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Thursday, November 30, 2017

"Celebrating Abundance" (Walter Brueggemann)

TITLE: Celebrating Abundance
AUTHOR: Walter Brueggemann
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017, (90 pages).

The Advent season is here. After the traditional Thanksgiving Thursday followed by a crazy Black Friday commercialization, we enter into a cultural period of shopping madness. People hype up virtues of celebrating, giving, gratitude, and festive pleasantries. Christians sing carols and Christmas hymns. Radio stations play Christmas tunes. Film-makers churn out predictable Christmas plots that center around family, friendship, and all kinds of chicken soup for the Christmas movie soul. What about the reasons for giving? What about the heart of the meaning of Christmas? What about the Person behind it all? In a compelling four-week devotional before Christmas and a list of prayers for twelve days after Christmas, renowned author and retired professor Dr Walter Brueggemann looks at the topic of abundance. It is about the abundance of God who poured out His Spirit on us. God will not only resolve the problems we have of today. He promises to give a new heaven and a new earth. Jesus demonstrated His bountiful blessings via the feeding of the 5000; multiple works of mercy and goodness; a catalog of newness; a continued offer of mercy for our repentance; the far reaching grace and faithfulness of God; culminating in the greatest gift of all: Jesus.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

"Good Arguments" (Richard A. Holland Jr and Benjamin K. Forrest)

TITLE: Good Arguments: Making Your Case in Writing and Public Speaking
AUTHOR: Richard A. Holland Jr and Benjamin K. Forrest
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017, (144 pages).

The word "argument" often has negative connotations. Many people see it as something to be avoided. Such a reaction is due to a misunderstanding of what arguments mean. Authors Holland and Forrest have come together to redeem the word and to assert that good arguments reflect God's character. As far as good arguments are concerned, three things are essential. First, ensure that all the essential elements are there (conclusion, premise, and claims). Second, state the claim upfront. Third, connect the premise(s) to the conclusion. They then show us the two types of reasoning: Deductive and Inductive. The former presents direct evidence to support the conclusion. By having all the evidence reasoned out to be true, the conclusion will then be true. For the latter, even if the premises are true, the conclusion is still uncertain. There is a lot more openness as far as inductive reasoning is concerned. This book is a primer for how we can present our case well. We learn of the laws of identity, the law of noncontradiction, and the law of the excluded middle.They show us about fallacies, which is essentially defective reasoning. They distinguish between belief, fact, and opinion, which is a refreshing reminder that while all of us are entitled to our own opinion, not all of us are right. There are Subjective claims vs Objective statements. They show us the importance of understanding and defining our terms, for often, different terms mean different things to different people. In fact, the authors point out an important observation: "Dictionaries do not define words. Rather, for any word, the dictionary simply tells us what the definition is. The distinction is this: words are defined by those who use them." How true indeed. Words and terms are meaningless until they are put together by users. They need a context to be meaningful. By proper definition of terms we are able to communicate them clearly in our statements and arguments. Sometimes, we need analogies or other literary devices to help us achieve that.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

"God in the Movies" (Catherine M. Barsotti and Robert K. Johnston)

TITLE: God in the Movies: A Guide for Exploring Four Decades of Film
AUTHOR: Catherine M. Barsotti and Robert K. Johnston
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2017, (304 pages).

The movie industry continues to be a very vibrant one. It is one of the most popular forms of entertainment for people of all ages. In recent years, more movies have been released with the theme of faith. The quality of Christian movies have improved and due to a sizeable chunk of Christians who watch movies, several movie production companies have set up divisions to target these audiences. Truth is, there are already many movies that have the themes of faith and religion. Underlying the stories of many movies is a search for meaning, for significance, and for God. This book seeks to reveal the presence of such themes and how we can learn to watch movies intelligently and with discernment. In one of the most ambitious projects of this kind, authors Catherine Barsotti and Robert Johnston comb four decades of films ('80s, '90s, '00s, '10s) and highlight forty movies to show us that we do see God mentioned both explicitly and implicitly.

