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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Soul Keeping" (John Ortberg)

TITLE: Soul Keeping: Caring For the Most Important Part of You
AUTHOR: John Ortberg
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (208 pages).

What is the soul? What does the soul need? How is the soul restored and revitalised? These questions are expertly dealt with by bestselling author John Ortberg. Also a pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, Ortberg has written several other popular books about the Christian life and spiritual growth. Reflecting on life and death, the vibrant and the lethargic, Ortberg moves from basic Christian living toward a fundamental aspect of spiritual growth: Caring for the Soul. He calls this the "most important part" of us and compares this to a "keeper of the stream." Nourish it and the soul would flourish. Ignore it and the soul would diminish. Throughout the book, Ortberg reflects on his interactions with his spiritual mentor, the late Dr Dallas Willard about soul talk.

"The most important thing in your life is not what you do; it's who you become. That's what you will take into eternity. You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God's great universe." (Dallas Willard)

This eventually becomes Ortberg's thesis in this book, that we are the keepers of our soul and taking care of the most important part of us demands our wholehearted focus in cultivating, developing, and growing our souls. That is why this book is entitled: "Soul Keeping."

Songs have been written about it. Psychotherapists have analyzed it. Prayers have been uttered of it. Science has even tried to weigh it. For Christians, some have also attempted to calculate the cost of a soul. Instead of seeing the soul as the center of the person, Ortberg points to a different direction. The soul encompasses everything else. Unhealthy souls scatter all the person's mind, will, and self all over. Healthy souls will integrate and maintains integrity through gratitude and generosity. In a tough world that often tries to pull us apart in many directions, Ortberg lists several such dangers. There is the danger of being so success-driven that touches up the outer but impoverishes the inner. Fame is fleeting but distracting as well. The parable of the sower aptly describes how our soul is like the seed being described. Are our souls likened to hardened grounds of fear that fall on the way and become lost? What about the shallow souls that never really take root? What of the cluttered soul and the many things we do in the name of spiritual growth? Sin is a major part of soul destruction.

After describing the risks and dangers of ignoring the soul, Ortberg moves toward what we can do. He makes readers appreciate that the soul is fundamentally a needy being. We need at least nine things, namely:
  1. A Keeper: we need to take responsibility to care for and to keep the soul nourished
  2. A Center: we need God to be our center so that we will not be easily distracted or tossed aside
  3. A Future: we need a clear sense of the hope and promise of an eternity with God
  4. Being With God: we need to recognize that our true home is with God
  5. Rest: we need to be engaged in a rhythm of race and grace, knowing that is the natural cycle of creation
  6. Freedom: we need to live in the freedom of the gospel
  7. Blessing: we are wired to bless and be blessed
  8. Satisfaction: our spiritual cravings need a satisfactory resource
  9. Gratitude: we need to cultivate a spirit of thanksgiving always.

Ortberg concludes with a chapter on the classic work, "Dark Night of the Soul" that such a journey may be necessary in order to grow an intimacy in us for God, that nothing else truly matters, and only God is sufficient for all of our needs.

So What?

This book is eloquently Ortberg. The introduction is compelling, showing us that the soul is indeed a much neglected part of us. By ignoring this, we are essentially ignoring the most important part of ourselves. The soul is not just a spiritual component that drives the rest of us. It is the rest of us that resonates with the quality of our souls. The intimate talks with Dallas Willard are priceless. Readers can see how much Willard means to the author, and how the author grows his own spiritual awareness through the years. Ortberg has a keen understanding of the troubles that afflict Christians at large. The problems of a busy society centered on success and popularity. Even preachers and Christian leaders are not immune from such temptations. By including nine ways to cultivate soul-keeping, Ortberg has made this book a practical how-to guide to keeping our souls healthy.

I wonder about the order of the nine needs of the soul. Is there an order to it? My feelings on it are mixed. If there is an order, then the list begins well but ends rather abruptly. While it is nice to start with the "keeper" to ignite the responsibility card, if I am a staunch Calvinist or Reformist, I may ask why not begin with God? Why is gratitude the last instead of rest? The part about satisfaction could have been merged with gratitude. I am sure there could have been more than nine ways, but given the brevity of the book, the author can only list so much. Personally, I prefer more references to the spiritual classics of old, especially monastic literature and ancient spirituality of the early Church fathers and the desert monks. The chapter on "Dark Night of the Soul" ought to have more meat in it. In all, my sense is that this book begins well but the conclusion is mild. By beginning and ending with his recollections of his time with Willard, sometimes I wonder if this book is also part-memoir of his time with his mentor instead of simply a popular treatise on soul-work. It is both. That's why it lacks the impact of a pointed bullet. Nevertheless, I can recommend this book for popular reading and growing of our inner soul.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan Publishers and Icon Media Group in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"The New Covenant" (Bob Emery)

TITLE: The New Covenant
AUTHOR: Bob Emery
PUBLISHER: Charlottesville, VA: BenchPress Publishing, 2012, (436 pages).

There has been several books that have attempted to tell the story of the Bible through narratives and fictional conversations. With the facts of the Bible as the background, authors generally will attempt to do their best guess on what exactly happened in a way that engages the reader like a fiction novel does. Some of them includes Walter Wangerin Jr's "The Book of God," which also tells the story of the Bible as a novel. This book by Bob Emery falls in the same genre of narrative storytelling, using the "New Covenant" as the big idea that holds three major sections together.

Written as a series of dialogues between the apostle John, Titus, and Paul, the entire period begins at the Garden of Gethsemane, and ends with Revelation. The author, President and Founder of Global Opportunities for Christ has two main purposes for writing this book. The first is to be able to retell the story of the New Testament and to describe the events of the early Christians and their struggles. The second purpose is to draw out spiritual lessons for contemporary times. At 436 pages, the book is a thick read like some of the 400-500 pages novel. For Emery, the key reason why he wrote this book is to instill in readers a proper understanding of the New Covenant.

In Section One entitled, "The Messenger," the narrative looks closely at the circumstances surrounding Jesus' crucificion, his resurrection, his ascension, and how the New Covenant was established. With John as the first person, the fictional conversations between him, Titus, Paul, and others record the story of how the gospel spreads from Jerusalem to the rest of the world.

Section Two, "The Message" centers on how the covenant appears like in the minds of first-century believers, and how it has caused many conflicts and controversies over the New Testament books. He notes well that the 27 books of the Bible was canonized on the basis of a "previously established authority" rather than a brand new one conferred by the Synod of Hippo in AD 397. The stories weave in all the circumstances that lead to the formation of the 27 books of the New Testament.

