3. Dreams are likened to parables
  4. Timing and frequency are important
  5. Dreams can come from different sources
  6. Dreams require our own actions
  7. Connect our dreams with the Giver of our dreams.
The chapter on "common dream themes" contains fascinating insights about dream situations like losing teeth, falling, being chased, naked in public, losing stuff, seeing reptiles, and other elements. For example, in the part about one dreaming of falling, her take home message is encouraging, that even when things seem to be falling out of control, eventually, everything will fall in place. For Christians, they have the trust that God is in control and instead of giving in to fear about the worse, one can trust God for the best. Some of the dreams occur in the spiritual realm like one person sharing about demons trying to kill him. The take home interpretation is that instead of giving in to fear of the demons, or to assume they are just false make-belief, we can affirm that the spiritual realm is real but also full of deceptions.

There are four main types of dreams, each requiring a different kind of interpretation. McGill shows us how to identify, interpret, and respond to "Warning dreams," "direction dreams," "self-revealing dreams," and "spiritual realm dreams." Stressing that it is important to interpret one's dreams, the author reminds readers to be discerning as well. The three steps to adopt are:

  1. Determine the source
  2. Determine the message
  3. Determine your action

When determining the source of dreams, distinguish between self, lie, and truth. When determining the message, ask if it is for our observation or participation; what is the focus and what are the peripheral issues. Finally, our responses have to flow out of the preceding two steps. Interpretation needs to be as simple as possible. Application needs to be done constructively. There is also a section on God and dreams, and how God speaks to us through dreams. This chapter alone can be a Bible study in itself.

So What?

Many of us dream but not many are able to understand or know how to interpret them. Sometimes, we simply forget or want to forget about them, especially nightmares. For most of us, it takes dreams to recur several times before we even sit up and take notice. There are not much science or empirical methods to prove the authenticity of the dreams in this book.  That is probably because dreams by themselves often sit between the visible and the invisible world. The author's overarching conviction is that dreams are very much a part of our real world. With one-third of our lives spent sleeping, why not harness whatever dreams within that time span for the other two-thirds? Why not get the best out of our dreams?

I find the motivation for this book a noble one, even a brave one. In our technological society that prefers facts and figures, numbers and knowledge, it takes an open mind to accept the things written in this book. Even for Christians, there are some who will resist dabbling in the unknown sphere of dreams and visions. Often these are due to fears of misinterpretation and misunderstanding. For McGill, each time to ignore dreams is an opportunity lost in harnessing the dream for our benefit. That is helpful for many people, but I want to argue the other way. In trying to use the one-third of sleeping time for the benefit of the other two-thirds, we may unwittingly fail to appreciate the sleeping and the dreaming in themselves. After all, not every dream necessarily needs interpretation. Not every vision must have some kind of an immediate application. Discernment must be needed in all circumstances. That includes learning to pay attention as well as ignore certain dreams. Remember again that the Bible do have things to say about sleep.

Sleep is a gift of God (Ps 127:2). Sleep is also a reward for hard labour (Ecclesiastes 5:12). At the same time, too much sleep is criticized as unhelpful (Proverbs 6:10). Dreams can occur in a manner that need other people to help us interpret. They need to occur several times to wake us up. That said, I think we cannot overstate or understate the importance of dreams. What I can suggest is what I call the "posture of Mary." When Jesus was born, the hosts of angels appear and shepherds came to pay respects and honour the baby. Seeing all of these amazing events happening must have been rather overwhelming for Mary who has just given birth to Jesus. Luke's record is very instructive.

"But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart." (Luke 2:19)

That is the attitude I will suggest for anyone of us seeking to understand or to interpret dreams. It can be attempted but not forced. It can be subjected through an interpretive framework but must be discerned. It often takes time. This book can be a helpful guide for those of us interested in dreams in general.  For Christians, do so with lots of prayer and with plenty of godly counsel.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


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

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Vital Signs Vol 20

TITLE: Vital Signs, Volume 20: The Trends that are Shaping Our Future
AUTHOR: Worldwide Institute
PUBLISHER:  Washington DC: Island Press, 2013, (168 pages).

What are the trends in the future? What are the signs and what makes them so vital that it has to be included in this book? These are questions I ask as I began reading this book.  Since 1992, the Worldwide institute, based in Washington DC has been keeping watch on signs that will affect the future of the earth and the people who live on it. Presenting articles that first appeared at the Worldwatch Institute website, each volume brings together research and findings from a group of dedicated contributors. This edition is the fruit of 23 researchers. In this volume, the focus is on the world's production and consumption trends for energy, food, transportation, and rising demand for earth's resources. Aware that there is a price for progress and development, the Worldwide Institute calls it "vital signs" from a sustainability and a responsible stewardship of earth's resources perspective. 

One thing that is stark is that for every benefit there is a cost. For every meeting of a demand, there is a cry for a greater demand. For every additional investment for energy resources, there is an exponential demand for energy, especially fossil fuels. For every increase in food production, there is also an increase in waste production. For every step of advancement, there is a price in terms of depletion of earth's resources. The link is also complicated by advancement that is closely associated with economic progress for the poorer nations as well as social conditions. With many poorer countries trying to attain the progress of the West, they soon learn that every benefit will have their costs too.

The solution must be both scientific as well as institutional. Science and technical know-how can only do so much. There must be infrastructures in place for implementation and distribution of these knowledge and skills. Five key trends are highlighted in the book.

1) Energy and Transportation Trends

There is a mixture of good and bad news for oil. The good news is, the rate of consumption has gone down. The bad news is, consumption levels are still high. Impact is felt whenever problems occur in the Middle East. The projected trend is for Canada's oil sands production to increase even as the conventional oil producers maintain production at a steady level. Any slowdown in oil consumption is well negated by the increase in coal and gas use. Then there is China whose coal consumption currently ranks at number 1 in the world accounting for 49.4% of the world's consumption. Not only that, China also leads in terms of wind power, with several new power projects installed. Thankfully, progress is also made in funding for non-fossil fuel research and development of renewable energy supplies. This is an area to watch for.

2) Environment and Climate Trends

Development usually comes at a cost, and green house gas emissions and CO2 production are some of them. With regards to China, there is a double whammy. Not only has China overtaken the US in terms of CO2 emissions, she still lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to funding for "Carbon Capture and Storage Investment" projects. The CCSI projects are considered important for the environment from an anti-pollution standpoint. Critics argue that such projects also consume lots of of energy which somewhat cancels out the good it is trying to achieve.

3) Food and Agriculture Trends

Used for human consumption, animal feed, as well as biofuels, annual grain production has reached a record high of 2.37 billion tons. These include rice, wheat, and coarse grains. Weather challenges continue to threaten production. Projects are currently being undertaken to protect and to support the farming industry, especially vulnerable farmers. With disease and drought, meat consumption has tapered with a smaller increase. Most popular meat is pork followed by poultry. The United States is still the largest consumer of meat in the world and Asia the largest producer. Statistics also show chicken as the most popular in the US, South Africa. In China, Germany, Vietnam, pork ranks #1. India consumes the most milk while Brazil the most beef. 

Then there is seafood where "aquaculture" tries to fill in the insatiable appetite for various seafood. Both wild and farmed seafood continue to grow, with "aquaculture" currently meeting up to 40% of the world's fish consumption. Research also shows that wild fish stocks are dangerously unsustainable with about 57.4% fisheries fully exploited. With rising fish production comes environmental concerns too, like degradation of marine habitats; antibiotics use; introduction of invasive species; illegal fishing; etc. One bright spark in the report is the positive impact of organic farming, especially in Europe. These initiatives have reduced the need for harmful fertilizers and pesticides. There is also an interesting report on the investing on women farmers who together help produce nearly half of all food production. This is especially for those who are not fully compensated in poor regions. .