What makes this book readable is through popular movies that many people have already seen or heard. Some of the movies like "Chariots of Fire," "The Elephant Man," "American Beauty," "Life of Pi," "Dead Man Walking," "Wall-E," "12 Years a Slave," "Zero Dark Thirty" have either won oscar nominations or received critical appeal for its entertainment and artistic creativity. Reading the synopsis often brings back memories of the first time I watched it. At the same time, I marvel at how much I missed in terms of seeing the themes of faith and God in the movies. This book powerfully equips us with the lens of watching movie intelligently. It is interesting that the hit series STAR WARS are not given much coverage other than a one-line mention. I would have thought that the entire saga has deeply spiritual themes as well. I suppose the authors had two other hidden reasons. First, they want to highlight the relatively lesser known movies. Second, by the time we are halfway through the book, we would have gotten some skills in analyzing the movies ourselves!

Monday, November 20, 2017

"God is Stranger" (Krish Kandiah)

TITLE: God Is Stranger: Finding God in Unexpected Places
AUTHOR: Krish Kandiah
PUBLISHER: Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2017, (352 pages).

Who is God like? Is He friendly that we could hang out a beer like a buddy? Is He like what some Christians like to call "Daddy" affectionately like a little kid hugging his father after a birthday party? Do we look at external signs of God before letting our guard down? Things like seeing God's character based on our encounters with different people on earth. Like if we mix around with people who say that God is always harsh and merciless, we might end up with a perspective of God being judgmental all or most of the time. If we see God drawn as one giving teddy bears to kids, we might say Jesus is a warm and loving man who cares for little children. Truth is, many of us prefer to see the softer and kinder side of God more than anything else. The big question before us would be: Who is God as described in the Bible? For author Krish Kandiah, God is often stranger than we might think. Familiarity breeds contempt especially when it clouds our sense of discernment, letting our presumptuous past define what we see or perceive. There is mystery. God appears to people when they least expected it and turned their world upside down. Quoting Dennis Covington, this book revolves around this statement: "Mystery is not the absence of meaning, but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend."

Thursday, November 16, 2017

"Making All Things New" (David Powlison)

TITLE: Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken
AUTHOR: David Powlison
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2017, (128 pages).

Human Sexuality are huge matters in our culture. Whether it is about registering for some government procedures, school programs, club activities, or even the use of restrooms, we are asked about gender types all the time. If we are happy about ourselves, references to our sexuality would not really bother us. What if we had a dark sexual past? What if we had been hurt before and our sexuality damaged? What if we have been betrayed by our spouses or partners? Author describes such betrayals like a clean rag soaking up dark and dirty stains. Can the rag be made clean? What does it take to make people new again? This is the key purpose of this book. Powlison sets forth three orienting realities for us:
  1. Faithfulness: Christian faith revels in Sexual Fidelity
  2. Honest: Christian Faith is Candid about Sexual Wrongs
  3. Regeneration: Christian Faith brings Genuine Transformation
Even though God created sex good, sin has corrupted it. By the grace of God, sex has been redeemed and human sexuality made new. Working through the paradoxes of how suffering could be a chance for growth, and how sexual brokenness affects both all genders, readers are guided with this constant prompting, that God will not only make all things new, what He started, He will also complete it. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

"Long Before Luther" (Nathan Busenitz)

TITLE: Long Before Luther: Tracing the Heart of the Gospel From Christ to the Reformation
AUTHOR: Nathan Busenitz
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2017, (256 pages).

October 31st, 2017 is the 500th Anniversary of that great moment when the famous reformer, Martin Luther boldly challenged the Roman Church establishment to a theological debate. Out of this event arose the five solas of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura; Sola Christus; Sola Fide; Sola Gratia; Sola Deo Gloria. While these fundamental tenets of the Christian faith have been elevated as the Reformation Creeds by many, is it really true that the Reformation started all these? Absolutely not, so argues author Nathan Busenitz. In fact, it all began in Scripture itself with pre-Reformation figures already talking about it long before Luther, hence the title. Put it another way, Christianity did not just began 500 years ago. Its origins are over 2000 years ago starting with Christ and several church fathers.

Using "sola fide" as an example, it does not begin with Luther. It began with Christ. He differs sharply from the renowned theologian Alister McGrath by arguing that "sola fide" began 2000 years ago, and not after the Reformation. In this book, Busenitz is essentially arguing against McGrath's three views of justification:

Friday, November 10, 2017

"Blessed are the Misfits" (Brant Hansen)

TITLE: Blessed Are the Misfits: Great News for Believers who are Introverts, Spiritual Strugglers, or Just Feel Like They're Missing Something
AUTHOR: Brant Hansen
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2017, (256 pages).