Section Three, "The Marriage" is a dramatic narrative on John's personal commentary on the book of Revelation. It tries to explain what Revelation is from the standpoint of the same Apostle who wrote it.  Beginning with the 1967 many emphases on Bible Prophecy, the second coming of Christ, and the interest in eschatology, Emery relooks at the book of Revelation and gives several interesting observations of the end times. Like Revelation, there is a lot of symbolism described, showing how Old Testament and New Testament prophecies come together toward a climactic end.

So What?

This is a big book and I am amazed at how the author is able to cover so much ground. It is not a book of history. It falls under the genre of historical fiction. Weaved into it is Emery's personal interpretations of the Bible and his theological understanding. Emery has put in a lot of effort to be faithful to what the Bible is saying. He uses many biblical references and information to back up his claim. At the same time, he exercises creativity and imagination to string together a series of conversations that lead up to a main message. Due to the lengthiness of the novel, it is hard for readers to quickly find out what the author is talking about. In other words, the book is not a quick read. It is an extensive conversation, more like a play that requires users to follow the thread closely so as not to lose the flow. If readers are unable to put in the time to read this book in its entirely, the benefits will be minimal. That said, I struggle to find anything "dramatic" about it. Even though each chapter is brief, what would have helped will be diagrams and sectionings within each chapter so that major points can be emphasized for readers who may be lost in the words and conversations, or for anyone who may have missed the flow somewhere.

Rating: 3.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of BenchPress Publishing and Speakeasy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

"Christ in the Sabbath" (Rich Robinson)

TITLE: Christ in the Sabbath
AUTHOR: Rich Robinson
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014, (272 pages).

What is the Sabbath? What are the differences between shavat, shabbat, and "shabbat shabbaton?" What is the Old Testament understanding of Sabbath and what is the purpose of the Sabbath? Rich Robinson looks at all of these in a survey of Sabbath according to the Bible. For senior researcher and Scholar-in-Residence for Jews for Jesus, Dr Robinson, the essence of the Sabbath is about the "condition characterizing life in Eden." It is a gift. It comes with a purpose. It is a place where one enjoys life with God. For Israel in the Old Testament, Sabbath keeping is more about cultivating trust in a God who provides, imitating God, and to share God's goodness with neighbours. Robinson highlights the many messages of the Sabbath through the Old Testament, the New Testament, as well as the inter-testament times. He studies the complex situation of war, and how Jews grapple with rest and needing to keep security for the people. Even then, different groups observe the Sabbath rather differently. For some, self-defense is permitted on the Sabbath. For others, the conviction to stop work and war even on the Sabbath had lead to massacres of their people by enemies. With so much confusion with the different Jewish groups, in comes Jesus in the New Testament, who teaches and preaches the Word of God in wisdom and with authority. Without being tied by the Jewish rules for the Sabbath, Jesus shines a new perspective on the meaning of the Sabbath.  Sabbath for Jesus is about restoration of God's reign on earth. It is about glimpsing the Divine. It is about replacing the erroneous human interpretations with God's interpretation. It is about preservation of life that God intended, that the Sabbath frees us, not enslaves us. While the gospels highlight the Sabbath as surrounding the life and ministry of Jesus, Acts and the letters focus on the proclamation of the gospel. The book of Hebrews show the future glory where Jews and Gentiles come together in worship on the Sabbath. Chapter 7 is a brief history of biblical rest which describes Sabbath as a eye to a future glory.

The last few chapters touch on the meaning of Sabbath for the Jews, and compares the Sabbath with Sundays. Robinson describes the relevance of the Sabbath for Christians today to give some guidance on what we are to do with the Sabbath. He touches on some theological debates surrounding the many interpretations of the Sabbath by theologians through the centuries. Robinson points out three broad views before asserting his own five principles, that claim the New Covenant superceding Mosaic laws.

  1. Sabbath keeping is not just ceremonial
  2. Sabbath keeping includes a moral component
  3. While many laws are time-bound or culture-specific, the Sabbath is also people-specific
  4. Many of the moral laws already precede the Mosaic laws
  5. Like several other Mosaic laws, Sabbath is no longer binding on the Christian.

Robinson thus believes that the Saturday Sabbath is no longer binding. Sundays are not replacement days for Sabbath but a day in which people can meet and worship together. It is not a mandated law for Christians to have Sunday worship. He believes that the principles of the Sabbath is more relevant for now. He urges us to have regular Sabbath keeping according to the rhythms that God had intended for us. It is meant to cultivate meaningful relationships in our busy world. It is an opportunity to do all the good we can once a week in reaction to the six days a week we work for our own needs. Finally, Robinson concludes that the Sabbath is a way to look back with thanks and to look forward with hope.

Sabbath keeping is a much cherished and observed tradition in Jewish culture. As a general survey, this book covers many ground. It gives us a good overview of the history of the Sabbath among various groups. What it lacks for in depth, it makes up for it in breadth of coverage. I especially appreciate the clear manner in which the different viewpoints of the Sabbath were laid out. Unfortunately, I feel that more need to be said, especially on the interpretation of the New Covenant over the keeping of the Mosaic laws. This alone can mean many more volumes need to be published. I recognize that this book is meant more for the layperson for which it will suffice for the most part. For others who want to know more, Abraham Heschel's book on the Sabbath remains a primary reference point. For those interested to know more about the different views, try reading John Donato's "Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views." A more recent book by Walter Brueggemann deserves a look too. You can read my review here.

Overall, this book is a reasonable read but if you are not a New Covenant believer, you may find it the history more acceptable than the theological orientation Robinson points to.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Moody Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"Landmarks" (Bill Delvaux)

TITLE: Landmarks: Turning Points on Your Journey Toward God
AUTHOR: Bill Delvaux
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: B and H Publishing, 2014, (208 pages).

What are the landmarks in our lives? Can they be seen as a path toward greater spiritual growth? What does God's calling mean when one's life seems to be falling apart? These questions swamped the author when his ministry crumbled and when he resigned. In the abyss of despair and depression, wondering what had hit him, someone recommended to Delvaux to look at the circumstances as "landmarks" of faith. It is not what happened to us but our response to them that matters. For if God is in control and sovereign over all, surely God will be guiding his loved ones too. He plants nine landmarks in this book, using his life as a way to tell the story of how these landmarks become turning points in his faith journey. In turn, these landmarks are classified under three categories:

  1. Descending into Death
  2. Turning
  3. Ascending to Life

In Part One, Delvaux tells the painful story of his own descent. The first landmark is that we all need a good story to identify with. Without story, facts are just isolated information without much meaning. As one learns to read the Bible as a big story in itself, one learns to piece together the discrete parts of one's life, using the Bible as a guide. He learns the importance of tracing one's life and to recognize the plots in God's ultimate story. Failure is often a defining moment for many. For frequently, failures pull us into the Bible narrative. The second landmark is about idols and how they threaten to unravel our following of God's will. Whether it is hoarding stuff or addiction to something, idolatry is that something that comes between God and us. For idols are like mirages, enchanting us with things that appear real but are ultimately false. This chapter is also full of the author's confession of his personal idols. The third landmark touches on wounds after a fall. Owning the wound is a necessary first step in recovery. Delvaux tells of how the wounds drew him closer to God. The fourth landmark appears to be something weird initially, Sex. Delvaux describes how being down and nearly out can render one vulnerable to various temptations of the flesh. Sex is such a wonderful gift that it can also be easily perverted by sinful beings.

