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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Truly Free" (Robert Morris)

TITLE: Truly Free: Breaking the Snares That So Easily Entangle
AUTHOR: Robert Morris
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2015, (240 pages).

Freedom is much touted and cherished in the West. From the Declaration of Independence to the enshrinement of freedom in anthems, oaths, and pledges, we may have from time to time be guilty in taking our common freedoms for granted. In fact, we may enslaved more than we are aware of. When Christ came to set us free, we will be free. Unless we become deceived, distracted, discouraged, or depressed. According to lead pastor and author, Robert Morris, for one to be truly free, discipleship and deliverance must go hand in hand. He laments the fact that Christians who are supposed to be living in freedom are unfortunately living in enslavement and snares to several temptations. In a series of what looked like three-point sermons that make up the chapters of this book, Morris begins by systematically using the biblical principles and teachings of Scripture to remind us that freedom in Christ means following Christ and being delivered from the trickery of the evil one and the temptations of the world, and the vulnerabilities of the flesh Dispelling two popular myths, he draws from the wisdom of CS Lewis who wrote in the popular book, The Screwtape Letters:

"There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them."

Friday, April 24, 2015

"The Better Life" (Claire Diaz-Ortiz)

TITLE: The Better Life: Small Things You Can Do Right Where You Are
AUTHOR: Claire Diaz-Ortiz
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2015, (160 pages).

Good things come in small packages. Learn to start where you are rather than to wait for the improbable perfect situation. This is what the popular author and speaker, Claire Diaz-Ortiz says in thirty over vignettes that inspire one toward a better life. Diaz-Ortiz is also known as a "top-level Twitter employee" as well as her humanitarian work, especially through her organization, "Hope Runs" which is a non-profit organization supporting AIDS orphanages in Kenya. This book is an example of why her influence is infectious. With her winsome approach, she puts together a book that truly inspires one to do more with the present resources rather than to wait in vain for more resources that may never appear. Tips like learning to set our intention using the power of one word; to become morning people who usually get more things done; to do the seven most important things each day using the PRESENT acronym; the need to say no and rest; and the need to say no and work; and many more.

The author weaves in her own life stories in the book about how the smallest decisions in life can affect her journey in life. Like the time when she said yes to an invitation to work for Twitter, and 99 ways in which one need to say no to things that really do not matter, and also in order to protect that one focus for the year. Many things she shared appear to be common sense, like learning to accept the hurts and disappointments that come our way; as well as perseverance to accomplish something and the openness to learn. It is really easy reading and the short snippets make this book an easy pick-up and perk-me-up reading material when traveling to work or home on the bus or train. While there could be other ways to nuance her observations and sharing, the moment we over-analyze her memoir, the less beneficial the book is for us. If we were to simply read and watch her reveal her learning in life, it will be a lot more meaningful for us as eavesdroppers instead of judges of what is happening in her life.

Better life or not, we can choose to think and live positively through the ups and downs of life. Not all of the author's chapters may appeal, but if there is just one that does help, it would have worth the price of the book. So, pick up this book and read away.

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 22, 2015

"Faith Speaking Understanding" (Kevin J. Vanhoozer)

TITLE: Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine
AUTHOR: Kevin J. Vanhoozer
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (298 pages).

Mention doctrine and there is a good chance that people would yawn. The central theme is that the world changes most when the Church stays the same, doctrinal, theologically, and faithfully. Even as the world spins itself dizzy in various directions, the Church can choose to be faithful and steadfast to the good old gospel story of the Old Rugged Cross of Jesus Christ. Using the metaphor of theatrical performance, Kevin Vanhoozer affirms the importance of doctrine as a necessary teaching in Churches and as a key part of discipleship. He takes a “high view” of Scripture that underlines the basis of all doctrinal discussions. Nine interrelated themes underline how the Church can become a living Bible.
  1. About Being Biblical
  2. About Theology
  3. About Church Doctrine
  4. About the Gospel of Jesus Christ
  5. About Life
  6. About the Reign of God
  7. About the Church
  8. About Public Theology
  9. About Reality

Monday, April 20, 2015

"What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality?" (Kevin DeYoung)

TITLE: What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?
AUTHOR: Kevin DeYoung
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2015, (160 pages).