4) Global Economy and Resources Trends

There is an alarming wage gap widening as wages fail to keep pace with productivity. Countries in Europe such as Norway, Belgium, and Germany lead the way in fair compensation. Countries at the bottom half include Philippines, Mexico, Hungary, and Brazil. Solid waste production continues to grow. with the OECD countries together producing more than 1.5 million tonnes of waste per day! Losses due to natural catastrophes are also very high. Japan tops the list where the earthquake and tsunami have cost US$2.1 billion. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and drought from the other regions of the world helped create total losses of US$3530 billion of which only $870 billion are insured. Water scarcity is in the radar. One-fifth of the world are living in water scarcity areas. Arab countries have the least water availability while North America has the most.

There is an interesting report that talks about the increase in Internet advertising and marketing. The comment in the report talks not about the Internet displacing directly the traditional avenues like print, TV commercials, billboards, etc. It observes that "consumers grow overexposed to advertising" and prefer more subtle approaches through blogs, social media, and selective product placements.

5) Population and Society Trends

We have all heard about migration. What about "climate change migration" where harsh weather conditions have forced migration around the world. Take Bangladesh for example, where people have grown accustomed to recurring floods. Most people outside have concentrated on sensational headlines such as people being forced to move from low levels to higher plains, but have failed to account for the human resilience of the people to tough it out.  Migration is less possible with lands that are steeped in poverty. Many developing countries continue to seek a better world like the developed West. Eighty-Two percent of the world's populations currently live in the developing world. Many of them are in Asia which also boasts megacities that are crowded, and have a huge appetite for energy, food, and other resources. The biggest megacity is Japan with 37 million people followed by Delhi (22.7m) and Mexico City (20.7m). Los Angeles is the most populated North American city at 13.4m and Istanbul is tops the list for Europe at 11.3m. The poorest regions, represented by slum areas are countries in the Sub-Sahara Africa, South and East Asia.  

If you are interested in trends and numbers, this book has a lot of them not only to whet your appetite, but to get you thinking about the way our world is heading. The usual observations are there. Consumption of resources are rising, while earth ability to sustain these levels are decreasing. The developing world continues to increase in food production and population. So do there consumption, waste, and pollution levels. There are many other things that are left out in the trending report. What about education levels? What about the technological industry? What about medical sciences? What about the pharmaceutical research? What about the state of the political and social trends?

Perhaps, in a future volume, these and others will be covered. Richly informational, this book is not just about numbers and trends. It is about the future of us and our loved ones living in an increasingly globalized world. This alone is reason alone to pick up this book.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


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

Friday, September 20, 2013

God in My Everything Blog Tour

TITLE: God in My Everything: How an Ancient Rhythm Helps Busy People Enjoy God
AUTHOR: Ken Shigematsu
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (256 pages).

This is a very comprehensive book on Christian living, covering many important aspects of the spiritual life. Through stories and keen observations of life in a city, Ken Shigematsu is able to weave in spiritual practices of the ancient world with the contemporary needs of the world. Having gone through personal struggles of frantic living, relationship challenges, as well as ministry work as a pastor, Shigematsu has put into words the sermons that he has given for his own congregation. I have heard him speak before, and so am able to mentally visualize his voice through the words in this book. It is very much a personal story by the author, given passionately and yet having a gentle demeanor about it all. I appreciate the very comprehensive aspect of his treatment of the rhythms of life, so reminiscent of Mark Buchanan's book on "Spiritual Rhythm" or Wayne Mueller's work on Sabbath. Let me offer three thoughts about the book.

First, I think it is an apt corrective for a world addicted to freedom of choice. The idea of rules and regulations can often rile the modern man so used to freedom and free speech. People are put off when it comes to anyone preachy or giving words of advice. Yet, disliking something does not necessarily mean we do not need that, just like a sick child disliking bitter medicine. If we do not drink it, we may become worse off. Thus, Shigematsu's teaching about "Bushido" is highly relevant for our modern Western society.

Second, structures are helpful. Despite the culture's dislike of structures and institutionalized religion, we cannot do away with structures. The words of Jesus with regards to Sabbath is appropriate here. Know that the Sabbath is made for men and not men for the Sabbath. Thus, structures are made for humans and not humans for structures. That is why the better way is to redeem institutions and structures, instead of throwing them out altogether.

Third, spirituality is more relational than what some people think. This contrasts with some versions of spiritualities that tend to be self-centered; focused on nothingness; or simply energy consumption. No. Christian spirituality is basically about living relationships. The spiritual practices mentioned in this book have a strong sense of communal living and community responsibility. Whether it is Sabbath time with God; coffee time with people; prayer for and with people; or accountability sessions with trusted friends; spirituality is less of something private and confidential, but more of something connecting and communicating.

There are lots of practical things we can do to cultivate the spirituality of God in our Everything. Ken's own set of rules allows him to take a Sabbath weekly, be disciplined at work, meet with people, and of course, date his wife. Brittany's rule enables her to adopt routines for the week, the month, and things in between. June's rule will appeal to young parents struggling to balance time between work and family.

Here is a quote from the book that is worth pondering. Maybe, it can tilt your decision whether to buy or borrow the book.
"I used to feel like I was always treading water and sometimes feared I'd drown under a tidal wave of work and responsibility. Thanks to my rule, I now enjoy the life-imparting gift of the Sabbath and a simpler, less cluttered life. I thus live from a place of greater rest and peace than I would otherwise. I don't lead an idyllic existence. I'm busy. In my line of work, I face crisis after crisis. But, rarely do I feel overwhelmed by life." (215)
Need I say more? I love this book!

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Job - Teach the Text Series (Daniel J Estes)

TITLE: Job (Teach the Text Commentary Series)
AUTHOR: Daniel J Estes
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (288 pages).

The book of Job continues to be a popular book to study. Although there are tough issues of life it deals with, one of the reasons why it is still frequently studied and talked about is because it deals directly with things that many people have continued to face: Pain and Suffering. Life is painful, and in the words of the late M Scott Peck, "Life is Difficult." Indeed it is. Still, the interest continues unabated. Enters another commentary offered by Baker Books called the "Teach the Text Commentary Series." It has the familiar five sections structure.
  1. Big Idea
  2. Key Themes
  3. Understanding the Text
  4. Teaching the Text
  5. Illustrating the Text

The Introduction comprises very clear and concise information about the book of Job; like the authorship, date, setting, structure, outline, the literature at that time, purpose, theme, and some guidance with regards to teaching and preaching from the book of Job. This introduction is a must-read in order for readers to get a grasp of the commentary's intent from the start. Readers can benefit from the outline of the biblical book. I have modified them slightly as follows:

  1. Prologues (Job 1-2);
  2. Dialogues I (Job 3-14);
  3. Dialogues II (Job 15-21);
  4. Dialogues III (Job 22-27);
  5. Interlude (Job 28);
  6. Three Monologues (Job 29-41);
  7. Epilogue (Job 42).