Part Two of the book arrests the emotional decline with a major landmark: An Identity Crisis, the fifth landmark. In any crisis, one can either fall deeper into sin or to climb out of darkness into the light. Delvaux shares about his need for a makeover into something new. The important point about this landmark is that the search for one's identity has begun. The solution may not be found yet, but the search has started with the notion that w will live according to what we think we are. Do we listen to the voice of the shamer, the false affirmer, or an aimless silence? Or are we ready to listen to the truth, God's voice?

Part Three shows that the road to recovery means overcoming various barriers (sixth landmark) such as the deceptions of the fallen self, the deceitfulness of the world, and the cunning and subversive tactics of the devil. Deceptions, temptations, and assaults are the ways the enemy tries to get us down. We need to embrace servanthood so that we can serve others and obscurity so that we can repel pride. We need to form bonds (seventh landmark) with a community (horizontal dimension) and to be centered on God (vertical dimension).   Marriage is that eighth landmark where husbands and wives become extraordinary men and women because of an extraordinary marriage. It is about walking together in God's love. The final landmark is that of quest, which is essentially about a continuing journey through more landmarks of our lives. He shares about his salmon expedition and the art of storytelling. As long as we are able to wisely recognize and respond to landmarks of our lives, we will be on a journey of growth toward maturity. Without a quest in place, we will not discover more landmarks.

Faith is about establishing our trust in God through each landmark of life. Crises either make or break a person. There is very little neutral ground in this. It requires us to take a leap of faith to jump even when the road ahead is uncertain and unknown. The more important thing is that whatever we do, trust that God is walking with us. Whether we make mistakes or not, trust that God understands our predicaments. Whether we are successful with our endeavours, trust God to provide the results. We all need to exercise personal discernment about the spiritual landmarks of our lives. God will provide them. We just need eyes to see, ears to hear, and a passion to follow through the path, no matter how difficult it seems. After all, if we allow errors and deceptoins to deceive us from making the journey in the first place, we would have flown the white flag of surrender without even trying.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of B and H Publishing and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"Gospel Assurance and Warnings" (Paul Washer)

TITLE: Gospel Assurance and Warnings (Recovering the Gospel)
AUTHOR: Paul Washer
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014, (288 pages).

This book is part of a series of about recovering the greatest treasure on earth: the gospel for all. The primary reason for the writing of this book is the concern that the gospel has been grossly neglected. We are creating a generation of people ignorant of the gospel, reducing the gospel by various means, and failing to grow the body of Christ through solid biblical teaching. The biggest concern is how the lack of gospel conviction leads to the lack of missions and evangelism in a world that sorely needs the gospel to be preached to them.

Written in two parts, the first part aims to bring about the distinctions between true biblical assurance and false assurance. He blames preachers for failing to preach the gospel and instead choosing to dish out pragmatic tools, and marketing strategies that deal with “souls in a superficial manner.” They are not even guarding the purity of the gospel. Salvation is based on the lordship of Christ, not the clever advice over the pulpit. This requires self-examination for professing Christians; obedience to God’s revelation; keeping of God’s commandments; imitating Christ; to be loving believers; to walk in the light; to confess our sins; to grow in conformity to God’s will; and various other aspects of what it means to be living under the lordship of Christ. This will be evidenced through obedience to God; love for neighbours; and working out of good fruits and righteousness in the name of Christ.

Part Two comprises of warnings targeted at “empty confessors.” Walker criticizes people who give right answers to wrong questions. For example, the question, “Are you a sinner?” essentially tries to insert some righteousness into people when they had none. Or the question of “Do you want to go to heaven?” does not reflect the true condition of the heart, only some desire that is hard to see until the fruits of salvation can be evidenced. He suggests that people who answer ‘yes’ to the destination of heaven have ideas contrary to the biblical image of heaven. For the question is not whether one desires to go to a place but whether one desires God! Other wrong questions includes “Do you want to pray?” which again invites people without the right heart to offer the right answers. The way to know the right path is to enter by the small gate where one can focus on the Promise of Christ instead of the highway of worldly expectations. The narrow way is the path of obedience in contrast to the other paths of self-driven needs and wants. This narrow way is a tough one, even one that may require suffering. By our fruits, we will know of our inward reality.

Plainly written, this book aims for the heart. For those who have Christ in their hearts, the message will resonate with a desire to obey. For those who do not have Christ in their hearts, they can be easily offended with a desire to defend their existing way of life. For those who are not sure, perhaps these series of gospel assurances and warnings will help them distinguish the small and narrow way of Christ, versus the highway of hell. If this book can nudge you a little closer toward the way of Christ, it would have worth every penny.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Reformation Heritage Books and Cross-Focused Reviews in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Monday, April 21, 2014

"50 Things You Need to Know about Heaven" (Dr John Hart)

TITLE: 50 Things You Need to Know About Heaven
AUTHOR: Dr John Hart
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2014, (144 pages).

With the recent release of a movie about heaven, which was based on a bestselling book a few years ago, interest has been heightened about all things heaven and the afterlife. One observation of the book, "Heaven is For Real" and the movie based on that is that the book (and movie) contains a lot more personal experience than biblical explanations. It is hard to prove or disprove another person's experience. It is also difficult to tell the difference between biblical, non-biblical, or extra-biblical material from it all. Enters this book of 50 things that we can learn about heaven from a biblical perspective. In it, we learn about what kinds of people go to heaven, in particular, Hart asserts that from a biblical perspective, the entrance requirement is not based on ourselves or our good works. Believers enter into heaven in the name of Christ. The Bible does not say that non-believers will definitely get a second chance.

There are various descriptions of the language used to describe heaven, like the "mansions," "home," "sky," and Hart says finally that heaven is about being with God wherever He is. There are questions about whether there will be work in heaven and how life would be there. Other things include the basic questions we normally asked from day to day, comparing life on earth and the celestial lifestyle in heaven. These includes:

  • Will animals be in heaven?
  • Will we be bored in heaven?
  • Are there marriages and families in heaven?
  • Will we be singing and playing harps all the time in heaven?
  • Will there be time in eternity?
  • Will we live with the angels in heaven?
Other questions are a little more theological, like the question between reincarnation and resurrection. There are several questions on the topic and reality of hell, comparing and contrasting eternal life and death. Other questions center on judgment, hades, heavenly rewards, and others. 

