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Sunday, December 28, 2014

"Every Valley"

TITLE: Every Valley: Advent with the Scriptures of Handel's Messiah
AUTHOR/EDITOR: Jessica Miller Kelley
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (160 pages).

The world famous Handel’s Messiah is not simply a musical concert to be enjoyed. It contains a lot of biblical prophecy, theological truth, historical richness, and pastoral depth. Focusing on the Advent theme, the Messiah is about anticipating the coming of Christ. The musical setting and the various “tonal paintings” come together to offer us an engaging experience with fascinating insights into the two comings of Christ. Forty reflections helm the whole book. Comprising of meditations from various contributors found in Feasting on the Word, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor’s and published by the same publisher, readers will be thrilled to know that the book is not simply for the Advent season of 40 days, but a window to the rest of the year, in celebration of the Incarnation of Christ. Jesus did not simply appear at Christmastide and disappear the rest of the year. Jesus is not simply the reason for one season, but the reason for ALL seasons. The reflections are divided into three parts.
  • Part One – Christ’s Birth and Its Foretelling (16 meditations)
  • Part Two – Christ’s Passion and Resurrection (16 meditations)
  • Part Three – Christ’s Eternal Reign (8 meditations)

Not only does the book tell the entire story of the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the Eschatological Anticipation of Jesus’ Second Coming, it enables the musical movements to accentuate key parts of Scripture. I really like the way the book challenges us to reflect and to respond on the significance of the Advent.

“Is our Advent devotion about entertainment or edification? Diversion or direction? Amusement or awareness?” (15)

Each chapter begins with a brief chorus, a passage from Scripture, and a brief devotional. I appreciated the various reflections on the very simple impressions that provide for us the contexts from which Christ had come. Like the significance of lowliness when the angel of the Lord appeared to mere shepherds, unpopular and people considered of lower esteem in society, who were just going about their daily business. There is also the counter-intuitive manner in which Christ would come; where the lame would leap, a people who walked in darkness would see light, and how Jesus would come and not just suffer for us, He suffered with us. Blended with the musical, the whole work would come across as a magnificent hymn of praise to God and a rendition of heartfelt gratitude for Jesus. 

This devotional is not about entertainment or a distraction from the worries and cares of this world. It is about questioning our present lifestyles and the presuppositions we hold in our daily lives. Not only does it illuminates us of the reality of Christ, it helps the Word penetrate into our souls to remind us of purification, our depth of belief in the promise of God, and the passion of Christ. We are forced to reckon with the differences between worldly expectations of a military might versus the humble anticipation of the Christ-child. Let us not kid ourselves. We all harbor dreams of a mighty king frequently according to our terms rather than God’s. This is perhaps one of the biggest barriers, if not the biggest in our spirituality of faith. Stripped to our bare essentials, we will realize that the One who redeems us is One who comes in the Spirit’s power. Period. 

Rating: 4.5 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.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

"Social and Economic Life in Second Temple Judea" (Samuel L. Adams)

TITLE: Social and Economic Life in Second Temple Judea
AUTHOR: Samuel L. Adams
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (256 pages).

What was daily social life like in the ancient world? Was it better than our modern fast-paced lifestyle? What kind of taxes did they pay? What kind of socioeconomic concerns were there between 532 BCE to 70 CE? How could the history of the Judean culture increase our understanding of the biblical narratives and bible interpretation in general? Were the economic struggles and social lifestyles very different from our modern world? The answers are fascinating as the Samuel L Adams helps open windows of understanding for modern readers into that of the ancient world.
Using the markers when the temple was first restored (532 BCE) till the destruction of the second temple (70 BCE), Adams is inspired by the global financial crises of 2008 that affected many people economically, socially, and personally. Five major categories are covered.

  1. Family Life and Marriage 
  2. Status of Women and Children 
  3. Work and Financial Exchanges 
  4. Taxation and the Role of the State 
  5. The Ethics of Wealth and Poverty