Following the brief introduction, Daniel Estes launches into a chapter by chapter commentary, adhering closely to the five-fold structure set out. Each chapter begins with a title that states the overall big idea of the chapter. I find it helpful as it keeps my mind focused on the big idea. That said, it may in some way limit the reader's openness to the possibility of other big ideas. To be fair, this problem is not just limited to this but to all other commentaries as well. The key is to be understand this commentary is just one way to understand. We can always consider the interpretive insights as an invitation to ponder upon rather than a dogma to be insisted on.

The key themes blue block in every chapter is every teacher's favourite. It summarizes in a nutshell what that chapter is about. Using these themes, we can read the text with the idea in mind. This is helpful because Job can be a very difficult book to study, and can also be misunderstood by the casual reader. For example, much of the dialogues coming from the three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and to some extent Job and Elihu, constitute bad advice. The three friends begins well in silence, but loses their way as they allow their own interpretations of what is happening to Job take precedence over God's purposes. In some way, these themes are interpretations of many of these interpretations.

The section on understanding the text is the main body of the entire book. Going chapter by chapter, verse by verse, it is a communicator's paradise. I read the comments back to myself and I can imagine it being verbalized over the pulpit. It is very listenable. The use of Hebrew words are inserted to expand the meaning of the text and also intentionally kept to the minimal to avoid making the book overly technical. At the same time, the additional information about the contexts of the text gives readers a lot of ideas to chew on. For example, there are explanatory columns on theodicy to give readers an appreciation of this area of interpretation; backgrounds on Eliphaz's insistence on disciplines; insights on places in Job's world to give readers some idea of what he is talking about; and many more. The theological insights are critical as they help bring together the key themes and ideas within the context of the Bible. Sometimes, when students study book by book, or chapter by chapter, one can get lost in the details and mistake the forest for the trees. The theological insights give us a bigger picture of God's story.

The part on teaching the text is not just for teachers but can help students at many levels. I find it most helpful to use this part and refer often to the preceding section. In fact, I feel that "understanding" and "teaching" the text can even be combined into one section for maximum impact. At times, breaking the chapters up is like separating the rice from the fish when eating sushi. That said, the effort to stay faithful to the sectioning is commendable as the author wants the book to work well for readers in general.

As a preacher, illustrating the text is one of the most enjoyable sections. In order to connect better with audiences, stories and anecdotes are often necessary, and Daniel Estes is very generous in his sharing. The examples are taken from authors like Philip Yancey; literature like Victor Hugo's Les Miserables; testimony by Elisabeth Elliot; films like "It's a Wonderful Life"; and many illustrations that the contemporary reader can appreciate.

So What?

In commentaries, one of the struggles is the debate between readability and textual accuracy. It is easy to say that we want everything to be understandable to readers, to be faithful to the text, and to be completely biblical in every way. Yet, decisions constantly need to be made with regards to reverence of the Word and relevance to the world. We can be so textually accurate to the point that it becomes gibberish to readers. At the same time, we can be so relevant to readers that the interpretations say things beyond the biblical emphases. This commentary attempts to do both and it is delightfully effective.

With this kind of commentary, there is no way anyone can be bored. There are lots of colour and pictures throughout the book. There are many creative insights that readers can be challenged to develop further. What I really appreciate is the overall readability of the commentary that makes it a valuable resource for teaching and for preaching. The bibliography is respectable but can be a little more extensive. I am not sure why the bibliography leaves out John Walton's very recent commentary. Still, I will give high marks for this commentary, especially from a pedagogical and communicator standpoint.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"Jesus as a Figure in History" (Mark Allen Powell)

TITLE: Jesus as a Figure in History, Second Edition: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee
AUTHOR: Mark Allen Powell
PUBLISHER: Lousville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, (288 pages).

Who is Jesus? Why is it important to learn about the historical Jesus? Well, for a man who has not only inspired the spread of the Christian faith, and for being the reason why Churches gather people from all over, Powell suggest two reasons why it is important to study the historical Jesus. First, we are studying a person who has literally walked this earth. It is not simply a study of faith. It is a study of a person from whom faith is inspired from. Second, we are studying Jesus' claims for who he is, not what theologians make him to be. Key to understanding such projects is this. Conventional Bible study will revere and study the Person of Christ according to biblical material. In the study of the historical Jesus, the Bible PLUS other extrabiblical and historical documents are researched in order to paint a bigger picture of Jesus from a historical science standpoint. It is more science. It is more analysis. It is more modern research based on rationality, historical facts, and scientific techniques, arising from work done in the past three recent decades.

According to the author, the "big six" Jesus scholars are Robert Funk (Jesus Seminar), John Dominic Crossan, Marcus J Borg, E P Sanders, John P Meier, and N T Wright. In his survey of the works of these esteemed scholars, he was able to verify his interpretation with all except Sanders. With his background in journalism and his New Testament Professorship credentials, Powell has provided a comprehensive and fair summary of the various perspectives on the person of Jesus from a modern era.  As a founding editor of a respected Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, as well as the chair of the Historical Jesus section at the Society of Biblical Literature, Powell has solid credentials. If the first edition represents more of an interest rather than an investment by the author, this second edition is an increase in both interest and investment on this matter of importance.

Chapter 1 gives a quick overview of the origins and the early developments of the discipline. There are the efforts to harmonize the gospels when trying to see Jesus through four gospel portraits of Matthew, Luke, Mark and John. The studies examine whether the gospels contradict one another and how to make sense of the differences.  There is Albert Schweitzer whose quest for the historical Jesus turns sideways toward the quest for the "relevant Jesus." Then there is the 20th Century existentialist influence led by Rudolf Bultmann, saying that because what Jesus had done was history, what is needed for modern times is not more historical facts but contemporary relevance. The New Quest relooks at the relevance of history but ends up with pockets of sketchy details instead of a full biography of Jesus. Then there is the "Third Quest" and other quests which make for intriguing reading. With the Jesus studies becoming more widespread, many end up with greater respect for the reliability of the New Testament gospels. Embedded in these quests to look back into history is a profound eschatological orientation of faith, believing that there is a lot of importance and relevance in these studies in order to find out how one man can inspire the birth of great cathedrals and the spread of the Christian faith.

Chapter 2 goes into the sources and criteria of study which tends to become rather technical or academic. Scholars study not just the person but the place where Jesus lived. They use archaelogy. They examine the literary sources from Roman, Jewish, Greek, the Gospels, Q, the noncanonical gospels, and others. Also in this chapter, readers will be interested to see criteria for canonization and the historical reliability of the New Testament which in itself will help us appreciate the research, the scholarship, and the reverence of the people who helped ratify the Scriptures. Note that the canonization process is not an invention, but a ratification.

Chapter 3 is my favourite chapter. It presents snapshots of how modern historians have viewed Jesus to be. Richard Horsley calls Jesus a "social prophet" because Jesus is less interested in political or religious struggles, but more interested to touch lives in ordinary circumstances. Geza Vermes calls Jesus the "Charismatic Jew" because he is the "holy man" who seems to be drawing upon the power of God each time he performs a miracle. Ben Witherington III calls Jesus the "Jewish Sage" as wisdom made flesh. Dale Allison associates Jesus on an eschatological framework primarily because of Jesus constant proclamation of a coming kingdom. These scholars and many more are introduced as a primer for readers to learn about what are the current perspectives among Jesus scholars.