Written like a brief question and answer format, this book can easily comprise of fifty separate booklets that answer every of the question directly. When compiled as a book, the questions are made available conveniently for readers to ponder and to reflect upon all things heaven and hell, life now and life after. Let me make three comments about the book.

First, the book is a convenient mini guide that answers a lot of common questions about the mysteries of heaven and hell, from a biblical perspective. With clearly worded questions and well explained answers, Hart is able to draw from the many references to heaven in the Bible and sees the questions from a reader's point of view. By drawing from his own personal experience, readers can sense a very down to earth presentation and explanation of what heaven is about. Some of the questions could have been better classified into various sections, like heaven, hell, judgment, afterlife, and so on. That way, there will be a better framework to use the book as a proper handbook. 

Second, I enjoy the way the author often begins with a story or an illustration for contemporary times. It makes for easy reading and clearly aimed at the popular audience. After all, with the interest in heaven hitting the popular scene, this book will definitely fit the expectations of most people.

Third, the questions pretty much demand a deductive answer instead of an inductive one. Understood another way, the chapters begin with a question that strings answers together. Great for topical studies, deductive reasoning can sometimes miss the essence of what the verses actually mean. That is why I appreciate the fair number of  Bible references at the end of the chapter for readers to probe further themselves. It is good not to simply take Hart's word for it. Take time to read the Scriptures for ourselves and to understand the contexts behind them.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Bethany House Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

"Crucify!" (Timothy J. Stoner)

TITLE: Crucify!: Why the Crowd Killed Jesus
AUTHOR: Timothy J. Stoner
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2014, (233 pages).

How did a jubilant crowd on Palm Sunday become vicious accusers and haters of Jesus a week after? How can one that the people proclaim king one day become a cursed one another day? What are the motives of the people behind the great reversal? Stoner examines these questions, probes the original motives, and gently introduce the idea that we in the modern world are not necessarily much different from the people who put Jesus to death. It has to do who wrongly placed expectations. The people who expected to be delivered by a mighty king with great political power and charisma decided to curse and condemn the One who rode into Jerusalem on a humble donkey. The mob mentality turned vicious and violent. The author, Timothy J Stoner is the son of missionary parent, growing up in Chile and Spain. He probes into the four gospels to put together some of the reasons for the people's change of mind and warns us of several ways in which we can do likewise.

While there were high hopes of a Messiah figure to come to deliver Israel, the religious leaders during Jesus' time seem more content to preserve their own religious rules and power base. By defying conventional wisdom and going against the religious leaders of the day, Jesus had already set himself up for the grand confrontation. Jesus reveals gradually that the reason why the people hated the light is simply because they are lovers of the dark. As Jesus' teachings become increasingly difficult to understand, people soon distance themselves from him. His stories require people to adopt new eyes of understanding, and people who refuse to change will never understand. In each chapter, Stoner presents the gospel according to the Bible, and tackles the skepticism and suspicions of Reza Aslan. Aslan essentially denies the divinity of Christ and the historicity of the gospels in his book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." Stoner takes time to debunk Aslan's thesis and assumptions using the Bible as the primary tool. He also brings in several other others like CS Lewis, Alfred Edersheim, and others. Gradually, the book moves toward Passion Week, leading to the climax according to the title of the book.

With each description of the scandalous way Jesus was treated, readers are invited to reflect on how we can dishonour Christ through our erroneous expectations of our own faith. Have we rejected Jesus in our actions even when we confess Him as Lord? Are we deceiving ourselves that we would never have done the same thing to Jesus if we were in Jerusalem that very day? Will we crucify Jesus all over again in our erroneous and sinful ways? Will we stumble ourselves when we fail to appreciate what Jesus had done for us? These are pertinent questions that ought to keep us humble. What if the crowds of yesterday are already lurking somewhere, looking for a chance to stumble us in our faith to Jesus? Never say never.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

"From Jesus to the Church" (Craig A. Evans)

TITLE: From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation
AUTHOR: Craig A. Evans
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (176 pages).

Based on the prophecy mentioned in Numbers 24:17, this book is a study of the religious tensions between the prophecy, the interpretations of the prophecy, and the family of the religious leaders and Jesus. It is mentioned by the prophets of old and fulfilled in the person of Jesus. This narrow focus is the author's attempt to raise up interesting insights and issues about how this prophecy had impacted the early followers.  It is a focus on the "first link" between Jesus and the Early Church. Situated during the first forty years in between Jesus's ministry timeline and the Jewish-Roman political tensions leading up to the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem, Craig Evans, New Testament scholar and Professor at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada, argues that the prophecy is not only ambiguous, but has contributed in a large part to a separation of Judaism and Christianity. After examining the different perspectives of the prophecy, Evans made four conclusions.

  1. Jesus had already predicted the destruction of the Herodian Temple
  2. Jesus had used the same kind of language as the earlier prophets of old. Where the earlier prophets had predicted the destruction of Solomon's temple, Jesus did the same for the Herodian Temple using remarkably similar kinds of language
  3. The cleansing of the temple is necessary because of the corruption manifested within by various religious and sectarian groups.
  4. Simply because Herod was the one who built the Herodian Temple, Jews had already planned to destroy it.
The Resurrection of Christ marks the beginning of the Church. With the spread of Christianity comes increased persecution. Chapter 1 is used to raise the question whether Jesus had originally intended to start the Church. Evans said it depends. If one is part of the mainstream public, they would say yes. If one is a biblical scholar, one would say no. Evans surprisingly is agnostic about it. Probing the language used by Jesus and the early Christians, Evans looks at the typology of the 12 tribes of Israel that connects old Testament Israel to New Testament community. There is no break, thus no necessity to start a Church that is different from the calling of Israel. Maybe it is a remnant that will follow through. Maybe it is a different use of words for assembly, "synagogue" for Jews and "church" for Gentiles. The Church is thus not something distinctly different from Israel because the Church is tasked to fulfill the same purposes God had set out for Israel. The label may be different but the calling is the same. Chapter 2 continues with the connections between the Kingdom of God motif and the Church. The "remnant" applies to both Israel and the Church. There is a continuity. Chapter 3 looks at the people responsible to lead this continuity, in particular, James and Paul. It brings into the age-old controversies between faith and works. Evans takes the stand that Luther failed to interpret James correctly, that the "works" mentioned are not "works of the law" but good works in general. The main point is faith. Thus, James and Paul are more in agreement. This is described more in chapter 4, comparing zeal in the law and faith in God. Chapter 5 argues that the main disputes happened between Jesus' family and the family of the chief priest, Annas. Finally, Evans describes the aftermath of this disputes as he tackles the shape of the Christianity during the times of James, Paul, Ignatius, and others.