Starting with the family as the basic unit of society, Adams points out the difference between “household” and “family,” saying that they were not “synonymous” as the latter was basically related by kinship while the former means living together in one place. Thus, a servant or slave in the house would be considered a member of the household. Often based on the hierarchical structure where the father was the head of the family, young females were married into and lived with the household of their husbands. The demographics before the exile period shifted from “house of the father” to “house of the fathers” showing a greater solidarity among the Judeans, while they were ruled by their foreign masters. In other words, the people were more cohesive after the exile experience, in contrast to the original clans instituted after Moses’ leadership. Even so, the structures were more complex as economics often determined household formation. The rich would have their own household structures intact while the poor who could not afford land or property would serve their richer bosses in exchange for lodging and basic needs. We also see how the Sabbath helped kept families together as they observe a common celebration each week. Three-generation households were unlikely as often the economics determined the size. In the pre-exilic period, many kings did not live beyond their forties. Often, the powerful determined the way trade was conducted. Persians dominated maritime trade (539 – 450 BCE). Many Judeans went back to agrarian work. Living together was more a matter of economics which was why many poorer households remained small.   The rich often had larger households simply because they could afford it. Marriages were directly affected by economic motivations where financial stability could be secured via betrothal and marriage. There were also tensions related to intermarriages where economic practicalities can trump the concerns over the corruption of the “holy seed.” For instance, Adams points out the cruel acts in Ezra 10:3 where economic concerns took priority. Such economics were such a big concern that marriages, dowries, even divorces, had major implications.

Monday, December 22, 2014

"The Hardest Peace" (Kara Tippetts)

TITLE: The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life's Hard
AUTHOR: Kara Tippetts
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2014, (192 pages)

Life is hard. For some, life can be even harder despite being children of peace. For Kara Tippetts, mother of four young children, her journey through life seems to comprise of more valleys than mountains. In a title that is very revealing about how hard life can be, Tippetts shares openly about her childhood, her challenges in marriage, her encounter with fire, and her unending spates of illnesses.

Right from the onset, Tippetts share about her childhood where the highs were very high and the lows very low. As a young victim of anger, and a "witness to so much pain," Tippetts sought out solace through childhood rebellion in beer, marijuana, and boys. When she found Jesus, she knew that there was a lot of her past that she needed healing from. Then, there was the marriage where she and her husband Jason needed to learn how to fight fair and to use kindness as a way to save their marriage. As a wife who supports her husband in ministry, the whole family uprooted themselves from North Carolina to go toward Colorado springs. Their step of faith required an even bigger step. Like the fire that threatened to derail their plans, but instead taught her about the value of relationships over things.

Perhaps, the hardest of it all would be the series of painful ailments and devastating illnesses that would occupy the bulk of the book. It all started on that fateful day of July 23rd, 2012 when she was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic cancer. It was terminal and spreading. Not knowing how long she will get to live, she decided to spend the rest of her life to cherish her family and friends, to live with faith in God and hope for a future promised in Christ. The book is drenched with her personal struggles against physical pain. Yet, it is soaked in that gentle assurance that God is present in her suffering. Much of the book is drawn from her blog, "Mundane Faithfulness," and pieced together in 8 chapters. There is a gradual surrender that it was not going to be her will but God's. There is also that conviction of how she is dying to self each day. Tippetts is real, both in her pain as well as in her hope. This fighting spirit and authentic self have captured the hearts of many people. Tippetts's blog, an online cancer journal is widely followed. She has contributed to many articles in several Christian sites and widely reported in mainstream media, especially after her touching open letter to another dying patient, Brittany Maynard, who took her own life on November 1st, 2014.

It is not easy to be open and honest about something so personal and private. Yet, Tippetts have found courage to tell her story and to share her life not only with her circle of friends but with the public. This is testimony of her strength amid suffering. Her story is her unique rendition of what it means to be struggling in this world and at the same time, maintaining a firm conviction that the day will come, when God will wipe away every tear, erase all suffering, and embrace His children.

I appreciate the way Tippetts end the book with a letter to her husband Jason, and a reply from Jason, expressing the age old phrase: "Love never fails." Life is hard, but it is also beautiful. For Tippetts, seen from the eyes of love and faith, beauty is everywhere.


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

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"Raised?" (Jonathan Dodson and Brad Watson)

TITLE: Raised?: Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection
AUTHOR: Jonathan Dodson and Brad Watson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014, (112 pages).

There are many non-Christians who readily doubt the reality of the Resurrection. Some Christians too but do not make it so pronounced. They simply choose to shove the doubts under the carpet and deal with them on another day. Working collaboratively, two pastors have come together to author a book that addresses the doubts of both believers and non-believers on the topic of the resurrection of Christ. Non-believers are urged not to be afraid to question because anything worth believing is first worth questioning, for the express purpose of finding the truth. Believers are encouraged not to settle for "pat proofs, emotional experiences, or duty-driven religion." Based on the premise that the Resurrection is the foundation of the Christian faith, anyone seeking to know the truth will not fear questions to help one find out more. The authors believe so much in the historical fact of the Resurrection and the Truth of Jesus risen from the dead, that they have no fear about challenges. Challenges like:
  • How can lowly man ever crucify a High God?
  • Skeptical accounts of the Resurrection
  • How can such a supernatural event happen in the natural world?
  • Disputes over the afterlife
  • If Jews and Greeks find the Resurrection "implausible" then, why not others?
  • Was it a delusion?
  • Are the witnesses then reliable?