Many people claim that the Bible speaks specifically about homosexuality by simply quoting the few popular verses. Not many offer to begin by asking the fundamental question, "What does the Bible really teach about everything?" This is what author and pastor, Kevin DeYoung did. He goes back to the beginning of creation, the Fall, the land, the temple, the coming Messiah, and the expectant future of a new heaven and new earth. He points out that the Bible is not about God giving us a lecture about homosexuality. Rather, it is learning to see what the Bible really focus on before we even talk about homosexuality. Having said that, he makes this statement about the book, that it is a "Christian book, with a narrow focus, defending a traditional view of marriage." In other words, DeYoung is writing from a Christian point of view. He is exploring the way the Bible verses talk about homosexuality. It is about defending the traditional view of marriage as between a man and a woman. Aware of the contentious subject, he addresses three groups of potential readers. The first group is the already convinced where he aims to remind them to argue respectfully and appropriately. This means learning to recognize one's sinfulness and imperfections too. The second group are the skeptics or contentious, where he hopes will argue strictly on biblical grounds rather than on charged up emotions. The third group are the confused or those who just do not know how to respond.

Friday, April 17, 2015

"Saturate" (Jeff Vanderstelt)

TITLE: Saturate: Being Disciples of Jesus in the Everyday Stuff of Life
AUTHOR: Jeff Vanderstelt
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2015, (256 pages).

This book is about ordinary Christianity being put into practice in everyday life. It is for imperfect people trying to do something good in this world. It is about believers wanting to obey the Word of God. It is about discipleship in simple terms. It is also about putting theory into practice, where theology's rubber hits the road of discipleship. Jeff Vanderstelt, lead pastor of Doxa Church in Bellevue, WA in confessing that he dislikes writing, has decided to publish the book because of a vision in Habbakuk 2:14, "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea." He believes that it is possible for every believer to practice discipleship in a way that saturates the world they live in with Christ's love and influence. Presenting his idea in four frames of thought, he begins by mentioning the idea of church not as an event or program but a lifestyle of hospitality. People want to be participants and not mere spectators. Opportunities need to be given to such people to contribute. It is better to be a fisherman instead of watching people fish. He goes back to Jesus' willingness to meet people where they are, at weddings, parties, houses, and ordinary places. It is not the religious events that matter but all the ordinary activities through the day. His vision of church is essentially the people of God living together on a mission in everyday living. Church does not end in a Church service on Sunday. It begins on Sunday and Church happens in everyday living through the rest of the week.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"Finding Truth" (Nancy Pearcey)

TITLE: Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes
AUTHOR: Nancy Pearcey
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2015, (384 pages).

Christianity is facing growing opposition on many different fronts, some of which are also hostile and defiant. Even among believers, there are many who are leaving the faith, discouraged or disillusioned. One example is a congressional chief of staff, Bill Wichterman who said he "lost his faith at an evangelical college." At the heart of the problem is the perception that Christianity had no intellectual foundation to meet the challenges of atheism, secularism, and other principalities that dominate the world today. No way! said the author of the bestselling book TOTAL TRUTH, and Director of the Francis Schaeffer Center for Worldview and Culture at Houston Baptist University. Using the inspiration of Bill Wichterman, who eventually "studied his way" back to faith, Pearcey puts together five principles to engage critics, skeptics, and disillusioned individuals to affirm the integrity and rationality of the Christian faith. Based on Romans 1:1-2:16, Pearcey's five principles are:

Friday, April 10, 2015

"Spiritual Friendship" (Wesley Hill)

TITLE: Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian
AUTHOR: Wesley Hill
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015, (160 pages).