Chapters 4 to 9 launches into the six major scholars and theologians who have been most often cited and referenced. First there is Robert Funk and the famous Jesus Seminar, significant primarily because of their influence on Jesus scholarship. One particular motivation for the seminar is to learn as directly as possible the "first hand faith" from Jesus himself, instead of "second hand" from the disciples like Paul, Peter, and others. Interpretations from Marcus Borg, Burton Mack, Robert Miller, and others enrich the interactions with regards to the pros and cons of the seminar.  Some strong criticisms include that of N T Wright who feels that the Jesus Seminar is less of a historical study per se, but more of a reaction against the extremities of fundamentalism.

The second scholar, John Dominic Crossan, whose six fundamental decisions about the sources form an important springboard for his work: Mark's priority; presence of Q; John depending on the Synoptics; Independence of the gospel of Thomas; Independence of the Didache; and presence and independence of the "Cross gospel." His three categories of operations: the microcosmic, the mesocosmic, and the macrocosmic makes his study even more scientific than many in the Jesus Seminar. Powell closes the chapter with five areas of contention about Crossan's methods and findings.

The third scholar, Marcus J Borg, prefers to use the terms "pre-Easter" and "post-Easter" Jesus instead of the historical Jesus or the faith associated with Jesus. The reason is because Borg asserts the importance of both history and theology. The study is not simply an intellectual pursuit but a very personal one. Unlike Crossan's extensive and meticulous methods of study, Borg bucks the trend by accepting the historical documents as reliable without the need to subject the facts to theories and authentication instruments. That said, Borg too has three steps in his approach. 1) He accepts the documents as they are; 2) The first portrait of Jesus are assembled using the earliest witnesses, namely the gospel of Mark and Q; 3) He fills in the rest of the gaps in the portrait with documents and facts attained from "single attestation" sources. His motivation in the study is to see who the person of Jesus actually is. He ends up with five images of Jesus. The unique contribution of Borg is his "bridging" of the two fields of historical Jesus study; namely, Jesus as a Jew in history versus Jesus as an eschatological prophet. This strength is also a weakness for any such "bridge" easily invites criticisms from all parties.

The fourth scholar, E P Sanders sees Judaism as a covenant of grace. The law is a gift of grace. Adopting the canonical tradition, Sanders considers the historical documents true unless proven otherwise. This is unlike the Jesus Seminar participants who tend to presume the documents are false unless proven otherwise. Deemed most "traditional" among the Jesus scholars, with respect to its closeness to Albert Schweitzer's findings, Sanders also argues for the symbolic significance of the "twelve" people Jesus often speaks to. Together with this symbolic understanding of 12 being a significant Jewish understanding of the twelve tribes of Israel and the full restoration of God's people. That is why Sanders understands Jesus within the context of a "Jewish restoration eschatology." Despite his formidable work and influence, there are at least two chief criticisms of his work. First, Sanders is taken to task for putting Jewish mainly within the context of a Palestine Judaism context. What about the Roman-Graeco environment, the Hellenistic world? The second criticism is about Sanders' emphasis on Jesus as an eschatological prophet. Is Jesus' main concern about the things that are to come? Will that not overplay the kingdom that is to come, at the expense of the kingdom that has come?

The fifth scholar, John P Meier has written the most about the historical Jesus. Like Crossan, he too is Roman Catholic, but he is more convicted than Crossan when it comes to objectivity in scholarship. Where Crossan says objectivity is "spurious," Meier insists that scholars must be committed to "professional objectivity." This means that one may even need to put aside one's religious bias and work with those from other religious associations in getting at the objective. Such efforts put a heavy demand on his methodological and scientific prowess. Calling Jesus a "marginal Jew," he tries to highlight the point that Jesus is more than just a Jew within Judaism. Meier too has some criticisms, chief of which is the lack of association to Jesus' influence in the political and social scene. Just saying that Jesus has no political or social questions in his era makes it uncomfortable for many.

The sixth scholar is the ever popular N T Wright, widely respected by evangelicals throughout the world. Famous for using god in the lowercase 'g,' he masterfully reconstructs the world that Jesus had lived through six volumes of theological works. Calling his own research as "critical realism," Wright basically states a hypothesis and verify it with data. Five major questions must be asked when proposing any Jesus hypothesis:
  1. How does Jesus fit into Judaism?
  2. What were Jesus' aims?
  3. Why did Jesus die?
  4. How and why did the early Church begin?
  5. Why are the Gospels what they are?
In short, it is not historical objectivity nor traditional Judaism, but hypothesis and the verification of the stated hypothesis that determines the way to do Jesus studies. Well read, well researched, and well argued, Wright is certainly a formidable contributor to the historical Jesus study.

Powell ends the book with a valuable summary of all the 200 years of work by the various historians and scholars of the historical Jesus field of study. The three key areas of contention among the various researchers are disputes over sources, criteria, and approach. Even though many agree that Jesus is a Jew, they disagree on the extent of Jesus' Jewishness. Contentions exist in terms of Jesus' eschatological emphasis and political involvement.

So What?

The field of historical Jesus studies is a relatively new discipline. Many of the methodologies employed can be too involved for an ordinary layperson. Moreover, the amount of material to sieve through may take years to be familiar with. Just the works of John P Meier for example may take most of us a lifetime to study. Thankfully, Mark Allen Powell has done many of us a great favour in condensing the key findings of all the significant scholars in a single book. The new material in the Appendices alone is reason for owners of the first edition to get this new edition.

The disputes basically center around how historical studies are made, and the methodological assumptions made. There is also the nagging question of how objective can anyone actually be on a subject that has supernatural and spiritual consequences. Even though people can claim neutrality in their scientific approach, any approach adopted is already a bias. Any assumption taken is already a decision made. It is very hard to convince anyone about anything that is "neutral." That is why it is better not to use the word "neutrality" in our studies. Fairness is a better word. Not all criticisms are bad, but we need to learn to recognize frivolous arguments while maintaining an eye on constructive criticisms that move the researcher closer to the truth, even at the expense of one's starting position. From my standpoint, humility remains the key to anyone seeking truth or making any truth claims. As a Christian, only Jesus is the Truth, the Way, and the Life. Just to say that we want to study Jesus to see how true he is, is already a judgment on that statement. Is it then possible to be totally objective in our studies of Jesus? Personally, I feel more comfortable wth the approaches of N T Wright and E P Sanders, over the Jesus Seminar primarily because the latter tends to doubt the words of Jesus unless proven otherwise. Faith is not about the lack of doubt of something. Faith is the trust in spite of the doubts that surround that something.

Although the material in this book can be rather dense, if readers can work through the book and follow the brilliantly laid out line of arguments, one will certainly be blessed with deep appreciation for all these scholars, some of which have invested a major part of their lives into it. Kudos to Dr Mark Allen Powell for a brilliant piece of work.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


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

Monday, September 16, 2013

"Wounded by God's People" (Anne Graham Lotz)

TITLE: Wounded by God's People: Discovering How God's Love Heals Our Hearts
AUTHOR: Anne Graham Lotz
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (240 pages).

Some of the deepest hurts are inflicted by people closest to you, even God's people. Some of the deepest healings are guided by God through the valley of hurts and wounds. So says the daughter of the famous Billy Graham. This reality has been experienced by many people. Most of them do get unreported. For various reasons, people choose to keep silent and quietly suffer the hurts they have received. Some will leave their church community they love. Others may even go around mouthing bad things as a retaliation. Not many will go on record to forgive and to publicly testify how God has healed them in spite of the deep hurts they have suffered from God's people. Ruth Graham Lotz is one such person who bucks the trend. She begins with painful memories of how she and her husband have been ostracized by her own Church in the aftermath of a power struggle, and compares her experience to that of Hagar. Feeling dumped by most of the Church people, she experiences the pain of rejection. Moreover, she was hurt by people she had respected, even receiving some wrongful accusations along the way.  As she recalls the blows, she reflects back on Hagar, how God is bigger than any hurt.