The whole point of the book is that Jesus did not intend to start a Church like the one it is today. Jesus wanted to fulfill the will of God, for the sake of all nations, and not to get caught up with the differences of each era. It is the 40 years between the Resurrection of Jesus and the destruction of the Temple that set forth in motion the departure of Judaism and Christianity.  The Church of today is not what Jesus had intended to be, which will dilute any modern attempt to put God's Name into any modern Church establishment. At the same time, we are called to pursue the main calling and the purposes of God to save the whole world. The structures may differ, the history may be drastically different, the interpretations diverse. These are not barriers to the doing of God's will. There is a continuity that exists between the old and the new testaments. This continuity remains with the remnants, a people of God who regardless of ethnicity, religious background, or various idiosyncrasies, will do God's will from where we are.

Read this book if we are interested to learn more about the early controversies and how the Early Church was forced to become what it is. At the same time, do not be too quick to label the Church of today as something that is designed from the start by Jesus. After all, there is a certain freedom for us to choose to become what we are today. The Church of today is within the confines of the liberty and freedom for man to choose.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Movie Review: "Heaven is For Real"

PRESENTED BY: Sony Pictures
DIRECTOR: Randall Wallace
PRODUCER: Joe Roth, T.D. Jakes
SCREENPLAY: Randall Wallace, Christopher Parker
CAST: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Margo Martindale, and Thomas Haden Church

Today is the official release of the movie, "Heaven is for Real." Based on the book by Todd Burpo, it is a story of earthly faith with heavenly hope about the Burpo family, whose lives have been changed by one miraculous experience of a three year old boy, Colton Burpo. Now made into a movie, the story comes alive with superb acting and quality footage.

Watch the trailer here.

You can read my full review here.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Biblical Preaching, Third Edition" (Haddon Robinson)

TITLE: Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages
AUTHOR: Haddon Robinson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014, (256 pages).

What is the secret that makes a 1 hour sermon feels like 30 minutes, and a 30-minute sermon that seems like an hour long? This one question drives one of the world's best preachers to seek out, to be soaked in, and to share widely the need for good biblical and expository preaching. After laying some initial thoughts and definitions about what biblical and expository preaching is, world renowned Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary shows us exactly how to go about preparing, developing, and delivering sermons with the Big-Idea concept. The basic concept is that every big idea comprises of two essential parts: a subject and a complement.

Subject: "What am I talking about?"
Complement: "What am I saying about the subject?"

This big idea must come from the biblical text itself. The subject can be developed using six faithful friends: who, what, when, where, why, how. The complement then goes on to provide the other half of the big idea equation. Going to specific details with many examples, Robinson shows us the different tools that one can use for sermon preparation. He shows us that the Bible text is the primary source that leads toward the sermon. The three phases of explaining, proving, and applying will help preachers sharpen their big idea delivery. Even the title of the sermon needs to be well thought through. He goes through the three different ways in which sermons can be prepared:
  1. Deductively: Point declared at the start, and the sermon then goes on to prove that point.
  2. Inductively: Point by point delivery until the whole picture is formed.
  3. Semi-Inductively: Combination of the two above.
On illustrations, we are taught to study cookbooks as a way to sharpen our pointers and improve our clarity. On the introduction and the conclusion, readers are urged to begin with a bang and to conclude with a burning focus. It can be restating the main points. It can be tying up the loose ends. It can also be a summary. Whether it is a prayer, a quotation, a story, a summary, or a visual, the conclusion needs to leave listeners with a memorable thought.

On the delivery, readers are given tips on dressing, on expressive gestures and movements, eye contact, vocal variety, pitch, punch, rehearsal, and many more. He ends on an encouraging note for readers not to be swamped by the daunting details but to prayerfully trust God to lead and to guide the whole process of development and delivery. The many exercises, evaluations, and the examples provide readers a healthy range of applications and learning points.

Now in its third edition, this book still packs a big punch. As a past student of Robinson, I can hear his voice just coming across powerfully and yet gentle in instruction. This edition has been expanded with contributions from several of Robinson's students and colleagues, friends and peers. It also incorporates many of the feedback obtained from readers of the past editions. For example, some of the exercises provided have been fine-tuned. Others have been contributed by students and preachers. This classic book on biblical preaching remains a top recommendation for anyone studying the art of preaching or teaching homiletics.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Monday, April 14, 2014

"Planted" (Leah Kostamo)

TITLE: Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling, and Community
AUTHOR: Leah Kostamo
PUBLISHER: Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013, (172 pages).

This is a beautiful book. Few books have managed to capture the essence of nature, the joys of community, and the affirmation of a simple calling like this one. Leah Kostamo, a wife, a former campus ministry worker, as well as a co-founder of the A Rocha ministry based in BC Canada, has shown us how good stories can be told with simplicity, with insight, and with humour. Combining her love for creation and conservation, her natural talent for observing details in ordinary things, her passion for community building, coupled with her eloquent use of words, this book is destined for greatness in the literary world. As a memoir, readers will be humbled at how the author and her husband Markku would give up lucrative careers, sell their house, and to pour all their assets into a non-profit ministry without guarantee that it would even survive its initial years. Yet, it did and it did so marvelously, blessing, teaching, and enabling thousands of visitors and volunteers at their farm facility. The ministry in Canada began as a seed back in 1996 at a Regent College course entitled, "Incarnational Mission" led by Peter and Miranda Harris, who had founded A Rocha in Portugal. Eight years later, the idea took root, and sprouted trunks and branches through personal investments as well as generous givers and loaners by those who expressed faith enough to walk with the Kostamos.

The book is also a mini-ecological guide. We learn about the threats of worldwide extinction of 13% of birds, 25% of mammals, and 41% of amphibians. We see how a tiny shrimp plays its microscopic role in a complex and delicate ecological environment, that benefits beavers, bears, and big trees. We read about invasive species, weeds, the birds, and even slugs. Along the way, Kostamo makes sure we do not get carried away in the natural world and forget about the technological world. With a deft touch of humour, she compares and contrasts pods of orcas with iPods! It can also be used as a primer in becoming more nature aware. We are encouraged to think about the tap water we have, to think about its source, its distribution channels, and all the resources poured into the whole system. We are challenged to think about the gardens, how the seasons impact life, the variety of birds and nature around us, and even rocks and minerals that seem so mundane for the busy individual.