Monday, December 15, 2014

"Kingdom Conspiracy" (Scot McKnight)

TITLE: Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church
AUTHOR: Scot McKnight
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2014, (304 pages).

In this book, McKnight continues to offer up counter intuitive ideas about basic Christian beliefs and practices. Like what he had done for gospel and evangelism, he is doing the same for Kingdom and the mission. In his earlier book, "King Jesus Gospel," he critiques with vigour the faulty evangelistic models that reduce the gospel to a series of spiritual laws, salvation culture, or merely saying the sinners' prayer. Likewise, McKnight offers up a critique of some common usage of the word "kingdom." After studying the various approaches by "skinny jeans kingdom people," he summarizes their understanding of kingdom as, "Kingdom means good deeds done by good people (Christian or not) in the public sector for the common good." In other words, kingdom work means social justice, world peace, good works with a tinge of Biblical principle. That is not all. McKnight takes to task the "Pleated Folks" perspective that is incorporated into two statements:
  1. Kingdom as present and future
  2. Kingdom as rule and realm
These two statements make it seem like kingdom is everywhere, nowhere, anyhow, and anywhere. After clearing the decks, McKnight presents what he calls "returning to the radical mission of the local church." The clue is to bring together the practical helps of the "Skinny Jeans" and the concept of "Pleated Folks" to tell the two stories of the kingdom, the CFRC and the ABA. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

"Churchless" (George Barna and David Kinnaman)

TITLE: Churchless: Understanding Today's Unchurched and How to Connect with Them
AUTHOR: George Barna and David Kinnaman
PUBLISHER: Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2014, (224 pages).

As churches in the West continue to shrink, one begins to wonder which group then is growing? Answer: The unchurched person. For every one person who stops attending any church, it adds one more to the growing pool of people called the "unchurched" or according to Barna and Kinnaman, the "churchless." Simply put, a churchless person is one who is not connected at all to any church. The statistics are grim. Out of people who call themselves Christians, only 47% are actively a part of a Church, which means they go to Church on a regular basis on the minimal. A whopping 53% are the unchurched, of which about 35% are de-churched; 12% purely unchurched; and 8% minimally churched. If we analyze the terms closer, the mood is depressing.
  • "Actively churched" are those attending church at least once a month
  • "minimally churched" are those attending church several times a year
  • "de-churched" are those currently taking a break from going to church
  • "purely unchurched" are those who have never gone for a church service.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"Worship Ways for the People Within Your Reach" (Thomas G. Bandy)

TITLE: Worship Ways For the People Within Your Reach
AUTHOR: Thomas G. Bandy
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2014, (216 pages).

First it was the segregation of worship by time, distinct times in the morning, afternoon of evening services. Then it became separated by generational preferences, between traditional, youth, middle-age, etc. It then evolved into differences over worship styles, contemporary vs traditional, and so on. These brings up the core question: Why worship?

What is the point of worship? Does it really matter what kinds of worship ways we adopt? For an increasingly disenchanted communities and fragmented world, worship seems meaningless. Church consultant and leadership coach, Thomas Bandy then asks this revealing question:

"If worship were simply cancelled and Sunday morning ceased to become the centerpiece of church experience, what would happen?"

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Second Edition: Revised and Expanded (Donald K. McKim)

TITLE: The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Second Edition: Revised and Expanded
AUTHOR: Donald K. McKim
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (352 pages).

In order to understand theology, there is no running away from terminology, vocabulary, and theological words and phrases. Indeed, McKim says it very well: "Words are the building blocks for Christian theology." With nearly 7000 theological terms drawn from over 21 theological disciplines, McKim has provided brief 1-3 statements to describe each of them. The first edition drew from the following areas: "Bible, American church history, church government, general church history, ethics, evangelicalism, feminist theology, fundamentalism, general religion, liberation theology, liturgical theology, Lutheran theology, ministry, philosophical theology, Protestant theology, Reformed theology, Roman Catholic theology, social-scientific terms, spirituality, theology, Wesleyan theology, and worship." The second edition adds additional terms from the areas of contemporary and postcolonial theology.