Being hurt also brings about certain positive things. She learns that people who wound others are people who have been wounded themselves. This is the vicious cycle of pain. Like Sarah who has experienced the pain of being ignored by her husband, and as a result hurts Hagar. There is also the example of Hannah in the Bible, who was constantly ridiculed by Peninnah for not bearing a child. What happens is usually escape or to take flight. Wounded people, especially God's people often run away from the people who wound them. Thankfully, Lotz wastes no time in bringing readers toward the God who heals. Less than a third into the book, readers will notice that Lotz's intent is to lead people toward God more and more. There is no hurt too deep that God cannot reach. No one can outrun God. At the same time, God also shows us our blind spots. We need to be humble to see and to do something about it, with God's help. Lotz also makes an insightful note that it is those times when we feel hurt that we can be tempted to look out at the specks of other people's eyes, forgetting about the log in our own eye. It is a reminder that hurt people are not perfect themselves. When God heals us from wounds by others, God can also heal us of our self-inflicted wounds. The chapter on the "Spiritual Blind Spots" by itself is worth the price of the book.

Hurts can also come about through the act of wounding. When God prunes, He can also feel the hurts. Discipline can be painful. Sometimes, God can use others to discipline us. Thus, we cannot be too liberal to say that all hurts are evil and badly intended. Readers are reminded that when God is in control, He is free to use all methods to guide us, even hurts. That said, God is no sadist. Though sometimes, for those of us who receive hurtful wounds hurled at us one after another, we start to question whether God is fair to us in the first place. What is most important in these cases, is to remember steadfastly that the world may forsake us, but God will never forsake us. When we are in the wilderness, God is there. When we cry, God is there. When we need hope, God is there. Just because we do not feel it does not mean God is absent. For every seemingly silent moment is a tiptoe by God to look for opportunities to touch us. Even if God is around us, we need open hearts to let Him in. We need to open up our clenched fists and to let Him hold us. One touching moment is how Anne Lotz lets God reach out to her through her famous dad. In a moment of exceptional sensitivity and love, the author's terrible day turns into a terrific moment of praise and thanksgiving. All because she knows someone cares. This book through and through is a testimony of how God cares for His people, especially when they feel hurt.

So What?

Having experienced personal hurts, Anne Graham Lotz is an example that often, authors do not choose their books. Their own life experiences dictates the way. Aware that there are many who choose to keep silent in order to avoid embarrassing themselves or others, Lotz chooses to make it known in this very personal book. She anchors her book on the truth that Jesus is able to heal not merely because He is God, but He has also been wounded by people.

Although the title of the book says wounded, this book is less about the wounding but more about the healing. After all, any hurts written about have already happened. Any conflicts have already occurred. What remains is the nursing of the wounds, the remembrance of them may be even more distressing.

I used to tell my fellow pastors that "sheep can bite." What I fail to add is that sheep can also be healing agents used by God. People hurt. God heals. That often happens through people who are willing to let God use them. Of all the challenges of recovering from hurts, I think the most difficult will be our self-inflicted hurts. Our self-imposed prison can be the most difficult to overcome. Lotz calls this the stubborn spirit. In such times, we all need eyes that not only can see, but eyes that are willing to see. We need ears that not only can hear, but are willing to listen. We need hearts that not only are open, but are willingly laid open for God to use and to touch. People can hurt us lots. People can throw mud at our faces or torment us with their words. The test of character is how we respond. Do we retaliate? Do we judge? Do we wallow in self-pity and regret? Or do we demonstrate the grace of God and to let the peace of God that transcends all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord?

One more thing. Remember that while every hurt is an opportunity for healing, it can also be spiritual moments of encountering God when we are most bare, most vulnerable, and most raw. This book is required reading for all who love the Church, those who have been hurt, and those who yearn to see more of God, in spite of their wounds.

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.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"Crazy Busy" (Kevin DeYoung)

TITLE: Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book about a (Really) Big Problem
AUTHOR: Kevin DeYoung
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2013, (128 pages).

It is one of the most commonly used phrases in our culture. It is also a primary way in which we assert our sense of self-importance, self-worth, and self-accomplishment. If there is any one widely accepted answer to the question, "How are you doing?" this is it.  "Busy."
  • How are you doing? Busy
  • How are you getting along? Busy.
  • How's life? Busy.
  • What's next? Busier still.
If you are an alien from outer space coming to earth for the first time, you will probably be forgiven if you then start to presume that "Busy" is the first or last names of earth people. So crazy is this phenomenon that Kevin DeYoung has titled this book "Crazy Busy." The main purpose of this book is to help people not only to manage their crazy spiral of non-stop busyness, but to pause our engines and to ponder on the words of Jesus to Martha:

Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:41-42)

Hoping to garner wider acceptance and attention, his subtitles play into the mood of wanting things fast and having everything as brief and to the point as possible. DeYoung has designed this book to play along the frantic moods of a busy reader. Using the numbers 3-7-1 as a framework, readers will look at three dangers to avoid; seven diagnoses to consider; and one thing we all must do. The book comes across with clear outlines, point by point lists, as well as short snappy quips. Even the length of the book has been shortened.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

"The One Year Holy Land Moments Devotional"

TITLE: The One Year Holy Land Moments Devotional
AUTHOR: Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and Tremper Longman III
PUBLISHER: Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2013, (400 pages).

This big book contains daily devotionals for 52 weeks. Based on a "Holy Land Moments" daily radio program by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, it attempts to bring together both Christians as well as Jews to build trust and goodwill based on their acknowledgement of the common Scriptures and devotions to God. After each daily commentary by the Rabbi Yechiel, Tremper Longman III contributes "A Christian Reflection" on that holy land moment. The devotions are classified according to themes. Each theme is based on a particular Scripture passage from the Old Testament.   While the Rabbi focuses the majority of the devotions on the Old Testament, only four are based on the New Testament. For example, Week 11 Day 2 is from 1 Corinthians 14:33 which is a prayer for peace.  Week 13 Day 6 is based on 1 Thessalonians 5:17 which is on the theme of thanksgiving. Nevertheless, with the help of his Christian co-author, there is ample usage of both Old and New Testaments in the devotional.

As I read the book, I wonder what is so "Holy Land Moments" about the devotional? There are three ways to look at it. Firstly, it is the awareness of the place. Beginning with the Word of God is one holy land moment, for God's Word is often based on a particular context in space. Being thankful for a place to express that devotion is also crucial. For example, in the reflection on the creation of the Jewish state the Rabbi is grateful to God for "bringing his children home." At the same time, he is thankful for Christians and others who have helped make it possible. Looking at the "homeland of Israel," the Rabbi lets his devotions move from gratitude to worship.

Secondly, as far as the Christian reader is concerned, having a Rabbi teach about the origins of Jewish words and customs is very illuminating. For example, the word "Hebrew" comes from a word for "side." Being a Hebrew literally means that the world is on one side, and the Hebrews are on the other side. Abraham is the world's first Hebrew (Genesis 14:13).

Thirdly, the inclusion of a "Sabbath Reflection" each week that supplies just questions rather than many words or answers is symbolic. Each week, readers are encouraged to seek God for themselves, to do their own devotions, assisted by some guiding questions. Here, readers can move from being limited to "Holy Land Moments" toward entering into the presence of a Holy God. This is what the Sabbath is about. Being free from the works of the other six days, and to rest in the presence of Almighty God.