It is also a guide for a deeper awareness of what eating entails. For those of us whose limited vocabulary of eating centered around restaurants, the food on our tables, or the kitchen, we get invited into a world of farming, of growing our own food, and the beauty of real food over processed stuff. Food is not just something to be consumed, but it can incorporate a work of art in itself. Beyond the feasting, we will appreciate the preparation beyond mere cook books, and to be respectful in the way we partake of God's providence for us. Slowly but surely, the book becomes a rallying point in the practice of Micah 6:8, that we learn to live justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly. Very aptly, the book closes with a relook at the biblical Sabbath, reminding us that working hard and doing good have their limits. Man can only do so much. Everything else totally depends on God alone. The keeping of the Sabbath is a powerful reminder that we by ourselves are limited. That is why Sabbath keeping enables us to be natural ourselves one day a week, as we busy ourselves with nature on the other six days.

This book is a rare find. More accurately, the book found me. When contacted to do this review, I promptly agreed because of curiosity in part, and to support a fellow Regent alum as well. Little did I know that I would be receiving a literary gem, a unique seed that germinates in me a greater appreciation of nature and creation. Most of all, I am humbled by how the Kostamos' passion-turned-reality have blessed people of all ages from all walks of life. There is a lot of material in this humble looking book. Open it up at any one page and you can easily find a point or two to learn from and to contemplate after.

I am full of praise of the quality of this book. I particularly appreciate the three points to show us the way forward, namely; 1) Practice Gratitude; 2) Practice Generosity; and 3) Practice the Sabbath Keeping. On all three counts, I say a hearty Amen! A clear best of the best so far in my 2014 stack of books.

Thank you, Leah Kostamo for letting me know that this book even existed.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of the author in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Friday, April 11, 2014

"A History of Christian Theology: A Second Edition" (William C. Placher)

TITLE: A History of Christian Theology, Second Edition: An Introduction
AUTHOR: William C. Placher (and Derek Nelson)
PUBLISHER:  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, (328 pages).

Students of history will often encounter the presence and influence of religion and for Europe, the significance of Christianity. Students of Christian Theology will realize that they cannot get away from the study of history. Both history and theology are tightly connected. Unfortunately, there are various quarters in educational circles that see history as boring. They view theology as dry. Imagine putting "boring history" and "dry theology" together? Thankfully, there are books that demonstrate that a study of history, of Christian Theology, and the historical development of Christianity can be very interesting and educational. More importantly, it shows us again that modern problems and controversies may not necessarily be solved but can be beneficially understood through the study of the historical events and contexts leading up to the issues. The author, the late William Placher who published this book's first edition in 1983 was a distinguished Professor at Wabash College until his untimely death in 2008. This second edition has been followed up by his past student and currently Associate Professor of the same college, Derek Nelson. With a very able and respectful summary of the late Professor Placher's overall theological stance, Nelson has given Placher a honourable tribute for the theological contributions given in a postmodern climate.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

"A Commentary on Judges and Ruth" (Robert J Chosholm Jr)

TITLE: A Commentary on Judges and Ruth (Kregel Exegetical Library)
AUTHOR: Robert J. Chisholm, Jr
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2013, (704 pages).

One is muggy and gloomy with situations deteriorating in a downward spiral. The other is spirited and bright, with each page turning into greater hope and living revelation. That is the contrast between the book of Judges and the book of Ruth. Robert Chisholm, Professor of Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, has three main aims in this commentary of two Old Testament books.
  1. What do the texts mean in their original contexts?
  2. What biblical principles can we learn from them?
  3. What does it mean for us in contemporary times?
Using his own translation of the two books, Chisholm adopts a "literary-theological method" in this commentary instead of a "extensive text-critical analysis." When in doubt, he chooses to let the texts speak for themselves rather than speculating upon what they mean. Believing that the preaching and teaching of the Bible ought to be offered to all, not just ivory tower seminarians, Chisholm provides ample resources for preachers and teachers to use for the sharing of the Word.

On The Book of Judges

He situates the book in between the end of Deuteronomy and the early beginnings of Kings. It was a time in which Israel was struggling with what it means to occupy the Promised Land, and the critical role of godly leadership which was increasingly missing. It also led to a spiritual deterioration that exhibits symptoms of utter horror and bloodshed. The central themes dwell around "Israel's propensity to sin, the Lord's disciplinary judgement," and how Israel was saved time and again by God's liberators. It also highlights the reason for God's continued insistence on rejecting idolatry. The prologue of the book tends to be generally positive, where each time Israel failed, God would send someone to rescue them. After Samson, there seems to be a turn for the worse. There were rising civil conflicts, selfish acts, culminating in sordid atrocities, murders, and rapes.  All of God's Ten Commandments were violated, as if the acts in Judges stood against everything Deuteronomy warned about. In contrast to Dorsey, Gooding, and Tanner, who suggest that the  chiastic structure points out Gideon as the central figure, Chisholm prefers to see it from a "United Israel" perspective. The stories point to a general disunity of Israel, and not about any one leader per se. Whatever happens to any one region impacts the entire nation. He supports this interpretation by arguing that the author of Judges sees Israel from one united angle. For instance, from a linguistic standpoint, the book of Judges uses the word "Israel" generally to speak for all Israel, instead of simply a region. Chronologically, one sees the different periods of rule through cycles of oppression and liberation, with some overlaps. Using the literary structure of the rhetorical statements "again did evil," "after him," and other chronological clues, Chisholm proposes that Judges occurred somewhere between 1190 and 1070. A synchronic approach is preferred to diachronic because the latter seems more speculative and fantasy. Chisholm summarizes Judges as having three primary purposes:
  1. Judges is about the defense of God's Name, endangered because of Israel's failures
  2. It demonstrates God's commitment and faithfulness to His People
  3. It is a polemic against idolatry.
Other themes include the need for godly leadership, the pitfalls of idolatry, and the consequences of failing to observe and obey Deuteronomy's instructions. Finally, Chisholm does not leave readers helpless about contemporary applications. He builds the homiletic bridge for us to travel. The three part preaching paradigm is consistently shared: 1) Exegetical idea; 2) Theological Idea; and 3) Homiletical Trajectories.

On The Book of Ruth

Chisholm is convinced that the book is a "historical short story" with a high redemptive element. He engages several scholars' interpretations before offering his own. He sees Ruth as God's instrument for deliverance, and Boaz as one used to impart and to receive blessings. Four major theological themes are highlighted.
  1. God is concerned for the needy
  2. God uses ordinary people like Naomi and Ruth, whose simple virtues of loyalty and kindness are timeless principles
  3. God rewards faithfulness and faithful people according to His good time; In fact, God's blessings extends beyond the lifespans of any one generation
  4. There is a Messianic trajectory, with Boaz seen as a type of Christ; sacrificial love; royal genealogy.

So What?