We all like to think of ourselves as unique individuals. In wanting to be accepted, we often reveal only those part of us that appear to align with general opinion. In truth, many of us struggle with projecting our true selves only when we feel safe. At other times, we hide. We keep our innermost thoughts and feelings to ourselves. Lest someone finds out and we risk becoming a misfit, a pariah, a marginalized member of any community. Many years ago, I came across a book by John Powell entitled, "Why am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?" His basic argument is that people are afraid to reveal their true selves because they fear rejection if they do so. People may not like their honesty and they fear being put aside if their feelings or thoughts do not match the majority view. The truth is, many of us if we truly reveal ourselves, we might even be classified a "misfit." This is not something to be ashamed about. In fact, author Brant Hansen writes to such people that they are blessed. In doing so, Hansen is telling us that it is ok to be ourselves, even though the world around us seemed unable to fit us into its mold. The fear of being left out is more common than we may think. Fears that include:

  • Not having figured out what we want in life;
  • Unsure about our faith in God or whether God still loves us;
  • Uncertainty whether people will accept us for who we are;
  • Being sidelined when our views are in the minority;
  • Holding unpopular opinions;
  • Having doubts but afraid to share them aloud;
  • Inability to deal with awkwardness when there are opportunities to share the gospel;
  • Feelings of being a spiritual failure;
  • ...

Monday, November 6, 2017

"Still Christian" (David P. Gushee)

TITLE: Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism
AUTHOR: David P. Gushee
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017, (214 pages).

He has been on both sides of the divide. Raised as a Catholic, he became a member of Providence Baptist Church toward conservative Southern Christianity. Although he graduated from the liberal Union Theological Seminary, he was called to be a minister and an academic for the fundamentalist Southern Seminary. His years there became one of his most painful periods of ministry. Certain issues became hot potato issues that refuse to go away. Issues such as women ordination and pastoral leadership which became embroiled in power shifts amid strong convictions from all sides. Soon, he became disillusioned due to the infighting and how the events affected his marriage and family. Thankfully, he has mentors such as David Dockery who on several occasions offered him a way out of the struggles, and opens doors to various opportunities such as a different school to teach in and editing opportunities in Christianity Today. He sees firsthand the difficulties in trying to maintain a core fundamentalist stand while trying to stretch the limits of academic excellence. He has seen the worst behaviors from all sides. He became a "center-left evangelical ethicist." Soon people start to call him "every liberal's favourite evangelical." Then his own views on the LGBT debate shifted and he became "every evangelical's least-favorite liberal." His book "Changing Our Mind" about his changing stance would render him unpopular with evangelical circles. No matter how he tries to nuance his views, the evangelical camp isolated him. Speaking engagements were withdrawn. Publishers pulled his books. He learned first hand what it means to be taking an unpopular position.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

"Martin Luther - A Biography for the People" (Dyron B. Daughrity)

TITLE: Martin Luther: A Biography for the People
AUTHOR: Dyron B. Daughrity
PUBLISHER: Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2017, (320 pages).

This year is the 500th Anniversary of Reformation Day, that eventful moment that changed the Church and the world. Despite having many volumes already written about this plucky and intelligent German monk, more remain to be said and written. This is probably due to the single greatest impact to the Church at large and how a single man stood against the huge Roman Church aristocracy. The impact of the resistance was so strongly felt that he emboldened many other early reformers to do the same for their jurisdictions leading to a multi-faceted Protestant movement. This book attempts to help us re-visit the story of Martin Luther, cementing its importance, and helping us be grateful for the faith and passion of this man, whose life and work should inspire us to keep standing up for the truth in the eras we are living in. Part of the inspiration for this book is to write for the masses instead of for ivory tower audiences. According to author Dyron Daughrity, this is not just a Protestant movement. It opened the floodgates for the dawn of the modern age; redefining religious freedom; modern capitalism; individualism; secularization; and the courage to change the world. It is also part of the author's personal journey in studying this important historical figure. By writing this work in a language for the common people, the author hopes to replicate the impact of what happened 500 years ago, when the common people stood up against the excesses of the Roman Church regime. It is storytelling of Luther's life and teachings.