Must all relationships be sexual in one way or another? Is there a place for celibacy in the modern debate over homosexuality? Can there be genuine friendships without any sexual connotations?More importantly, is there a place for friendship in spite of one's sexual orientation? According to Wesley Hill who is celibate and also gay, the answer is yes. In this book about spiritual friendship, Hill attempts to show us that friendship is "the freest, the least constrained, the least fixed and determined, of all human loves" and "entirely voluntary, uncoerced, and unencumbered by any sense of duty or debt."  He believes that friendship must stand alone and above all kinds of opinions or prejudices. He sees Simon bearing Jesus' cross as "an icon of friendship." He separates the idea of sexual attraction from the development of true spiritual friendship. Having done that, he moves toward distilling the essence of spiritual friendship based on acceptance, grace, and love. Hill believes that the gospel says "No" to same-sex relationships but "Yes" to spiritual friendship that is not necessarily sexual in any way. This sets him on a path to finding out love as a celibate and spiritual friendship without sexual implications.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

"Rhythms of Worship" (Michael Waschevski and John G. Stevens)

TITLE: Rhythms of Worship: The Planning and Purpose of Liturgy
AUTHOR: Michael Waschevski and John G. Stevens
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015, (96 pages).

What are the rhythms of worship? How do we plan a good and well-rounded weekly service? Instead of re-inventing the wheel, is there some kind of a model to follow or to adapt? In this little book, we learn about the purpose and the planning behind worship services. With simple description and steps, pastors John G. Stevens
and Michael Waschevski share a number of ways in which we can incorporate various rhythms of worship in our churches. Beginning with the general outline of worship, they note that most mainline denominations follow a four-fold structure for worship, what I would call an “order” rhythm.
  1. Gathering in response to the love and invitation of God
  2. Hearing and responding to God’s Word
  3. Sharing the meal and giving thanks
  4. Departing to serve God in the world
One can summarize the four steps into an easy to remember 4Ws. At the start, the people are welcomed as they gather, for each time the people of God come together, there is the Church. Next is the reading of the Word with participation in mind. The congregation is given a chance to respond to the worship leaders. The sermon is then preached and congregations are encouraged to interact where possible. With the Holy Communion as a common meal for the people, members participate with the warmth of fellowship in remembrance of Christ’s death as well as celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Finally, the people can go forth into the world to be conscious toward good works where possible.

There is the rhythm of music selections where congregations are encouraged not to be distracted by the traditional vs contemporary songs divide, but to learn to have an openness for greater repertoire of old and new songs. The authors suggest that congregations begin and end with familiar songs. If there are any new songs to be introduced, let them be proportioned no more than one-third of the total number of songs. In terms of technology, while powerpoint projectors are ok, it is beneficial to have printed hymnbooks or songs in the event of some technical hiccups.

The rhythm of seasons is like the Church calendar. Special days include Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Pentecost, and other significant days of the Christian calendar. The authors provide Scripture references and support to guide readers through the planning. They teach us the historical background of each special day. They suggest creative programs as well as sensitivity to the emotional needs of various groups. For example, when celebrating Christmas, be aware that it may evoke memories of some members who are lonely or had lost loved ones recently.

One can also plan personal spiritual rhythms to coincide with the rhythms through the year. For example, the season of Lent can be a time to fast while the Christmastide can be a time to celebrate and to feast. The days following Easter can be filled with celebrative moments leading to the Pentecost where one observes the teachings of the Holy Spirit more, and perhaps a spiritual revival.

The last chapter of the book comes back one full circle to ponder on the meaning and reason for worship. Worship is about “being the church” that God has called. It is not simply an idea or concept. It is a living organism in Christ. Worship is community life in action. It is a holy community set apart for God. This book on worship is important simply because worship is important.

Rating: 4.25 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, April 6, 2015

"Preaching with Accuracy" (Randal E. Pelton)

TITLE: Preaching with Accuracy: Finding Christ-Centered Big Ideas for Biblical Preaching
AUTHOR: Randal E. Pelton
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2014, (176 pages).

Time and topic are two of the biggest challenges facing preachers who have to preach frequently, especially weekly. While books on preaching are many, books that directly speak to pastors who preach every week are less numerous. With such people in mind, Pelton shares his method to preach with accuracy. He begins with Os Guinness's apt warning about our tendency to be so relevant to culture that we lose faithfulness to the gospel. He wants to highlight the need for expository preaching rather than for pastors to search for the hippiest, trendiest, or most 'relevant' topic to preach each week. There is a danger of the pastor turning the preaching time into a relevance-driven pulpit. The central concern is that the Word of God needs to be preached. Rather than to let topics drive the Word, we need to let the Word drive the relevance effort.