This book is a joy to read with many inspiring thoughts and provocative ideas for teachers and preachers. Though some of the material can be rather involved and heavy, especially the engagements with various scholarship propositions and arguments, there are many contemporary applications that can benefit a wide segment of the Church. This is especially for those in the ministry of teaching and preaching, where Chisholm meticulously guides the reader through the three-fold sermon preparation process. There is the exegetical idea phase to help navigate the literary structures and the literal contexts. There is the interpretive cycle backed with various scholarly views to keep readers updated on the different interpretations. There is an exceptionally helpful homiletical trajectory to bridge the ancient and the modern mind. In one book, we see the unity of Israel and the orientation of the Old Testament toward a Messianic revelation.

For me, this book is not just a commentary. It is a preaching guide made accessible to teachers, preachers, and students of the books of Judges and Ruth. For anyone who is unsure about how to approach Judges, or needing new ideas on teaching from the Book of Ruth, this book will be an able guide and a reliable resource for us. I highly recommend this commentary for your study and use at Church or seminary settings.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Kregel Academic in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"No Greatness Without Goodness" (Randy Lewis)

TITLE: No Greatness without Goodness: How a Father's Love Changed a Company and Sparked a Movement
AUTHOR: Randy Lewis
PUBLISHER: Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013, (240 pages).

Are the disabled really disabled? Have we given them a fair chance to compete and to work at an equal footing? What if a Fortune 500 company offers them a chance to work like any other ordinary person? This is what Walgreens did. Under the leadership of former Anderson Consultant turned Walgreens employee, Randy Lewis made it a corporate goal to have representation of disabled people from 0% to 10%. Motivated by his love for his autistic son, Austin, spurred by his desire to pave the way for society to accept more people regardless of their abilities or disabilities, Lewis learns to defy all odds to attempt to make a difference in the lives of disabled people by first making a difference in the attitudes and expectations of society, beginning at Walgreens.

The path was definitely not easy. Filled with initial disappointments and despair at the discovery of Austin's condition, there were moments in which the family could have called it quits. Fortunately, Lewis was able to see a glimmer of hope through simple provision of opportunities. The language of business is money. The tool of management is mission. The opportunity to serve provides the meaning.  Lewis weaves all three together to incorporate as much meaning as possible in a world drive by profits and mission statements. Yet, the path to success is not easy. The first attempts were failures as not many shared Lewis's passion, let alone vision. Thankfully, the failures do not dampen his resolve. It strengthens, especially when he witnesses results and the way disabled people like his son becomes more purposeful and respected in earning a living instead of expecting handouts. Step by step, Lewis shares his ups and downs, and how he learns from mistakes, gets encouraged by results, and eventually, moving Walgreens forward as an exemplary leader in the area of hiring disabled people up to a third of the organization. What follows within the book are powerful principles put into action, to usher in humility in businesses and to cultivate a deeper respect for all humanity in society.

Monday, April 7, 2014

"Uncovered" (Rod Tucker)

TITLE: Uncovered: The Truth about Honesty and Community
AUTHOR: Rod Tucker
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, Kregel Publications, 2014, (160 pages).

We have all heard about the accusations. "Hypocrites! Bigots! False religion!" These words sting the Church at large, especially those who had been hurt before in Church settings. What is the underlying problem in such labeling of deception and false images? Why is the Church having such an image problem? Is there hope for Christianity? For author and founding pastor of The River:pm in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the answer is in learning to uncover ourselves to be honest and authentic with people. Discipleship is very much about revealing our true selves. As one who has observed the heightened external activities of well-meaning Christians, Tucker has noticed something more sinister in the general spirituality of the Christian. Dishonesty. Dishonest with the self. Dishonesty within the Church. Dishonesty beyond.

Tucker knows biblically that honesty is a healing balm, a "kiss on the lips." At the same time, he knows that many people shy away from openness due to the need to protect themselves from being hurt. Just like the behaviour of Adam and Eve after they sinned at the Garden of Eden, we too exhibit the same kind of behaviour that sews fig leaves to hide ourselves. When caught, we assign blame to others. As our relationship with God gets broken, our relationships with one another break down too. In Christ, we learn that honesty is more about being like Jesus and less about selective hiding and revealing. In hiding, we huddle behind in the dark. In honesty, we step out into the light.

Part Two of the book on community is a tough one as Tucker shares about how some churches teach bad theology that links sickness directly with sin. While it is important to be honest, it is also necessary to be theologically sound. He touches on the difficult problem of homosexuality and the Church where multiple versions of honesty have led to breakups and contentions within the community.The problem lies in how the issues are handled rather than the what of contention. He notes that "we always look for someone worse than we are so that we can feel better about ourselves" is a strong indictment that can be controversial. For Tucker, the point is that if we do not experience communal honesty, we cannot experience "grace-filled fellowship." For honesty is a cost that we cannot use cheap change such as the easiest way out. We cannot pick and choose who we are honest with.

Part Three gives us tips on how to go about uncovering ourselves. Through mirrors, we are reminded that too much self-consciousness can be a bane. At the same time, insufficient reflection and honesty about ourselves can be a barrier. We begin by seeing ourselves being saved by God, reconciled to God, and renewed in Christ. The encouragement for all of us is that honesty is not a self-driven enterprise. It is a gift of God in Christ. It is an act of grace. Our task of growing in honesty is a response to this grace.

As a reminder, this book reaffirms the need for Christians to be authentic with themselves, with others, and within the Church. It is a direct reversal from the lifestyle of sinful Adam and Eve, toward a lifestyle that is centered on Jesus Christ. As a honesty primer, we learn to see ourselves honestly with a mirror, and then to put that mirror aside in order to present ourselves to others, honest in Christ. The book is not strong in the "how to" department. Instead, it is more beneficial in the "what-if" we begin the path to honesty. By planting the seed of honesty and readiness to be open, Tucker is urging more of us to be honest in everything we do. More importantly, the truth about honesty and community is to know that we cannot do it all alone. We need God. We need the grace of people. We need to boldness in Jesus.

Rating: 3.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Kregel Publications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Friday, April 4, 2014

"Where Courage Calls" (Janette Oke and Laurel Oke Logan)

TITLE: Where Courage Calls: A When Calls the Heart Novel
AUTHOR: Janette Oke and Laurel Oke Logan
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2014, (336 pages).

For every Jewish boy, there is the coming out of age ritual called the Bar Mitzvah. For girls, it is their Bat Mitzvah in which at age 12, she becomes responsible for her own life. In various countries, the issuing of a driving license or the legal age for employment is a way to signify the coming out of age of that individual. Others see military conscription as a way to turn a child into an adult man. Bestselling author and significant contributor to the Christian book industry Janette Oke has done it again with her daughter as a co-author. It is about a compelling story of a girl called Beth Thatcher who had come out of age from a wealthy and comfortable home of her parents toward an unknown rugged wild, wild West. The seeds of her call to courageous living begin early when someone told her that we often rely on things we want to remember instead of remembering the things that actually were. Yet, that is what Beth continues to do in comfortable Toronto society where she lives constantly basking in the wealth of her family. Until an opportunity knocks on her door to pursue a teaching position in Coal Valley where the unknowns there easily overwhelm her memories of the knowns back home. She encounters the need for courage beginning with that single major decision to go.