This book is a devotional that is lightly written so that readers can understand the idea quickly, and to gradually move toward prayer and meditation. In a world of cluttered stuff and wordy literature, there is beauty in brevity, and depth in simplicity. Not only will this devotional bring Christians and Jews closer together with common Scripture knowledge, it helps demonstrate to the world that in a profound way, they are brothers and sisters.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Monday, September 9, 2013

Life Change for Couples (James M. Reeves)

TITLE: Life Change for Couples: A Biblical 12-Step Journey for Marriage Enrichment
AUTHOR: James M. Reeves
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2013, (272 pages).

One goal. Two words. Three attitudes. Twelve steps. One goal. This essentially frames up the purpose and structure of the book. of the book. The one goal is marriage enrichment. The two words are "blessed wisdom." The three attitudes are: Instruction; Introspection; and Interaction. The twelve steps are modified from the "Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous." Intended to be used as a workbook, the author begins each chapter with a basic teaching of the main points (Instruction). This is followed by clear explanations about the requirements for change, and challenging us to take the step of faith forward (Introspection). It follows with probing exercises for married couples to work through together through table talks, through open sharing, and common determination to improve together (Interaction). This Instructional-Introspection-Interaction format is consistently used through all the twelve steps.

It is important to read the foundations where Reeves emphasized the common purpose of Christ-centered growth. Such a growth is necessary because the enemy is wreaking havoc on marriage relationships. If couples are not aware that a war is being fought, they will not bother to equip themselves in the first place. They must be aware of a common enemy. The place in which the life change happens is also critical. Within a safe environment, and with both persons willing to work toward cultivating integrity in the relationship, both need to recognize that humility is the lubricant of relationships. The principle to remember that one's relationship with God spiritually can never exceed one's relationship with fellow people. Lest one becomes a hypocrite before the Almighty God, one needs to pay special attention to ensure that one's emotional links to one another are well looked after, before one ventures toward a spiritual connection. In a nutshell, one cannot happen without the other. If one loves God, one must also demonstrate that with evidence of love for one another. Chances are, couples will find the emotional/spiritual cycle and the ladder rather thought provoking, as it is an attempt to explain the close connection between the spiritual and the emotional relationship. Then, there is the pile-principle which forces each person to grab the bull by the horns, declaring the five truths which are all based on this principle:

"The pile of emotional garbage we carry throughout our lives is what sabotages our lives and relationships with God and others."

The rest of the book deals with the "Biblical 12-step Journey Toward Marriage Enrichment." Although it is called 12 steps, Reeves adopts a ten alphabet methodology instead, combining the original steps 6 and 7; 8 and 9; into steps 6 and 7 respectively. It is because the original AA steps 6 and 7 are similar, as in asking God to help remove one's shortcomings, and defects of character, Reeves combine these steps into Step 6, or F to focus on faith. Similarly, steps 8 and 9 are steps urging one to make a list of people we had harmed, to be willing make amends (inside) and to actually take the necessary actions (outside). Briefly, the ten steps are:
  1. A - Admit Powerlessness
    In admitting there is a problem first, one starts to be more open to solutions. In acknowledging powerlessness, one recognizes that when it comes to relationships, we all need help, especially divine help.
  2. B - Believe the Truth
    Here, we make a distinction between having faith on belief vs faith on God. The Truth is God sets us free, not our works. Reeves says it very well that the biggest challenge for us is not about our belief in God, but in God alone.
  3. C - Commit to Christ
    Moving forward, one needs to let the mental beliefs become convictions and commitment to Christ. Self-will and self-determination must decrease as one lets God's will increase in our lives.
  4. D - Discover Responsibility
    Honesty is one of the most important healing step in any relationships. Sometimes, people hide their true selves from one another, refusing to accept responsibility for things done or undone. Reeves then highlight the classic seven deadly sins to drive home the point that all of us need to be honest about our own weaknesses.
  5. E - Expose the Secrets
    This is an extremely vulnerable step. We all like to be open before God, but when it comes to one another, it can be real hard. Confession means taking the step of raw honesty; owning appropriate responsibility; willing to enter into the pain; and be ready to take a risk on grace. With honesty, relationships thrive. With deception, relationships dive. We may even need to be honest with our own selves.
  6. F - Focus on Faith
    Character defects removal can be one of the most difficult things to do. Fears, Failures, can prevent one from exercising greater faith. Moreover, faith is an action rather than a thought. In this step, one needs to seek God and let God have the first, the following, and all the final say. It is a call for obedience. Using the image of a train, facts is the engine that pulls faith, followed by feelings. Fact is the obedience. Faith is the trust. Feelings is the carriage that depends on the first two. 
  7. G - Go Get Right
    This comes in two parts. The first part is about being willing to take responsibility. The second part is to do it. This process comes often through forgiveness. It replaces guilt and grief with grace. Reeves also helpfully sorts out the myths from the realities of forgiveness.
  8. H - Heed the Weeds
    The key challenge is to battle complacency. It is not enough to get things right the first time. One needs to continue getting it right. In heeding the weeds, readers are urged to beware of being too complacent, which can easily unravel the good work done. Using the HOME acronym, we learn to go through the first four steps (ABCD) of this ten-step process again.
  9. I - Increase God Contact
    This step is about spiritual disciplines. Remember how Reeves talk about emotional health and spiritual health, that the former cannot run faster than the latter? This is an appropriate and logical step that once the earlier steps are completed (emotionally), one is ready for the spiritual dimension.
  10. J - Just Do It!
    This final step is essentially about practice. It revises the earlier steps and urges readers to keep on practicing the principles for life.
It is because the original AA steps 6 and 7 are similar, as in asking God to help remove one's shortcomings, and defects of character, Reeves combine these steps into Step 6, or F to focus on faith. Similarly, steps 8 and 9 are steps urging one to make a list of people we had harmed, to be willing make amends (inside) and to actually take the necessary actions (outside).

My Comments

I commend Reeves for being able to classify the various steps and principles with easy to remember acronyms and pedagogical tools. What can be confusing for readers is whether the proposed steps are twelve or ten. On the front cover of the book, we read about a "12-step journey." Yet, in the book, even though there are actually twelve steps that have been squeezed into a ten-step alphabetical structure, I think it will be more beneficial and less confusing if the author can just say "10 steps." There is something else that I find a little disconcerting. While the workbook has been written in a clear and comprehensible way, and stepwise explanation of what needs to be done, it may not necessarily apply to all couples. Instructors may need to remind all couples that the ten steps are not to be seen as written in concrete. They are guidelines. Sometimes, one may need to work on multiple phases at the same time. For example, committing to Christ requires a fair amount of honesty. Trusting God is necessary for all steps, not just step B. Heeding the weeds (Step H) may even be exercised much earlier, as some of us may be rather absent minded. At the same time, remember too that couples are not identical robots. One may even jump ahead much faster than the other along the steps. This calls for not mere adherence to the methodology but the heart behind the desire to work through the process. In that sense, we let the "blessed wisdom" mentioned early in the book to guide us.