According to Pelton, choosing the passage to be preached is important because it has implications on whether the passage has a big idea, many ideas, or simply no clear idea. The apostle Paul uses "attention-getting observation" before unloading biblical truths on the situation. Jesus's model does not seek to be seeker-sensitive but to minister the Word to the condition of the hearts of individuals. In preaching with accuracy, one needs to be aware of the multiple ideas of the chosen texts as well as the multiple ways they could be perceived by listeners. Accurate preaching means being able to connect these dots into one central theme, how little ideas within the texts add weight to the major idea or theme of the text. He states:

"Preaching with greater accuracy involves knowing how big ideas and little ideas interrelate to create meanings. We run the risk of misinterpreting and misapplying preaching portions if we major on minor ideas." (33)

Friday, April 3, 2015

"Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory" (Jerry L. Walls)

TITLE: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things That Matter Most
AUTHOR: Jerry L. Walls
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015, (190 pages).

Recently, there has been a spate of books and publications that spooked the interest on heaven, hell, and in some cases, the doctrine of purgatory. With books like Rob Bell's "Love Wins" that argued very much in the direction of universalism, and counter vigorous reactions like Mark Galli's "God Wins" and Francis Chan's "Erasing Hell," the evangelical world has been up in arms about the doctrines of heaven and hell, and how it is increasingly relevant in our modern society. According to popular speaker and author, Dr Jerry Walls, much of the books, films, and publications out there now about the afterlife tend to be "sentimental, simplistic, and emotionally manipulative." Walls wants to go beyond mere fascination toward an affirmation of the reality of heaven and hell. For we cannot affirm the Trinity, the Incarnation of Christ, the Atonement, and the Resurrection of Christ without affirming the doctrines of heaven, hell, and the life everlasting. Having written earlier books like "Hell, the Logic of Damnation" in 1992, "Heaven: The logic of Eternal Joy" in 2002, and "Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation" in 2011, Walls has brought all of these and condensed it with additional updates into this new work. He is convinced that there is purgatory simply because it makes a lot of sense to the doctrines of heaven and hell. Like hell can be understood best in the context of heaven, heaven and hell can be understood better with the doctrine of purgatory. His reasoning is like trying to understand the reality of the fallen world by making reference to the beginnings of a originally good world.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"Lectio Divina" (Enzo Bianchi)

TITLE: Lectio Divina: From God's Word to Our Lives (Voices from the Monastery)
AUTHOR: Enzo Bianchi
PUBLISHER: Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2015, (128 pages).

We have many books on theology and Christian living. What about how to read the Bible devotionally? According to the Enzo Bianchi, a Catholic layperson who founded a monastic community in Italy, he believes that reading the Bible well is the central part of discipleship. The author is founder of the Bose Community, an ecumenical monastic community of 80 brothers and sisters in Magnano, Italy.