Listed in alphabetical order, the dictionary of terms packed in terms described very clearly and concisely. Where appropriate, the word origins are described. It does not take long for any reader to adopt a posture of language humility, knowing that the English language today owes a lot to the Latin, the Greek, the Hebrew, German, Spanish, and others. Not only is the book ecumenical, it also incorporates some religious terms from other cultures and religious beliefs. I realize then that the book is not specifically about "Christian Theology" but about theology in general. Like the words "Tao," "New Age Movements," and terms used by non-Christian and the secular world. Due to the brevity and the page limits, some terms leave much to be desired. For example, the differences between "assistant pastor" and "associate pastor" are not easily discernible. More needs to be said in order to enable the terms to be more useful. Having said that, the purpose of the terms is basically a primer to spark greater interest and heighten the awareness of the meaning of the term. Thus, it is not to give in-depth coverage of each term, but to give an initial nudge for one to do further research. Personally, I find the volume very engaging as it helps me link many areas of theology and the doctrines together. At the same time, it is a convenient reference where I can refresh my understanding of terms learned in the past. For theological students, this volume will be a life saver to give them a handle on some of the more difficult theological texts they have at seminaries.

I deeply appreciate the annotated bibliography that gives students a list of theological resources, one-volume commentaries, biblical criticism, Church history, theological dictionaries, and the various works cited. Moreover, with an increasingly online world, the websites for theological research will only continue to grow. I suspect that the web listing will grow longer in future editions.

Incredibly extensive, this volume leaves me gasping for more.

Rating: 5 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.

Monday, December 8, 2014

"Experience the Impossible" (Bill Johnson)

TITLE: Experience the Impossible: Simple Ways to Unleash Heaven's Power on Earth
AUTHOR: Bill Johnson
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Chosen Books, 2014, (256 pages).

In faith, we are connected with the Divine. In hope, we joyfully anticipate good things from God. In love, everything is changed. Using the three themes of faith, hope, and love as ways to experience God and the things that appear impossible with man, Pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, California, Bill Johnson provides 79 reflections to help us experience heaven's power on earth.  Each chapter begins with a short devotional on faith, hope, or love, and ends with a prayer and confession. The titles of each chapter alone is often appropriate for a thought a day. Like the first chapter on faith, where Johnson describes faith as not coming from striving but from surrender. It is a contrast between faith in surrender versus the striving via works. He helps us along by stringing together thoughts about faith throughout the Bible. For hope, Johnson describes the positivistic aspects like the cultivation of gratitude and hunger so that one will increase desire for God; the revelation of God's promises to draw us closer; and how hope is the "soil" for our faith to grow on. Beautiful. Many aspects of hope are also introduced in a manner of warnings such as the tendency to be obsessed with failures; how resentful people attract more complaints; how the size of our problems grow larger if we let our minds be filled with them; how those without hope can expect the worst; how it is terrible to live with regret; and so on. On love, he encourages us that the "heart to hear God" is more important than the "ability" to hear God's voice; Jesus understands our losses for He himself had experienced personal suffering and death; how love is warped when people without love tried to interpret the Bible; how important it is for Christian leaders to have passion in leadership; learning to let love silence fear; and many more.

As I leaf the pages of the book, I find fresh insights coming through with regards to the themes of faith, hope, and love. Written pastorally, Johnson is able to connect the promises of heaven with the disappointments often encountered on earth, to motivate a "can do" perspective for readers. That is what he means by "experience the impossible." Underlying the book is the constant reminder that it is the Holy Spirit that enables the fruition of faith, hope, and love. Christian people can be discouraged from time to time. When the cares and worries of this world overwhelm us, we can easily lose sight of the promises of God. We let the world get to us more than we get ourselves to the world. For the battle needs to be fought first inside our souls. This is the battleground that only in the Holy Spirit can we be victors. In order to experience the impossible, we need faith to believe, hope to long for, and love to live and belong together. In a strange way, believers who allow God to work will realize that unleashing the power of heaven is not about what we do. It is about the willingness to let God use us to do what He deems best.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


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

Friday, December 5, 2014

"It's a God Thing Vol 2" (Don Jacobson and K-Love)

TITLE: It's a God Thing Volume 2: When Miracles Happen to Everyday People
AUTHOR: Don Jacobson and K-Love
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2014, (216 pages).

We often read about miracles in the Bible. Miracles like people being healed; water turned into wine; food getting multiplied; and miraculous signs and wonders from both the Old and New Testament. Are miracles real? Do they still occur today? This volume sings out 46 stories of miraculous events happening to ordinary people. The author himself is one living testimony. In 1980, Jacobson accidentally shot himself in the woods with a 12-gauge shotgun. For nine hours, he bled and death appeared imminent. Until he was miraculously found. This event spawned a desire to search and to collect miracle stories to remind us that God is still present today. Don Jacobson was formerly President and owner of Multnomah Publishers, and is well known in the Christian publishing world.