In blessed wisdom, let me share five thoughts. First, we learn to wait for one another. Patience is a virtue. Waiting slows our sinful selves to the speed of sensitivity and sensibility. Waiting helps one to let each other be themselves. Waiting is gentle and encouraging. This attitude of waiting needs to accompany not only the steps per se, but the transitioning through each step. Second, in transitioning or while working through any stage, we need to make sure expectations are never imposed on others. If need to, let the expectations fall on one's shoulders first. Expect oneself to obey. Expect oneself to observe the steps. Expect oneself to implement any personal ideas first. In other words, use oneself as the guinea pig. Third, prayer is a significant component in any couple wanting to grow spiritually. In fact, prayer must be present through the entire process. Reeves may have placed the spiritual disciplines toward the end of the ten stage process. I urge readers however to include the practice of prayer, Bible reading, and other spiritual disciplines at every stage of the journey. It is a way of acknowledging we need divine help and guidance. Four, there is no guarantee that every stage will result in a nice feeling in the heart. Sometimes, due to various situations, like pressures of time or unforseen circumstances,  couples may need to combine steps or to vary the length of each stage. Moods change. People change. Circumstances change. Some may even feel not ready for any transition at all. In such a case, remember the train picture: Fact-Faith-Feeling? It can guide. Five, there may even be more or less than ten steps. I encourage couples to be creative, and to develop a system that they can call their own. Improve on the ten stages. Add, expand, shrink them, and modify in such a way as to suit the unique situations of each couple.

This book is another resource for pastors, teachers, leaders, counselors, or marriage courses facilitators to use for the benefit of enriching marriages. Used in conjunction with other more established materials, this book will certainly be a solid resource for exercising and enriching marriages.

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.

Friday, September 6, 2013

"Against the gods" (John D. Currid)

TITLE: Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament
AUTHOR: John D. Currid
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2013, (160 pages).

Who shapes who? Is the Old Testament context shaped by the surrounding cultures of the Ancient Near East (ANE)? Or is the culture in the ANE influencing the early writers of the Bible? John Currid, Professor of Old Testament studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte argues that the historical, geographical, and the cultural contexts of the ANE can add valuable insights into our understanding of the Old Testament. This book looks into the relationship of the ANE to the Hebrew Scriptures, in the hope that not only will it spur greater interest in the area of "polemical theology," it will add more excitement and enthusiasm into the studies of ancient texts. What Currid tries to do is to maintain a healthy respect for the genre of studies, through appreciation and understanding of why the ancients think, write, and behave as they are. According to Currid, the reason we ought to study the ANE context is simply because not only is the ANE studies quite recent, it is also one of the most neglected. Polemical theology is about using the images, symbols, and stories of the ancient times, and to bring into them new meanings, especially from a theological standpoint.

Currid's survey of the historical study of the Old Testament genre is enlightening. He observes that modern scholars are shifting away from the Hebrew position of an "original, single, and unique" worldview. Early studies were based on explaining the hostilities between the Greeks and the Persians (5BC), the Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mesopotamia archaelogy, many of which are simply discovering the artifacts for what they are with "innocent discovery." By the 19th Century, the mood turns toward "suspicion" where scholars see the biblical writers borrowing much material from the ANE instead of being unique in themselves. For instance, Friedrich Driver thinks that the biblical writers simply take the myths and stories of the ANE, strip them of the polytheism influences and the present a "sanitized" version for biblical purposes. By 1906, researchers start to focus on using the ANE as a way to shed light on the history of the biblical texts. From 1945 to the present, with advanced linguistic studies, more scholars consider the biblical history more as "invention and propaganda."

Calling polemical theology as a way in which the biblical writers counter the cultures and practices of their age, Currid aims to highlight the superiority of the biblical authors in three ways. First, while the Hebrew writers have borrowed a lot of ideas from the ANE, they maintain a focus on a superior God, that guides their borrowing.  Second, the biblical texts are authoritative enough that while there are parallels between the ancient biblical texts and the ANE, the Bible not only confronts but has the ultimate Word. Third, the picture of the Creator LORD God is the overwhelming God over all other gods, superior over all other ancient deities, and sharpens the focus on Monotheism. In other words, the biblical texts are unique, superior, and overwhelmingly single-minded on the Creator God, in contrast to ANE's broad descriptions of many gods.

Genesis 1 is a popular passage in polemical theology studies. Many 20th Century scholars believe that Genesis 1 is directly dependent on the ANE materials, accusing the ancient biblical writers for "crass plagiarism" of ANE stuff. Many evangelicals in the 21st Century takes a similar approach. They believe that while writing to a culture where people are familiar with the ANE, the biblical writers actually "demythologized" the stories, and then infused the monotheism message. Currid thinks otherwise, insisting that while there are parallels between Genesis and the ANE, one need to look behind the ANE and ask where the ANE originates. He argues carefully that it is the ANE that has borrowed from the Bible instead. In addition, the Bible is a "polemic" against the ANE as it sharply distinguishes the difference between them and the superiority of the Hebrew God. For instance, it is not the ANE that informs the biblical narrative of creation. It is the biblical narrative that presents the earliest clue on how the ANE derives their existence in the first place.

Currid goes on to talk about the Great Flood where many cultures worldwide have at least some record of a great liquid deluge. From Sumeria to Babylonia, Ugarit to Egypt, there are many parallels to the biblical texts.Yet, underneath the superficial similarities, Currid powerfully distills the distinctiveness of the biblical genre and sets forth profound differences theologically, morally, covenant-ally, and the literary beauty. The differences are huge not only in the details but also in the underlying worldviews. The Bible is independent rather than dependent on the ANE texts. Rather than to claim that the Bible plagiarises the ANE, it is actually the Bible that speaks polemically against the beliefs of the ANE. For example, the biblical writers are stanchly monotheists in contrast to the polytheistic stance of the ANE. The similar motifs of "spurned seductress," "triangle of characters," betrayal, and sexuality based on revenge. What makes the Bible morally superior is the stand that God takes with regards to wanton immorality.

Then there is the hero motif, where the threatened baby becomes saved, and ultimately delivers the nation. While the ANE seems to focus on the battle of the gods and among men, the Bible focuses of delivery under the watchful eye of One Divine God.  One interesting example is the story of Moses, which happens within the nation of Egypt, and is a symbolic demonstration that even within an Egyptian context, the Hebrew God stands superior. Other examples that Currid use to compare the Bible with the ANE are the story of Moses, the Exodus deliverance, the appearance of the I AM, and how the Bible is a polemic against the Canaanite motifs.

So What?

Currid demonstrates an impressive array of knowledge on the ANE culture and religious beliefs. (Hey, he is Professor of Old Testament after all!) He is able to bring together the fragments of the myths and stories popular in the ancient times, to compare and to contrast with the biblical texts. That is no easy feat, given that every fragment chosen requires careful scholarship, archaeological considerations, as well as interpretive angles. Understanding the ANE is always a challenge. What makes modern man able to understand the mindset and the logic of the ancient races? What qualifies us to even attempt to make a polemical statement either from the Bible or from the ANE perspectives?

There is one chief requirement to anyone embarking on such studies. Openness and humility. By acknowledging the works of the different experts and scholars in ANE literature and culture, we enter into the discussion as a participant, not a sage by the stage, but as a guide by the side. We cannot be dogmatic about the beliefs. Neither can we make the ancient works say things that they do not actually say. Currid chooses the angle of polemical theology in understanding the ANE. Thus the label, "Against the gods." It is important to remember that it is not the author who is specifically against the ANE gods. It is the Bible that is pitted against all other gods. It is in understanding the key thrust of the Old Testament not to worship idols. It is the consistent argument that Israel is not to have any other gods before the LORD God. With this theological framework, Currid is able to anchor the entire book on one chief premise: It is not the Bible that copies from the ANE. It is the Bible that understands the ancient contexts, captures the underlying mood of the times, and speaks out against the errors and the idols of the age.