We need to be caught up in Bible reading. We need to be absorbed by the Word. We need to commune with God in the Word. Writing from his experience with a group of believers to surround their whole lives around the Word of God, Bianchi's overriding passion is to encounter Christ as he reads the Word of God. This is the method of lectio divina which helps us avoid some of the pitfalls of humanistic reading. Pitfalls such as:
  • Reading for simple emotional experience
  • Rigid fundamentalism that keeps the letter but ignores the spirit of the letter
  • Ignoring the traditions and histories of the Word
  • Using the Word of God as a polemic or literary weapon against one another
Set in two parts, Part One of the book is "Bible and Spirit" which is about entering the rooms in the Bible with the Holy Spirit holding the keys to usher us in. The third century Church father, Origen explains it as "Scriptura sui ipsius interpres" (Scripture is its own interpreter).This means that the Bible is a unity that does not contract itself. It also means the Spirit teaches us. The Bible is not merely an objective document to analyze and study. It is a subjective living Word that puts us as the object as willing servants and God as the Person revealed to us. We read in faith, desiring the truth instead of impatiently demanding answers to our needs. The Bible calls us to be personally involved in the Word instead of an impersonal stance to see things from a distance. We need to be open to what the Bible is saying and be open to what the Bible is not saying. It needs to be read, studied, and understood in the Spirit. Bianchi is also aware of how the Bible can be read in an "overly spiritualized, allegorical, literal, or fundamentalist" manner. The way to avoid that is to keep the Bible central in liturgy, preaching, theology, and Christian living, not just Bible study time. He advocates "spiritual exegesis" which is an approach to the Bible that believes God is found in the Word. It goes beyond methods or mere applications. It engages the whole person that the reading of the Word results in a transforming of one's life. Spiritual reading means reading the Bible as a single book on Christ. I like what Hans Urs von Balthasar's comment about the four senses of Scripture:
The four senses of scripture are celebrating a hidden resurrection in today’s theology. The literal sense appears to be analogous to the historical-critical approach, the spiritual sense to the kerygmatic, the tropological to the existential, and the anagogical to the eschatological.
The first sense is the literal sense which is how we exegete the Word, do word studies, and practice sound interpretation. The second sense is the spiritual in which we move to the tune of the Holy Spirit helping us to interpret and understand the meaning and significance of the Word for us today. The third sense is the tropological which is the moral interpretation of the story. Some would use the word allegorical to describe it. The fourth sense is anagogical which is to read Scripture with the view of the future coming Kingdom of God. Thus, reading the Bible transcends time as it embraces all the past, the present, and the future. Read the Bible over and over again until we are connected to God in love and adoration. We understand the Bible according to how we live it. Reading it involves two more elements: life of the Church and what it means to be human. The trouble with people is that they hardly read the Word and then complain about the lack of God's presence when we are in trouble. He connects the Bible as sacramental with the Eucharist as Christ's presence. In all, there is a stress on unity and the community of God.

Reading the Bible involves listening as well for the Bible is dialogical and relational. We listen to God and sense God listening to us. Obedience is listening in faith. Listening in faith means learning to move from letter to spirit, to let the Spirit guide our understanding of the ancient texts to the practice of modern living. Soon, Bianchi launches into the four levels of lectio divina.
  1. Historical-Literary level (lectio)
  2. Glimpsing Christ (meditatio)
  3. Dialogue that engages and interacts (oratio)
  4. Seeing God face to face (contemplatio)
Part Two of the Book deals with Lectio Divina in the Church. It is an interpretive trip down historical lane. We note how the Old Testament books interpret each other. We learn about the Jewish midrashic as well as the Church Fathers' use of allegorical methods. Different eras tend to focus on different senses of Scripture at any one time. Some good tips are as follows:
"Lectio divina, whether by ourselves or in community, requires a context of faith and prayer. We start in silence, confessing our faith that the Lord is speaking to us today through the biblical page. We invoke the Holy Spirit and open ourselves in humility to his action, because insight into the text is a Spirit-led event, not an intellectual pursuit." (90)
One chapter is dedicated to the foundations and practices of lectio divina and two chapters on the challenges of doing lectio divina. We learn about setting aside time and space intentionally, to enter into a place of solitude and silence. We cultivate our listening skills and discernment. We go through the exercises of lectio, oratio, meditatio, and contemplatio. Though brief, it offers readers a quick glimpse into what the exercises entail. Sometimes, brevity is golden as we can be quick to jump into the Word rather than to plow through pages and pages of instructions that can easily numb our enthusiasm.  Other practical tips include:
  • Daily reading of the Word
  • Planting God's Word in the hearts of people
  • Avoid the temptations of extremes
So What?

In some societies, reading is fast becoming a lost discipline. This is particularly so for an increasingly digital generation where people skim web pages instead of reading; browsing instead of meditating; and clicking various apps and links instead of beholding the Word before us. The medium we use is important and can affect the way we do lectio divina. We need to learn the four senses of Scripture simply because the Word of God cannot be hemmed into any one dimension. Just as we know that the Bible has many genres, so too we need to be sensitive to the Word in their original contexts. At the same time, the Spirit of God can lead us to discern what it means then and for us now. 

When I started to read this book, I thought it was a book that is about the practice of lectio divina. Instead, it is a book that lays the foundations of what Scripture is about first. It then shows us reading the Bible has to be done God's way, not human methods. Sometimes, an overly sola scriptura mindset risks reading the Word in humanistic ways. We need to go back to the sources, and be willing to be led by the Spirit to teach us as we participate humbly as a community of God.

If the book can have more examples and illustrations on various passages of Scripture, it would be wonderful.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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