With the success of the first volume about miracle stories happening to everyday people, together with K-Love radio network, this second volume continues the stories. The miracles cover all walks of life, many different situations of dire needs, and the amazing results of how God works. Like how Steve managed to escape from a runaway truck; how Kellie White managed to retrieve a lost "special thing" for a stranger; Steve Nestor's story of being healed from Stage IV Hodgkin's Lymphoma; the inexplicable disappearance of cancer from a patient; about a Vietnamese refugee fleeing the Communist regime on land and surviving pirates in dangerous waters; and even the sight of "three perfect sunflowers" that amazing appeared to touch a special moment for people in grief.

Often told in the first person, the stories read like a "Chicken Soup" series of stories to encourage the weary and the discouraged. The difference is the way the stories are told. All the stories are seen human impossibility in sight. All occurred when individuals seemed to be in their wit's end. Then the impossible happened. Just like the moment in Mark 10:27 when Jesus said to the disciples after his saying about a camel entering the eye of a needle: "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God."

Let this book accompany the many stories through the ages of how God works. For those feeling a bit down and almost out, this book may give them a fresh dose of hope and faith. For those who are skeptical of the stories, learn to give the storytellers the benefit of the doubt. After all, miracles defy natural reasoning. Rationale and logic do not add up to explaining all the things in this world, let alone the unknown universe. As Christmas approaches, it is good to be reminded of what the Christian story is about. Quoting CS Lewis,

"The Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him. It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left." (CS Lewis, "The Grand Miracle" in God in the Dock, Eerdmans, 1970, p80)

May these stories point us more toward the God of the Universe, the Grand Miracle of miracles, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


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

Thursday, December 4, 2014

"Handbook of Religion" (various authors)

TITLE: Handbook of Religion: A Christian Engagement with Traditions, Teachings, and Practices
EDITORS: Terry C. Muck, Harold A. Netland, and Gerald R. McDermott
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014, (832 pages).

Is it really possible for Christians to talk about other religions, and to bring in their theology into a book such as a "Handbook of Religion?" Well, the answer can also be asked in another way. Is it possible for anyone NOT to bring in their opinions, their philosophies, and their religious values into any book?  In other words, everybody brings in something into any discussion. There is no perfect book in which nobody gives zero opinion or neutral slant. Having said that, most of the contributors in this compendium are Christians, and they openly admit how they are approaching the topic of religion. Bringing together three editors, fifty-five contributors, the book contains a total of 134 articles and 239 study aids. All the three editors are evangelicals and professors of religion at graduate schools. As the the rest of the contributors, the editors had invited not only Christians but several from other faith traditions as well. The majority of the essays from parts 2-4 are primarily descriptive in nature. In places where Christian engagements are made, the editors explicitly say so.

The purpose of this book is to introduce the various religious traditions of today and to look at some major issues between these religions and Christianity. Meant primarily for Christians wanting to understand non-Christian religions and beliefs,  the editors hoped to address four needs:
  1. Need for Basic Information of other religions
  2. Need for Seeing the Big Picture of the Religious World Today
  3. Need for Understanding how Radically Differentiated the World of Religious Beliefs Had become
  4. Need for Understanding the Dynamics behind Identity and Religious belief

Monday, December 1, 2014

"21 Things the Devil Cannot Do" (Duane Vander Klok)

TITLE: 21 Things the Devil Cannot Do
AUTHOR: Duane Vander Klok
PUBLISHER: Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 2014, (176 pages).

Too many believers have lived in fear and insecurity when they start to focus on what the devil can do instead of what the devil cannot do. As a result, people are deceived and forget that the devil is not as formidable as these deceptions paint him to be. "Know your enemy" seems to be the focus of lead pastor and author, Duane Vander Klok. The underlying exhortation in this book is this: Don't overestimate the power of the devil and underestimate the reality of the truth. Like many preachers and teachers of the pentecostal traditions, Klok begins by telling us the importance of rightly sizing up our enemies. Don't over or underestimate his ability. For Colossians 1:11-14 reminds us that believers are already rescued, freed from bondage, and empowered to be victors in God's kingdom. Knowing the enemy means learning the truth about the devil and what spiritual warfare entails. In three chapters, he listed all 21 things that the Devil cannot do. This is followed by 12 signs to uncover the devil's tactics. Finally, Klok comes back with a "cure," that says only Jesus can save. He conveniently lists all the 21 things and 12 signs toward the end of the book for readers' convenience. I suspect this chapter alone would be thumbed through most often by readers.