This book is a book on how the biblical writers, against all odds, are able to speak into the culture, not as blind and helpless participants, but as clear-headed writers, fully focused on one God who is over all, and above all powers. I warmly recommend this book to anyone keen to learn more about the contexts of the Old Testament stories.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


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.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

"Outreach and the Artist" (Con Campbell)

TITLE: Outreach and the Artist: Sharing the Gospel with the Arts
AUTHOR: Con Campbell
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (128 pages).

This is a unique contribution to the art of evangelism. We have many books pertaining to the how and the why of evangelism. Not many touch on the beauty and the creativity in terms of letting art speak the wonder of God. This book, written by an artist as well as a scholar tries to speak into the beauty of God using the natural artistic creativity of humans. The three thrusts of the book are about evangelism:

  • With the arts; (chapters 2-3)
  • Through the arts; (chapter 4)
  • To the arts. (chapters 5-7)

In evangelism with the arts, Campbell begins with his personal testimony of his journey through visual arts toward jazz. Paintings and drawings fail to interest him. The piano only motivates him up to a certain point. With the saxophone, something artistic within him finally clicks. It leads him to dedicate more time playing it. Playing it leads him to a love of jazz. Jazz leads him to the Church, but not after a period of grappling between God and jazz. Slowly but surely, he recognizes how jazz can replace God, and makes a conscious decision that instead of allowing jazz to become a god in itself, he will let jazz be a channel to lead people to God. Thus the book of outreach and the artist where Campbell describes not only his own journey from jazz to God, but to help readers find their own stories in terms of evangelism with, through, and to the arts.

The biggest “ministry” for the author is actually the art of listening. He realizes that people are often fed up with the culture that is high in telling people what to do, but low in listening to one another. Even Christians themselves are not immune. Pointing out that the biggest barrier to people is not atheism or Christianity per se, but Christian people, Campbell shares how through jazz, he is able to introduce the person of Jesus. Even if people are resistant to the gospel directly, they will still be open to a good session of jazz. Those who love jazz will find it appealing. Creativity has a purpose, and more importantly, music is a way in which we can infuse our search for personhood with creativity, meaning with spiritual awareness, and evoking thoughts without being rude. For example, a few different jazz players who play together as one united band is a marvelous expression of the Trinity, unique three persons and yet one God. Campbell makes a distinction between professionalism and opportunity. The former is about working out the best quality, while the latter is trying to use music as a means to reach out. Sometimes, being too conscious of using music as a tool for evangelism can unwittingly result in a deterioration of integrity of the music in itself. It is a fine balance.

Some tips include clear communications, where the artists explain exactly what they are doing and why; to acknowledge critics for their honesty; and to avoid 'bait and switch' techniques that bait people with music, and then rudely switch them to a Christian message. Better to be upfront in the first place. For Christians, having appropriate expectations are helpful. Other tips include how to involve the Church in any arts outreach event. One tip in particular is to build rapport. Whether the audience is churched or unchurched, the moment the musician or the artist is able to connect with the audience, a lot can be accomplished. People connect with what is common in all of our hearts: need for security, acceptance, love, care, and the awesome human touch.

In evangelism through the arts, Campbell looks at two ways in which arts-based outreach can be done. The first is the "message" where the message takes priority, and the means to do it is of secondary importance. Theologically, this is based on the foundation of the gospel that needs to be proclaimed and to be heard. We are Christians not because of the name. We are Christians because of the gospel. The second approach is the medium where attention is paid to the way the message is transmitted. Here, the message is infused or incorporated into the medium in such a way that outreach can be done creatively. Whether the message or the medium is used first, it is good to be aware of the pros and cons of each. Campbell then makes a case for the artist to do some self-evaluation to determine which is most appropriate, according to the evangelistic contexts and the gifts in possession.

In evangelism to the arts, Campbell directs his attention to the arts community. This is perhaps the most challenging of all, and the author dedicates three whole chapters to do that. Chapter five invites readers to learn to appreciate the contexts and the subcultures of the artists. What language do they speak? How do they communicate? What vocabulary do they use? How do they live? Who do they hang out with? One way that Christians can learn more about these subcultures is to maintain some connection with them. Credibility is key when it comes to connecting with artists. On the one hand, they dislike pretense, especially when Christians try to say they know music when they are actually non-musicians. On the other hand, they dislike bad quality artists. Chapter six then looks at how many artists who grow up in churches, eventually leave, prompting the author to say: "The church gave them music, and music took them away." He looks at the two reasons why these people leave the Church. The first reason is the incompatible lifestyles. Many musicians hang out to the wee hours of the night, and making it hard for them to be earnest and regular church attendees. The second reason is the way the rest of the Church stereotypes the musicians, and even ostracize them and alienates them. Campbell then homes in on the main problem. It is not the music or the art, the musicians or the artists, the Church or the wrong stereotypes. It is idolatry. For artists, any infatuation with glorifying the acts is tantamount to idolizing the arts. In an industry where total devotion is expected, artists are trapped between creating good quality work, and letting the pursuit become an end in itself. Learning to recognize and then to work toward dethroning such an idol is the key to survival. A great way forward is to look for those who have successfully modeled a lifestyle that is honouring the arts without making them an idol. Learn from various individuals. Campbell includes in the book some short profiles of several artists like Keeley Manca Lambert (Acting); Richard Maegraith (Jazz); Dan McGowan (Comedian); Kristin Berardi (Music and Photography); Ian McGilvray (Painting); Keith Birchley (Classical Music); Hayley Neal (Performing Arts).

So What?

This is a special work of art, written by a musician as well as a scholar. As a jazz musician, Campbell understands music and the temptations that go with idolizing it. As a scholar, he thinks through the implications of theology and the arts. Campbell is also an Associate Professor of New Testament at TEDS. One of his recent books is a theological one, called "Paul and Union with Christ." You can read my review of that book here. Written in a very easy to read, but yet powerfully anchored on the premises of the gospel and theological integrity, Campbell urges readers to be creative in any evangelistic endeavours; to be active in engaging the arts community through genuine interest; to be welcoming in terms of openly appreciating the works of musicians through sincere engagement; to encourage musicians and artists from within the Christian community to see the bigger picture of God who can work with, through, and use Christians to speak to the arts community.

I like the attention given to arts in this book. While it seems like a book that attempts to evangelize the community of artists and musicians, readers will be pleasantly surprised that the book offers much more. In fact, it even invites readers to take the plunge and do the arts, if not, to be more appreciative of the arts. Learn to communicate our intent for sharing the gospel in love. Instead of trying to "bait and switch" any unsuspecting artist, be frank with them and state our intention upfront. Ask for permission. Be genuinely interested in what they are doing. Let the love of God spur all of us to good music and great art, and in the midst of enjoying the arts, we get a glimpse of the beauty of God. In the midst of marveling at the wonders of God, we get a glimpse of the human person created in the image of God.

You do not need to be an artist in order to appreciate this book. What you need is to have an eye for appreciating the arts, and an open heart to learn, to be humble, and to ask the experienced professional to teach us. Who knows. Our humility and willingness to learn from them can teach us a thing or two about faith and spirituality. Our learning disposition can also encourage non-Christians to adopt the same attitude when it comes to faith and the gospel.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.