With courage as a central theme, Oke weaves many other twists and turns that the protagonist had to go through. Beth struggles with a need to be independent and yet reminisces on her life of dependence on a life of luxury. Right from the start, there is the shock of losing her belongings. Then there is the scary experience of traveling to a place that is so remote. Beth soon realizes that losing possessions is one thing, losing loved ones is another, judging from how the mining town had just experienced a tragedy of a mining accident. This hits home and hard when Beth reads in the essays submitted  to her, about the students' description of how the loss of their dads had affected them personally. Then there is the emotional tug of war between two men, both potential suitors. Yet, there are upsides to this seemingly challenging venture. There is the beauty of Coal Valley, the mountains, the fields, the lush greens, and the natural rivers. There is the Church that she worships in which has given her a semblance of familiarity. Then there is her growing love for her own children, while by virture of one mining disaster, had been ushered into sudden adulthood. With each pleasant encounter, there is a desire to learn more. With each unpleasant event, there is a tendency to retreat. Chief of them all is the constant urging to spring back from the unknown strange environment toward a known environment. As her first school year comes to a close, will she continue in Coal Valley or will she return to comfortable Torontonian society?

This novel adds to an already impressive list of inspirational fiction by Janette Oke. Within it are themes of compassion, love, danger, courage, faith, uncertainty, romance, relationships, and basic humanity lived out. Most importantly, readers are invited to feel the tensions experienced by Beth Thatcher, and to subtly ask the question: "If I were Beth, what would I have done?" This question itself can turn this fictional story very much into our own moments of real-life biographies.

Janette Oke's long list of inspirational fiction books can be found here.



This book is provided to me courtesy of Bethany House Publishers in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

"When Your Life is on Fire" (Erik Kolbell)

TITLE: When Your Life Is on Fire: Thirteen Extraordinary People Answer One Simple Question
AUTHOR: Erik Kolbell
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (248 pages).

What are the things or activities people assign ultimate value to? What do they mean to our own lives? What can we learn from others and apply to our own lives? These three questions are dealt with in this book of interviews with 13 public figures, entertainers, accomplished professionals, samaritans, spiritualists, war veterans, artists, musicians, and others to capture a slice of life.  The title of the book is revealing: "When your life is on fire, what would you save?" It begs another question: What do we value most in life? What is that one or two things we will grab and go when the fire is at the door of our own life?

Erik Kolbell, a psychotherapist and former minister of Social Justice at Riverside Church in New York City has grouped these thirteen individuals into four categories. The first category is about "Seekers" of the more important things in life. Rabbi Arthur Waskow (founder of Shalom Center in Philadelphia) seeks to be a channel for peace with people groups and communities, as part of his personal "midrash" or commentary about life. Mariah Britton, having experienced the benefits of being mentored tries to pay it forward by dedicating her life to the spiritual developments of adolescents and adults. A poet herself, she sees her life as learning to infuse art with religion, and prayers with action. The third seeker described is Kenjitsu Nakagaki, a Buddhist priest who sees the most important value of life is living as a human being.

The second category is "Artists" that puts actors, poets, and musicians together. Actor and screenwriter Alan Alda values reality is about embracing both the known as well as the unknown with openness and vigor. Inspired by the lives of Marie Curie, Yuan Long Ping, Alda sees the significance of life that lies in the pursuit of worthy causes. Poet John Alexander provides raw honesty in his paintings that reflect his own calling not just to make art but to live it. Jazz violinist from Michigan, Regina Carter sees music as both expression of it as well as the receiving of it. In expressing it, one gives it joy and meaning. In receiving it, one accords respect. Harvard Medical School student and musician, Christopher Lim sees the attitude of learning and unlearning as an outworking of faith and living.

The third category of "Iconoclasts" shows the depiction of life through various symbols and imagery. Fred Newman is both a soundman as well as a storyteller. Believing that life is about adopting the disposition of "silence, stillness," for the present, and "attentiveness" to the world beyond. As long as he lives, communications is his calling. Kolbell's most difficult interview was with Tao Porchon-Lynch, a 95-year-old Yoga instructor, simply because she was physically "elusive." Although her name suggests a Buddhist or Taoism origin, her beliefs are more Hinduism with a focus on "oneness" with self. Without equating Christianity with Buddhist thought or Hinduism beliefs, Kolbell is able to hone in on a common theme: the inherent value of people. The late Cathrine Kellison, once a high-school dropout was a popular member of the faculty at New York University teaching media studies. She was an adventurer, a wanderer, a risk taker who sees journaling as an essential part of capturing one's life.

The final category is about "Survivors." People like Jane Pauley, former host of the TODAY show sees moderation as the key to life.  Don Lange, a veteran of the Afghan War survives the effects of a bomb blast, struggles with memory loss, PTSD, and other traumatic emotions. He reflects on his experience and prefers not to dwell on the "why" of existence but on the existential reality we are in right now. Brenda Berkman, the first woman to serve in the New York City Fire Department as well as one of the first responders to September 11, is a literal example of one who would break down the door amid the approaching fire, that she may save some.  Her expression of rage against the fires of evil as well as tears for the demise take second place as she lets the Beatitudes light up the fire in her.

So What?

Reading this book reminds me of Studs Terkel's interviews with working professionals in "Working." While Terkel's interviews tend to be relatively more verbatim, the interviews in this book has a lot more reflection on things that matter. The thirteen individuals give readers not just food for thought but also motivation for action. Actions with regards to learning, to working faithfully, to living peacefully, to enduring adversity and to expressing one's gifts and talents. In our world of problem solving and technological advancements, sometimes we see so much of the world outside that we fail to contemplate a bigger story growing inside humanity. Why must we let a fire trigger answers to our deepest held beliefs and values? Why wait until an emergency before we start to invest in the more important things in life?

Although each of us have our unique identities, we all have a common humanity. We do not need to be a seeker, an artist, an iconoclast, or a survivor in order to appreciate life. We are already in this life. Perhaps, some of us may fit in more than one category. Perhaps, there is no category yet. Perhaps, there is a little of each in everyone of us. The point is, keep searching. Keep looking out for others even as we look after our own selves. The world is larger than our world. We need to care for others. At the same time, let us not forget that to help others, we first need to take care of our own houses. For a house built on solid ground will offer better shelter and hospitality to others in need. We all have various fires of life. Some of us have been burnt badly in the past. Others have never encountered any danger. Still, there are many who have never even understood that it is very human to be driven by fire. If this book can be that "fire," it can very well save us a lot of heartache and grief.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and JRB Communications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.